Alexandra Sieh

As we read, I kept a close eye on my students.

“A boy with a bu-, bucke-, bucket,” Tom sounded his way through the word. But before I could congratulate his effort, I heard Jack start to cough.

“Ah ah ah,” I said, whipping my head around. Holding the inner crook of my arm up to my mouth, I mimed coughing in the crease of my elbow. His eyes widened as he remembered my rule, and he moved his coughs from his palm to the middle of his arm.

So it would go for the rest of the class.

Unfortunately, coughs weren’t the half of it.

How many times had I caught YoYo with a finger halfway up her nose as she made a sentence for a vocabulary word? How many times had I sent a student back out because he hadn’t washed his hands after using the bathroom?

I felt I was at war with germs at our little school, and it didn’t stop there. It often feels a bit like me against China when it comes to personal hygiene.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Come on now. Let’s not overreact,” and you’ve got a point. But the longer I live here, the more I’ve found just how common some of these faux pas are.

As is true with any country, there are different expectations for everything from personal interactions to dining etiquette. Oddly, it’s the same with hygiene and what I consider common courtesy.

Riding the subway each morning, I see fellow passengers flick their own nose gold on the floor. In restaurants, loud belching and slurping of soup and noodles is considered a form of respect for the chef. Don’t even get me started (again) on the loud, phlegmy chorus of spitting on the sidewalks.

There’s very little in the way of germ theory here, with most people saying cold air and the rain cause colds. As I’ve mentioned before, they also push hot water as a cure for just about everything.

That may seem silly, but it’s not necessarily for a lack of education. People are, on the whole, very smart. Things like covering your mouth when you cough, though, are byproducts of a mother’s teaching, not a lesson on germ theory. So if it’s culturally accepted to cough as you please, why would anyone think about it?

Riding together one morning, Manfriend and I crammed onto a crowded car. While he grabbed the bar overhead, I took my usual position: feet apart, facing the door. When I lost my balance, I would touch the bar only with my outer arm.

Noticing my clear phobia, Manfriend chuckled. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit silly?”

Just then, a man sneezed loudly into his hand. Inspecting the contents with a quick glance, he then half-heartedly wiped it on his pants before grabbing back onto the bar near him.

I turned to Manfriend, eyebrow raised.

“Point made,” he said, removing his own hand.

I knew things here wouldn’t change, so I changed instead. My new policy: Carry lots of hand sanitizer and keep my hands to myself.

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