Personal Space – China doesn’t have it

Part two of a look at the cultural differences that lead to culture shock in China (Part one here)

The total lack of personal space in China gets under an American’s skin in a matter of seconds. Riding a bus designed for 40 people, with close to 100 crammed in it is a daily test of my cultural sensitivity. I could tell you stories, but until you have spent 45 minutes practically living in someone’s armpit, in the middle of summer in one of China’s hottest cities, you simply can’t even imagine it.

This is another shock that we really should be braced for before arriving in China. After all, with a population of 1.4 billion people we know it’s going to be more than a little crowded.

So how is it that Chinese people seem to be able to tolerate it?

What we don’t realize is that this crowding is pervasive throughout China. Students in college live in 8-12 person dorm rooms (I once saw a dorm room with more than 20 boys at a rural Christian school in Henan Province, but this isn’t typical). The classrooms I taught in often did not have enough chairs for the students, so they simply sat in each others’ laps.

Being outside is often more private than being in their own rooms. It’s no wonder that on college campuses throughout China students are caught making out on benches in the open. It’s such a problem that some schools have a “flashlight patrol” to prevent such actions.

Family apartments often only have 2 bedrooms, so when Grandma and Grandpa move in things start to get cramped, and children often live with their parents until they marry. A common arrangement is women in one room, men in the other.

The living situation as explained by my Chinese friends, the “emic” view, is that Chinese families are much closer than American families. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true in some ways, sharing a few hundred square feet with 6 people would cause close relationships (or insanity). My Chinese co-worker sleeps in the same bed as her 5-year-old daughter, because it is hard to get good apartments near the good schools.

Although I don’t think Chinese families would choose to live in such close quarters, high property prices (also a result of a large population) keep families from spreading out like we do in the States.

I think this lack of personal space at home carries over into public spaces. The “need” for personal space doesn’t seem to have developed here. Which is why when you climb on to a Chinese bus, you are about to make friends with 100 strangers, and nobody but you is going to mind.

14 responses to “Personal Space – China doesn’t have it”

  1. Pelo says:


    You mentioned your wife in previous posts. Is she Chinese or Chinese-American? If so, has being married to a Chinese person helped in any way toward your assimilation into the Chinese culture?

    As far as personal space is concerned, I keep hearing about how China is going to move millions and millions of rural people into urban areas within a decade or so. It seems as though the Chinese are doing a lot of real estate development. Are they building new cities to accommodate these folks, or do they plan to overcrowd the cities they already have? I have heard of Chinese “ghost cities” where all these developments go up but have remained largely vacant.

    By the way, your threads are AWESOME! I’m learning so much. I hope I’m not killing you with all the questions 🙂


    • Tom says:

      I always enjoy questions, quite often they help me decide on what to write about next.
      My wife is an American, Norwegian-American to be exact. I often think that it is helpful to be married to another outsider, since we can both laugh at the culture shocks we face.
      I was in China before marrying her, and when something strange would happen, and only I noticed it, it was a little harder.

      As for the ghost cities, I don’t think they are actually part of future settlement plans, but they might end up as housing eventually. With the way Chinese buildings are made, they are going to need some major upkeep in the next few years.
      Glad you are learning. As a teacher, that makes this all worthwhile.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I made friends with a Beijing market trader, Su Ying. She invited me to her home for a meal. I found that she lived in a room, approx 9 foot by fifteen feet, along with her husband, adult son and son’s girlfriend – two sets of bunk beds took up most of the room but there was space for two computers belonging to the son and his girlfriend. The food was wonderful and I’ll never forget the friendliness of Su Ying and her family. They have moved to Shandong Province now but we still keep in touch via the two computers! No, I could not live in such a confined space but I remember my aunt (now aged 90) telling me that after the Second World War, Britain had such a shortage of housing (due to bomb damage) that for some years she lived in an empty shop. Many British people lived in cramped poor quality housing until the 1960’s building boom when guess what! some very dubious quality high rise apartment blocks were built!

    • Tom says:

      The living situation I described in the post was one that I had seen first hand several times, but it was only later when I stopped to process it that I realized how strange the sleeping arrangements must be. Chinese families are certainly willing to 吃苦 (chiku), eat bitterness, if it means a better life in the future.
      This is a future post, but living in China has made me grateful for so many things. Personal space is one of them.

  3. Sam says:

    great closing and good topic- oh yes, it’s crowded!

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  5. […] Part two of a look at the cultural differences that lead to culture shock in China (Part one here) The total lack of personal space in China gets under an American’s skin in a matter of seconds. Riding a bus … Continue reading → […]

  6. Chopstik says:

    Interesting point you bring up is the closeness of Chinese families. Would they have that same level of closeness if not for the circumstances which otherwise leave them little choice? Possibly – certainly confucianism might well lend itself to believing so. In my experience, Chinese are no different from anyone else in that, if they can spread out, they will. My understanding is that it is no different in Japan (though I’ve no experience to back up that statement) than in the larger cities in China. But such proximity can also have its benefits – I wonder if you might address that (if you agree or disagree and why)?

    • Tom says:

      Well I’m planning on doing a series on the Chinese meaning of family here in a few days, and I think I’ll address some of those ideas then. If they can spread out they do, and once they are married and moved out, it seems they don’t see their parents too often, Confucian values be damned. One of my friends parents live 2 hours away, and he has his own car he could drive there, but he only sees them at Spring festival, which I’ve heard from many of the middle class Chinese.

  7. Steve says:

    Actually, I often ask my Chinese university students in a class I teach about their living preferences. When asked if they’d rather share a dorm or have a private room, they invariably opt for the shared dorm. Of course, they also hope their dream dorm had better facilities, like heating, 24 hour electricity and a private bathroom and shower; but, they’d still rather share than be alone.

    I, on the other hand, would without fail take a private room. There’s something to be said in that.

    • Tom says:

      I find it amazing that they are able to live in a space that would feel unbearably crowded to me. Although I think they have their limits too, they’d much rather be in a room of 4 than 8.
      I think it is tied to never having time alone for most of their lives, it almost seems to be a completely foreign concept.

  8. Rheia says:

    Hello, Tom
    I am a Chinese girl who will graduate this June, my name is Rheia. I will write my graduate paper with the topic personal space. I want to compare the conception of personl space between the Chinese and the westerners. I read you essay by chance, I really want to communicate with you about this topic, can you help me and give me some advice? If you are interested in, please give me e-mail: or facebook me: Thanks for your time.

  9. […] Personal Space – China doesn’t have it – CHINA CHANGE […]

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