On culture: what I learned from the man who mistook the garbage bin for a sink (Part 2)

Everyone acts quite differently in private than in public. In private we feel comfortable picking our noses, gargling Listerine, walking around naked, having sex, singing in the shower, relieving ourselves of number one and two. How private we are about these matter depends on our upbringing, culture, and prevailing social norms. But I assume I can safely generalise that, at least in the culture I’m from and according to all my friends and family (even those from or living in a country different than mine), the aforementioned behaviours are classified as private – performing any such in public would be inviting disapproval. We were taught by our parents, taught at school, or just generally observed people around us to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t.

On another note, our levels of personal hygiene is also something we learn. For instance, whether or not you put the toilet lid down when you flush is taught to us by our parents or at school, or you learn through modelling the behaviour of people around you. I never used to put the toilet lid down – in fact – in some public bathrooms there isn’t even a toilet lid! But I learned years ago that the splash created from the flush can reach some 2 meters high. That’s how bacteria and microbes spread. Ever since I always put the toilet lid down, where there is one.

Thing is, this toilet covering is viewed by me as hygienic, but viewed by some as rude. In public toilets if the lady behind me sees that I covered the toilet seat, she sometimes gawks and shakes her head, sometimes giving me the ‘tsk tsk’, assuming I must not have flushed or created a mess. Perhaps I should relift the seat cover after I close it? But that would mean I’d have to wait till the toilet is completely flushed before leaving the stall, holding up the line behind me a few seconds more (there are almost always lines in HK public toilets)…

Credit: iamdann.com

Credit: iamdann.com

Generally the toilet seat covering practice hasn’t caught up yet in Hong Kong. Even though toilet seat covering is the more hygienic practice, and it is advocated in many hospitals in Hong Kong, it is still something yet to be widely accepted by the public.

What happens when someone else’s “normal” for what’s private and public, hygienic and unhygienic, is starkly different from ours? How should we approach this difference? Are there any absolutes and should we give a bit of leeway for those growing up in cultures very different from our own?

I think the general rule is to follow the customs of the country you’re in. Ru Xiang Sui Zu, we say in Mandarin (enter the village and follow its customs). So if I’m in Singapore and bubble gum chewing is not allowed, I’m not going to go on a tangent about how crazy the Singaporean government is about its bubble gum policy. If cows are allowed to roam the streets of India because cows are sacred there, I won’t go about criticising how unhygienic a practice it seems to be. If toilets in American airports generally don’t have a toilet lid, well, I’ll just have to deal with it because I chose to travel there (I position myself at a far corner of the stall, reach my arm as long as possible to press the flush, then leave immediately once the water swirls, imaginary droplets of toilet water flying in every direction). In Japan it’s considered polite to strip down naked and bath publicly just before entering an onsen, to show you’ve thoroughly cleaned yourself. If you have an issue with bathing naked with strangers, then perhaps a Japanese onsen is not the place to go. Every country is different. Some, in our eyes, may appear to be backward, uncultured, dirty, but it’s their country, it’s how people in that country have lived for many years, and they get by without intervention from you or I. Don’t be a snob. You chose to visit, travel there, see how people outside your country live. So there should be less judgement and more acceptance. Now if it’s your city or country – fine – you, along with your ‘clan’, get to decide what sort of place you want to build and what sort of culture you want to create.

Credit: Jonathan Meter @thebitesizedblog.com

Cows roaming around India. Credit: Jonathan Meter @thebitesizedblog.com

Often there’s an economic element too. Privacy and hygiene are luxuries. If you’re a family of 10 living in a Honduran village, where there’s only one room and a common space, there’s not much privacy to expect. If you’re living in the slums and waste is discarded in a forming mountain across your backyard, there’s not much odour hygiene to speak of. My grandmother gave birth to my dad in one of the oldest hospitals in Hong Kong. Right after her labour, she shared a hospital bed with another woman – every bed was taken. It was that crowded. Old Hong Kong wasn’t a very hygienic Hong Kong. Nor was it very private – because families of 5, 7, 8+ lived in tiny public housing apartments, some 300-400 square feet large. Hong Kong has worked very hard to have the infrastructure, development and cleanliness it has today.

I think this topic gets tricky when it comes to customs that are, by UN standards, considered inhumane or downright immoral. Female genital mutilation, foot-binding, child pornography/prostitution, child marriage, child soldiers come to mind. One may attempt to argue that these are the customs of the region – but my bottom line is if it comes to destroying the health or well-being of another human being, it is a practice that should be eliminated.

I don’t know where exactly Gold Chains was from, but I’m 95% certain he isn’t a local. In the 5% event that he is, then shame shame shame on him.

I don’t care, Gold Chains, where you are from. If you step foot upon my beautiful city, you follow the rules. That includes not spitting your disgusting saliva water into our airport garbage bins, not flicking dry your false teeth and plopping them in public, and dirtying, wetting the bins and making a hell out of the job for the poor cleaning lady. You take your lazy ass to the nearest toilet, which was only a 30 second walk away anyway, and conduct your mouth gargling business and plastic container washing routines there. And don’t tell me you didn’t know where the toilets were – huge signs in blue and pink mark the entrances to male and female toilets, plus you were meters away from the nearest information booth – an ask in whatever language you speak and the staff would have directed you. You did what you did because you are a selfish asshole – you clearly didn’t think twice about the person cleaning the garbage bin or about the other people sharing that common space with you. You knew that was a garbage bin and not a sink and you still used it as if it were a sink, to your own convenience, because you were too slothful to walk a few steps.

While we’re at it also means standing on the right hand side on escalators if you aren’t walking, not taking a dump in garbage bins or peeing in street corners, taking the elevators instead of escalators if you’re carrying bulking luggage, lining up at bus stops, taxi stands, not elbowing people when you walk through crowds (we are one of the most crowded cities in the world, walking etiquette is crucial), not spitting gum on the pavements, and letting people on the MTR (our metro) off first before you get on. It means being courteous, because we are ever so crowded, and being mindful of people’s personal space, precisely because space is a premium. It means not shouting in shopping malls or restaurants and not spitting phlegm, not without properly wrapping it up with tissue paper and discarding it into bins. It means not getting drunk at LKF, grobing the ladies and vomiting on the street. It means not banging taxi doors and shouting profanities when you’re trying to get a cab ride home, drunk to a stupor and threatening to barf any minute. It means not seeing yourself as superior, whatever your skin colour, just because you bank on the fact that we were once colonised and ruled by white people. If you, Gold Chains, or any of those in your ‘clan’, can’t abide by these rules and adapt the customs of our city, respect and uphold the cleanliness of this place we call home, I’d rather you stayed where you were and not come here, because you are not welcomed. I can’t speak for my whole city but you will certainly not be welcomed by me, and I swear I will take a video of your atrocities against the garbage bin, or whatever public facility you plan to defile next. I will catch you, even if I have to do it secretly in fear of being beat up, and I will broadcast your dishonourable acts, at last by the standards of my city, for the world to see.

And if I visit your country, or city, wherever you’re from, and I discover it’s ok for people to spit saliva-water into public garbage bins, then that’s ok too – because that’s the custom of your city. I’ll accept it. I chose to travel there.

As for the toilet lid – I’m still not sure about that one. I won’t hold it against you if you don’t lower it. Most people in my city don’t (yet).

Read Part 1 of the story here.

Featured image credit | Tina Leggio, Creative Commons


8 comments on “On culture: what I learned from the man who mistook the garbage bin for a sink (Part 2)

  1. St. Ambrose said (in Latin), ” si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi” (which to the lay person is often translated to, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”).

    Generally I agree that if you’re traveling be sure to try to follow the local customs generally set through asking and observation — right down to trying to speak the language of the area (as I often find myself embarrassed by fellow Americans traveling abroad and demanding the locals speak English to them) with one caveat… This is based on something that Douglas Adams once said in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (on Time Travel)… And while it’s a long and amusing quote that I can’t find, I can sum it up rather nicely as, “…As people traveled from on time to another, they also learned that it was as much the same… and different as the time they had left…”

    To me people ARE just as much the learners as you talk about here as they are fixed and stubborn of what they learned from a different time — the time that they had learned this.. Proof of this is who you say that Hospitals in HK have learned this indicating that it has changed from a different time – a time before you had observed this.

    Good luck on trying to change the world through this writing and the tones that you set in your entries. For as long as you maintain the thought that changing society is a very slow and arduous process, such things that you’ve seen from Mr. Gold Chains won’t embitter you in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael, I’m so impressed with the Latin quote, and you even put the accents in! Thanks for sharing that and for paraphrasing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – from which we can learn much.

    You’re right in your last paragraph about not being embittered by the process. I was writing from an angry place when I posted this, especially the two paragraph rants about not trampling my city and proper visitor etiquette. Bit of a catch 22 no? If you don’t travel you won’t know the world; yet if you travel you might offend those outside your bubble because there’s a clash of culture/practices. So what’s the middle ground? How do you become the welcome traveller and be the gracious host?

    It’s an important reminder about us all being learners yet all having stubborn, developed values and world views. How do we not compromise who we are yet also grow as human beings and improve ourselves, letting good influence change us? If we wish to change someone’s perceptibly boorish behaviour or at least inform them that what they do is unacceptable to mainstream thought how do we do it in a respectful and loving way? How do we empathise with someone whose upbringing and values are completely different than our own? Indeed, it is a slow and arduous process, changing a culture or a deep-seated thought. Sometimes cultures change for the better, sometimes for the worse. For as long as we aim to create a more humane, courteous, educated, environmentally conscious, respectful yet varied society I think we’re going in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admit that I had to look the quote up… My comprehension and my general understanding of Latin is primarily verbal, not written. That and without the indicators, many would incorrectly verbalize where the long vowels are supposed to be (some words in English — a Germanic Root Dialect — would see them as a short vowel). I learned Latin when I was in High School and only because my friend and I wanted to be able to speak something that no one around us understood… Amusing really given that we learned the language (and syntax) from a Latin Lessons book and that for a French-Canadian town in the US, none of them spoke French either.

      Fortunately for me, by the time I began traveling outside of the US I had already began my studies of Alice A Bailey and had begun the path that I walked today and incorporated what is called ‘Divine Apathy’. Couple this what the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Heck most of the quotes available from him might also help.

      Not only does it assist in being the Welcome Guest but also Gracious Host. And I’ve even come to learn that if one is practicing these qualities, sometimes even educating people can happen without hitting their wall of stubbornness. Now granted, it’s not always instantaneous nor immediate, and I have observed that it sometimes takes time for even the most stubborn to enact change. If at all…

      And what you say in conclusion is absolutely correct. The best one can do as an individual is hope for the best. Failing that… Well then there’s always Divine Apathy and Compassion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lilypup. I try to pay attention but sometimes things still slip through my fingers. I think traveling and keeping an open mind is the key. But in all honesty it sometimes annoys me when people visit my city but don’t follow the customs here!


  3. I put the toilet lid down for the same reason, though I can’t recall where exactly I heard about the spray. For a time I would push the lever to flush with my foot while standing with the bathroom stall open so I could run out. Now I try not to be as dramatic.
    You are very effective with communicating with your rich use of examples as to what is considered polite, and it’s enjoyable to learn so much about other countries in one reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading, for being encouraging about my writing, and it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one running away from a bathroom stall in the midst of a flushing toilet!


  4. Pingback: On culture: what I learned from the man who mistook the garbage bin for a sink (Part 1) | Pixie Dust Beach

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