Big Brother (and Everyone Else) is Watching


A 20-something woman takes off her pants in a doctor’s office. She stands wearing purple-striped bikini-cut underwear in a room full of strangers.

A mother holds her toddler over a bush in an elevated squatting position. A convenient tailored opening allows the kid to do his business, major or minor, without the burden of diapers, or any protective layer.

Eight college students sleep in military-style bunk beds in a room that looks more like a hallway with a door. Handwashed briefs decorate the room on wire hangers.

For an American visitor in China, the line between private behavior and public dispay often appears wafer-thin. Sharing intimate moments with strangers, in fact, seems to be the norm. Hawking a wad of spit on the sidewalk, for example, will draw a disgusted look only from an inexperienced foreigner.

In a one-room clinic, the doctor reads the pulse of a patient while at least seven others in the crowded space listen intently. One of those waiting chokes back a giggle and says in English, “The doctor says she should stop eating so much!”

So much for doctor-patient confidentiality.

Students who live in university dorms have just a few complaints about sharing a tight space: room for work, bathroom facilities and heat top the list.

The girls compare the experience to a year-long sleepover. “We get in bed and chat and laugh until we fall asleep,” says Chen Yuehuan, a second-year textile design student at Shanghai Textile University. “Everyone is friends.”

Malodorous clouds weigh in as the boys' top complaint. “Too much smoke,” says Zhuang Jinyue, a junior at the textile university. “But everyone smokes.”

Chen and Zhuang say they are close with all their roommates. Growing up in one-child families, the two say they don’t mind living with peers. “We play a lot of video games,” Zhuang says.

As for space, “We just stand,” Zhuang says, jokingly. “We have to tolerate it and be friendly.”