on privacy

It was dark. Suddenly, as I scurried about my apartment cleaning and folding laundry in shorts and a tee, I realized my blinds were open.

Oh, no!


The view from my window.

I live on the first floor near the entrance of a busy apartment complex. Directly outside my bedroom window is a sidewalk lined by grass and trees. Across the street is a pool and fitness center. A nice location, for sure, but not when one considers a little thing called privacy.

Here in the West, privacy is held in high esteem. Close the blinds, Johnny! Someone might see! Even when I lived on the second floor of a large home on several acres—when a person would have had to climb a tree to see in my window—still, as soon as night fell, Close the blinds, Jess. Someone might see!

People in the States don’t like it when their neighbors throw loud parties. They plant large, bushy trees to block the view of their backyards. They pull window shades down whenever possible, and heaven forbid they’re ever caught undressed in front of a window.

Not so in Asia.

When I moved to Taiwan, I was shocked by people’s lack of concern for privacy. Many families live at the rear of or above their businesses. At night, when the store is closed for the day, they shut their glass doors but often “forget” to pull down their metal screens. Thus, walking along the street at night, you are likely to see “Bà Ba” (pinyin for 爸爸, or “father”) lounging shirtless, brown belly protruding, on his couch watching TV.

old street

A small town in Taiwan similar to Sanjhih. (image: tokaikko.com)

An awkward sight for a Westerner like me.

Isn’t he embarrassed? Doesn’t he care that I can see?

Nope. He sure doesn’t.

People in Asia tend to talk loudly in their homes. In my apartment in Sanjhih, I often heard entire conversations (in Mandarin, alas) from several floors above or below my own.

The same went for Hong Kong. Only in Hong Kong, it was worse.

In Hong Kong, there was a snack shop near the entrance of the school where I worked. The shop—a squarish building with a garage door for an opening—doubled as the owners’ home and family room. Inside, a tornado was usually in progress. Chairs; a table; a small burner; rough-hewn shelves topped with bags of chips, ramen, and a TV; a refrigerator; and numerous other odds and ends lay scattered. The family’s laundry, underwear and all, hung on a line just outside to dry. Walking by, I could see their kitchen sink.


The snack shop near my school in Clear Water Bay.

In the evenings, this family often held barbecues. These gatherings spilled gaily from the store front to a barbecue pit in the middle of the path. Walking by—or, rather, through—on my way to the bus stop, I felt as though I should have been a guest at the party. Otherwise, what on earth was I doing here?!

They, on the other hand, paid me no heed.

It was an interesting phenomenon, and one that I never quite got used to. Didn’t these people care? Didn’t they feel weird that I could see?


It was refreshing, though, too, in a way. This family wasn’t concerned with me—what I thought or what they looked like. They were just . . . living their lives. And while it would have been nice if sometimes my neighbors would have learned to use “inside voices” (okay, more than sometimes), it was also a good reminder to me to relax. Who cares what people think? What’s the big deal if someone sees?

That is, of course, unless I’ve just gotten out of the shower.

What about you? What’s your take on privacy? Is it important to you? Why?


21 thoughts

  1. Nice article and good observation. I think what one needs is the golden middle, “just right” as in the famous Goldilocks story, i.e. not an encroachment of privacy by curious neighbors and freedom to live free and as open as Asians do. Thanks for a very good post.

    • Thank you! And I’m so sorry I didn’t respond right away! The middle ground sounds like a good approach. I like the openness I’ve seen in Asian cultures as opposed to living our lives behind closed doors. But a respect for privacy is needed, too. :) Thanks for reading!

    • Yes, we do. Maybe because we have space. Miles and miles of it. In Hong Kong, more than seven million people are crammed into a tiny area. So much so that, in order to fit them all, they’ve had to build skyscrapers—thousands and thousands of them—so that people have enough space to live… I’m sure it’s not like that in Africa (which I long to visit someday, btw), but I did gain an appreciation for the sense of community that I felt while living abroad. People don’t hide behind walls there. Instead, it’s “Here I am!” and “Hello!” :)

      • Yeah, community is what I miss most…but you raise a good point about there being lots of physical space…especially Canada which is so vast and spacious it’s incredible.

  2. In Asia I felt that even stretches to speaking with each other. The distance is much closer and questions like how much you earn (which is an absolute no no in Holland) are very common.

    I’m a little jealous of you stay in Taiwan.. I can only imagine how delicious the food must have been!

    • Funny that you mention food. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Taiwanese food. They like different flavors and textures than I am accustomed to, I suppose. However, they have amazing fruit and vegetables, and the general friendliness of the people is enough to make up for anything else they lack. :) I’ve never been to Holland but really want to go!… I think you’re right: People are definitely more open in Asia about certain things than they are in the West. Where exactly did you go?

      • I only lived in India (sadly). Would love to explore more. Especially rural China and Japan.

        Och.. I am sure you’ll love Holland. (maybe not the weather but the countryside and the islands are lovely)

        Speaking of Holland. Some things are perhaps more Eastern than Western here.. You’ll see that a lot of houses don’t have curtains. You can look right into living rooms! :D

  3. As I was reading this, it occurred to me that I might be an oddball. I love keeping blinds open–I only shut them if I really need to, or in my bedroom. I tend to not worry too much about what people might see. An occasional accident might be embarassing, but no biggie. However, I never thought there was anything strange about the corner store in Clear Water Bay either. Then again, when I was little, we didn’t have a dryer, and all our laundry hung out to dry too. I’ve never liked the feeling of having to hide. I prefer to be an open book. On the other hand, many people prefer to not have to read me. I must’ve missed the personal privacy classes in school. Haha!

    • Really? You felt perfectly natural walking through the corner store barbecues? That’s amazing. I too love open blinds during the day, but by habit I feel funny knowing people can see me. I’m still getting used to living on the first floor… It’s good that you’re an open book. That’s far better than feeling the need to hide. So, yes, some of this is based on the individual—especially in the United States… Doesn’t the picture of the store make you want to go back? It does me.

      p.s. Thanks for commenting!!!

  4. I like having my drapes open because I like the sunlight to beam through, but then again I live on a cul de sac that faces trees and a hill. There’s nobody on a street to peer in. If i’m half dressed then I run fast by the window. Only the birds on my bird feeder may see.

    Nice contrast between cultures!

    • Lol. I’m the same way. Before I lived in a small apartment, I always kept my drapes open–that is, unless it were summer and too hot. Thanks for commenting! As time goes on, I hope to write more and more about the differences in cultures I’ve seen. Sometimes it takes coming home to realize them. :)

  5. It does seem novel that other countries are so easy going with the whole privacy thing. I guess we are so conditioned to want to maintain or privacy. Deff be a learning curve…nice post. I wonder what they do for “bedroom time”;)

    • Yes, privacy is very cultural. People in the States *tend* to be more private about *some* things. Not everything, though. We’re definitely known for being less reserved than other cultures in other areas… But I’ll save that for another post… And I don’t even want to know about “bedroom time.” Lol.

  6. Interesting observation, Jess, well done on this :-) Culture shock is a common phenomenon when an Eastern lives in the West or a Western lives in the East. While casual communality is a distinctive trait of many Eastern societies, privacy remains largely strong in their Western counterparts. I come from an Eastern society and have been living in a Western society in the past few years. As I live here, I don’t see things in my culture as being in the only ‘normal’ and the Australian culture as ‘abnormal’, for each is normal in its own ways. Just like everyone is entitled to their point of views, and so are societies. Therefore the argument of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in culture doesn’t apply in this case. To see differences the way they are is an interesting way to embrace cultural diversity, I think.

    • I completely agree, Subhan. And I hope my article didn’t come across as judgmental! You’re right: Every culture has its own norm, and that’s perfectly okay. What I was trying to express here, I think, was the culture shock you referred to in your first line: The openness of the Eastern societies in which I lived surprised me. But, as I said, in this case (as it with many cases), that was a good thing. :) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. I love this. Since we moved to Brussels almost 5 months ago, one of the more constant conversations I start is how to get used to living so close to people. We have a full wall of windows, where half of them are covered with a thin, sheer curtain-type thing. Our neighbors across the way can see so easily into our home and this is normal and actually more covered up than I’ve seen! I love to look outside, so often I’m drinking my coffee checking out our ‘front porch’….the thin street and sidewalk in front of our flat until I realize that I look like a total creeper (Gladys Kravitz anyone?)! What’s an American girl to do?! haha

  8. I must be the freak that won’t even change his shirt if there is any chance someone might see. It wouldn’t matter if I was on the 85th floor of a high rise, I would still be paranoid. And it’s not that I think I’m some perfect physical specimen (far from it). I’m just crazy when it comes to privacy and my body. I won’t even change in front of other guys in the locker room at the swimming pool. Tell me I’m not a weirdo!

An angel earns a pair of wings every time you comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s