Privacy: A Tale of Two Countries

A couple of nights ago, a fight broke out between my neighbors.  The cause had to be explained to me, as I could only understand some of the shouting. After all, this happened in Vietnam, and my neighbors are Vietnamese. The cause of the argument was that one person—who happened to be quite drunk—felt wronged by another. The whole neighborhood came out to watch, and some people seemed to be genuinely enjoying the spectacle. This went on until the police were called. 

This would not be surprising in any country, except for a couple of facts. For one thing, it was the first time in my four years in Vietnam that I had ever witnessed one neighbor calling the police on another. More importantly, the fight happened with no apparent concern about it being in the public eye because everything is in the public eye in this neighborhood, and many others just like it. 

This highlighted something that I’ve been noticing: people’s relationships with privacy, and their expectations regarding it.

I generally think about two kinds of privacy: privacy from one’s neighbors, and privacy from one’s government. To provide some background, let me explain. 

 I grew up in a very middle-of-the-road neighborhood in Austin, Texas where no one was wealthy and no one was poor. It seems as good a bellwether as any for the condition of the country.  We knew our neighbors, but not well. We rarely talked for more than a few moments, only occasionally shared meals, and generally kept a respectable distance from each other. We expected privacy from our neighbors, and generally got it.

Of course we’d help each other out in need, and relationships were neither strained nor frigid—they just weren’t warm. 

Among the many places I’ve lived in the US, this seems fairly common, especially in detached-home neighborhoods. The layout and the architecture itself speaks to an expectation of privacy: this is mine, that’s yours, you stay on your side of the fence and I’ll stay on mine. It brings to mind the Robert Frost line that good fences make good neighbors.

To be sure, there are exceptions—one of the best times I’ve had in my life was living in a motel-style apartment block, where everyone knew everyone.  But that’s the exception to the rule. I’ve also lived in apartment blocks where nobody knew each other. 

Architecture, neighborhood layouts, and expectations regarding privacy in Vietnam couldn’t be more different. Houses are usually built in rows, jammed together. Since the majority of the country is built for motorbikes rather than cars, streets are often shockingly narrow—sometimes only a couple of meters wide. Apartment buildings occupied by locals usually resemble an indoors version of normal street life.

What this means is that it’s largely impossible to not know what’s going on in your neighbor’s life, and expectations of privacy are largely nil. This can be a good and a bad thing. 

For example, it can be a good thing for maintaining overall safety levels. Neighbors are outside all the time during the day, largely due to the fact that the weather is usually warm, and many houses are small.

Many streets and neighborhoods are overseen by people lovingly known as ‘pajama police,’ because they’re often old men or women who find no need to wear formal clothes. These people have some sort of loose liaison with local officials, and are basically neighborhood deputies. 

This means that kids can freely roam the streets to the concern of no one—something that has long been absent in American neighborhoods. Personally, if my dog runs out of the house, I can trust that my neighbors will have seen exactly where he’s gone. If I need to run an errand and my wife is not home, I can comfortably leave my kid with the neighbors.  I’d do the same for them, of course. 

To be sure, there are some downsides—like having to hear my neighbors’ fight the other night, which the whole neighborhood was privy to. There was absolutely no expectation of privacy because privacy on a personal level, in a real Vietnamese neighborhood, is a very rare thing indeed.

Additionally, many of my neighbors have taken up the hobby of singing karaoke at ear-splitting levels, especially when they’ve been drinking. With the amount they sing, I thought they would have improved by now. 

However, Having experienced both a real Vietnamese and a real American neighborhood, I can tell you that I’d feel sad and isolated moving back to a detached-house neighborhood in the States. 

There is a major switch in this discussion when considering one’s privacy from government. 

It can be safely assumed in Vietnam that the government, be it local or national, has very little idea what goes on in people’s daily lives, and interferes extremely rarely. Certainly, the government here is not made up of angels and can make people’s lives miserable if they so choose. But that’s extremely rare. Generally, you’re left alone. 

I hear a police siren here maybe once a month. From the lack of police sirens, and even police in general, to the general consensus that the government doesn’t have the capability or know-how to digitally spy on its citizens, one can be quite content in knowing that the government is largely absent from one’s life. 

Compare that to the current state of privacy from government in the US, which would have shocked the most crazed conspiracy nut just ten years ago. Americans know they’re being spied on all the time—every phone call, text message, and email logged by a cold, faceless bureaucracy.

Before the Snowden revelations in 2013, you would have been called crazy to talk about that. Now, it’s simply accepted as a fact of life. It does affect the national mood, and I can’t imagine it’s for the better. 

On another note, the last time I visited my hometown—a relatively safe place—I was stunned at how often I heard police sirens. It was at least once every half hour. It’s a constant reminder that people get in trouble with the law all the time. 

So, I’m stuck looking at two opposites. One is a panopticon in which your life is regularly observed by your neighbors, some of whom will likely help you, while most others will remain indifferent. This is at least a human system, and largely resembles the type of village that human beings spent most of history in.

The other is a far more sterile panopticon, where you have little interaction with your neighbors but know you’re being constantly spied upon by strangers in a faraway place who do not have your best interests at heart. 

Given the choice, I’ll always take the more human option.