TAIZHOU, China- I bought a drink at a cafe in a mall and moved to take a seat in the single booth that was provided for customers. There were two women already sitting there, but it’s OK to crash someone’s table here when no others are available. But I stopped short: One of the women was [...]
TAIZHOU, China- I bought a drink at a cafe in a mall and moved to take a seat in the single booth that was provided for customers. There were two women already sitting there, but it’s OK to crash someone’s table here when no others are available. But I stopped short:
One of the women was clipping her fingernails over the table. Fingernails pieces were flying here and there as she clipped and chatted away. She worked on her manicure with completely self-assurance, glancing up at me for a moment before returning to her grooming, as though people shed their unwanted body parts on public eating surfaces all the time.
I wasn’t disgusted, just amused. I took my seat at the booth, rested my elbows where the clippings were just wiped away from, drank my coffee, and thought of other things.
Give me the cultures that make me say “What the f#ck?” as these are the societies that I stand to learn something in. It’s only too bad that these cultures are disappearing fast. There is something called world culture now — a symptom of the rising middle class, globalized way of life — that is turning just about all societies into carbon copies of each other. I’d rather spend my time in places where men piss in the streets and women clip their fingernails on cafe tables than in the lock step of a culture that has declared itself modernized.
Though I don’t recall ever watching someone clip their fingernails on a cafe table here in China before, this type of behavior isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, bathroom activities being done in public is so normal here that you just stop noticing it after a while.
A few months ago my daughter, who was working on her own potty training, pointed to a man who was urinating in a park in Taizhou, began laughing, and asked me what he was doing. “Some men in China are not potty trained,” I explained in terms she could understand.
I’ve been traveling in and out of China since 2005. I don’t flinch when someone near me enacts a bathroom activity in pubic. I am used to a China where men piss in the streets where they please, leaving stairwells, alleyways, and ares of sidewalks caked in dried, sticky urine. I’ve learned to watch my step in public places here that are obscured from public view as the possibility of human fecal landmines is relatively high. I’ve become accustomed to people of this culture looking you right in the eye while picking their noses then artfully flick away the booger without missing a beat. In the China I’ve come to love any prepubescent individual is free to pee or crap wherever they can pull down their pants, and anyone of any age is free to hock loogies like roaring canons. Not even the piles of saliva soaked sunflower seed shucks that inevitably cover the floors of trains can make me shudder. But the China I know is showing signs of coming to an end. These behaviors that I once took to be so ordinary that I thought nobody else noticed have now become taboo.
It was not until this past year that I’ve noticed a mass public outcry over people doing bathroom activities in public. When I first read headlines from enraged netizens over some guy pissing on the street or in the subway I had to laugh. I simply could not believe that people were acting as if this behavior wasn’t completely normal and ubiquitous, and their appeals seemed as ridiculous as saying that cutting in line goes against the Chinese way. Men are always pissing in the streets in the inner provinces of this country, but it doesn’t seem to register in the public consciousness until caught on camera and the evidence uploaded to the internet. It wasn’t until I’ve read about a half dozen articles about how this bathroom behavior is “uncivilized” and is a sign of a “moral vacuum” that I began realizing that I’m witnessing a major cultural shift: China is being dubbed over with a wave of modernized, city slicker ethos.
I’ve recently been going around asking people what they think about people pissing in the streets, etc . . . While some pretend that it doesn’t exist, most say things like:
“The people who do that are uncivilized.”
“They are uneducated.”
“They are from the countryside and don’t know anything.”
But taboo is a social construct that often takes at least one generation to set in, and we are in this generational grey area now. I’m observing a China that’s transitioning from a rural to urban society, and hiccups in this cultural metamorphosis are evident just about everywhere outside of the Beijing/ Shanghai fringe.
What has to be remembered here is that not so long ago China was “rustified.” During the Maoist era the peasant and working classes were raised on pedestals for emulation, and much of the cultivated and educated classes were killed off, imprisoned, or sent into the countryside for reeducation — to learn how to be country folk. The youth of the time also moved out into the countryside and worked in communes and Chinese culture became overwhelmingly rustic. What is acceptable behavior in the countryside is different than what is acceptable in the city everywhere in the world, and when China began urbanizing in the 1980s peasants moved to the cities and brought their culture and behaviors with them.
Which leads us to where we are now: in a China where rural and urban cultures are smashing against each other head on. China is not only “modernizing” economically but culturally as well. As people migrate from the countryside into the cities their lifestyle as well as their culture changes. The young adults of China’s cities are not pissing in the streets, spitting everywhere, and picking their noses in public, and they often react harshly against the older generation that still does these things — often with the same type of embarrassment that a young American may have for an uncle or grandparent that makes politically incorrect statements. Though this younger, 100% urban generations often does not pass on the fruits of their culture’s old traditions, and in another generation a good portion of China’s rural culture will disappear, along with the public pissers, spitters, and finger nail clippers.