In China there are plenty of interesting things to see. Shanghai itself has no shortage of big name attractions and local color. Before the move, I was looking forward to seeing some of this first hand. I had been warned that sometimes living in China would be uncomfortable, but I was sure that living in Shanghai would provide opportunities that overshadowed any of this discomfort. For a Westerner, the city can seem crowded and dirty, but once again I credited my previous experiences living abroad with preparing me to live outside my comfort zone. I tried to arm myself with the knowledge that would have me ready to hit the ground running once we arrived. But as always, the Grumpy Laowai found out the hard way that there is no way to adequately prepare yourself for the day-to-day experience of living in China. I knew about the spitting and I soon learned about the public urination, but no one thought to warn me about one of the most common sights here in Shanghai: nose picking.
Since the big move two years ago, I have witnessed many, many incidents involving strangers and their boogers. I have children, so I am not going to pretend that nose picking is something I have never seen. I have spent a fair amount of my time discouraging people from sticking their fingers up their noses. I have taught elementary school so you know I have been given many opportunities to encourage the use of tissues and to discuss the merits of hand washing. Elementary school kids pick their noses and they tend to do it with little thought about those around them. After a few years of teaching combined with parenting toddlers I was fairly certain there were few surprises left for me when it came to boogers. I should never have underestimated the power of China.
Naturally, China cannot ignore the opportunity for a challenge. When I arrive confident in having seen it all, China loves to kick me in the face. China plays to win, and, let me tell you, elementary school has nothing on China when it comes to nose picking. No sir. China has made picking your nose into a sport and the local citizens here in Shanghai are professionals.
Let me clarify by saying that I understand people sometimes need to pick their noses. I myself am in possession of a nose that I have occasionally felt the need to pick. I am not putting myself on a pedestal here. But for most people, myself included, this is one of those needs that is best taken care of quickly and in private followed by a good hand washing. Not so for my friendly fellow subway goers and supermarket shoppers, apparently.
Here the picking is done in public and with an obscene amount of booger contemplation. The kind of activity that if I were to observe it from a person in the United States I would also hope was coming accompanied by an adult diaper. At the most ridiculous times people will stick their fingers up their noses and begin a thorough investigation. Conversation never skips a beat, people never blink, and the results are then produced as if in the privacy of one’s own home. Usually the nose picker will then continue using that hand to hold the middle bar in our subway car to steady himself or go on pushing her shopping cart. It is communal living at its best, folks.
Observing this behavior has begun to severely limit my enjoyment of many of the small pleasures I had once enjoyed in Shanghai. I am not proud to confess that I used to love going to IKEA here. It is still Chinese, but there is something comforting about the similarities you find in any IKEA around the world. When people aren’t tucking themselves into the display bed to take a nap you can pretend you are in some American city or Sweden or France.
One of my favorite things about the IKEA here is the fact that you can buy an ice cream cone for one rmb. That is like getting an ice cream for free! If I had one of my kids with me, we would each enjoy a super cheap nondairy ice cream cone after our time shopping in what could have been an IKEA anywhere in the world. But China can’t let me have these little moments forever and you know it wasn’t long before something came along to ruin these outings. And so here’s where we see the nice young man who usually makes our ice cream cones with his index finger shoved up his nose all the way to the second knuckle. This is, of course, followed by him examining the results of this treasure hunt before turning to grab a cone and filling it with ice cream. Suffice it to say Team Erickson’s IKEA ice cream days were over. Oh, China. You don’t play fair.