On the issue of hygiene in China

Signs you’ll often see at urinals in China, encouraging the fellas to improve their aim – I haven’t observed much of a difference.

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Westerners who visit China will likely be shocked at the locals’ unhygienic practices – here’s my attempt to explain some of it.

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I had the idea to write a post about hygiene in China and so decided to peruse the Internet to see what people are saying about it.  I ran across this comment (and many others like it) on one forum site.

The sad thing is people are too quick to label others a racist for pointing out the obvious. If I disliked Chinese people because their Chinese, I would be a racist. But that’s not the case. The reason I dislike them is the same reason I’m hiding away in my Beijing hotel room writing this post – they are dirty, disgusting pigs. Since arriving here, I’ve seen them do nothing but spit, litter, pick their noses, destroy public restrooms, push people in “queues” and shout / grunt. The 3 taxi drivers we’ve had were all bordering on insane. The visit to Beijing zoo some 3 hours ago summed it all up. All of the Chinese people, young and old, were banging the glass of the displays and shouting. I stood there and wondered which side of the glass the animals were really on. Then a western kid ran by and did the same. Her American parents promptly put an end to it and they continued to make their way around the park quietly.  I challenge anyone to walk around Beijing and then Tokyo, Japan and tell me truthfully there’s no difference between the 2 ethnicities. The difference between the 2 is monumental. Not because I’m racist. Because Chinese are dirty.

I chose to quote this comment because it sums up fairly well what many Western tourists will undoubtedly observe first hand.  I’ve seen these things and they’ve been irritating me for years on end now.  I’ve even been driven to wonder whether China is turning me into a racist when I find myself dreading heading into a public restroom when I see a Chinese man entering before me or the foreboding I feel when a Chinese family seats itself at a table next to mine at a restaurant.

However, dehumanizing Chinese people is obviously not the way to go.  Understanding is a healthier route than close-minded anger, however righteous.  I’ve found that these undoubtedly accurate observations about the unhygienic practices of Chinese people ignore some curious ways in which many Chinese are stricter sticklers for hygiene than Westerners are.  Just as I’ve stared dumbfounded, horrified and open-mouthed at a mother allowing her child to piss on the sidewalk, Chinese people have stared at me with the same wonder at some of my disgusting habits, habits I never acknowledged before as disgusting because they aren’t seen that way in the West.  I’ll be making a lot of sweeping generalizations here, so just be aware that I don’t mean to imply that ALL Chinese people are like this, just most of the those who live in Mainland China.

1. Eating pizza with gloves.

In America if you eat pizza with a knife and fork or with anything other than your own hands you’re considered an effete ponce, but in China the preferred method is to use plastic gloves.  Order a pie from the local franchise Pizza Hut or Papa John’s and it’ll arrive with a pair neatly folded outside the box, ready to protect your delicate hands from the greasy pollution that awaits.  Generally, Chinese people prefer not to eat with their hands or to eat overly messy food like pizza, large hamburgers or tacos.  Part of this is down to the fact that Chinese people are also not accustomed to washing their hands, another thing you’re likely to notice when you use a public restroom in China.

2. These feet were made for walking

This is an observation made by a British businessman who wrote a book about Chinese Business Etiquette, that Chinese people view as distasteful using the foot to perform an action normally done with the hand, i.e. nudging one’s bag forward with your foot in line at the airport or using your foot to nudge a dropped pencil toward you.  This is something that’s difficult to notice, since you’re forced to reflect upon what you’re not seeing as opposed to what you’re seeing.  You’ll also understand why they wouldn’t want to use their feet as hands when you see all the trash, urine and gobs of spit on their sidewalks.

3. They’re spitters, not swallowers

Why do they spit so much?  Mainly because they see swallowing spit as unhealthy, part of that whole Chinese traditional medicine thing which doesn’t acknowledge the danger inherent in the exchange of human saliva due to bacteria or viruses, etc.

4. Shoes off in the house

In my American family’s house growing up we would traipse around in our muddy shoes to our hearts content as well as allow our dogs to run around leaving footprints on everything from the wood floors, to the carpets and even in our own beds.  Such behavior might trouble some of our more-anal fellow Americans but would definitely horrify most Chinese people.  Generally, folks here don’t give much of a damn about public space – littering, smoking and spitting where they please.  This may have to do with the legacy of Communism when collective responsibility superseded individual accountability and there was no distinction between public and private space.  But today, they keep their own homes as immaculately clean as they can, so the shoes come off at the doorway.  It’s a practice I’ve adopted, again mainly down to the horrible hygienic quality of the streets and sidewalks outside.

5. Dirty animals

As I mentioned, I grew up with dogs so I have no fear of petting or hugging them or letting them lick my hands and face.  Chinese people generally shy away from this, even from their own pets.  To their mind, animals are necessarily filthier than humans and contact with them should be limited.

6. Showering at night

There’s no monolithic practice here among Westerners.  Some Americans shower in the morning, some at night.  Americans also shower more frequently than some Europeans.  Chinese, on the other hand, generally prefer showering once a day at night, to avoid dirtying their sheets.  Makes sense, but I still prefer my freshening morning showers which make me feel presentable in public.  Again, my own theory on this is that Chinese people care more about the cleanliness of their private space.  Keeping their bed immaculate is more important than sparing the public from their body odor.

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5 thoughts on “On the issue of hygiene in China

  1. Thank you – that was an informative, yet entertaining read. I’m in the west where the number of people from mainland China are increasing. Particularly difficult as a westerner, is the ability to deal with the elder abuse that seems common among China’s young people. When I learned recently that China has Asia’s highest prevalance rate of elder abuse (36%) compared to India’s 14%, I wondered if China’s society is now negatively affecting the quality of life here in the west without us knowing it. Again, very interesting article – thanks.

  2. One thing I must mention as a westerner having lived in China for a number of years is that these behaviours are regional. Beijing is one of the worst places in The China I have covered for this sort of behaviour because it attracts many people from the rural areas of China being the capital. Chinese people from Shanghai and Hong Kong have far better manners in tune with those in the west.

  3. I live in Canary Wharf London. This area is close to the business district and a hub for new build luxury apartment blocks and a haven for the Chinese who have moved here en-mass.

    I have viewed over 14 apartments all owned by or let to Chinese residents. 3 different letting agents all apologized before setting foot in these apartments, this is apparently common conditions when dealing with the Chinese.

    I am still totally traumatized at what I have seen. Equivocally and without a shred of doubt I can conclude that Chinese are filthy ignorant peasants. No shame at leaving used tampons on the beds rotting waste piled high from floor to midriff, expensive designer clothes littered like waste paper on the floors, the stench covered up with sickly perfumes.

    All the money in the world cannot buy these peasants one iota of class.

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