Parkview Green Mall–one of the coolest and most luxurious malls I’ve ever seen
Last week my office building installed something that will change the future of my time spent in the office. Something that made me jump up and down and clap my hands. Literally. And then I thought, why the hell am I so thrilled about this? You’re probably thinking, hmm this girl is in China. This thing must be some cutting-edge technological device. Oddly enough, this thing is something that would be absolutely required in every single stall of a bathroom in the U.S., but here I am finding myself overtly excited about it.
The addition I was so enthusiastic about was a toilet paper dispenser that my office building’s maintenance workers had slapped right onto the middle of the bathroom wall. It wasn’t even in the individual stalls or anything (just think how elated I would be about that).
Basically, in public restrooms here, there is a ceramic hole in the ground that flushes. If you’re really lucky there’s an “above ground” toilet. If you have really hit the bathroom jackpot, there’s a toilet paper dispenser in the stall. Because of the lack of toilet paper, women are always carrying packs of kleenex with them…and it’s slightly awkward when men take toilet rolls with them.
This place that has some of the most up-to-date technology, but still hasn’t quite gotten down the whole toilet thing goes in hand with the vast contrast of Chinese culture. The smart phone loving, forward thinking side of China is represented with glittering skyscrapers and shopping malls filled with luxury goods while the traditional side is still glaringly evident. The hunched over, arthritis ridden man grilling your chicken kebab just outside of his hutong home still must walk outside each morning to use a public bathroom. A bathroom that doesn’t even provide toilet paper.
This is what remains so fascinating and, at times, frustrating. Beijing is a city of polarity and it’s compelling to see the culturally advanced part mix in with the traditional. Even if it does mean that I have to carry my own toilet paper.
I realized with surprise the other day that I have been in Beijing for almost seven months now. This means that most of my shock and awe at strange Chinese things has pretty much worn off. Now when I see odd happenings, for example, men squatting down outside of their front hutong door to brush their teeth in PJs, I don’t even double take. Here are some of the things that I realize should astound me, but have become just a part of my every day life:
1. Blatant disregard for safety to complete a job.
2. Huge groups of people all eating one type of odd fruit or vegetable. Usually it’s not something as normal as a banana. Often it’s corn on the cob, a huge cantaloupe on a stick, or a sweet potato.
3. Signs on the outside of bathroom doors alerting you of the toilet situation you are about to encounter.
4. Makeshift medical practices. Blood pressure check, anyone?
5. Pronounced public display of affection between straight male companions.
6. The garbage man…on a bike.
7. Sketchy characters selling anything and everything on street corners
8. People fiddling with suspicious items on the subway. (This might be an exception, because I was afraid about this one)
9. Owning, and using, two phones at a time. My roommate uses three.
10. An old woman feeding cats by throwing food up onto a roof.
I had read plenty about the cultural tendency toward “saving face” before arriving in China. Now that I’m here, I definitely see the far lengths locals go to in order to avoid looking silly, uneducated, or unsuccessful.
This accounts for the frequent occasions I have enlisted the help of a local on the street to help me find a place and instead of saying outright, “I don’t know,” they ponder the location I have shown them on a map for several minutes. They, then, point me in a direction, whether they know it’s the correct way or not. They simply don’t want to be caught not knowing something. I have also heard scandalous stories of ex-girlfriends seeking extreme variations of revenge on the men who jilted them because of the shame they faced after being rejected.
Just recently one of my favorite colleagues told me in confidence that he was leaving our company. To my surprise, his last day was the next day. He explained that the company simply didn’t have enough work for him to do and he didn’t want to waste its time or money. He also told me he didn’t want any other people in the company to know about his leaving, so I kept quiet. A few days later, my supervisors explained why the company let him go. The discrepancy in stories led me to believe he was saving face by omitting the fact that he was most likely fired.
It’s interesting to see this tendency in action, but it also makes me wonder how Chinese people view me. I’m great at making a fool out of myself, and even more so while abroad. Professing how terrible my Chinese is, admitting my lack of direction, and wandering into areas I obviously don’t belong, then sheepishly retreating are all things I do daily. I’m either amusing the locals or reiterating a foolish foreigner stereotype.