In the urbanizing Chinese mainland, thousands of years of unimpeded, highly idiosyncratic traits are being forced to conform under the weight of rapid social development. The result is a cultural rift that befuddles some, while making snobs of others.
Since moving to Shanghai, I have conditioned myself to no longer place things on the ground. The fresh smears of spit and mysterious puddles I skip over on the sidewalks serve as daily reminders of why grounding my personal items should be avoided.
Though pervasive, these smudges are viewed as the result of crude habits that tarnish a hard-fought modern image. Most Shanghainese consider themselves to be international when compared to the migrant workers, many of whom often experience culture shock within their own country. Men in pleaded coats carrying woven plastic bags on wooden poles look out of place on Shanghai’s modern metro and, as I’ve witnessed, can sometimes be seen standing in jaw-dropped awe of modern amenities such as elevators.
The first time I saw it, I was plunged into an ineffable state of revulsion: a young mother swatting down to allow her infant child release a steady stream of urine over the side of the road. By balancing her baby against her lap, this nimble technique allows the mother to simultaneously aim the twinkling jet by positioning both legs vertically in the air. Though crude, this custom is still widely accepted in interior China.
I’ve since seen attempts at courtesy regarding this practice by placing a plastic bag under the child to make for an easier clean up. Although the courteous notion was there, this particular mother was too busy chatting with her friend to properly aim the child, so most of the urine ended up splashing all over the pavement anyway.
Most of the time the children that are being aided are very young — but this is not always the case. Once on the platform of Jing’an Temple Station, along with some other curious passengers that attempted to look on inconspicuously, I saw a mother help her eight- to ten-year-old son pee into a water bottle. The boy pulled his pants down to his ankles in tacit agreement while the mother knelt down patiently and waited for her son to finish relieving himself into the container. Afterwards, the bottle was fastened and disposed of in a nearby trash bag.
Taxi drivers have as little shame as children. The lack of reserve with which they decorate the sidewalks is done with a nonchalance I’ve rarely seen among sober men. Accidentally exposing themselves in daylight seems to muster up the same reactions as if they had just passed gas on a crowded bus – a light giggle and coy grin. It’s getting harder to tell puddles from piss walking through underpasses on rainy days.
Could it be that today’s attitude towards public space is taken by some with the utmost indifference? For one thing, development-minded urbanites find it hard to seek middle ground with these “primitive” customs. Although as antiquated as they may be, you have to admit it’s a kind of freedom not everyone is born with.
This distinct rift will most likely stay a part of china as it develops. You can build roads past them and assemble skyscrapers around them, but you can’t force a culture to change at the same pace.