“Oh, there are a few things I’m concerned about,” I’d say before I left home to those who marveled at my bravery in signing on for nearly five months in China. “The smoking, the spitting, the water and the toilets.”
Twenty-five years ago, even big cities here showed few signs of modernization; Xiangtan now reminds me of Beijing and Shanghai then. The new luxury hotels where my tour group stayed — like the Great Wall (now Sheraton) in Beijing, where I phoned home from poolside – were the exceptions. China’s glories stayed with me enough to make me want to come back — to mention just one, the actual Great Wall snaking across a hilly landscape into infinity. But we found some of the practical realities less appealing, and chief among those were the smoking, the spitting, the water and the toilets.
So, the update from 2010.
The smoking: In 1985, cigarette smoke was inescapable on the street, on planes, certainly in restaurants. You might be able to avoid it in the privacy of your hotel room, but only if the window had been opened. Furthermore, the odor was vile. (All right, so every cigarette smells vile to me.) Nowadays, my internal smoke alarm – that reflex that shuts off the back of my throat whenever I detect a cigarette within a block or two — is being triggered far less often, although it did go on red alert this morning between classes in the Chemistry Building. While I do see young people smoking on campus (and it seems to be considered acceptable to smoke on the open-air campus shuttle), I see it much less, and I take that as a hopeful sign. Older people have not kicked their nicotine addiction, and if restaurants have nonsmoking sections, I have yet to find one. One chilly Sunday afternoon, I went over to Will Long for a late lunch/early dinner and took my usual seat at a small table in the downstairs dining room. By the time I had ordered, parties of middle-aged men had taken over two nearby tables, no doubt enjoying their day off with a game of cards, a lot of (loud) guy talk and nonstop cigarettes. Afterwards I went home to take a nap – only to be kept awake by the smell of smoke that, in less than an hour in the dining room, had saturated my clothes.
The spitting: My tour group used to joke about “the Chinese salute,” that noisy gathering of phlegm at the back of the throat that inevitably ends up as a bubbly white blob on the sidewalk. It often accompanies smoking, and I find it nothing short of disgusting. (My father used to do both, which is probably why.) In 1985, it was universal among both sexes. Today, I notice it far less often, and rarely among women or young people, perhaps because reduced smoking has made it less urgent for people to get the taste out of their mouths. Nevertheless, from time to time I hear that telltale sound behind me. As ever, it makes my spine stiffen and my brain try to block out the image of the spot it will leave on the pavement. After taking heart at the noticeable absence of spitting in Shanghai – perhaps because the locals have been educated in Western sensibilities for the coming World Expo? – I was seated on the plane to Changsha in the same row as a man who used his stomach distress bag not once but again and again, on a flight of less than two hours, to clear his throat, and each time I braced myself and tried not to visualize. I could only hope that he took the bag off the plane with him.
The water: “Can we drink the tap water?” I asked Pam, the fourth-semester veteran who is my rabbi in all things Xiangtan. “Mmmmm . . . not advisable,” she said, as indeed it was not in 1985. In three decades of serious traveling I’ve had few bad reactions to water, but enough to know I don’t want to take any chances here; a rather nasty morning on a sailboat in the Galapagos comes to mind. Luckily, the water problem is easily solved: we simply have giant bottles of water delivered as needed, on account. A 48-bottle subscription goes for about $45, and that’s enough for two of us to split for the semester. You simply call the water man – or, rather, have a Chinese-speaking student call – and two big bottles, each a week’s supply for me, arrive shortly. The base can heat the water to tea-brewing temperature, which means I don’t have to use the picturesque old kettle, composition as yet undetermined, whose metal lining flaked off into the first batch I made. (“Gee, those are funny-looking tea leaves . . .”) Although I have a working freezer, I haven’t tried making ice cubes; in fact, I haven’t even seen an ice tray here. I did get to the bottom of my McDonald’s Coke before I realized it contained ice (and probably local water), which gave me a moment’s pause. But that was three days ago, and so far, so good.
The toilets: “Asian or Western?” the women of my tour group would ask whenever we visited a new restaurant or tourist attraction, and if the answer was “Asian,” we asked ourselves if we really needed to use it. An Asian toilet, for those of you who’ve led sheltered lives, is a squat toilet set into the floor. All I’ve seen so far on this trip have had porcelain bowls and flush, but in the old days neither was a given. My apartment has a Western toilet, which is one reason I’m living on South Campus instead of North: the only available apartment there had an Asian toilet, and so it went to a male British teacher, forced out of my building by bedbugs. I’ve already documented my struggles with the shower in the toilet room. (See “Ever so humble,” March 3.) I try to use it every morning just before leaving, whether or not the floor is dry, to minimize my visits to the restrooms on campus, where there is not a Western to be found. “Well, they’re all Asians,” Pam rationalized. Even so, I have no choice but to use them from time to time, and it’s a balancing act to hold your clothes well out of the way, do what needs to be done and clean up with bring-your-own tissue. (It’s easier on our weekly visits to the spa, where we’re bottomless anyway.) As for cleanliness – well, let’s just say that Chinese standards are different from ours. At the cold-water sinks, there is one communal rag for drying hands; I have bought a pretty hand towel with a calligraphy design to carry in my school bag. Last week the women’s room in the Chemistry Building was nothing short of a garbage dump, the garbage having been tossed directly into each porcelain bowl, and not flushed. I fled to another classroom building a 10-minute walk away, where the restroom that seemed filthy a week before now looked immaculate in comparison.
And when I’m carrying a purse or wearing a coat, I need to put it down somewhere, since the doors have no hooks. A year or so ago, my friend Maureen – a registered nurse and hospital case manager, which suggests some consciousness of hygiene – circulated an e-mail warning that women who set their purses on restroom floors can expect to take germs home with them. In the future, if Maureen sees me arrive for a visit with my red vintage Coach bag, she’ll never let me in the house.