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…
You’ve touched on one of China’s unremarked taboos – the ground. Have you noticed how Chinese will not even sit on a public bench or a wall without putting a piece of newspaper there? Likwise if you put your bag on the ground in a restaurant the staff will always pick it up and give it tou you as if you have just dropped it in the toilet. Any surface – but especially the ground is considered unclean in China. For the same reason, the ground is seen as already filthy, so there is no taboo in throwing rubbish or spitting onto it. One of the first remarks that Chinese visitors to Sydney always make is: “The ground is so clean – how do you do that? “
Dude, have you LOOKED at all the crap–litter, snot, feces!–that’s on the average section of ground in China?!! “A place that looks clean” in China is as rare as Dalai Lama sightings.
The “ground taboo” exists for good reason. Often places that you expect to be pretty clean are covered in a layer of dust. I’ll never forget the time I laughed at Chinese people for not sitting directly on the grass (they sat on newspapers), and then after sitting down, when I ran my hand over the grass I discovered it really was all dusty.
I always thought the fear of the dirty ground thing was funny too. I mean, granted the ground is dirty, but then again so are the man’s fingernails cooking your lunch.
I have to admit that Chinese sanitary standards are quite low.
Think about this: China has 0.9 billion farmers. When they are at home, all places around them are farmlands, dirt roads. They even don’t have or need bathrooms. So they can spit or pee everywhere. At the beginning, after these farmers swarm into the cities, they do basic jobs like being waiters, waitresses or cleaners. Maybe you can use one dishcloth to clean one or two tables. They can wipe a whole restaurant’s tables just using one wet dishcloth. So I don’t eat food dropped on the restaurant’s table let alone dropped on the ground.
More and more Chinese, especially the young generation, are aware of keeping public places clean. But It takes long time to build good habits.
John, it’s funny someone from the west brought up the point. Like Michael said, clean ground is one of the first things we Chinese marvel about when we arrive in a western country. Even more surprising to us is how westerners treat ground as just another surface. We can never do that. Nor can other Asians such as the Koreans and the Japanese. Just think why everyone has to take off their shoes when entering an Asian home, even in America!
Hmmm, it seems like some are jumping on the “China is dirty” point and missing the apparent contradiction implied by a Chinese phobia of germs.
Mike raises a though-provoking idea about the perceived dirtiness of surfaces and the effect such perceptions have on their perceived value. Makes sense – Bengbu is filthy anyway so why not stick a sulphuric acid plant there? Of course there is the reverse argument – we might see a patch of green somewhere and feel a compelling obligation to sully and besmirch, a patholgical need to draw God’s pristine splendor closer to us by befouling it sufficiently that it might present us with a more accurate reflection of who we are.
Not being a clean person by any stretch of the imagination, I am ill-placed to criticize anyone’s personal or public hygience, but I have at times been puzzled by how some people can claim that things that are manifestly filthy are in fact clean. One example of cleanilness by decree is Suzhou Creek here in Shanghai. Yes, it has been improved over the past ten years, but it is hardly what you would call clean. But no, misguided and malintentioned foreign friend, it is clean because Vice-mayor Moumou said so and it has been on the tele and in Xinmin Evening News and there are all these lovely little fish in there… Okay, so what yardstick is applicable? How about having all those baboons from local government forced to swim in it a couple of times a year and publically drink the stuff?
On a positive note, environmental protection will be a massive industry in years to come and big German companies that have the technologies to make things clean as opposed to saying things clean will make a killing. Time to buy shares now while the German economy and stockmarkets are still subdued. Of course this won’t be of immediate assistance to the thousands of people now having deformed babies due to polluted water sources and the millions dying of seemingly unexplainable cancers, but its obviously all worth it for the fruits of China’s economic miracle that we see so generously spread around this great nation.
Considering the topic was on an M&M falling on the floor and peceptions of threat of disease, my comment may not be that pertinent and have gone a bit macro (I like to use my M&M-sized brain to ponder the larger issues and pretend to care.)
Oh yeah, one thing that might be pertinent to this topic is how on the TV show “Friends” those dudes are always putting their clad and unclad feet on furniture and coffee tables and stuff and it really grosses me (and my Chinese friends) out. Do Americans really do this?
It would be of note that all the major plagues that were found in Europe (Buebonic Plague, Spanish Influenza, Black Plague, SARS (not really a plague) …) and others originated in south China due to the climate, proximity to farm animals and lack of cleanliness.You could compare that with the plagues that were brought to America by immunized European explorers. Exposure is everything. And with the fervent and careless use of anti-biotics in China, my guess is that the next super bug will appear here first.
On another note, is this message posting thing censored? I tried to post a message last week and it never showed up! I tried posting again, but it said I was posting a duplicate message. What’s going on?
On the other hand, John, what you see as an apparent contradiction could be taken as just another expression of the same sort of thinking behind Chinese medicine – why risk ingesting something that may work against your body. Who knows what the stuff that M&M is now covered in will do to your liver or kidneys?
The real irony comes when you look at this sort of “five-second rule” stuff and compare it against what the Western Civilization boosters were writing in the Chinese press around the time of SARS, about how the use of communal dishes in Chinese culture was backwards and needed to be modernized to single-serving plates, but it would take a while because China is a big and unique country with the weight of 5,000 years yadda yadda yadda….
Misophobia or Mysophobia – Fear of being contaminated with dirt or germs.
Strange coincidence: just a few days ago I posted a comment in a talktalkchina flame on the dirtiness of China about how to me (a European from the Catholic southern half) the modal U.S. American seems to be utterly mysophobic (phobic of dirt).
Perception is reality and we all take ourselves as the norm.
This country would be very different indeed if the views of university students were representative of the population. They’re young, educated, and even if not city-raised they adopt the urban mindset pretty quickly. I’ve seen plenty of people (not university students) pick something off the ground, dust it, and eat it. Ditto for things that drop from chopsticks onto the surface of the table.
翠花儿: In fact, many rural homes do have toilets (but not all, I admit).
Chinese’ phobia, Americans’ indifference, are all psychological. No, actually, they are cultural.
The “five second rule” was actually scientifically investigated for which someone in Chicago was honored last year with an Ig Nobel Prize (搞笑诺贝尔奖) in Public Health. http://www.improb.com/ig/ig-pastwinners.html#ig2004
Just last week ABC’s 20/20 devoted an hour on something like the 20 myths about germs. I remember one about the air in airplanes, but then there was one about public toilet seats. Amazingly many women (my wife included) would absolutely not sit on one of those, not even those protected with a disposable paper cover. So 20/20 sent a team to random public restrooms to do a sanity check, no pun intended, on the germ counts on different surfaces. They found that on average the two cleanest surfaces were the toilet seats and the door handles, probably because those were being wiped off repeatedly. Here is the crown jewel. Ladies who refuse to sit their ass on a toilet seat (a cultural thing, just like Chinese’s fear towards the ground) would not give a moment’s thought to putting their $800 purse on the floor (also a cultural thing) of the bathroom stall, which 20/20 found was the surface that gave the highest germ counts. When these ladies get home, the purse bottom could go directly to her kitchen countertop.
I think the comparison of Westerners seeing the ground as “another surface” and Asians not is a bit simplistic. I mean, Singapore is the CLEANEST place I’ve been to in the world, and parts of Paris are as trashy as Shanghai. It’s probably a combination of economics and culture, but they’re more national rather than the East/West divide. For example, America has an obsession with good dentistry that isn’t replicated in any other country I’ve been to. And then there’s the Japanese appetite for raw fish.
Shamu:”Just think why everyone has to take off their shoes when entering an Asian home, even in America!”
Where did this myth start, and why in the hell does everyone let it continue to be perpetuated ? It is especially annoying hearing my Japanese teacher talk about it when she has the annual meal-at-her-house thing. That was in the US — I was much more disturbed when Japanese in Japan were explaining to me their ‘custom’ of taking shoes off. The only Americans I know of who would do something so utterly disgusting as wearing shoes into their houses are the lowest of the low class poor. Their houses are pieces of crap to begin with, so they don’t bother about considering that wearing shoes all about can make them even worse. That’s where the biggest cultural divide in the US comes from — the poor have very crude customs. This leads to conflict when manual laborers come to do some work at the house, and have the audacity to wear their shoes inside. It isn’t JUST the disgustingness of not knowing what dog crap they may have walked through — but on top of that it is essentially saying “F you” I will dare walk on the ground that you wouldn’t even dare wear YOUR shoes on, with my shoes, and I’m only here to do some repairs of something or other. I think it is like them spitting in our faces, and they wonder why we hold so much hostility toward them.
The only Americans I know of who would do something so utterly disgusting as wearing shoes into their houses are the lowest of the low class poor.
Wow, I didn’t realize I was the lowest of the low class poor. My (firmly middle class, I assure you) parents never made us take off our shoes when we walk into the house, even today. When I came back from China the first time and brought back the habit, they were amused.
Personally, I cringe every time I go to an Asian family’s house because, frankly, my feet can work up quite a stink so I prefer to keep them in their casings.
About the original topic, some Chinese people I’ve talked to tend to explain it by saying that Westerners just have hardier immune systems because we eat more nutritious food.
And as an answer to Dave’s parting question, our American home had a firm “no feet on the couch/coffee-table” rule, so I don’t think Friends is typical.
As an American, I concur with Micah on both points. A majority of the middle class Americans I know wear shoes in the house. I do know some who don’t, and they ‘ve never been to Asia. Putting your feet on the coffee table would be considered rude and dirty by most Americans. The only Americans I’ve see do it were college kids in their own apartments.
Yeah, that is so not true. I grew up in a rich upper-middle class suburb. The only houses I had to take off my shoes at were the ones where my friend had parents from Korea and China.
I remember when SARS was coming down, I had dinner with some Western expat acquaintances at Xintiandi in Shanghai. They discussed how the Chinese practice of sharing communal dishes probably contributed to the spread of disease. Then they got up to go and everyone shook hands.
On another note, I don’t mind taking my shoes off when going into the house. In fact, I could never go back. But I keep getting my balconey slippers mixed up with my house slippers and it just drives my wife crazy.
Every time I wear the balconey slippers into the house, she feels like I am spitting in her face. At least I know why she has so much hostility towards me.
i dont even get the people who write on this site anymore. ive really got to go back to justin’s comment about the low-brow americans wearing shoes in their homes. i apologize, but my family is middle class, ive got many upper class friends and quite frankly, i consider it trashy if someone asks me to take my shoes off to enter their american home. im not sure ive ever even experienced it with the exception of my indian friends (who, by the by, i dont consider trashy, just culturally different).
and to back up pasden, ive dropped shit all over china and eaten it. never sick, dont have aids or hepatitis or sars or anything. ive even sat directly on the sidewalk! and i use hotel towels (another chinese no-no). and in america, i proudly sit my fat ass on the public toilet. no toilet paper fortress for me! im an f-ing DAREDEVIL! and i pity you losers who think im gay, good luck on your “real china experience” toughguy! its interesting you think you have the right to even comment on american or chinese filth. clearly, your butler took care of that for your nancy ass! ha!
Good to see you’re still reading. There will always be strange comments… keeps things interesting.
I was pretty baffled by the “high class Americans don’t wear shoes indoors” statement too.
I think the big cultural difference lies in the fact that if you tried to do the same “wear shoes indoors” thing in China, the floor of your home would be filthy if you weren’t washing it constantly, whereas in the States you can wear shoes indoors and still keep the floor clean without too much effort. China is just dusty.
I have to say, I’m a bit surprised! I thought some people might say I was being a little ‘extreme’ in their view, and that it was actually not THAT hard to find someone who wore shoes into a semi-decent home, but I didn’t expect the downright denial of what I suggested. Are we really in the same country ? I’ve lived in West-Northern Ohio and East-Northern Ohio most of my days, and the only home I recall ever being permitted to wear my shoes into was one which was so filthy that I would choose not to enter if they had the audacity to ask me to take my shoes off. Needless to say, the particular example I can think of was more like a zoo with humans in the mix than a home. Other than that, I really cannot think of ANY examples and I’m not trying to exaggerate.
As for China — I thought we were referring to Japan and Korea when we talked about taking shoes off, because I’ve only see this practice in the homes of the VERY rich in China. Most other people had the cement floors, and as you know if you’ve ever tried — cement cannot be cleaned, but rather lets off an inifinte amount of dirt and dust indefinitely.
Let me tell the story of my university town apartment. It was built in the 1970s, so everything is old school, especially the nasty looking tile flooring in the kitchen. I cannot ever feel comfortable and ‘at home’ in an environment until it has a clean enough floor that I can institute a no-shoes policy. (This can NEVER work in a dormitory, I discovered.) My friends haven’t stopped harassing me to this day about it, but: I bought cheap Wal-mart rugs to cover over top all of the old carpeting in the bedroom, bathroom, and living room, and since the vinyl in the kitchen was hopeless, I wallpapered it with cut-up heavy-duty black Glad garbage bags. Then I could safely wear my socks — that is, until I had my ‘guests’. It turns out Americans can be real respectful if you have the magic ‘sanction’ of being an official foreign culture, but if they think you are just ‘one of them’ they just don’t give a fuck. They wore their shoes inside! Everytime I had to run the sweeper like a madman. Sounds like shutty is a similar minority-culture-racist, respecting people because Wowowooooohoo they are official “Indian culture” but not people who don’t have official title. SICK.
Okay. I was just thinking about it — and I’m getting REALLY suspicious that you guys are lying just to screw with me. You think I’m crazy or something, so if you tell me I’m wrong I’ll get even louder, is that right ?
FACT: I can clearly recall looking with my parents for a new house on 2 occasions in four very different areas (3 different states). I’m sure that I’ve entered at least 40-50 different American houses over the years. If people chose to wear their shoes inside it could cost a LOT of money. If we considered buying a home with shoes having been worn in, we would demand all carpeting be replaced. Further, the wet shoes would likely have ruined any wood flooring, which would also be very expensive to fix-up. Out of the houses we look at, I don’t recall even one which had the signs of having had shoes worn inside of it. (Though there may be as many as 1 or 2 that have slipped my memory.) For most of the homes, we were request by the real estate broker to take our shoes off whilst looking at’em.
justin, youre a weird dude man. however you got racist out of my respecting my indian friends is a hoot. good luck with that. and nope, not lying about the shoes thing. im wearing ’em right now. i kind of feel bad for making fun of you now. i didnt realize you had ocd. hand sanitizer anyone?
OCD is no laughing matter, Erin. Recently, I took the time to cover the entire inside of my house, plus my yard outside, and my car both inside and outside, with black plastic Glad trash bags. People from my neighborhood (made up of indoor shoe-wearing scum–obviously lower caste–er class) have made fun me, but who going to be laughing when they all die of shoe-carried viruses? Me, that’s who.
Okay, you’ve earned it. This is the one that gets me the most crap from my friends, but I guess I have to explain to you guys the bird turd propagation theory. Day 1 — you absent mindedly walk through a single disease-infested white bird turd. It remains embedded in the tread of your shoe as you hop in your car and come to visit my apartment. You rudely wear your shoes into my carpeted living room, and the turd is bristled off by a singular carpet hair. Day 2, I absent mindedly walk with my bare socks over the spot where you deposited said bird turd. It is stuck to the cotton, as I have only gotten up to hit the snooze button — I quickly head back to the bedroom and dive into my bed, where it is released at the bottom of my sheets. Each morning when I get out of bed, my feed slide up and out — and by chance drag the said bird turd 6 inches closer to my pillow. 2 weeks pass. I am deep in sleep, drooling away, when my saliva mixes with the bird turd which has propagated to pillow boundary line, and as my tongue wags out the disease infested turd residue gains direct access to my oral entry position. Day 17 – REVENGE. I am deathly ill, and I have no doubt as to whose fault it is — do you want to be on my revenge list ? I THINK NOT.
Of course Chinese consider the ground dirty. For most of Chinese history, chicken, pigs, and their feces all populated the ground.
no worries justin. as fun as you sound, i dont fancy a trip to your house so little opportunity for me to drag all the imaginary pooh around. and whenever you do decide to exact revenge on me, i think ill get a pretty good head start. by the time you switch house/outside shoes, wash your hands from the experience, vaccuum up your glad-bagged house, lock and unlock the door twelve times and avoid all the cracks in the sidewalk while running to your car, ill be in singapore. cheers!
Fun post, John, but Justin made it funner.
[…] John Pasden once wrote about his experience with the Chinese-style hygiene. He asked his Chinese students the likeliness of getting ill after eating an M&M that has been dropped on the floor, and surprising most students think that it is more likely than not that bad things will happen! […]
It’s interesting that nobody here has mentioned the h word: hierarchy. Unlike Europe, North America, Australia and probably the other continents, social hierarchy is alive and well in Asia. Granted China is a communist country, but surely you wouldn’t expect the Chinese history of hiearchy which had spanned over 4,000 years before the Cultural Revolution to completely disappear, would you?
Oh yes, lo-and-behold, we Asians do assign (maybe subconciously) hierarchical significance to different body parts, animals, trees, different kinds of decorative pieces, etc. Confuciansm didn’t breed itself, but was a manifestation of the hierarchical aspect of the Chinese culture in the same way that the caste system was to the Indian culture. Naturally, by Chinese logic (for that matter, Asian logic), the ground is considered very low => dirty. In addition to this, I’d even add that some of my Asian friends (myself included) are appalled by the western practice of putting silverware ON the table or the table cloth that has already been used. I also find many western people to be very incapable of properly washing dishes and glasses.
I appreciate John’s curiosity in the Chinese’s seemling unbalanced obsession with cleanliness. But I think that in most cases people from other cultures behave differently because they are “different”. Period. Not because they are unsanitary, insane, less educated, or perverted in any way.
Remember the contempt and mockery western medicine practitioners used to throw at Chinese acupuncturists just less than a decade ago? Look who are busy learning how acupuncture works now and how much a session in New york costs?
I’m sorry to say I agree with Shutty. I used to live in the upper-middle class neighborhood in Maine and visted all other New Endlander states, by far the richest region in the US. I was not asked to take off my shoes to any house I’d been to (the owners also wore shoes inside the house).
“Cement cannot be cleaned”???? I recommend that you take (or retake) Chemistry101.
Sorry Shutty, but I can’t relate to what you’re talking about either. As an American, I’ve been all over the country and the only houses where I’ve ever taken my shoes off in were houses of immigrants. Like Frank, not even the owners would take their shoes off. Watch ANY American TV show or Movie and you’ll notice that no one stops at the door to remove their shoes.
Having said that, I’ve also lived in 4 countries now – currently China – and I absolutely love this custom of leaving the dirty shoes outside. No matter where I live in the future, my home will remain forever more shoe-free.
Lastly, someone made the comment about shaking hands, and how right they were. More germs are spread (and more colds contacted) via hands than any other way.
Hi people! Interesting comments.
I myself am English and my husband is Chinese. We follow the tradition of leaving outdoor footwear at the door and insist that visitors also do the same.
Different cultures are disgusted by different things and I must say that I am baffeld whenever people fail to understand how disgusting it is to wear outdoor shoes in the house.
Your home is somewhere that you want to relax. Somewhere that the kids can roll around on the floor happily. Babies especially pick things up and put them in their mouths so why would I want my kids to crawl around where people have walked in the filth from outdoors?
I am proud to have originated from a British working class background and one old fashioned remark I’ve heard as a kid when picking things up from the street is ‘You don’t know where that’s been!’
The same goes for money. It’s passed through so many hands and probably lots of dirty ones. I always tell my kids after they’ve handled money to wash their hands because they don’t know where its been. 🙂
This could be used when contemplating the ground outside. You don’t know what’s been on it! People spit on it, dogs pee and poop on it, etc. So how on earth can anyone in the right mind relax with their outdoor shoes on indoors?!
Its such a shame that in Britain we don’t adopt the same tradition as a norm. But then again, you’d probably come out of most of your friend’s homes with your socks covered in dog and cat hairs! Hence, this could explain why a lot of people don’t feel the need to take off their shoes at home.
I would find it extremely offensive if someone refused to remove their shoes at my front door. I feel strongly that if you are a guest in someone’s home, you need to abide by their rules or leave.
Another issue I have is that people assume the problem is with their shoes and not with the ground outside. On many occassion I’ve had guests take off their shoes, go out into the garden with no shoes on and come back into my house bringing in dirt from the soles of their feet.
I’ve had to educate quite a few friends but they seem to get the hang of it after a while and some have even adopted the same methods in their own homes as they can see the obvious benefits.
I have to ask most Chinese people visiting to take their shoes off, even though I have hardwood floors! Yuck. The ground outside my place is about as sanitary as a latrine. It’s nothing cultural, it’s common sense being applied or not applied.
The reason why asians don’t take of their shoes when they go to non-east asian house is because they assume the owners normally wear shoes in the house. They are no going to take off their shoes unless the owner maintains a completly shoe free house.
All of my non-asian friends allow their guests to wear shoes in their house even if the owner themself goes bare, therefore I won’t take off my shoes at their home. Some of my neighbors also go bare in their apartments but I also see them go bare in the hallways and basement to get their laundry. I don’t know a single east asian who would do that.
In addition, ppl mention that the ground in china is unsanitary hence leaving shoes off to go in the house–that makes sense to me but how does that explain Paris, NYC and London? In the early days all major western city streets were like garbage dumps (e.g. feces, urine, garbage, dead animals, dust all over the streets). There were pigs and dogs that would roam the streets and backyards and eat the garbage ppl threw out of thier windows. Yet everyone wore their boots and shoes indoor.
I wish more English people would see the benefits of the shoes-off rule.
I eat things off the floor all the time, gives the food flavoring i’d say!
The ground is definitely a filthy place, no matter which country you are. I mean, if 20/20 did a scoop about the floor of a US public restroom being so immensely dirty as one person had mentioned, think about how that gunk actually stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
I think it’s definitely pragmatic to have a no outdoor-shoe policy in the home. In Asia, many families use house slippers rather than wear their own shoes. I think this is certainly an excellent compromise.
It grosses me out to see some people wear shoes into their house and then plop on their beds with their shoes on. Wow. That really is grossing me out just writing about it.
I am an Asian American who grew up in a upper-middle class suburb. Most other American families never requested that I removed my shoes, especially if they had pets. I definitely did not remove my shoes, but I never felt that it was ‘home’ for me, so that was ok. I treated it as if I was in another public place.
Think of it this way; when you go home, you want to relax. That would mean changing from your business suit or daily garments into your pajamas which are nice and cozy to sleep in. I find the same thing goes with shoes. Shoes I wear outside remind me of work, shopping, school, taking the dog out, working out, but never relaxation. So I prefer changing into something entirely when I go home.
Really, this is all a matter of opinion and cultural differences in the home. There is no reason to bash anyone’s culture or call their country streets dirty or filthy because they take their shoes off at home. There will always be dirt and filth in any country you visit. The wild animals do not care a hoot where they like to shed their excrements. I mean, check out your car when you leave it under a nice shady tree on a hot, sunny summer afternoon.
All I would ask for in a guest is respect for my rules in the house. After all, I’m the one who has to live in it. If you have feet stink, oh well. If I don’t care, why should you? Maybe it’s time for a new pair of shoes or perhaps some Gold Bond if it’s really that bad.
I’m English working class I got on this site because ALL my friends take their shoes off when they come in so I want to give them some slippers to put on. I don’t have to ask them it’s the same in their homes. Maybe that’s because it a home not just a house.