One of the things that still always surprises me about China is the lack of personal space. By now it should be commonplace to spend most of the day shoulder to shoulder with a million other people, but I am still using my Lamaze breathing at the grocery store. It requires deep breathing for me to hold it together when the person behind me in line has their chest completely pressed against my back. This is especially irritating when they have chosen to position themselves as close as possible merely to belabor the point that they think the line is moving too slowly. As if getting extremely close to me will persuade me to speed things up. The subway is crowded to the point that on more than one occasion someone has sneezed on my back and been so close that my hair flew forward as if a stiff breeze had blown through the car. And, yes, that experience is as horrifying as you imagine.
This lack of personal space also means there is a general lack of privacy about almost everything. There are plenty of things you aren’t supposed to talk about in China, but apparently very few things you wouldn’t do in public. Children, especially the potty training ones, are frequently seen relieving themselves over trashcans and in the gutter. People loudly spit. I saw more men peeing in the bushes here in our first week than I did during an entire semester of wilderness education in college. Noses and ears get picked and the findings closely examined in plain view of everyone. Some of these things are cultural, but many of them are just the result of living shoulder to shoulder every day, all day. When you want to see something special and everyone else wants to see it too, you all go together and stand shoulder to shoulder there. You want to see the lanterns at Yu Gardens? So does everyone else in Shanghai. Should we all go on Sunday? Of course! As my neighbor says, “That’s China.” But he is Chinese so his shoulder shrug is really just my signal to get over it.
As someone who loves to have alone time, China can be disconcerting. For me there is too much closeness—too much bumping and pushing—and not any of the things that I am used to happening with so much touching. There is never the “excuse me” or the “sorry,” only more jostling. My Chinese teacher admits that hugging and touching like the Americans or the Europeans do makes him uncomfortable. It is too familiar. Which makes it impossible for me to understand how he can be fine with the familiarity of having your entire body squashed between two complete strangers and not feel the need to mumble some sort of apology when your elbow whacks one of them in the stomach. Apparently, those are two very different situations.
A few days ago, I was planting primroses in the containers out in front of the house. As I worked, one of the guys who cleans up around the compound kept inching closer and closer. When we were shoulder to shoulder he asked me why I wasn’t pulling out all the old flowers. They were “bu hao”—not good. He pretended to sweep my front steps as he stalked me around the planters giving me advice. I am actually pretty sure they are “bu hao,” but having him insert himself into the situation made me determined to ignore his advice. Why so close? Why so intrusive? I am sure he just thought he was helping the crazy lady who wasn’t smart enough to hire someone to take care of her planters for her. The poor, poor lady who doesn’t know dead flowers when she sees them. “No, no,” I had insisted and made him get even closer to show him the buds and the green leaves coming in on the old plants. “Look here. This is good.” And what could he do but press his face close to mine and examine the evidence. In an effort to have him give me my space I had invited him to get nearly cheek to cheek. “Ok,” he had shrugged, obviously not convinced, but mercifully pretending to sweep away toward the street.
And so it goes here in China. As I push back harder and harder, people get closer and closer. The more I howl and shake my fist, the more China leans in and breathes down my neck. But apparently “that’s China” and China doesn’t mind making me uncomfortable.