The Unpopped Personal Bubble

The river

My personal space extends as far as the horizon line. I hope you understand.

It’s sort of hard to explain the concept of the personal bubble, if you think about it. It’s this weird, murky, invisible halo of space surrounding your body at all times, a sort of inviolable corona of mobile real estate that hovers around your person, cushioning it, protecting it, cradling it like a gentle cloud baby. If you could see them, it would be like thousands of people walking around with up-ended fishbowls all around them. It keeps you safe. It keeps you comfortable. It keeps you private. And you cannot see it at all, but everyone knows about them, and breaking into another person’s bubble is a great violation. Only the dregs of society, the scum labelled with the gutter-nom of “creeper” would ever dare to venture into your bubble without due invitation.

It’s even harder to explain once you move to a place where the personal bubble functionally does not exist.

Living in Asia, and particularly in this however-distant stratum of Seoul, the idea of personal space is laughably non-existent. When you have so many people living so densely packed, so closely upon one another that you are practically all one symbiotic organism with just so many trembling flagella, you don’t really get the bourgeois luxury of unencumbered room. Every inch of space you mentally claim for yourself is another precious inch which could be occupied by a person, whether it be on the sidewalk, or the subway, or the elevator. There’s just not enough space to go around.

Of course where I’m from, a personal bubble is perfectly feasible, and really the only way we can think of to use all the space available to us. If everyone in Canada really wanted to, we could march up into the forests and mountains and lakes, a physical manifestation of our population density, and never ever even see one another, such is our great and untilled land.

Moving from one to the other can be completely jarring. Suddenly there are people walking centimetres behind you on the sidewalk, because the space occupied by your feet just nanoseconds ago is a perfectly legitimate space to put one’s feet, even if it’s almost technically a piggy-back ride. In the elevator, people are at your side, or staring directly into your eyeballs, wondering what, exactly, is on the 7th floor, which is the one you selected. In the bathroom, people will choose the stall or urinal right next to you, because why not? There may be room elsewhere on the subway, but you are closest to the handrail, so someone is just going to press physically against your book and your torso. Maybe take a peek. Consider your eyelashes. Listen to your phonecall. Divine your secrets by telepathy.

There’s nothing wrong, certainly, and it’s a reasonable expression of the understanding of space in a country with lots of people and not lots of places to put them. But coming from a place that has the opposite things, it is a little terrifying at first. Korea is the packed night-club to Canada’s sparsely, politely attended café with a five-acre patio.

I wonder if, during those first few months, anyone noticed my visible discomfort. My shying away, my clenched fists, my suspicious squints. The trembles, and clenched buttocks, and clawing at my windpipe for air and succor and freedom. At every second I checked for my wallet, my keys, my kidneys. What did these people want from me? Why were they touching me with their bodies? Why could I smell what they had eaten for lunch and breakfast and dinner yesterday? Why was I capable of counting individual skin cells across their faces, the follicles of their hairlines, the very telomeres on their strands of DNA?

Well, why not? The space directly next to me is just as fine of a place to exist, no matter how deeply, fundamentally certain I am that it technically belongs to me, for whatever reason. Because of god, or manifest destiny, or repressed childhood issues with sharing. But letting go of this wonderful translucent eggshell has proven difficult. After all, it’s my special imaginary perimeter, and not yours and you can’t tell me what to do. Years of having other people implicitly know at least the vague shape, the indistinct but immutable outline, of the invisible space around me and respecting its sanctity has made it very nearly a real, physical presence.

With time, you come to acclimate to the different ideas of personal and public space, and how you don’t have any of the former. I briefly returned to Canada for a visit, and met with my friend Josh, who I had originally met in Incheon. As we walked down  Spadina with his luggage, we kept getting all tangled up, his bags trundling over our feet and us bumping into one another as though we were both suffering massive inner-ear infections. And suddenly we realized: we were barely walking an inch from one another.

We had grown so accustomed to having people be within nanometres of our bodies that we assumed it was the norm everywhere, despite the ocean of sidewalk available for us to saunter upon. Our personal bubbles had not evaporated or completely collapsed, but had shrunk down to meagre layer of cling-wrap, a just-above-the-skin protective barrier against outside intrusion, such that being all up in one another’s grilles seemed perfectly natural. But back on our home soil, where walking beside someone means having enough room to do a cartwheel, comfortably play a double bass, or break wind without a chance of detection, our physical proximity seemed suddenly superlative, a bizarre and foreign expression of invasive closeness.

Because our ideas of the personal bubble were, essentially, impossible to scrub away. We didn’t lose the special perimeter of space, it just changed its dimensions. Friction and proximity meant a restructuring of property lines, rather than a wholesale relearning of the notion of my space vs. the space of others. Not long after I returned to the country in which I had one installed, it inflated back to its proper circumference, as though the problem was just that Korea had not had any decent personal bubble fill-up stations.

So it will diminish when the situation calls for it, but it will never go away. Because without a personal bubble, the world seems scary and too right there, right against my naked skin. I’ve been raised with a bubble, and the world just seems so much safer, here inside the fishbowl.

Out on the water

Well, you just stay in your part of the ocean and I’ll stay in mine.

17 thoughts on “The Unpopped Personal Bubble

  1. I can totally relate. I had lived in China about two years and went back to Chicago. I was waiting on a street corner and I thought – wow – no one is here, how strange, this should be a busy time of day. Then I was able to realize that there were a lot of people, but the space afforded me was 10 times that of Shanghai and I then automatically assumed that people were not there. Perspective can change so quickly! Enjoyed the post.

  2. It’s such an interesting difference in the way people perceive personal space in North America and Asia. You are right that there are SO MANY people in Asia that most become oblivious to the need for personal space. They may be practically sitting in your lap and wouldn’t notice. I’ve glared at several people in line in China before (they were practically right up against my back), but NOBODY caught my glare. In China, if you even leave an inch of space between yourself and the guy in front of you, someone else will slip in line ahead of you. So boohoo for personal space in Asia. Alternatively, you could dress or act like a freak – then people will steer clear of you.

    Great post and a thought-provoking topic.

    • Haha, the line-up thing is the same here, too. If you are not physically touching the person in front of you, that is just an invitation for someone else to join in ahead of you.

      Yeah, the only time I’ve had people actively avoid being up in my grillespace was when dressed up for Halloween. Nothing makes people shuffle off like being covered in blood and scare make-up.

  3. I find Korea a little worse than China for invasion of personal space. While it did happen in China, in Korea it was more extreme. Here in South Africa it’s the same as in North America or Europe; you just don’t stand/get too close to strangers, it’s downright creepy if you do, and it immediately puts you on edge if someone does as you think they’re about to grope or mug you. I don’t buy the ‘But our country is so crowded!’ excuse either, Japan is just as crowded, if not more so, and I don’t recall people bumping/pushing me there.

    • I think part of it probably has to do with both the population density (which is actually a bit higher than Japan’s) and the rapid industrialization and modernization that occurred, quickly moving everyone from rural spaces to hugely packed modern spaces with very little room and a crapton of people, without really any time to adjust to the changes.

  4. Pingback: Travel Blog Tuesday: Stupid Ugly Foreigner « Little Mouse Crackers

  5. Hell, you don’t have to go to the Far East to feel psychically rubbed up against. Just try to cross a street in Manhattan at lunch hour. You’ll arrive at your destination wearing seven colognes that are not your own, brushing off the hairs of pets you’ve never petted, and wondering why there are three bites out of your sandwich when you only took two. It’s the math of overpopulation: bodies + discomfort – personal space = red wine and lots of it. (Ironically, red wine can also decrease the space between two bodies when applied liberally.)

    You can balance so many social arithmetic problems with alcohol. What do they drink in Korea?

          • Ha, ha–I just learned definitely last night that I am down to two drinks per evening before a pleasant night’s sleep is torn asunder. When wisdom doesn’t come to one’s rescue, the body tends to step in and pull the choke chain.

            Only pavement I’ve met to date is the patch that my helmet made contact with at 25 mph over the handlebars of a mountain bike. I don’t recommend it. Any thrill seeking, intended or otherwise, overseas or back home in Can-NAY-da? (I enjoy torturing my French-Canadian friends.)

            • My drinking prowess was disturbing during my Korea days, and if anything, an entire bottle of wine helped send me off to a pleasant night’s sleep.

              Me and a mountain bike would mean pavement whether we were going 25 mph or 1, honestly. My thrill-seeking is mostly culinary, or things I can do with my feet mostly on the ground.

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