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Monday, 19 July 2010


By Johna Ferguson

Here in China, there is no exact word for privacy for in different families it means different things. Therefore I was shocked when I first lived with one family and came back from teaching and found my mail waiting for me on the table, but it had all been opened.

No one in the house spoke English, let alone read it, so why was it opened? At that home, grandmother was the matriarch and everyone bowed to her or her wishes. She just assumed since I was living in the family, I was also considered a member therefore she could open my mail just like she did all the rest of the family’s.

If she needed money for groceries, I should give it to her just like any other family member. If I went shopping and placed my unopened bags on my bed, eventually she would look into each and every one and then ask me how much I paid for each item.

Those few words I at least knew. I’d tell her the amount and she’d click her tongue, whatever that meant, for she did not go out shopping in the big department stores as I did, so how she would know the prices was beyond me.

When I arrived back to the house after teaching, she would check what I was wearing, how many layers of longjohns or sweaters I had on if it was cold and then proceed to tell me I never dressed warmly enough. Then she’d show me her many layers to prove I wasn’t wearing enough. Granted she never was sick while I had pneumonia twice while living there. Could be she knew something I didn’t.

To take a shower, one had to put a big, flat, hollow, metal pan, like a car radiator on the two gas burners of the kitchen stove. Turn on the water to fill it and the water would be warmed by the gas burners.

The hose from it ran out the kitchen, through the entry hall and then into the tiny bathroom where you stuck it in a shower head mounted on the wall. You could not shut the door while showering, so anyone coming or going, if they wanted to view your entire naked body, just had to glance that way.

Surprisingly, they all had that bit of modesty – well, other than grandma who often checked to see how I was doing.

There were no locks on any doors, so anyone had the right to enter any room. Of course all the desks had locks, so only that owner could get into them. I don’t know if grandma had keys to them also or not. But the front door had many locks and each night the father would check to make sure all was locked up tight for everyone was afraid of burglars.

But one house I often stayed at had a rule I’d not seen observed elsewhere. No male, including relatives could enter the unmarried young daughter’s room. Her brother and father could, but the room was off limits to all other males. Maybe they would contaminate the room or the girl.

Dinner conversations at all homes covered a myriad of subjects from money to health. “Did you know that the next door neighbor’s daughter has already started menstruating and she’s only 13?” Or, “what can we do about our son’s poor grades?” (while the son sat there taking the brunt of it all). Or, “did you see that new sweater of teacher Chen’s; her parents must be very rich or else she’s trying to get a man. But that’s impossible as she’s too fat and has too much hair above her lips.”

Not speaking the language, but understanding some of it all made for great evening entertainment for me.

I find even that lack of privacy has entered my life now in a second marriage, this time to a Chinese man. He opens my mail, opens my email box which I do not have a password for and then tells me what people have written me. It takes all the joy out of getting mail, but in his idea we are one, so it’s okay.

I’ve decided for all the love and joy I get from this marriage, what’s a little lack of privacy? But please, when the bathroom door is shut, don’t just walk in.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Oh I value my privacy too much for this invasion of it. Even in marriage.
Some things are just too sacred, mail, email and showers.

Oh I value my privacy too much for this invasion of it. Even in marriage.
Some things are just too sacred, mail, email and showers.

Johna, I enjoy reading about your life in China so much. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of a life very different from my own.

I don't think I would do well in China. I value my privacy too much.

We all make compromises in our relationships, don't we? I always say "Everyone has a fatal flaw. It's all in what you can tolerate." What seems untenable to one person might be welcomed by another, and vice versa.

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