No need to be discreet when taking photos of strangers without asking
The lack of privacy is evident in China. Over here it is totally OK to ask each other about everything from your monthly salary to why you aren't married yet. (Anyone who has lived in China for more than a month probably nods their head in recognition now). But then there is another sort of 'breach' of privacy, that probably doesn't even cross the mind of some of you, unless you come from an as 'private sphere concerned' country as I do: in Sweden there should be clearly visible spaces between people in a line to the ATM, also, even if someone is wearing a pink bunny costume and walking down the street, you only glance at him discreetly, rather than staring and pointing (until he has passed you, then you are free to turn around and stare and go 'OH MY GOSH! Did you just see that?! What was he thinking stepping out dressed like that!').
But in China, it is totally acceptable to stare, to point, to wave hello to strangers (not to mention to yell 'HELLO!' to strangers, even if you're just passing them with your car), and just to be... curious in general. When first moved here I found the shameless staring from strangers to be the one thing I couldn't get used to. I always thought there was something wrong with me, like a big snot coming out from my nose, ketchup on my top or that I'd forgotten to pull up my zipper. Then, I remember the first time I tried to read a Chinese newspaper in the Shanghai metro, and I found five other Chinese people to be reading the very same page as me, over my shoulder. First I got annoyed, thinking 'what the h***, get your own paper!' But then I started thinking and realized that... 'what's the harm? They are only reading the same page as me?' and stopped caring.
Yesterday I was sitting at a cafe trying to learn 79 new characters when I saw a young Chinese girl sitting opposite me next to the window, reading and filling in some papers. Outside the window was a parking guard, who must have been bored to death with telling cars where and where not to park, because he was leaning onto the window, squinting, and reading the same paper as the young girl. It must have been something kind of amusing, because at times he sniggered. (I also assume he was a bit of a slow reader because when she turned the page over I could see that he got slightly annoyed. For a short moment I almost expected him to bang on the window and mouth something like 'turn back the page, I wasn't finished!', but then reality checked back into me). It looked so funny, especially the fact that the girl was so oblivious to it.
At various times when I have been waiting for my train to Shanghai at Suzhou's train station I have picked up my Chinese books or flash cards and tried to study. But it doesn't really work. It takes less than 40 seconds before a small circle of Chinese people form around me, telling me that 'those simple characters even my son knows, and he is only 8!' or that I am writing with the wrong stroke order (however, that I am 'not bad for being a laowai.') It's cute and helpful at some times, and annoying those days when I really just want to write, and not be compared to someone's five year old genius son (I already get it -they are ALL smarter than me! No need to rub it in).
It's the same when buying groceries here. People are extremely curious to see what I am cooking for dinner, and especially.. how much it costs!! Or, like once at a restaurant, I was having a spicy meal with a friend and we ordered a jug of sweet plum juice (酸梅汤 -suan mei tang) to help us cope with all the chili peppers. The Chinese couple next to us kept looking at our jug, obviously wondering what it was. Some moments later they got up to leave, and the woman walked over to us and looked at the bill that the waiter had already placed on our table.
-Ah, it is suan mei tang they are drinking!! She said loudly to her male company. 20 kuai for a jug!! Too expensive!
And there we were, sipping away.
I actually don't find it as annoying as I thought I first would (only the shameless staring, especially when I am having a bad hair day or is in a generally grumpy mood), but more like... amusing! Obviously, it has also affected me, and turned me into a person that is way too curious and blunt to fit into the Swedish world of 'discreetness' and 'politeness' Only last summer when I was back in Scandinavia I found myself extremely curious at what other people were eating at cafes, how much they spent on shampoos when grocery shopping and how many people ordered beer during lunch hours. My friends almost didn't put up with me, telling me to 'stop staring at strangers' and that I didn't have to stand so close to others while lining up somewhere, and that there was no point giving people who crossed between a line the evil eye, because they were just crossing between the line, and not trying to cut in line. Oh well, what can I say? When in Rome.....