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.


Anna Lowenstein said...

Brave of you to touch on this topic! But you managed to deal with it in a way which was honest, but also understanding.

Tang Xiaoyan said...

hi how are u? tonight i am a little drunk because of one bottle of wine. thanks for your understanding the culture of my country, especially the part of A few points to remember. Yes, for the young generations and well-educated people,we have gave up a lot of unhygienic habits and follow some good manners. i hope more and more foreigners can understand China as you, giving criticism and also some forgive.