The man fondles my butt. Okay, it is only two seconds of curiosity — I assume — but my left hand immediately turns into a fist and swings backwards at that vegetable seller in Jiaxing city before you could say “cheeky bugger”. I drop the fist, realising the assault could easily have the police around. Bystanders in China get involved in any dispute that is none of their business very quickly. They don’t have the Western sense of privacy.
So I content myself with pushing the impudent, spindly scoundrel around his trestle tables of vegetables for a few seconds while he giggles nervously and his wife scolds him as much as me. I storm off.
Since coming to China I can generally handle being touched and other “breaches” of privacy far better than what I used to (but not the butt area). Like Englishmen, South Africans and certainly all the English-speaking countries — in my experience — have a personal space which many Chinese men by and large do not have. I have noticed the women are far more conservative when it comes to touch but lack a sense of privacy in other areas.
Our apartment “bathroom” is not much more than the size of an old-fashioned phone booth. The ones with a door. When I am shaving my bum is literally pressed against the washing machine and my belly is touching the basin. Yet my Chinese teacher, a young lass called Wei Qian, will think nothing of going to use the toilet while the maid, Tang Ying, a lass of about the same age is sorting the washing. Their elbows must be virtually rubbing each other. Wei Qian happily tinkles and winks while she sits and chats to the maid and I sit and listen in amazement at the kitchen table where we were having our lesson. I once taught two Chinese teenage boys private English lessons at home who would also share our tiny loo together every time just one of them needed to “go” “shake his hand”. Way weird to me.
I am aware of the seemingly timeless tradition for Western women all going into the restaurant or pub loo for a communal nose powdering, but know that the loo door is closed and her buddies stands on the other side somewhere touching up the make-up or whatever while they natter about the men — or that’s how we okes see ourselves in our self-importance. But that really is different to sharing the same loo, isn’t it? And interesting how a bloke will never invite a mate to join him in the toilet. That invitation would have a completely different meaning, no?
Once my wife was having a shower (the room is too small for a real bath) when Tang Ying popped in, closed the door, and, well, sat down and popped one too. The missus’s nose was put out of joint in more ways than one. I don’t want to be in the same room as someone else when they are doing their business. The typical reader on this blog I am sure does not want to either. Too much information.
Tang Ying comes in three times a week and has now developed a habit of arriving very early, sometimes well before 7am. The missus and I are getting changed for work, using the bathroom and it is a small apartment. First thing she will do is put on her slippers, as is tradition here, and walk straight into the bathroom. She just loves using a Western loo, I have gathered, rather than what is known as “the squat” (a mere ceramic or cement hole in the floor) at her home, found everywhere in China. If I am just coming out the bathroom she will, I have seen out of the corner of my eye, turn her head sideways when my back is turned to check out my butt and try see — or so I conclude — anything other than a firmly wrapped towel. On more than one occasion I have had to overcome the cheeky desire to waggle said posterior.
Eating is another one. Students from primary school to university show an avid curiosity when I eat at my desk in the classroom at break time. They come over and stare at the food. Here’s a typical example. I once was teaching Chinese final year students studying to be air pilots. In the break I took out my sarmies. Usually there is a lot of noise in the classroom in the break time which I have learned to block out. But this time a complete silence descended while I munched on one of my egg and lettuce “supremos” and read the paper. Before I looked up to enquire as to why there was utter silence I knew what I was going to see. There were about twenty male students in their smart air pilot uniforms — within a year or two you will be entrusting your lives to their hands — seated at their desks, leaning forward, all staring and grinning at me in quiet absorption as I chewed. Some had their chins on their hands, mouths slightly agape. I felt like a freshly discovered art piece that had just gone up in the Museum of London. “Why are you staring at me?” I unnecessarily asked, knowing it was just their impulsive, childlike curiosity. “Because you are eating,” one or two students said in a sort of echoed chorus. I replied, “Do you ever eat?” I have even had students take photos of me while I eat. Oh, I can trot out loads of examples in my stay here in China of more than four and a half years.
One thing I can say is that I just don’t see myself as such a private person any more. You know, the Englishman in his castle with the huge moat and the drawbridge pulled firmly up. I am convinced this shattering of some areas of privacy has cured me a lot of the depression and even the loneliness I struggled with in my twenties and thirties. Here in Zhongguo, China, the ubuntu philosophy of “a person is a person through other people” has skin on, not to mention hair, muscle and unwashed armpits. Tang Ying’s arrival (sometimes with her mother to whom I could devote an entire blog) before 7am used to irritate me; now she is just part of the family.
I well remember sitting in trains in England and going on the London metro where most people seemed lost in their igloos of over-emphasised privacy. There were even signs up in some coaches asking passengers not to eat food as the odour may offend others, or not to use mobile phones as that may disturb others. Disturb what? A slow descent into an isolated, self-important false self? Cold, distant, somehow not human, the fire had gone from many commuters’ eyes. In fact the phenomenon reminded me of the tigers and lions I saw in the Isle of Wight Zoo — they were healthy and cared for but, locked in their huge cages, their eyes were dead coals, the flames long gone.