Even though I’ve been in Taiwan for only a few weeks, I’ve already become well-reacquainted with a certain characteristic of the Chinese people that I had forgotten about – their penchant for getting into your business. They will come right out and ask you what westerners consider to be very private questions, such as how much your house cost or how much money you make. They also will tell you what they think of your weight, spouse, or parenting decisions. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just met or if they’ve known you for years; they don’t beat around the bush, and if you tell them anything, that information will spread like wild fire.
It’s not as if I didn’t grow up being surrounded by people with this trait; after all, my own family is Chinese. Growing up, I had no privacy, and as an adult, I’ve endured interrogations from my parents and aunts and uncles about everything from my salary and the cost of the houses I owned to my son’s test scores. I would usually brush them off with a vague answer that’s enough to satisfy their
nosiness curiosity. I knew better than to give them everything they asked for because I knew it would be spread through the family, from one continent to the other, within the day.
But it’s been decades since I’ve had daily contact with my parents and extended family, and I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of my business being my own and private from prying ears. I had had only one encounter in the last decade – a friend of a friend from mainland China, who, upon meeting me, immediately asked me how much the house we were living in had cost! I was so taken aback that I just blurted out the price.
Now, in Taiwan, I’ve already had several similar encounters, all with strangers. The first time was a taxi driver, who, while dropping us off in front of our building, asked me whether we had bought our apartment or were renting it, and how much it costs each month. Luckily, I didn’t know how much it costs because my husband’s school pays the rent for us (but I do have an inkling)!
Then, about a week ago, while I was at the park with my son, I struck up a conversation with a woman who lives in our building while she was walking her dog. (MY nosy side is always tempted to ask the people here what they do for a living – there are always so many people leisurely milling about during the week!) She approached me and made small talk. Then she got down to business. “So I hear your husband is a teacher at the American school?” I was a little surprised to hear that we – and our back story – were already known by complete strangers in our fifteen-story complex when we had hardly seen – and had not yet met – any of the local residents during our short time here! (I suspect the “news” traveled through our concierge, where some of the residents like to hang out and shoot the breeze with the woman who works there.) I responded in the affirmative, and she proceeded to ask, “Why do you live here [in our apartment complex]? It’s very expensive!” Again, taken aback by such directness, I involuntarily blurted that my husband’s school pays our rent. She gave me a devilish grin, gave me a thumbs-up, and said, “Excellent!” Then, having obtained the information she was looking for, she changed the subject.
Another incident annoyed me more, perhaps because I’m getting tired of intrusions of privacy and unsolicited advice. I was again at the park with my son, and a woman we had never seen before started talking to him. He looked to me for help, so I told the woman he doesn’t understand Mandarin. She continued to speak with him for a minute or so, then she looked toward me and criticized, “Why don’t you teach him Mandarin? You need to teach him Mandarin!” I responded, “We’ve just arrived from the United States.” Of course, then she asked, in rapid-fire, “Why are you here? Did you buy a house? Where are you staying? Do you have family here? Are you visiting?” I simply ignored her and didn’t respond. Her obvious nosiness and lack of any attempt to disguise it irritated me.
At the markets, people are very curious, especially when I’m with my obviously-western friends. They ask me all sorts of questions – about me, about my friends – that have been pent up inside. It’s as if they feel the need to get it all out at once because I’m their one chance to get all the answers they’ve been dying for. In that situation, I find it amusing and try to respond as quickly as they fire their questions at me.
But I know there will always be people who are looking for information and gossip! Hopefully, as time passes, I’ll become immune to such invasions of privacy and be able to shrug them off. Generally, I don’t care because they don’t know me and are merely passing time. I may, just for fun, start making up outrageous “facts”!