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The Lack of a Security Culture in China is Refreshing

As a foreigner in China you are often an intrigue or an annoyance, but you are seldom regarded with suspicion.

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Yesterday I finally got around to going and taking videos of the gold plated Sheraton in Xiamen. The thing is too ridiculous conspicuous to ignore. I spent the better part of an hour circling its base, taking photos and videos from all sides. When I take videos I am not the sneaky little snap-shotter; no, I have out my tripod and I stand right in the middle of everything, as conspicuous as I can be, as if I’m contracted by a higher authority to do my work.

After about a half hour very actively filming the hotel, both from public and private property, I laughed at the realization that I was probably driving the security guards nuts — or at least providing them with a kinetic source of entertainment as I slowly moved from one of their security monitors to the next as I circled the building. My initial reaction was that they would send some goon out to tell me to split at any moment, or at least ask what I was doing. This was the Sheraton after all.

Once finished filming the outside of the building I went inside. I quickly filmed the lobby, the workers just smiled at me politely, then I got in an elevator and made for the top floor. I wanted a shot of one golden tower from the other.

Now I’ve crashed plenty of skyscrapers in China before. It’s the easiest, cheapest, and best way to get good views of a city from above. All you do is pick the highest skyscraper you see, go up it to an upper floor, walk into an office, and ask whoever is there if you can take a photo out of their window. The secretaries smile and whoever is in the office whose door I knock on is generally amused that some strange foreigner chose his domain to intrude into. This is a very pragmatic culture: why couldn’t I just walk an office and take a picture out the window?

I began walking through the floors trying to find an open door to a lobby or somewhere that would have a window with the view I wanted. There are security cameras everywhere in China, of course I was being watched. I found a lounge, but it was on the wrong side of the tower. I walked in and began talking to the young guy manning the entrance. He was immaculately dressed. I was wearing a sweaty t-shirt and a ragged ball cap. He didn’t treat me like the scumbag I probably should have been treated like. I told him what I was doing, it was clear that I wasn’t a guest at this 5 star establishment. He invited me in, offered me a seat to sit down in. He seemed overtly bored, and welcomed the opportunity to do something. I shot a couple videos through the gold tinted windows of the city beyond.

Then I turned to continue my search. I saw the door of an elevator open and a sharp dressed blond women in manager garb step out, lock me in her sights, and stride right in my direction. There was nowhere to run. I was getting the boot I probably deserved. Or so I thought.

“Hello sir, can I help you do something?” she asked in a thick Russian accent.

“Uh, yeah, I’m trying to get a photo of the other tower from the windows of this one.”

She thought for a moment, probably thinking of the most polite way to tell me to split. But she didn’t.

“Hmm,” she began, “I think if you went down one level you can get the view there. Hold on here, I will check.”

She then got back in the elevator and apparently did what she said she was going to do. She returned around ten minutes later.

“I couldn’t find a room that you could go into that had the view.”

She then asked the guy in the lounge if he had any ideas. He didn’t.

“Maybe if you go to the pool area you can see it from the windows there.”

She accompanied me to the pool. We walked around, looked out all of the windows, but it didn’t have the right view. The Russian manager began asking the girls that worked there if they knew where I could get the shot I wanted, they began asking each other. It seemed as if they were really trying to help me, not just politely maneuvering me closer to the door.

“Maybe you can go in a room, I will go find out. Wait here.”

I was left to hang out at the pool for 15 minutes laughing about how different this scenario would have played out in the USA — or most other countries for that matter.

The Russian manager eventually returned. “You can go into a room but I was told that you need written permission to take photographs in here. The lady who does this is somewhere else, and it is complicated so maybe you don’t want to do it.”

That was probably the most courteous expulsion from a place I’ve ever had.


Some people call what I did in this story using my “foreigner privileged.” Sure, foreigners can often break the rules in China and get away with it. But this is often less of a privilege than the fact that many Chinese just don’t want to bother dealing with us. It’s more of a result of the fact that we’re ultimately inconsequential than placed on an unreachable pedestal of respect. Why get bent up dealing some dumb laowai, they’ll just be gone for good in a few minutes anyway.  Then again, nobody listens to petty rules in China — especially not the Chinese.

Though one of the most attractive things about living in China is the lack of a security culture. People are generally not on-guard against strangers. Kids are not indoctrinated that they should fear everybody. A tattooed guy with a camera poking around a five star hotel is someone who may need help doing something, not a threat. This lack of suspicion is continuously refreshing.

My mind has been perverted from growing up in the USA. I am suspicious of other people and take it for granted that they feel the same way about me. I grew up learning about “stranger danger” and if someone I don’t know starts talking to me I should be afraid and go tell on the pervert. On the one hand this is a survival mentality that I’m grateful to have spliced into me, on the other hand it’s an irritant that sometimes leads to the improper sizing up of people and situations. Whatever the case, I’d rather spend my time in cultures that lack this attribute.


Filed under: China, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

5 comments… add one

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  • RememberMe June 6, 2014, 8:53 am

    Great to read, as usual.

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  • Lawrence Hamilton June 6, 2014, 10:25 am

    I saw a news story at the airport about the heightened security at train stations in Beijing, because of the unrest in Xinjiang. Have you noticed this in other parts of the country? On a day to day level to people seemed concerned about this sort of ‘terrorism’ or is just typical CNN glossing surface level coverage?

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    • VagabondJourney June 6, 2014, 10:32 pm

      Good point. Yes, “security,” as in formal checks at train stations, etc . . . are becoming a little more tight. Well, sort of. There is an appearance of more security. But it’s difficult to properly do a security check on thousand and thousands of pushing people in a fast enough manner to make it viable. Though what I’m talking about more here is the culture of a fear of others that can hover over a society. While there are a few groups that do provoke this reaction, for the most part it doesn’t exist for most people. I can walk down the street here without people fearing me. A grown man can play with kids. When we go out with my family my daughter jumps up into other men’s arms while playing with their kids, and everybody watches over everybody else’s kids. We’re all complete strangers but there is just this simple sense of similar humanity that has not yet been replaced with trepidation.

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  • mikecrosby June 6, 2014, 3:31 pm

    I like what you’re saying and it is something that makes me sad here in US. Walking down a sidewalk, with a woman coming the other way with children, I might think that I move on the other side of street.

    Where I live in SoCal, it’s around 80% asian, and though they’re nice people, I find them to be the most paranoid.

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    • VagabondJourney June 6, 2014, 10:44 pm

      Yes, it is sad when a country makes you feel awkward just for being a man. We just learn that we should NEVER talk to someone’s kid or even talk to anyone at all. Though I appreciate that I grew up in a culture that trained me as well as any other in how to stay safe, I don’t want to be in a place where I’m treated like a criminal for just being out in public.

      Also, Asian culture n the USA are WAAAAAAYYYYYYY different than it is in Asia. I would even go as far as to say that they are almost polar opposites. The Chinese in China are generally the most non-insecure, friendly, non-afraid, non-PC, call a spade a spade people I’ve ever met. Something seems to happen when they live in the USA for a generation. It’s incredibly interesting.

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