Tag Archives: Hangzhou

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.

Do you know how to cross the street?

22 Dec

A Chinese friend told us a great story the other day that has stuck with me ever since.

Charles (his English name) had recently arrived for a summer program at UC Berkeley when he went for a walk in the neighborhood surrounding the school. He waited for the light to change to red, the walking signal to alight, and then began to cross the street. Halfway through he noticed a large truck approaching to make a left turn in front of him. He immediately froze in his path, waiting for the truck to barrel past. But instead of driving, the truck came to a halt in the intersection. Charles also stuck to his spot, unsure of what the heck was going on. Everything remained at a standstill until the driver finally rolled down his window and shouted Are you going to walk? It was then that Charles realized that the truck was waiting for him to cross first.

When I heard this story I laughed because I understood how years of darting out of the path of vehicles could result in a deep sense of surprise at having the right of way. Expats in Hangzhou (including me) often complain about the crazy drivers here, and the terror of crossing a large intersection with buses, taxis, electric scooters, and so on roaring at you  and weaving within arms length of crowds of pedestrians. I appreciated Charles’s story not only for its funniness but for the fact that it spoke to the topic of culture clash and the altered habits that accompany this change.

A common topic at language school has been that of habits, hobbies, and traditions. I think that they write it into the textbooks because they think that talking all of the differences through will suddenly make us all a little more aware of each other, and therefore more at ease. But do hobbies and traditions bring us together or push us apart? Sometimes I find it frustrating when my Chinese instructors ask me what we like to do for Christmas or birthdays in the US. It’s not always easy to be so far away from familiar faces and settings during days that were previously laden with traditions. But I’m starting to realize that there’s something worth considering when it comes to the subject.

More than any other place before, China has challenged the habits that composed my everyday life in Minneapolis. A lot that was familiar in Minnesota became so habitual that I didn’t even realize the way it steered my life. At first (and still occasionally) differences really threw me off—more accurately, they upset me. It was always the little things. Why does the market have tape but no dispenser? or Why do the Chinese write their address in the opposite order in the opposite place on an envelope? or Why do Chinese people spit bones on the table? Suddenly I had become a sort of stuck-up ambassador, complaining from my democratic throne about the inefficiencies of this backwards country.

I found myself shocked with how quickly being placed in such an unfamiliar country could occasionally transform my voice into that of some colonizer I’d read about in an undergrad lit course. I’ve learned over the past four or so months that the essential antidote to the grating effect of new and different experiences is to give up the fight—that, and forget the way you did things back home. Most places here don’t sell what you’re looking for because nobody does what you do. Many times I found myself ready to scream, feeling like I’d been personally insulted by the fact that women in Hangzhou don’t use tampons or crochet hooks or blonde hair dye or tomato paste. All I can do is take what I see, buy what’s on the shelf, eat what’s on the menu, and leave it at that.

There are some hobbies, however, that I have managed to sustain across the ocean, and I find a strangely deep solace in them. After a few determined searches I finally tracked down some wool yarn and I’m making myself an emerald green scarf. I’ve also managed to circumvent the Chinese preference for “white coffee” (consisting mainly of powdered milk and sugar—instant) with the help of friends and family who have sent us the real stuff and a Vietnamese coffee filter. I may not have milk in my coffee anymore, due to the fact that we have no refrigerator and the milk here tastes eerie, but that damn cup of black coffee is the highlight of my morning.

Above all, there are four essential hobbies I’ve managed to keep:

  1. Music: No matter where I stand or sit or walk, when I listen to my beloved Charlie Brown Christmas album or latest American release, I am home.
  2. Writing: Although my internet connection is shoddy (WordPress is blacklisted here—damn you, firewall!) and my VPN stopped working during the Chinese “election”, I still have my computer, journal, and email to find some release.
  3. Reading: I limited myself to three books in my suitcase. Lucky for me, there are a few bookstores in Hangzhou with English sections!
  4. Boyfriend: I’m here in China aren’t I? In the end I had to lay it all down to stay with the person I love, and I can’t imagine life here, or at home, without him.

Although I mourn the loss of things such as the ability to shop enjoyably, communicate with strangers, or snuggle up with a book/computer at Spyhouse during a snowstorm, the balance of life is fair and I inevitably gain new interests. Because most of my previous sources of amusement have been curtailed, I’ve tried new things. For instance, Instagram is apparently the only social media site that works on my Chinese phone. Relaying my journey through pictures is fun and different. I’ve also adopted an interest in Chinese paper cutting, which can yield surprisingly awesome visual results.

When I start to think about this Christmas and New Year and how different it will be on the other side of the globe, I find solace in the fact that the absence of old traditions fashions new ones. In the spirit of the new, I’ve decided to go to Hong Kong and spend the holiday there. I will miss my family, but I will also have a memorable Christmas full of rich new experiences. I hope that you too can enjoy the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the new this season.

Happy Holidays!

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