Last week in New York, people asked me over and over, “What’s the biggest culture shock coming back to New York after 14 months in China?”
It was the plumbing, for sure.
When my sister grabbed an unfinished mug of water off the table to water some plants, I panicked at the potential waste saying “But that’s potable water!” before realizing that all water in America is potable.
I was in equal awe of my parents kitchen sink which has a single handle, set to “warm,” mixing pre-heated hot water with normal cold water. Back in Chengdu, water runs through a gas burner to get hot, so the hot tap is separate, and you don’t tend to run it unless you really need it. Or feel like burning money on your gas bill.
But perhaps the greatest shock about plumbing was that you can throw paper down the toilet, and that you don’t have to BYOTP (yes I do mean toilet paper). I had just arrived in the Chicago airport after a 13 hour flight from Beijing and went to answer Nature’s call. When I arrived in the stall, I was shocked and awed to see stray strands of discarded toilet paper on the floor. I was disappointed at that moment to be an American. In my jetlagged and culture-shocked stupor, I silently railed against the absent litterer, “You have the privilege of a non-squat toilet and free paper, and toilets that flush paper, and you can’t even get the paper in the toilet!”
I may have just in a bad mood due to sleep debt, jet lag and the really rude security officials in Chicago’s O’Hare. After stripping off my shoes and sweater and coat to go through security, I was yelled at by the official for not removing my laptop from my bag — even though there was neither a sign nor an official telling me to do so. And later when I walked past two other security officials chatting with each other, they again yelled at me for not producing the documents they hadn’t asked me for. (Was I in Russia again?) That morning in Beijing the magnolias had been blooming. “Why oh why did I ever leave China where people are nice?” I wondered to myself.
But the Friendly American image was restored when I returned to the O’Hare bathroom (hey it was a 5 hour layover). I asked one woman to borrow her cellphone, which she did even though it was almost out of power. I asked another for moisturizer. “Sure honey,” she said in then still-strangely fluent English, “why don’t you take the whole bottle? They give them out at the hotels for free.”
So now I am finally back in Beijing. Today I went to the ever-expanding American Embassy (more on that another time) to get pages added to my passport (a lifelong dream of mine by the way). While in the land of paper pushing trying to get paper added to my passport so I could do more paperwork later on, I took a quick trip to the loo. There I found a meticulously cared-for Western toilet, with abundant toilet paper, a surplus of white bleached paper towels and even those white paper seat liners (Conspicuous Consumption for the post-BMW generation).
I used all the paper they gave me. I flushed the toilet. And I watched with nostalgia for America as half a tree washed effortlessly away.