Space: the final frontier, but not as we know it here

By Sandra Lee ( China Daily ) Updated: 2009-04-15 10:09:28

On a flight to Europe last summer, I was seated between two middle-aged Chinese men. The man in the aisle seat didn't make eye contact, get up or in any way acknowledge my existence, nor did the man in the window seat. They both sat with arms folded, staring straight ahead.

Space: the final frontier, but not as we know it here

To get to my seat I climbed over the legs of the first one and as I did so, my bag flew out of my hands and landed in the lap of the other guy. I was trying desperately to apologize but neither would so much as glance at me! The flight was off to the worst possible start and I was terribly embarrassed.

Traveling on a bus or train in China, I've experienced a similar personal space puzzle. Most travelers choose the aisle seat and, as the vehicle fills up, will not move to the window seat. Instead, the next person has to climb over the legs of the first passenger who is often oblivious to the problem since there is no eye contact or communication.

According to the experts, I'm sensitive to this because as an American I require more personal space and eye contact than any other group. This may well be so, because it took me a long time to get used to situations where close public body contact was the norm, not the exception. We even have a saying to describe someone who is too close or too angry to stay the "appropriate" distance away. We say they are "in my face".

When queuing, I notice that many Chinese are comfortable right up against the people in front and behind. Glaring doesn't seem to get me anywhere in these circumstances and I'm sure people wonder what my problem is, as I try to make some space around me.

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