21 Oct 2005
While I used to live in Hangzhou, I made the observation that Chinese people seemed to have an unreasonable fear of germs. True, China is not always the most sanitary place on earth, and there’s no question that many Chinese germs live out a blissful existence where antibacterial disenfectants are restricted to germ horror stories. Still, I felt that the germ threat was overplayed in a lot of cases. I will offer but one example.
One time before class started, I was eating a little bag of M&M’s and casually eavesdropping on my students’ conversations. I overheard an exchange about germs, and it prompted me to ask my class the following question:
“What if I were to take one of these M&Ms and allow it to drop to the ground — a place that looks clean — and then pick up that same M&M, dust it off, and eat it? What would be the chance that I would then get sick from eating that M&M?”
My students gaped in shock at the mere suggestion. They required prodding to take the question seriously enough to actually answer it. What would be the probability, from 0% to 100%?
I started getting some answers. 80%, one said. 90%. Even 99%. One or two students ventured as low as 40% or so. I couldn’t believe it.
They laughed at me when I told them I thought the chance was less than 5%. I was really tempted to drop an M&M and eat it right there in front of them to prove my point, but that didn’t seem like a very teacherly thing to do. Plus, if I did, by chance, catch a cold (it was early winter), I would never live that down.
For a nation of people that believes in Chinese medicine’s power to boost the body’s natural defenses, I would think they would have a little more faith in the human immune system.
Or maybe they just knew way better than I what had been on that floor…