I haven't talked too much about the personal hygiene habits of the Chinese people I have come across but after a few recent conversations, I feel I need to reveal the course of today's events. Keep in mind please that nothing about this is abnormal here in China in anyway. This is just how it is here. To everyone around, every bit of this is completely normal not to mention completely acceptable.
After breakfast at my guest house in Chengdu I flagged down a cab, showed him my bus ticket and we were off to the bus station. The windows were of course down as always so I was enjoying the morning air even though we were in the middle of rush hour traffic. I was excited about the journey before me as I was heading to Xian where in two days, Allison would be meeting me. As I watched the city come to life from my window, I heard the first hocking sound of the day. The cab driver gave a good snort and hock and managed to score some phlegm from deep down inside before spitting it out of the window. I don't know why this surprises me every time I hear it seeing as how, everyone here does it quite constantly. We continue our ten minute journey to the bus station and are stopped at an intersection where I glance out the window to notice a frail little Chinese man come out of a restaurant wearing an apron and stoop down by the curb. He is carrying a pan of water which he proceeds to set down at his side. It is pretty early and there is some food cooking just outside the restaurant on the sidewalk as is typical here in China. After setting the pan down, he proceeds to splash some water on his face, takes a finger and smashes one side of his nostril and proceeds to blow enough snot from his nose to fill up a small glass. From there, he moves on to the other side where he performs the same exercise and is again equally successful. The man then promptly wipes his hands on his apron to remove any excess snot, dips them into the pan of water, washes his face and repeats this same morning ritual before returning to the food he was cooking just outside of his restaurant.
Waiting on the bus, I am sitting on my backpack on the asphalt in between two buses waiting on mine to pull up. I am surrounded by the smell of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke. Along with the low pitched hum of the engines around me, I also hear the continuous hocking sound coming from the throats of so many of the men around me. Standing right next to me is a man who in the fifteen minutes I have been sitting there has created at least ten small pools of saliva and phlegm not six inches from my feet and the bag that I am sitting on. My bus arrives and I need to move over a bit to make room for it to park. I pick up my bag and stand off to the side. The bus is finally settled into it's spot, I know I will need to wait a bit so I start to set my bag down. As it touches the ground, I look down and see the spots of phlegm right next to it. Realizing my bag is probably sitting in more of the disgusting discharge, I search the ground for a cleaner spot and am unsuccessful. I will have to wear my bag until I board the bus.
When the bus originally pulled up, I thought I noticed a kind of fishy smell but I didn't think anything of it. Now, you have to keep in mind, that this is actually a really nice bus. Super fancy, toilet inside, cushy seats, give you water bottles, you name it, this bus had it. It was time to put my luggage beneath the bus and as usual, everyone shoved me out of the way to be the first to get there bag on board. Waiting in line here is unheard of. As I lifted my bag to set it beneath the bus, I realized where the source of the fish smell was coming from. Obviously this bus had either been transporting fish recently or was doing so now. There were streaks of liquid all over the bottom of the luggage compartment so I reluctantly set my bag down hoping that it would not smell like a can of tuna fish when I retrieved it in Xian.
At 9:00, the bus engine cranked up and I realized that the bus was not even half full so I moved towards the back where there was some empty seats and I could have two seats to myself for the rest of the journey. We rolled out of the bus station and the man sitting near me decided he would take advantage of the very back row which consisted of five empty seats. After changing into a pair of shorts in the wide open bus, he then took off his shirt and shoes and stretched out across the seats. I couldn't believe the guy was on this nice, VIP type bus and had his shirt off. I mean, the A/C was working quite well and I was even a bit cold but this guy was lounging around on the bus as if he were sitting by a swimming pool.
In the aisles of the bus were small cardboard boxes with plastic bags lining them that I assumed were for trash. While my assumption was correct, I realized that these boxes were also for the phlegm that everyone would be generating throughout the trip. It was like clock work. About every two minutes, another good hocking would come and someone would lean into the aisle and let the saliva and snot drip from there mouth toward the box and let it hang down until they were sure that it would not hit the floor and make it's way into the container. This would continue for the entire journey.
Now, I am not sure what it is about the culture here that makes everyone enjoy listening to everything so loud, but that is just how it is. People talking seem more like they are shouting at each other than having a conversation. It is almost like they are stuck in a cycle that they can't figure out how to get out of. Everywhere you go, there is music or television blaring so loud that you can't here yourself think. This includes on the bus. Combine that with everyone shouting in lieu of talking and it is really really loud all the time here. Do you think the people are loud because they have to talk over the tv or is the tv loud so that everyone can hear it over the loud talking? It is a difficult question to figure out. I don't really believe there is an answer to it. I feel over time, it has all just become acceptable and such a part of life here that no one questions it, excluding of course any foreigners that happen to visit the country.
The bus pulls into a typical Chinese bus stop for some lunch. It consists of a shed that they refer to as a toilet and a restaurant with a buffet set up with all kinds of strange foods. I am starving and I need to urinate before lunch. I walk to the toilet where I find exactly what I expect. A room with no walls and several slots in the floor. The floor is covered in piss and shit and the slots reveal small slides covered in shit and toilet paper that lead down to a massive pile of shit, connected on the other side by the girls slots which I can only assume to be the same. I straddle one slot while men squat down doing their business on either side of me and I attempt not to pea all over them. Staring down at the massive pile of shit and holding my breath, I am rapidly loosing my appetite.
I get into line and am handed a tray with rice and I pick a few scoops of food that looks like it won't send me back to squatting over one of the slots in the toilet with all the world to see. The only seat in the restaurant left is next to two men who were on the bus with me. I begin eating my food with my chopsticks when I look over and see the man next to me put his face directly into his rice with his chopsticks laying just beneath the surface of the rice pile as if it was gesture of courtesy to say, I am actually using my chopsticks and he begins sucking rice directly into his mouth without an attempt at moving his chopsticks. I am disgusted but at the same time, I analyzed the situation. Most of the time, you are eating out of a small bowl which you usually hold in one hand and bring it close to your mouth to avoid spilling food. It is even acceptable to put your lips on the bowl and scrape food from it into your mouth. Now, without the small bowl, the man is essentially recreating the situation in the best way he can figure out with the large tray of food in front of him. The situation only serves to reinforce my hatred of chopsticks as being an archaic way of transferring food from your dish into your mouth. Had you given the man a fork and a spoon, he could have easily eaten everything on his plate without having to stick his face directly into the pile of rice to slurp it up. Did I mention that this is also happening everywhere around the restaurant?
Let's move on now. There is plenty more I could say about the meal and the way in which everyone was eating but that would make my already long story even longer. I am feeling a bit malnourished since the only protein in the meal was tofu so I buy a couple of packages of peanuts and sit down at a now empty table and wait for the bus to depart. I find myself sitting in front of the sink that is out in the open where the dishes are washed and everyone is able to wash there hands after their meals. The floor is covered in spit, bones and bits of food in every direction. I realize I can't find a decent spot to set my small bag down that won't coat it in bodily fluids and half digested food so I set it on my lap and calmly wait.
From across the room, or actually more of a porch kind of thing that we are all eating on, a man walks over to the sink. He washes his hands, splashes some water on his face and then proceeds to put his lips around the tap and begin sucking water in so that he can spit it out into the sink. I don't mean that he is just getting water out of the tap, he physically has his lips wrapped around it to avoid getting any water on his face I guess. After a few runs, it is the next mans turn. He washes his hands and rinses his face and then proceeds to close off one side of his nose, discharge as much snot as he can get out, follows that up with the other side, washes his hands again, gives a good solid hock and spits the final bit of phlegm that he has in his system into the sink. Several other men and women in line and pretty much repeat this same process until I finally re board the bus.
Back on the bus, the journey proceeds as before, men lounging with shirts off, constant hocking and spitting sounds filling the air and the loud television blasting some Chinese comedy that everyone on the bus really seems to enjoy. It is just another day in China and observing the personal hygiene has been something that has built up over time. I haven't talked about it much as it is so overwhelming that I didn't think I could convey it in the form of a story. This isn't the half of it. Of all the places in the world I have been, I have never seen or smelled worse toilet facilities. I haver never observed such commonly accepted public body discharges of all sorts (there is still plenty that I have not mentioned) and I have never heard anyone talk as loudly as the people here do. You could easily take a trip to China, spend a bit more money and never see any of this, but throughout my travels here, it has been commonplace and something that I accept. It is ingrained into their culture and no one here seems to mind. They probably find us strange for demanding clean toilets, talking amongst ourselves in a reasonable tone, never spitting anything up in public and using strange little tissues to blow our noses.