Now, basketball is hardly a sanitary activity. Really, anytime a bunch of guys are clamoring to handle something (cards, video game controllers, etc.), it pretty much can’t be clean. I get that. But when you look at your hands after playing a few minutes of basketball in China…wow. It’s disgusting.
And while it could well be true that dirt isn’t all that dirty, it’s not just dirt that makes China dirty. Which brings us to a larger point about China in general. Like Li’s court, it’s dirty as hell. The polluted air is what you hear about when people talk of how dirty China is, and that’s not an exaggeration. But now that I’ve been here for 10 months, the smog’s not even what bothers me anymore. It’s the dirtiness, the germiness.
I came to China a little on the OCD side about germs. But instead of curing me of my germ aversion, China has merely made me more sensitive to it. And there are any number of things that Chinese people do that are downright gross. (Having now reread this post, I don’t know if there is any way for me to make this not sound discriminatory: the Chinese do a lot of gross stuff. But at the same time, I don’t know if there is any way to dispute the claim that, by the American standards I grew up with, it’s not true. That’s not to say the Chinese are stupid or mean or savage or lesser. I’m just saying that they have some tendencies that would never fly in America – just like Americans have tendencies that wouldn’t fly in China. I know that I am speaking from an American viewpoint, not a privileged viewpoint. Heck, maybe America is just too sensitive to cleanliness. This article and this article seem to hint at just that.)
You can’t walk one block on any remotely-populated street and not hear someone make a deep, guttural hacking sound – a telltale prelude to a huge loogy. Just yesterday I got off a train (I spent the last 10 days in Chengdu, hence the dearth of recent posts), and at the exit gate I looked down to see a pair of stringy, yellow-green clusters of stuff that used to reside in the area between someone’s mouth and lungs. To be fair, at least this person cleared their throat after they got off the train, which is more than can be said for innumerable people who added that putrid, hacking noise to the soundtrack of the 30-hour train ride. And in a land of 300,000,000 smokers, I can assure this is a never ending soundtrack. The staircases at my school, where parents conglomerate to wait for their children, are another hotbed for spitting. Really, all of China is a hotbed for spitting.
Then there is also the move where people blow their noses, but without a handkerchief or Kleenex. They just send the contents of their nose jutting toward the ground. When I was a kid we called this the “Texas Air Hanky.” The last time you saw it was either during a hockey game or on the streets of China.
It is also not uncommon to see little (or big) piles of vomit resting at the base of a tree. If you have to puke then you have to puke; I get that. But I’ve seen more ground vomit in my eight months in China than I did in my 24 years in America. And I’ve been to a lot of bars in America.
People are also apt to relieve themselves on sidewalks. “People” in this case could mean everyone from itty-bitty toddlers (who wear crotch-less pants for quick and painless popping-and-squatting) to old men (who know better but just don’t care). Quick story about public relief of the excretory system: my mom, dad and I came to visit my brother in China a few years back, and on a plane from Xian to Guilin, my dad was the odd man out on a seat, stuck sitting on the other side of the aisle from my brother, mom and I, who controlled our own three-seat section of the plane. Pa was wedged next to a little kid who was wearing the bottomless pants. (If you’re having trouble imagining what this looks like, just think if you cut a big oval-shaped hole in your jeans from the top of your zipper, through the legs, back around to the midway point of the seat. Or you could just >look here.) Well, this kid – seated about five-and-a-half inches from my dad – unloads his bowels then and there, right after takeoff. It gets on the mom a little bit, and while it didn’t actually touch pa, he nonetheless got an eyeful of doodoo. It was a cultural experience he could never have had in a land where parents, you know, make their kids wear diapers.
This may all seem like superficial stuff. OK, so there is spit on the ground. So there is a little puke tucked against the base of the occasional tree. So kids relieve themselves everywhere, but who has ever been successful telling a 14-month-old when and where to go? (Anyway, is having a bunch of soiled diapers that much cleaner than the occasional puddle?)
The thing is, it’s not all superficial. The eyesores are accompanied by a host of things are more than just eyesores. It really is dirty – and not just dirt dirty. It’s really dirty.
There are, for instance, no soap dispensers in public restrooms, save nice restaurants. (Beijing and Shanghai pay a little more heed to soap, but like I’ve said, Jinan ain’t no Shanghai.) The bathrooms at our school feature puddles of piss, and soap dispensers with soap that’s so watered-down it surely houses more germs than it prevents.
And it isn’t just our crummy school. It’s the country at large. There wasn’t a drop of soap on the train I got off yesterday. The people who handle the food you buy off the street don’t wear gloves on their hands – just a discernable layer of brownish crud that can’t possibly be clean. And those Texas Air Hankies don’t just happen on the street. The last time I went to McDonald’s someone was pulling the time-trusted maneuver in the sink in the dining area.
Like so many of the things I talk about on this blog, the germiness of China is hard to quantify (heck, germiness isn’t even a real word). How the Chinese are always drinking hot water, how much the Chinese like to stretch, how much counterfeit clothing there is: these things are all observable, but not necessarily measurable.
The same goes for the sanitation conditions. I haven’t the scientific prowess to conduct a study of the actual germiness of China – just the time and inclination to write about it and to make up words to describe it.
But even if I can’t convey in any sort of statistical way just how germy it is in China, I can rehash an event that beats home the sanitation issue.
After a 24-hour trip that started in Kansas City, I landed in Beijing in early September. If you recall, early September was at the height of the H1N1 craze – that is, the Pig Flu craze – and people were all in a tizzy about it. Especially in China. This article, for instance, entitled “China faces grim situation as H1N1 escalates,” was published the very day I landed in China. The country took to quarantining people – like this guy, a professor from the University of Michigan, and this guy, the mayor of a major U.S. city. If you rode on a plane with someone who turned out to be sick, you could be quarantined. If you coughed a little bit too much, you could be quarantined. If you looked extra fatigued, you could be quarantined.
As another precaution, there was a rapid spread of what looked like little plastic handguns that, when stuck up to someone’s forehead, gave a quick temperature scan. One of these guns/thermometers was pressed against my forehead as I exited the plane in Beijing. I was a little bit nervous, because anything from the mildest of temperature abnormalities to a slight technical malfunction could have landed me in a Chinese quarantine, something I’d rather not see first-hand.
By the grace of God, I waltzed through the sickness-detection chamber A-OK. (I was, after all, in fine health.) But after the lengthy flight and comp coffee, I needed to hit a bathroom when I got on the ground, so I headed for the nearest bathroom. It was just like an American airport bathroom – a cavernous room with urinal upon urinal against a teal-green wall. I relieved myself and, when I was heading out, beelined toward the sink to rinse up. The American equivalent to this WC would have had a bounty of soap and a hand sanitizer dispenser as well, just in case you’re too lazy to actually wash. (Even the Kansas City airport has hand sanitizer dispensers, so it can’t be that far-out of an addition. Like I said, I’ve always been a bit of a germophobe, so I notice these things.)
Alas, there was no soap in the bathroom. So one moment I was getting my temperature taken, an obligatory procedure that could well have landed me in a quarantine because Chinese officials are paranoid (justified or not) about the spread of H1N1. The next moment, I am taking a leak in a bathroom that doesn’t have any soap.
Li Ball’s court doesn’t have any soap either.