China Diary, 1988: Land of a Billion Thermos Bottles

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

In China those who have tap water don’t drink it. Almost all the water and tea consumed each day by one billion Chinese goes through a kettle and thermos bottle first.

There must be at least a billion thermos bottles. If each thermos bottle is emptied twice a day, then four billion liters of water pour out of the mouths of thermoses each day.

Hui food vendor, Xian, ChinaBoiled water is the universal cleanser. Diners in China’s typically grimy eating places often rinse their tableware with hot water or tea before they eat or drink anything. Some roadside eateries reassure their customers by bringing out all the tableware in a large soup bowl full of scalding water. The customers can rinse everything themselves.

Disposable eating utensils, like disposable medical supplies, are just coming into use in China. A recent China Daily letter to the editor lauded the growing practice of providing disposable chopsticks in restaurants in Beijing.

Some snack shops on the more well-beaten paths serve fastfood in throw-away containers. When you sit down to eat at these places, you first have to clean up the mess left by those who preceded you. And when you’re finished, you leave your rubbish for the next person to clear off.

On board most trains, you can buy Chinese lunches served in plastic boxes with plastic spoons. After meal times, the train attendants sweep the mounds of disposable rubbish down the aisles to the end of the car, then open a window and toss it out into the fields along the railroad tracks.

Those who live in China are constantly aware of how dirty their environment is and have adapted their habits to deal with it. They are especially careful about what goes in their mouths.

Many people carry their own cups and chopsticks when they travel. When they buy canned or bottled drinks, most people don’t let their lips touch the container. They use straws.

When people offer fruit to eat, they don’t touch the edible part with their hands. They either hold it by the stem or with the peeled skin still wrapped around the fruit until it is accepted.

People in China are much more casual about the inedible parts of food. They discard bones, peels, and seeds either on top of the table or directly on the floor. Spittoons are everywhere, but they are much more likely to hold tea leaves, old rinse water, and food scraps than spittle.

Powdered dye and thumbsucker, Zhongshan City, ChinaWe arrived in China from Honolulu with a thumb-sucking two-year-old who promptly became an even more ardent thumb-sucker when the shock of the new culture first hit her. Little Rachel’s habit is considered vile there, and many an old lady tried to pull her hand out of her mouth when she sucked her thumb in public.

Rachel soon learned to refrain from putting her thumb in her mouth during the whole time she was in kindergarten. When she got home, she always asked us, “Suck this thumb?” so we could make sure her hands were clean before she indulged.

Other Honolulu habits she had to give up were sitting on the sink brushing her teeth with tap water, catching shower water in her mouth, and running around the house barefoot.

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