Blowing Water

Why privacy is an alien concept in Chinese culture

While people in the West go to great lengths to respect individualism, Luisa Tam’s personal experience tells her other values matter more to Chinese

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:45pm

The privacy debate has again gained momentum with the latest Facebook row that exposed the social media giant as mishandling personal data of up to 50 million users. In this ultra-connected era, many people have unknowingly become used to surrendering their individual details for the sake of convenience so they won’t be left behind in the digital world.

Views on privacy differ wildly between Chinese and Western cultures. People in the West place considerable emphasis on privacy and often go to great lengths to defend it because they cherish and respect individualism. But when you talk about privacy to Chinese, a common reaction you get is: “What privacy?”

In my traditional Taiwanese Chinese family, privacy was an alien concept. Whenever I wanted to have some time alone and close my bedroom door, my family would ask: “Why do you want to shut the door? Do you have something to hide?”

When I became a teenager the only times I was allowed to have my bedroom door shut (but not locked) was when I changed my clothes or went to bed.

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Growing up in a Chinese family that had no concept of allowing children any private time or space was like being the protagonist in the 1998 American satirical film, The Truman Show, who was watched by the world 24/7. Every action taken by the central character, Truman Burbank, was documented in a television show revolving around his life, and luckily for him, he managed to escape and explore the real world outside.

People say privacy is a common phenomenon that exists in every culture but is just interpreted and expressed differently. Yeah, right! Go tell any Chinese parents and see their reactions.

Chinese are bent on dismissing privacy as a bad thing, and their zeal might have something to do with its negative connotation. In Chinese, “si yen” means seclusion and implies secrecy.

Western cultures value individualism and view privacy as a mechanism to regulate one’s level of interaction with others or the outside world, while in Chinese society we believe in absolute collectivism. Simply put, privacy allows you to close your bedroom door as a way to draw a boundary to protect your personal space, affairs, activities and fundamentally your personal life.

Most Chinese children grow up knowing little about personal privacy, so when they become adults they carry the same attitude and forbid their children from having any. They believe the less privacy their children have, the more power they can exert over them. Ultimately, they believe the concept of privacy conflicts with traditional Chinese family values.

Chinese have little comprehension of personal boundaries or personal space. And you have probably had the unpleasant experience of having a Chinese person standing literally an inch behind you on an escalator and breathing down your neck. But what might seem uncouth or annoying is just normal social behaviour for the average Chinese. My advice: if you live in a Chinese community, you would be better off bursting your individual bubble of privacy and personal space on your own before it’s pricked by someone else.

I’ve grown accustomed to my Chinese relatives asking how much I earn or how much my rent is. Information about money is again another thing that Chinese don’t feel ashamed about sharing. It’s not (just) about flaunting wealth; it’s a common custom of information sharing within one’s inner family circle.

The universal concept of privacy is to allow us to maintain control and not let others have unrestricted access into our lives. Respecting privacy is about trust, which is seriously lacking in Chinese culture as most parents relate privacy to keeping secrets.

Privacy is about having the unequivocal freedom to allow us to be ourselves

Most importantly, privacy is about having the unequivocal freedom to allow us to be ourselves and not having to justify ourselves to others. It allows us to be free from physical or psychological straitjackets.

As a teenager I wasn’t content with having restricted privacy at home. One day, I asked my father for more personal space and freedom. He told me that privacy and personal freedom were Western concepts that would drive a wedge between parents and their children and that if I loved my family I would know what to do. His family motto was: “We are a family, so there should be no secrets.”

I took his teaching to heart. One weekend, I decided to visit a school friend, whom I fancied, and his family, who lived two hours away from my home. When I got there, I rang my dad to tell him exactly that because I didn’t want to keep any secrets from him. When I returned home two days later, I saw a note posted on my bedroom door that read: “Keep this door open at all times from now on.”

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post