Monday, June 25, 2012

Unhygienic Chinese customs

One of the first things which strikes visitors to China is the omnipresence of behaviour which would be judged unhygienic and crass in many other societies. Personally I can tolerate this sort of thing pretty well. Sometimes though, even I find my tolerance tested here in China. I think the following are the main forms of behaviour which are widespread in China but would be judged dirty and unacceptable in many other societies around the world.


The Chinese tendency to spit in public places is probably the most striking out of the various kinds of Chinese behaviour which make Westerners cringe. Even casual visitors to China always notice it. We are not just talking about a normal sort of spitting, but of a loud clearing of the throat, followed by an expectoration. What is particularly off-putting is the noise which precedes the spitting, rather than the action itself. The habit of spitting like this apparently has its roots in Chinese traditional medicine, which postulates that clearing your throat in this way is good for you. This may even be true, but it doesn't change the fact that this habit is both revolting and unhygienic.

Children with slit trousers, doing their business on the street

Many Chinese parents dress their toddlers in trousers with a slit in the middle, which allows them to attend to nature's call without removing them. This is indeed much better for the environment than using nappies, but the problem is that many of these children happily urinate wherever they like. You will see children squatting down to business on the pavement and in public places all over China. In places like shopping malls you may see a mother suspending their child over a bin while they urinate into it. I have even witnessed this in Beijing's airport once (in the terminal for internal flights). In China you may also see adults urinate in places which would be considered far too public in Western countries. On a related note, many Chinese public toilets are not only in a revolting state, but lack any privacy, with no doors separating the different cubicles.

Eating in a revolting fashion:

Many Westerners find the way some Chinese eat quite off-putting, with people slurping their soup or bringing their rice bowl up to their chin and shoveling rice into their mouth with their chopsticks. Table manners are quite different from what you might be used to. In restaurants, it is acceptable to just put all unwanted bits of food (like fish bones) onto the tablecloth next to you. When I first came to China in 2004, it seemed to be acceptable to just throw waste onto the ground, although this seems to have died down a bit.
These sort of eating habits are obviously way less revolting than the other habits listed above, and they don't really breed diseases, so I am more inclined to see them as acceptable cultural differences. In fact I will also just dump my leftover bits of food on the tablecloth or on the ground, if everyone else is doing it.

Littering and general uncleanliness:

There is certainly more rubbish on the streets in China than what you would find in any Western country. Although not everyone does this, some people do have a tendency to dispose of rubbish by just tossing it aside. Tourist sites are often full of rubbish.
If you go into cheap flats in Chinese cities inhabited by young workers or students living there for short periods, you will find that most occupants tend to keep their own bedrooms relatively tidy and clean, and may even refrain from wearing shoes within their own room. At the same time, in some of these flats common areas like the kitchen and the bathroom simply never get cleaned, so they become quite appalling.

A few points to remember

Many Westerners who live in China get extremely upset about this sort of thing, and indeed many of these habits are really off-putting and objectively unhealthy. I think it is important to remember a few things, however:

Not all Chinese follow these habits, and attitudes are changing

It is noticeable that in Chinese university campuses, you will practically never see a student spit on the ground. Many of the unhygienic habits traditionally common in China are increasingly rejected by the young and well-educated. Few middle class people still dress their children in trousers with an open split down the middle, and spitting or littering is frowned upon in certain circles.

It is true that even Chinese people who don't spit on the ground are much more indifferent to other people doing this then Westerners manage to be. At the same time, there have been numerous campaigns by the government within China to encourage people not to spit, the first one carried out by Chang Kai Shek before the revolution. This shows that numerous Chinese are troubled by the habit themselves.

Remember the context

As the Chinese love to remind you, China is still a developing country with a huge population. Poverty and overcrowding always make the worst recipe for keeping high hygienic standards. I once travelled through India, a country poorer and more overcrowded than China. Although people don't seem to spit in India, you will see people urinating in public, and worse, far more brazenly than in China, and littering is also more serious than in China.

Many of the Chinese poor simply cannot afford to maintain the same sort of hygienic standards we are used to. In the Chinese countryside there is usually no official rubbish collection or rubbish dumps where you can dump your litter. Modern toilets very often don't exist, and people have to make do with inconvenient public shower rooms. Even running water can be limited.

It should also be remembered what Western countries were like in the past. In Britain, public buses still had signs saying "no spitting" before the Second World War. If you could go back in time and visit a European slum in the thirties, you would probably not be impressed with people's hygienic standards.

Distinguish between unacceptable habits which breed diseases, and harmless cultural differences

While spitting or letting your child pee on the street are indeed bad for public health, some of the habits foreigners in China complain about do not seem to me to be that terrible. For instance, many Chinese men have a habit of rolling up their shirts to expose their bellies during the summer. You will see men hang around, play cards and drink tea with their shirts rolled up to their armpits, or even shirtless, with their not exactly athletic upper bodies exposed (like the gentleman in the picture above). Some people get upset about this, but personally I don't really see an issue. I also don't see any problem with people wandering around the street in their pajamas, another common sight.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Funny poem on Chinese regional differences

I have run into this amusing poem about Chinese regional stereotypes here. It's from the "Ich bin ein Berliner" blog of former Tang Dynasty guitarist Kaiser Kuo.

"In Dongbei, whence the Manchus came, the men do like their liquor.
While effusive with their friendship, with their enmity they’re quicker
Though they’re honest and straightforward, at the slightest provocation
They’ll show why they’ve been slandered as the Klingons of this nation.

The leggy Dongbei ladies for their beauty are renowned,
(I attest that in my travels, few more fetching have I found.)
But they suffer from one drawback, and it’s very sad to tell—
When they open up their mouths to speak, they break that magic spell.

The stalwart Shandong people grow as hearty as their scallions
On their noodle-heavy diet they’ve been bred as strong as stallions.
They’re known for dogged loyalty; they’re known as trusty folks,
But a bit slow on the uptake—thus, the butt of many jokes.

In Hunan and in Hubei in the country’s center-south
They say the people there can really run it at the mouth
In Hubei in particular, the saying is often heard
That a single Hubei codger can drown out a nine-head bird.

The Hunanese, in temperament, are piquant as their dishes,
Like duo jiao yu tou—capsicum with slow-braised heads of fishes.
Add to this mix the province’s infernal summer heat,
And you see why Hunan’s Xiang Jun had the Taiping rebels beat.

The teahouses of Chengdu represent the Sichuan Way:
The women toil in earnest while the men drink tea and play.
The Chuan hou plays at mahjong as the Chuan mei cleans and mends,
And like the Sichuan peppers do, she burns it at both ends.

The Pearl River Delta in the southlands of Guangzhou
Is home to China’s most industrious people, as you know:
They’re scrappy and they’re gritty and they’re free of all pretension,
And they’ll make a meal of any living beast you’d care to mention.

They say that Henan people are a sly and cunning lot.
But my ancestors are from there—proving some, at least, are not.
My co-provincials countrywide are blamed for every ill,
While provinces that suck as bad get let off easy still.

The Shanghainese are philistines, and this they’ll gladly own:
Commercial instincts permeate them to the very bone.
Their pride in Shanghai’s petit bourgeois ethos is immense
But what they lack in culture, they make up in common sense.

As you might well have expected, I have saved the best for last,
For my love for Beijing’s people is immovably steadfast.
From their gargling r-drenched accent to their dry sardonic wit,
The denizens of Jing Town are the dope, the bomb, the shit.

Beijingers love to gab, and though they’re lazy and they’re slow,
There’s nothing about politics that they aren’t apt to know.
They may complain a lot about the traffic and the air
But scratch beneath the cynicism and you’ll find they care.

So be grateful that you live here, and be clear on what it means.
Be grateful you don’t live among Klingons, or philistines.
Be grateful for the legacy of Yuan and Ming and Qing—
And most of all be grateful for the people of Beijing."

The part on the Henan people rings very true. Living in Beijing, the most common regional stereotype I have ran into is that the Henanese are basically not a very decent bunch. There is a widespread idea that a lot of them are untrustworthy, swindlers and people to be wary of.

For those of you China-illiterate, Henan is a huge province in north-central China, where Chinese civilization is supposed to have originated. It is the third most populous province in the country, with 94 million people living within its borders. If it were a country, it would be the twelfth most populous in the world. Despite its historical prominence, it is nowadays a relatively backward province which produces rather than attracts migrant workers, and not a few of Beijing's immigrants come from there.

I have never really been to Henan, even though I have crossed it by train various times. Although I have friends and acquaintances from all over China, I have never had much to do with anyone from Henan as far as I can recall, so I really haven't got much personal experience on the matter, although in general I certainly don't approve of negative stereotyping of entire peoples.

The small village in Shanxi where I spent a week last year was just over the border from Henan. Even there, when I asked one of my hosts about this regional stereotype, they replied: "well, not all of them are bad people of course, but it is just that Henan has lots of people and it's very poor, so you get a lot of them who do questionable things to make money". Of course in some parts of the world people might say the same about the Chinese in general: overcrowded and poor, so sometimes they do questionable things for money. I kept that thought to myself however.

The stereotype of people from Dongbei (the Northeast) being heavy drinkers, frank and straightforward, and easy to anger, is another one which I have heard a lot. I have been to Dongbei and know people from there, and I have a feeling that there is some truth to it. Perhaps it is the cold weather which just turns people into heavy drinkers who like a punch up, since Northern Europeans are the same.

When it comes to the Shanghainese, what I have always heard about them is a stereotype unmentioned in the poem: they have a huge superiority complex towards the rest of China, much greater even than the Beijingers do. I have also heard numerous people say that they will insist on speaking to outsiders in Shanghai dialect even when they know Mandarin, just to be difficult. Given the current state of health of the Shanghai dialect, this complaint  may not be heard for much longer.

It is interesting that in China you do not find the same stereotype which exists within Europe, in other words that people from the hotter regions in the South are less efficient and hardworking than the ones from the colder North. This is even though the climactic difference between the South and the North of China is as great as that between the South and the North of Europe. In fact China's hottest region, Guangdong, is supposed to be home to its most industrious people, as the poem mentions. Clearly hot weather and a laid back lifestyle do not always have to go hand in hand