There are some things in life you simply don’t notice until they’re not there.
Take toilet paper, for example. After 3 months of living and traveling in China, I’ve become a outspoken advocate—OK, maybe not that outspoken—of toilet paper in public restrooms, because it simply wasn’t there. Even when you don’t need it, it’s comforting to know that your ass is covered (pun intended), that you can waltz into the nearest restroom and grab a few squares of 2-ply just in case you spill some soymilk on yourself or realize that the street food you ate really doesn’t want to stay in your stomach.
On a related note, you can’t just walk into a public restroom in China. If you’re in a part of town where you look around and see more foreigners than you can count on one hand, there’s about a 65% chance that a trip to the toilet will cost you 1¥ RMB, paid in cash to the little old man sitting outside the restroom door. Sure, with a $1 to 6.8¥ exchange rate, it’s a drop in the bucket, but it still pains the Patrick Henry in me just a little to be taxed without representation for an act that stray dogs on the streets of Beijing perform free of charge, anywhere, to their hearts’ content. At least I don’t have to worry about getting eaten. Fair’s fair.
And they're not even that great…
Here are 10 things that you don’t fully appreciate until they disappear from your life, derived from my recent travels (travails?) in China:
1. Toilet paper – Enough said.
1A. Free restrooms
2. Personal space – As necessitated by their country’s 9-digit population count, Chinese people are quite comfortable living, eating, and working in extremely close quarters with complete strangers. I am not. We Americans like our “personal space,” the couple-foot-radius bubble of open air around us that gives us the sensation of independence and safety, and we defend it with suspicious stares and reflexive backpedaling. In China, such strategies are hopeless. Say you’re at a market in Beijing, and the shopkeeper gets a bit too close for comfort. You could back away, but your Pyrrhic escape wouldn’t be worth the energy, because two things would surely happen the moment you took a step back: 1) You’d run into 2 other strangers, and 2) The shopkeeper would pursue you. Leaving you in a circle of 3 random Chinese people. Fantastic.
2.1. Silence – Every once in a while, you just want the world to leave you alone. In Beijing, that’s the cue for someone nearby to make a thunderous choking sound and spit. I think it’s a Pavlovian response to excessive silence.
3. Clean water – When you have to use waterless hand sanitizer after you wash your hands under the faucet, you know you’re in China.
4. Breathable air – As the home of over 20 million people, Beijing has a little problem: Its air cannot sustain human life. Even after the government pulled a large proportion of the city’s cars off the road, the situation is hopeless. Running outdoors is out of the question. One of my friends tried it and immediately got sick. And the particulates in the air are so small that you can never escape them, even indoors: I would wake up in my bed each morning blanketed in a fine layer of dust that had settled overnight. After one week in Beijing, I couldn’t tell if my lungs were still alive, not until we went on an excursion to the Great Wall and I found myself marveling at my ability to take full breaths.
4+. The Sun – The pollution has a way of blotting out the sun. I felt like a dinosaur awaiting the Great Extinction.
5. Grass – As a son of the Midwest and its sprawling farmland, I’m pretty fond of grass. It’s great for relaxing, running, playing soccer, wrestling with your siblings… Too bad people in China don’t really do any of those things. (To find out why, see #2, #4, the 2010 World Cup, and the One-Child Policy, respectively)
6. Guns and Obesity – China has neither.
The real 6. Non-oily food – It seems all the food in China—at least for us commoners—is stir-fried or deep-fried. Can’t I just have a salad? Oh wait, lettuce is 95% water and washed in water, and water in China is poisonous… Darn.
7. Facebook – Sometimes you just want to Poke someone. But, oh no… You can’t. Because you’re in China. And the CCP took away the Internet.
7-and-3/4. Did I mention that the government censors texts too?
Chinese censors work a lot like this…
8. Democracy – Because it’s good to be free.
9. English – Even though I speak Mandarin somewhat fluently, my reading skills aren’t quite up to primary school standards. I never realized how exhausting everyday life can be, when even reading a restaurant menu requires intense concentration and a bilingual dictionary.
10. Family and friends – I missed you all. A lot.
The takeaway lesson? If you’re in China, always go to the bathroom before you leave home. If you’re traveling to China in the near future, practice holding it in, starting now.
Thanks for reading!
The Spring 2010 BOSP Beijing group at our graduation. Thanks for an awesome quarter, guys!
On our trip to Taiwan, I saw my grandparents and a bunch of relatives for the first time in more than a decade. Here's a "family picture" with my brother, me, and my parents' wedding picture in the background.