There are so many little behaviors we learned to avoid when we were children. Our parents admonished us for such things as picking our nose, scratching our butts, eating with our mouths open etc. Most of us, as American adults, have collectively eliminated a cluster of behaviors our culture finds repugnant. We have so successfully taken them out of our “good manners” lexicon that they are practically extinct. Only when an abhorrent behavior emerges in our children do we have to stamp it out.
We really don’t think of these things until we go somewhere else in the world. Then we are suddenly confronted with the realization that our sensibilities are not the same as those of others. Here are some examples:
1. Everyone Spits! Everyone! Men, women, young, old, rich and poor. People “hock up” phlegm with gusto and then send their mucous to the ground. Almost as bad as in a major league baseball dugout, spitting style varies from shooting the mass a few feet to letting it drip off the bottom lip slowly in a blob. The sound of clearing one’s throat is, for me, reminiscent of my father in the morning hacking and coughing loudly in the bathroom. He would’ve fit in perfectly with folks on the street.
2. Nose blowing sans Kleenex or handkerchief. This method of clearing sinuses tends to be utilized by men. They close one nostril with one or two fingers, turn their head to the side and blow mucous out of the other nostril onto the ground with the power of a fire hose. The nose is then wiped onto the guy’s sleeve. Rich once read that our habit of using a Kleenex or handkerchief and then stuffing it in a pocket or purse is considered equally gross by non-westerners.
3. No diapers. From birth to toilet training, children wear clothes with open crotches. From just below the waist to the bottom of the crotch, pants have an open seem. Parents and grandparents (who provide much of the care during this age), have a cloth at hand for wiping waste. I tend to become a little anxious when I see young children sitting on their parent’s shoulders with their “bums” exposed. I suppose it isn’t much different from babies spitting up on us as we carry them on our chests. Rich notes that children in China are often toilet trained much earlier than in the US. In some ways it’s easier. Preschoolers are often seen peeing on the sidewalk or over exposed soil around regularly placed trees along roadsides. One little girl was seen relieving herself at her father’s urging on the track at IMNU. Along these same lines, babies and small children can be wiped and soiled clothes changed at (not on) restaurant tables. It is done somewhat discreetly, but in the open.
4. Of course, men occasionally urinate on the sidewalks facing away from others, but this is rare.
Like all cultural mores, environment and resources play a big role in how people behave. Hohhot, like many places in the world, does not possess ubiquitous paper goods. Add to this the arid, desert-like climate where water availability is inconsistent and it becomes easier to understand how customs have developed.
We all know that fireworks were invented by the Chinese in ancient times. What I did not know was how popular they are in Hohhot. EVERY wedding in the city and beyond sets off from 1 to 3 clusters of fireworks as a part of the celebration. They are everywhere and can be heard from early morning to late at night. The fireworks themselves are in 1 foot cubed boxes set on the sidewalk in front of whatever building the wedding is being held. Pyrotechnics last 30 seconds to a minute per box with loud booms and colorful displays shooting up to only 100 feet. The longer the display the wealthier the couple. Once again, it is clear that OSHA does not exist in this country. Two weeks ago, while sitting in our little apartment, people set off two boxes of fireworks outside the restaurant across the street. It was pretty but somewhat unnerving given that we were 200 feet away and at eye level with the explosions. I will try to send you the video. Occasionally we reference a day by the amount of weddings we count via fireworks. Today was a five wedding day. While we think it is amusing, our Chinese friends express annoyance at the daily assault to their ears.
“FUWU YUAN”! (FOO WOO YOUEHN) (SERVER)
Restaurants are often busy places. As much as our friends and students gush over their mother’s cooking, a lot of people eat out. Food is very important in China. I think I have mentioned that a typical greeting is “Chi le fan ma?” which means; “Have you eaten?” “Is your belly full?” , but really translates to “Are you well?”. Rich and I have gone to a dozen or more restaurants since arriving in Hohhot. Some have been quiet environments, but most are noisy. Servers are not necessarily designated to a specific table. One person will take an order, but it may very well be one or two others who serve food and yet another who gives the bill. If you need something, like more tea or whatever, it is not practical to subtly try to get the attention of “your” server. Instead someone at your table shouts out “FUWU YUAN”. Shouting may be a bit strong, but patrons need to have voices that will carry over the din. Once when eating with our teenager friends, Songlin, a shy young woman, sheepishly tried to call out for a server. No one came. Realizing what needed to be done, I called out “FUWU YUAN”, where upon two servers immediately responded. I have to say it was somewhat freeing to call out for help rather than the usual pattern at home where we play at catching the eye of our waiter/waitress to get our dining needs met.
UMBRELLAS AND FACE MASKS
Skin color has long been important in Chinese culture. I am far, far, from being an expert on this issue, but generally speaking, the fairer the skin, the more beautiful. Sun tan may indicate farmer or laborer which denotes lower class. White porcelain type skin is the goal, particularly for women. Just like in the west, skin tones and hues range widely in Hohhot. There are 56 different ethnic groups in this country. After living here for awhile, you notice that differences in body shape, facial structure, and skin tone are innumerable. But just like at home, there is an ideal body that women strive for. And, just like at home it tends to be unrealistic for most. In an effort to achieve the right skin color, women avoid the sun. One way to do this is to use an umbrella for shade. It not only protects women’s skin, but in this arid climate provides respite from the heat. As one who has had a brush with skin cancer, I personally like this practical custom.
Along this same line is the use of face masks that cover mouth and nose. Mostly worn by women, masks again protect against the sunlight as well as dust. They are used outside and while traveling in busses and taxis. The masks can be as plain as those worn in hospitals and as fancy as those with colorful lace. Some masks extend down to the lower neck like a tiny skirt. They are easy to put on by slipping loops around the back of one’s ears. Until recently I avoided using mine. I have two masks, one black and white and the other pink and white with a glittery design. I originally didn’t like the feeling of confinement. I finally put one on after getting tired of the dirt and soot flying into my face while bike riding. Now that the weather is cooling off, the mask also provides facial warmth.
Fingers rarely touch food during meals. This is where I think Chinese friends are a little grossed out by us. Spoons for soup, porridge and stews and Chopsticks for everything else with the exception of fruit and a few other items. Rich and I thought we were skilled at eating with the pair of long skinny utensils. We are ok, but let me tell you, watching Chinese people manipulate giant, tiny and complicated pieces of food with chopsticks is impressive. It is more than squeezing the two narrow dowels together to grab a morsel of food. Pancakes have been folded two or three times to become bite sized. We have seen people debone a piece of fried fish with awe inspiring finesse while we succumbed to using our fingers to get to the meat and unsuccessfully avoiding the skeleton. To make matters worse, we are left with greasy, dirty fingers and minimal paper goods to get clean. So who are the unsanitary ones now?
Admittedly we are grossed out by some of the things we hear and see, but why is that? It is only because we were raised to have that response. Had we been born in China these things would be as invisible to us just as our American culturally bound behaviors currently are. I often wonder what things we unconsciously do every day that are seen as “wrong” by our neighbors, friends and colleagues. I know that we say “please” and “thank you” all the time, even though it is considered a verbal barrier to relationships rather than our intended desire to be polite. I recognize that this is a conceptual leap, but if such a simple attempt at common courtesy can be misinterpreted it is easy to see how governments can find themselves in sticky cultural conflicts. That said, in the end, the differences we have observed are superficial. Rich and I put a great deal of effort to be kind and caring representatives of our home country and believe we are successful at doing so. Every day we continue to be met with stunned faces as Hohhotians stare at us. These blank or sometimes hostile looking expressions become bright smiles of warmth when eye contact is made and a “Ni Hao” or “Hello” is offered as we pass by. This has not changed since our arrival 6 weeks ago and hopefully will continue until we leave. So, even though there will be daily cultural differences, we believe that there will also be many cultural connections.