Privacy? What’s that?!


Instead of spending my Saturday morning in a productive way – reading materials for my assignment and making notes – I decided to indulge and treat myself to some utterly delicious waffles in my favourite cafe in Gaungzhou, Maan Coffee. Bad decision……in a way that I definitely should have spent that time on studying; after all I am all too aware of the impending deadline, but at the same time good as I haven’t had one of those ridiculous, heart attack-inducing breakfasts for a while and really felt like I needed it.

I brought my book with me (I’ve only been trying to finish it for about….half a year now!), made myself comfortable and got properly into relax mode. In fact, I was so zoned out and so focused on the plot that it took me a while to realise that someone was taking photos of me!

Now, that fact itself is nothing shocking to any foreigner living in China-we have our pictures taken EVERYWHERE, almost on a daily basis. Young or old, city dwellers or country bumpkins, they all seem to feel an irresistible urge to commemorate the (undoubtedly highly exciting and unforgettable) moment of spotting a foreigner in the wild! Many of my colleagues are fine with that and don’t really care, some even willingly pose for those unexpected snaps. I’m most definitely NOT one of them.

I don’t like my picture taken by strangers, to the point that I could literally run up to a person, grab their phone and throw it into the nearest river or under an oncoming vehicle so they would finally get the idea that not everyone is fine with having their photo taken while eating/chatting/etc. I’ve read enough stories about people putting these kind of photos online and using them for all sorts of mischief or downright scams to put me right off. The locals here don’t seem to quite grasp the concept of privacy though.

I have noticed it a long time ago, obviously, but hoped that either I’d get used to it (have not and will not) or that the novelty will wear off seeing as there are MANY foreigners here (nope!). It’s a very bizarre situation-on one hand, it is absolutely fine for a Chinese person to shove their phone/camera right into my face, often with flash on, for example when I’m enjoying a quiet moment in the park, and I’m supposed to be ok with that, even better if I accept it happily and smile but it doesn’t seem to work the same the other way round. Chinese get very upset if you try to take their photo taken without permission. Not all, of course I’m generalizing, but on quite a few occasions, I’ve had or heard of people getting really upset/aggressive if they noticed I/another foreigner tried to photograph them.

How do you work that one out?! I’m made to feel guilty if I look away on purpose, hide my face or actually refuse to have my picture taken. My husband cannot understand why I mind it so much. ‘It’s just a photo’, he says. Naturally he will never get what it’s like to have that ‘just a photo’ taken practically every single day, whenever you’re out. He has never experienced that when we lived or traveled abroad. I would probably be fine with it if it happened only occasionally, but it’s anything but occasional.

I know I’m winging like an old hag but this lack of consideration for others really gets to me. I’ve had situations when I made it absolutely, unmistakably clear I did not wish for my picture to be taken, just for that wish to be rudely ignored!Many people just don’t care. They want a photo of you and they will have it no matter what. Where does it come from? I realize that as soon as that picture is taken, it will be uploaded onto someone’s Weixin or Weibo and probably never looked at again. My Chinese friends confirmed it. So what’s the point of taking it? Seeing a foreigner is not something rare these days, not in a large city like Guangzhou anyway. Ok, some people might come from the countryside and would have never seen a foreigner before but does that automatically entitle them to invade my privacy?

It’s not just photos of course. I live in a very Chinese neighbourhood, with buildings standing fairly close to each other and regularly catch my neighbours staring (not peeping, staring) into my windows and watching as if my life was some sort of a reality tv show.How come I don’t feel the need to spy on them? Just as I’m new and exotic to them, so are they to me! I was brought up in a very different environment though, where one is told ‘not to stare because it’s rude’ and where it would be unimaginable to take photos of a stranger without permission (not that anyone would want to). I simply cannot fathom this insatiable curiosity (some) Chinese people seem to have.

The man taking my photo whilst I was reading, didn’t even move when I noticed what he was doing and started packing. He just continued snapping away. I wonder where I’ll see my photos next…


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