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Living in Shanghai | Chinese Toilets, Tainted Water, and Other Colorful Details

6 Apr
hanging food in Hangzhou

Rooftop meat in Hangzhou, China

This morning I woke up, slipped my feet into a tacky pair of red and white, foam-filled slippers, and then promptly walked straight through our apartment and out the door. I crossed the dirty, dim hall space and ascended the narrow staircase beside a weird, pointless little sink mounted outside our door. I entered a tiny room at the top of the stairs that’s both essential to my daily life and baffling by American standards: a combination kitchen, laundry, shower, toilet room that’s altogether about the size of large closet. It’s a wonderful arrangement for anyone who’s into shaving their legs, frying an egg, washing the sheets, and going pee simultaneously.

The separation of the main apartment from the bath/kitchen room is a result of the original French-made design of the building, which is common to this area of Shanghai and features communal kitchens and bathrooms (ours is private, but some Shanghai residents still share). Adjusting to a permanent bathroom across the hall is just one of many shifts that I’ve made to my routine during the last half year.

In what way does your life change when you move across the globe? I suppose there are a lot of large differences, such as language, food, safety, familiarity, community. But there are also a lot of subtle shifts or exchanges that one takes in stride during days that seem otherwise familiar. Some habits look the same here as they did in Minneapolis, while others are strikingly different.

A different set of risks
In Minnesota, the risks I faced were chiefly political and economic. I struggled to find good employment, an apartment within my budget, pay for outrageously priced groceries and health insurance, and other challenges that result from living in a country that seems to be on the lookout for opportunities to attack the working class and women’s rights. In Shanghai, most of the immediate risks seem to be sanitation-related.

I take a shower with some of the most questionable tap water in the world, featuring toxic heavy metals, chlorine, bacteria, viruses and more. I greatly doubt the safety standards of most restaurants. I can’t trust news sources to reveal potentially harmful food and health risks in my own neighborhood, city, or country. I come into contact with millions of people directly and indirectly all day long, many of whom have very different hygiene practices and standards—people wash vegetables in the river (which recently featured about 16,000 dead mystery pigs), use toilet bowls to wet their mops, intermittently handle raw meat and vegetable with their bare hands all day long, and much more. Oh, and did I mention a new bird flu has arrived in Shanghai and the surrounding area? All of these things are just part of the daily smorgasbord that is living in China.

And then there are the things that seem the same, but slightly off. For instance, I’m currently using face wash made by a familiar brand (POND’S) that claims to “whiten” your skin. I bought it because it was pretty much the only cleanser available without a trip to some inconvenient ‘expat’ store, and I’m happy to report that it’s maintaining the status quo of my complexion effortlessly. I also shower every day under a set of four extremely powerful, built-in heat lamps, which provide a strange contrast to the general lack of insulation, central heating, and properly installed windows in China. In addition, I have to manually turn a water heater on and off to take a shower and remember to adhere to a strict no-flushing rule for toilet paper and everything else.

To squat or not to squat—that is the question
I must admit that the move from Hangzhou to Shanghai has made things easier—especially in respect to the dreaded Chinese-style toilet. Sometimes referred to as a squatting toilet, the Chinese-style toilet is ubiquitous in Hangzhou. To make a long story short, it always smells at least 50X worse than a western-style toilet and it took me about 4 months to realize that I was consistently facing the wrong way when I used it—or was I?

I assumed that Chinese people would welcome the western-style toilet, but a rather bizarre experience last winter revealed otherwise. I’ll never forget my shock at accidentally walking into an occupied bathroom stall in Hangzhou where I witnessed something wholly unbelievable. A woman had propped herself into perfect squatting-toilet position atop a Western toilet, her shoes pressing flatly into the top of the toilet seat with her whole body hovering 3 feet in the air. My thoughts were as follows: Oh, crap—excuse me! Sorry! Wait, what? Huh? That can’t be sanitary for the rest of us/isn’t that a little dangerous? and why, exactly? WHY?

From then on out I began to notice the sole prints on the seats and started hovering religiously. Apparently, standing atop toilets to squat into them is widely popular, even in Shanghai (notice below the sign posted in a Starbucks bathroom near our house). But I really don’t get it. New toilet, new technique, right? It’s not as if I EVER considered sitting my butt down on the designated foot spots of a squatting toilet!

Starbucks Bathroom Sign: Please No Squatting on the Toilet

Lucky for me and my bathroom challenges, toilets in Shanghai are generally much better than Hangzhou—i.e. they are almost always western-style and accompanied by: 1) an ample supply of toilet paper and 2) working sinks with SOAP (I can’t emphasize the importance of these two things enough, I really can’t. There is nothing like entering an extremely cramped, nose-curdling please god do not let me touch anything space without being able to properly wash your hands after).

Two positives in a whirlwind of change
Despite the terror, confusion, and smells, I’m confident that moving to China offers two major benefits: Firstly, with any luck (and assuming that I’m a halfway flexible, thoughtful person) it is helping to shape me into a more appreciative, tolerant person. Secondly, it exposes me to the finite nature of my own authority in life. A safe, controlled, risk-free world—whether in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Paris or Shanghai—is to a great extent an illusion. I am simply in the position of observing and deciphering the messages, choices, and unfamiliar toilets placed before me.

You will never guess what I bought the other day

17 Jan

A Grey West Lake

I’ve made a lot of decisions in the past few months, and years, that would have probably shocked my younger self. But, I must admit that the older I get, the more I realize that being a hypocrite is a necessary part of growing up. There have been times in the past when I’ve pulled a total 180 when it comes to my wardrobe, shocking those around me.

I get a real kick out of my mom’s memory, without which I would have an incomplete notion of my own caprices.

According to her, I have, at times, made impassioned declarations of lifelong abstention from certain items. In my teenage years, I was known for my fervent anti-skinny-jeans policy and in high school I made the famous declaration that Birkenstocks were invented to take advantage of the lagging brain functions of people who smelled like patchouli.

And now here I am, over a decade later, and I wear almost exclusively skinny jeans and have a pair of very nice camel-colored leather Birkenstocks wedged among my other footwear in an overloaded closet back in Minnesota.

The point is, I’ve dared to renege on a lot of (my mom assures me) emblazoned causes in my life. However, nothing will surpass the recent scandal of the latest lapse in adherence to my sartorial ethics. You see, the thing is, I bought a pair of caramel brown, completely synthetic, knockoff Uggs, and I wear them almost every day. If you know me at all, then you will certainly understand the gravity of this admission. I’m pretty sure that my mom actually gasped when I mentioned it over our breaky skype connection the other day. And what’s more, I even bought a pair of enormous fake fur, taupe colored earmuffs, so help me god.

Knockoff Uggs and Earmuffs

These are things that I would never even consider, were I still living comfortably in my insulated, well-heated, cozy apartment in Minneapolis. But, alas, I have willingly reentered a place where it gets so hot in the summer that residents psychotically chose to tough out the freezing winters with little or no heating and walls made exclusively of cement or worse.

In my defense, it’s been cold here. Not Minnesota cold, but cold, nonetheless. The temperature for the last few weeks has been bobbing around freezing, and we’ve had an unusual amount of snow (so I’m told). Let’s just say that my chuck taylors were not cutting it.

In a way I feel like I’m reliving my time in Baton Rouge, where I spent 10 months volunteering in public schools (and completely humiliated myself *), all over again. My current room is on the corner of a huge student housing building, where the ceiling is easily 10 feet high, the floors are cement, and one of our walls is covered in single-pane windows with no screens. Our only source of heat is an air-conditioning unit located on the ceiling above our window-covered wall. None of the buildings here on campus, including all the public areas and classrooms, are heated, except for a possible hot-air blowing air-conditioner.

I am in awe of the resilience of the people here who sit behind a desk or in an open-front store during their 10-12 hour work day without heat. I fear that I would not have the constitution to survive such a challenge.

Simida, Electric Hot 'Water' Bottle

At the end of the day, it was obvious what I had to do. I say it was obvious because it was the only thing that was apparently an option—buy knockoff Uggs and earmuffs. Oh, and buy a slightly questionable but oh-so-warm electric “water” bottle that has a name, arms, and legs. Remember the phrase When in Rome? Well, it was like that, except that Rome was the communist/socialist/capitalist/democratic Republic of China and everyone was nearly freezing to death (or so I dramatically felt) and the only way to stay warm was to make concessions to my own appearance.

And this isn’t the first time that I’ve had dress counter-sartorially. I’ve had to wear much more humiliating things for past jobs, including Timberland boots and menswear, although I think I’ll save that topic for a future post. I guess dressing appropriately for weather or work, no matter how idiotic you look, is just the grownup thing to do.

How about you, is there something that you refused to wear, and then adopted later in life?

*In the State of Humiliation Caution: this story includes swearing.

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