Adjusting to China

There’s an obvious story here - Japan is obsessively clean, and China can be pretty gross. The facts bear this one out, as there are some fairly sharp differences.

Since this article will be about gross things, I decided to include neat photos of us in China that have nothing to do with toilets, hygiene, or odd smells. Here I am in front of the Tiananmein Gate.

Water. In Japan, the water is so clean that on our tour of the Suntory Wisky (yep, that’s how they spell it) factory tour outside Kyoto, they brag that the flavor of their product comes from the purity of the local spring water. You can drink from the faucet without worry. In China, you absolutely cannot drink from the tap for fear of getting sick, so we drink and brush our teeth with bottled water.

There are different levels of quality of Chinese toilets

Toilets. As we’ve already described, Japanese toilets are ubiquitous and have an excess of buttons for all imaginable nether-region related cleaning activities. Chinese toilets are largely squat toilets (we do have a Western toilet in our hostel room), and most people in Beijing’s less wealthy neighborhoods seem to use public ones near their home rather than private ones in individual residences. There is rarely toilet paper or hand soap, so one always has to be prepared with hand sanitizer and tissues. Also, it is common that squat toilets, while gender segregated, do not have private stalls so you do your business in an open bathroom room with many toilets. For the especially curious, I’ll add using a squat toilet takes practice, and we read this great illustrated guide before boarding the plane to Beijing.

Plumbing. In Japan, things are similar to the US. In China, toilet paper and tissues go in a waste basket so they don’t overwhelm the plumbing system. Also, we think the shower drain in our hostel room doesn’t have an S-pipe because the shower room has a very slight lingering scent of grey water. Much to my chagrin, the drain is also on the same level as the bathroom floor so water stagnates a bit.

Public hygiene. While walking around Beijing, it is extremely common to hear someone make a loud hacking noise and spit in the middle of the street. Yeah, it’s pretty gross. People are also much less abashed about public urination and defecation, especially in regard to their toddlers. I have twice so far seen parents assist their small children with urinating in the street, and they even cut a slit in each child’s pants to assist for such occasions. It wouldn’t bother me as much if they had their kid urinate in a bush or off to the side, but tonight the parents I saw had their little girl urinating literally in the middle of the sidewalk. In Japan, it’s the complete opposite; people are so puritanical about hygiene that everyone with even the slightest head cold wears a surgical mask around and public coughing is frowned upon. Sometimes it was frustrating after a meal to not be able to clear one’s throat properly for fear of being perceived as spreading germs.

Pollution. Beijing’s skyline has a consistent yellow haze; we’ve yet to see a truly blue sky but since we’ve been here the pollution hasn’t been at its worst. Japan had no noticeable pollution, but it’s worth bearing in mind that all its cities are also closer to oceans.

Art at the National Museum of China

Lest you think Andrew and I are living in filth, I assure you that with just a little extra foresight (buying bottled water, carrying tissues, Wiki squat toilet self-education, etc.) we are able to maintain just about the same hygiene standard that we do at home, minus perhaps some severely dusty shoes. What I really want to get at, though, is that there is another story here. Japan’s obsession with hygiene and social rules speaks to a culture that is focused on rule-following and primed to think about daily situations in terms of embarrassment to a really extreme degree. How does it feel to live in a culture where one is so filled with shame at even the most mild of bathroom noises that almost all toilets have a false flushing sound button to cover them? It fits in with the rest of Japan’s ethos - many more women wearing high heels than you see in the US, carefully manicured and fashionable wardrobes in a narrow color palette, instructional signs for routine public behaviors, the rarity of eye contact on the subway, and an eerily shallow quirkiness ever-present in public announcements, advertisements, and artwork.

I remember also being struck by the day in Tokyo that Andrew and I spent at an onsen, a traditional (gender segregated) public bath house with natural hot spring water. Unlike the public baths, called hammams, that I loved visiting in Tunisia, visiting an onsen is a very solitary experience. In Tunisia, the hammam is a social space for relaxing and chatting with your girlfriends. When you’re ready, a muscular woman in a bathing suit with a really rough cloth glove scrubs off all your dead skin until you feel somewhat refreshingly like raw meat. If you’re lucky, she will sing to you softly in Arabic. Afterward, you sit in a comfortable lounge room with tea and, at your leisure, dress and complete your full beauty routine. In Japan, nobody talks and nobody washes you - you go alone, wash, and then sit in the hot tub avoiding eye contact with the room full of other women doing the exact same thing. When you’re finished, you change in the locker room and leave. Even the purchasing is different; at the onsen we visited you buy your admission ticket from a vending machine rather than make your bath purchase from a real person.

Andrew at the Great Wall of China

I’m a hammam person more than an onsen person. Perhaps that’s why, at least for this first week, I’m trying to look through China’s challenges. To China’s credit, the country feels more hearty, down to earth, and earnest. For worse but also for better, people aren’t ashamed of their bodies. Yes, my risk of food poisoning has increased (we’ve been fine so far!) but the food’s much more interesting overall. And while even introductory phrases are very difficult to pronounce correctly, there is less constant kerfuffle about bowing at the appropriate moment and angle. There are fewer smiles (perhaps just a Beijing thing), but also less false pretense. I like that, and I expect that when we leave behind Beijing’s smog and overcrowding, Southern China will maintain these qualities, with perhaps its own added flavor of southern charm. After all, to let Beijing represent all Chinese would be like having New Yorkers represent all Americans; a proposition that should draw objection from most readers.

Just like in Boston's Chinatown, older men in China often sit outside playing Chinese Chess. Andrew learned to play last night with our couchsurfing hostess.

China is an adjustment but I definitely like it so far. Beijing has parts that feel first world and parts that feel third, but the sights are larger, dialects more numerous, cuisine more varied, and economic differences starker. It’s a worthwhile challenge, and I’m looking forward to our next three weeks here.