I am no germaphobe. I practice the ten-second rule for food that falls on the floor on a daily basis, and I’ve been known to go a day, or, um, 30 without showering (hello, Appalachian Trail). But my laid-back attitude about all things filthy has been put to the test since moving to China. I think that most of it has to do with a general ignorance/lack of education about germ theory here, which is frankly distressing. But on I go, being critical, which is easy to do from my perspective, having been educated from a very early age about germs and such. Here:
When Owen meets a Chinese child, the first thing they do is shake hands. Or, rather, “shake hands,” because, honestly, nobody under the age of three is doing this thing on their own. What this amounts to is a lot of forced hand-on-hand rubbing between Owen and other babies. This would strike me merely as a little strange under normal sanitary circumstances (why force children to shake hands with each other, even when both children in question are completely unwilling and unable to do so?), but these are not normal sanitary circumstances we are living in. In China, many of the kids age five and under are dressed in split pants, so their butts and balls are hanging out all over the world (I say “balls” because it seems relatively rare to see a girl in split pants without the addition of a diaper, perhaps because of the risk of infection?). Kids pee and poop on the street, in the bushes, in the grocery store, in the restaurant, on the train station floor, you name it. And then they get a cursory clean-up with a baby wipe and they move on, usually putting their hands directly into their butt crack (who could resist?). Then they are carted out and forced to shake hands with other babies. As a result, when I hear the dreaded call to “La la shou,” fear runs cold in my veins. It’s hard to turn a baby’s proffered hand down, especially when it’s being shoved in Owen’s direction by a grinning grandma. But all I can think about is the dirty butt that hand was just exploring, and…germs, and…now they’re all over my kid.
[My expat friend Kira remarked the other day that, at the playground, all she could think about was, “Balls on the slide. Balls on the slide.”]
We stayed in a rural guesthouse outside Wuzhen a few weekends ago when the Freemans were in town. The nicest people in the world were running this place: grandma would slaughter you a chicken out back while simultaneously practicing English with her 9-year-old son. The grandbaby of the place was about 2 years old, and while we ate the aforementioned free-range chicken (delectable), he played on the floor of the guest dining room. His toy of choice? Eggplants. From the kitchen. Eggplants which I had very nearly ordered for our side dish. Eggplants which I am quite sure were cooked and eaten by someone else later that night. He whipped them around like lassos, thrashed them on the floor, giggled, then moved over to his tiny bamboo chair and took a not-so-tiny dump right on the seat. For this he was smacked, shooed outside, and forced to play with a sharp stick instead.
In a great majority of public bathrooms countrywide, you will find no soap, no paper towels, nothing. Just tap water, and dirty tap water at that. So the preferred method of cleaning up after using a filthy bus station squatty potty (where you may have literally stood in a pile of shit while you gingerly peed on top of another pile of shit) is to run some dirty water over the hands, then air-dry or wipe them on what are inevitably some dirty pants you’re wearing. I have stopped washing my hands in these situations, figuring it’s better not to touch anything at all than to twist the sink nozzles in order to pour bacteria-laced water on my hands. I seem to be the only one, though: everyone else makes a cursory trip to the sink for the “washing.”
Because of all this, we travel with hand sanitizer. On our first long trip, we—gasp—ran out. As soon as we hit a good-sized city, we went to the biggest superstore (kind of like a Wal-Mart) and searched for it, but we couldn’t find anything. Must be in another section, we opined. So Nick went to ask. The saleslady was confused. She didn’t know what he was talking about. She called another saleslady over to confer. Have you ever heard of this thing that’s soap, but it doesn’t require water, and it is a liquid? She had not, and they certainly didn’t stock it at the store. So we went across the street to the pharmacy/makeup store. Same reaction: What is this thing you call hand sanitizer? We bought a bar of soap instead and tried to remember it during bathroom stops. On our next trip, we packed ten bottles of the good stuff.
But nothing can sanitize my brain, and some of the things I’ve seen have burned themselves, like flesh-eating bacteria, into the neural pathways there. One day, I was waiting for a train at Shanghai Hongqiao, which is the biggest, cleanest, fanciest, shiniest, and smartest train station I’ve ever seen. It gleams. (This is the origin of the fastest train in the world, which conveniently runs to Hangzhou direct.) As I waited, the three-year-old next to me indicated to his mother that he needed to defecate. She removed a Kleenex from her pocket and placed it carefully on the floor, then hoisted him into her lap and spread his legs (he was wearing split pants); she acted as his toilet seat, and he took a sizeable dump on the Kleenex. She wiped him, then set him down while she picked up the pile of poop (thinly wrapped in the tissue) and brought it to the nearest trashcan, which was conveniently located about ten feet away, right next to the bathroom.
La la shou!