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How Cultures Clash As China Urbanizes

As hundreds of millions of Chinese flood into cities the culture is bound to change. Enjoy public pissing, shitting, and spitting while you still can.

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Country mouse behavior in the rural areas is normal everywhere in the world. It’s just not as onerous when when you notice people spitting, flinging their boogers, farting, pissing and shitting when out in the sticks — this behavior is just part of the landscape. This way of acting is in context there, and it really doesn’t matter too much if someone takes a dump behind a treeline at the edge of a field, pisses on the side of a dirt path, blows a snot rocket where relatively few people are going to pass by, or talks super loudly in open areas. But when this behavior is transferred to the urban landscape it sticks out in a WTF! kind of way. It’s just out of the context that you’ve been acculturated to expect.

I was sitting in a Pizza Hut – which is a middle class restaurant in Asia – in Huaihua, Hunan province, and I noticed that a guy sitting at the booth in front of me wasn’t wearing a shirt. No problem, nothing too strange yet. But then he got up, picked up his two year old daughter and ran out the door with her.

In China, it’s common for people to let their kids shit and piss on the streets or even the floor inside buildings rather than taking them to the toilet. I understand this when no toilet is readily available, but we were in Pizza Hut — they have bathrooms here. But I suppose this guy preferred watching his kid take a dump on the sidewalk, which she did. Maybe it’s easier that way? Hell, there is nothing to flush.

Alright, nothing out of the ordinary yet.

Then, rather than doing his kid up and completing the task in the locale she turned into a toilet, he picked her up and with her underwear down around her ankles and crap covering her and carried her back through Pizza Hut. I got a good view of this because her dirty bare bottom swiped right over my shoulder and nearly dive bombed my food. Eventually, they made it back to their table, the kid was returned to her mother, who wiped her ass in front of a packed restaurant full of people dining.

These people obviously were not poor — they had just eaten a 40 dollar lunch – half of which they left sitting on the table unfinished. They just didn’t have any class. They were middle class in money alone.

This isn’t just a matter of me projecting Western values upon China, as Chinese people themselves seem to be the biggest critics of their country mouse brethren. If this behavior was perfectly acceptable here I would have little to say about it. But it isn’t. Whenever some lady gets caught on video shitting on the platform or elevator in a subway, or little fatty becomes a social media sensation for taking a dump inside a subway train, or some meathead hocks a loogie on a carpet, or some dude wipes out his dick and pisses out a bus window, or a mob of tourist kill a dolphin, or a crowd pelts lions with snowballs in a zoo China cringes with embarrassment.

A Tianjin newspaper recently surveyed 894 people to find out what they thought the worst subway behaviors were:

  1. Spitting (681 votes)
  2. Defecating in the train or in the station (661 votes)
  3. Smoking on the train or in the station (581 votes)
  4. Crowding onto the train without waiting in line (553 votes)
  5. Bringing something stinky the train (519 votes)
  6. Lying down across several seats (514 votes)
  7. Bringing pets onto the train (451 votes)
  8. Spitting out gum in the train (451 votes)
  9. Throwing trash around the train (434 votes)
  10. Throwing trash onto the tracks (415 votes)

These behavior are not acceptable, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ubiquitous.

I’ve written about this before, and the contrast of behavior between fully urbanized Chinese and first generation city dwellers is incredible. In this era of mass urban migration, where literally hundreds of millions of rural people are moving to cities and mixing in with the preexisting urban population, two radically different culture are superimposed upon each other.

When peasants move to the city they still act like peasants, when poor people become middle class they still act like poor people. You can almost watch this society transitioning in the streets. Ultimately, these unacceptable public behaviors are transitory. Someday urban Chinese will take their kids all the way to the toilet, picking your nose in public and flinging your boogers will be regarded as gross, nobody will be wiping their kid’s butts in Pizza Hut, dudes will cease pissing in the streets, women will stop shitting in the subway, people will desist from yelling into their phones super loudly in restaurants or in elevators, street fights will become rarer, and few people will heckle foreigners with “Hello! Hello!” like they’re zoo animals deposited in the streets for their amusement.

There will come a day when nobody remembers that people here used to act like this, there will come a day when people here will gasp upon seeing a kid pissing in the streets without apparent recognition that not a decade before they too were wiping their kids’ butts in a booth at Pizza Hut.

When cultures shift they forget.

I already occasionally get comments from Chinese people trying to tell me that kids don’t relive themselves in the streets, that adults don’t piss in public, that I’m making this shit up, even though these are readily observable behaviors that anyone who steps for a moment outside of the central Shanghai / Beijing bubble will see almost daily.

I may miss this old China. There is something about this country’s rough edges that gives it character, that makes it feel comfortable. A society that is relaxed enough not to bog itself down with razor sharp rules, straight edge protocols, and invasive taboo in the social sphere is a comfortable society to be in. I like being in places where if I can’t find a john I can pull up to a bush without giving passerbys a heart attack.

The last thing I would want is to live in a China that’s one big Shanghai — a gigantic post-cultural zone were nobody talks to each other, where nobody notices anybody else, where being in public means keeping your gaze locked on your personal electronic device so you don’t dare make eye contact with anyone, where the people move in singular masses like cyborgs on parade. I’d rather watch kids get wiped while eating my Naples style baked chicken.

If having class means being a drone I’d rather be out here with these classless sons of bitches who are screaming at each other even though they are sitting side by side, tossing their spent cigarettes on the floor of the cafe I’m writing this in. These bastards wouldn’t know a manner if it was dangling off the end of their foreskin but they have something the cultivated long term city dwellers lack: character. They just don’t give a shit, they treat their city like a landfill, but there is something freeing in this: where behavioral protocols are lax the people relax.


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Filed under: Changing China, China, Culture and Society, Hunan, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 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 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

1 comment… add one

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  • jixiang November 23, 2013, 11:17 am

    Quite honestly, I think there is more to this behaviour than simply rural migration to the cities.

    I have been to lots of other developing countries with loads of immigrants from poor rural areas pouring into the cities, and you also get some pretty uncouth behaviour, but still some of the revolting stuff you see in China is specific to the country.

    For instance, that unmistakable way Chinese people have of clearing their throats and then spitting is a specifically Chinese thing, as is the habit of dressing small children in trousers with a split down the middle.

    I don’t think it is only people from the countryside who do these things either. In fact, I am pretty sure that you can find natives from the biggest Chinese cities who do them too. These habits have only really been stamped out among the most sophisticated sections of the population, especially if young.

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