Please Do Not Squat on the Seat

by Patrick Nohrden

Note: Since this article first published in April 2012, world political and political situations have changed. Some things never change.

“Where’s all the cheese?”
“We don’t sell it anymore.”
“Why?”
“Nobody buys it.”
“But last week you had a lot of cheese, many types and brands.”
“Yes.”
“Well, where did that go?”
“We sold it.”
“Who bought it?”
“Many people. Mostly foreigners.”
“Then why don’t you order more?”
“Because we don’t sell it anymore.”
“Why?”
“Nobody buys it.”
This fazes me little, something to which I have grown accustomed. Disappointed, though, I leave the supermarket and give my eyes a chance to adjust to the glare of the afternoon sky. Everything seems fuzzy, so I wipe my glasses clean. Still fuzzy, I wipe them again. And again. I hold my glasses up to where the sun should be to detect what dirt is clouding my vision and see the sun, a vermillion silhouette in the nearly white sky. This seems normal, because it has been so long since I’ve seen a yellow sun in a blue sky. But I do not live in my old world anymore. I live in China.
This would be a good time for a cup of coffee, so I head to Zhengzhou’s new Starbuck’s. Crowded with people occupying every seat with four-hour crusts on paper coffee cups, I order a cheesecake and a “tall” brewed coffee. The cheesecake is really cheap Chinese sponge cake with a layer of cheesecake-like goo on top, and the coffee tastes like anything but Starbuck’s familiar Arabica. That is when I notice the bulk bags of coffee beans, none of which sprouted the Starbuck’s logo. It didn’t take the franchisee of this Starbuck’s long to figure out how to cheat his customers. Most of the customers would never know the switch, because they allow their coffee to evaporate in exchange for the many hours of free internet wireless service.
Because it took me so long to find a seat, I am not going to give it up easily, but I drink my coffee, and that created an irresistible urge to use the Starbuck’s signature unisex bathroom. I walk in, lock the door, and see the seat down, but it is wet. There is a small trash can near the toilet full of used toilet paper. I will not describe that. On the wall above the toilet is a sign in English that says, “Please do not squat on the seat.” I wonder if that sign might not have been more effective if it were written in Chinese, but who am I to question Starbuck’s?
Around the corner from Starbuck’s is a KFC. I have been there a few times, always ordering two chicken thighs. I usually have to wait 15-20 minutes because there is rarely any chicken already cooked. The various chicken “hamburgers” are in great demand and always ready for sale. I prefer not to use the bathroom there, or at most shopping centers, because as soon as you walk in you realize that you will have to burn your shoes afterward. Too often, that is when I notice one of my shoes is untied.
The traffic around this shopping center is horrendous, just as it is throughout the entire city. Crossing the street, even with a green pedestrian walk sign, is extraordinary dangerous. Cars, trucks, and buses will whiz by you, honking their horn if the drivers fear you will scratch their vehicle with your body. They have a green light too, and everybody seems to know that pedestrians never have the right-away. Cars with government or army license plates (these are cars given to high ranking officers as a job benefit) follow no traffic laws whatsoever, and will not stop at red lights, will not heed one-way signs, and will run you down on the sidewalks with impunity. While you are jumping out of the way of an oncoming bus whose driver uses its horn instead of slowing down for a turn, a beggar will appear out of the crowd and grab you by the arm and thrust a plastic bowl in your face.
The problem with the traffic is not that there are no rules, it is that nobody follows the rules. The rules are for other people. There is a logical explanation for this. Owning a car in China is a symbol for success. Rules apply to normal people, not successful people, because successful people belong to the elite portion of society against whom most rules do not apply. Therefore, if you have a car, you do not need to follow the rules for normal people, because simply owning a car makes you better than normal. Taxi drivers, on the other hand, are normal people, and they have been driving longer than those elitists who are now clogging the road with their four-wheeled status symbols who do not know how to drive anyway. Taxi drivers will not follow the rules, because if they did, people would think they did not know how to drive while avoiding the rules, the true mark of driving experience. Therefore, they will show the other drivers how much better they are at not following the rules than the rookies.
These things used to cause me stress. China takes some getting used to, and as it progresses to normalcy, there is a great clash between the modern and the traditional, between the mundane and the absurd.
The hardest thing to get used to is the crushing numbers of people. China is the most populous country on Earth, with a population of more than 1.3 billion (some Chinese sources put that number at 1.5 billion, but they like to exaggerate). It is difficult to walk for more than five minutes without bumping several people. One cannot navigate the aisles of a supermarket without bumping people. Everybody bumps and gets bumped, which is quite unnerving for somebody who is used to personal space. On a nice day, the sidewalks are a sea of people, presenting many opportunities for pickpockets. The trouble with walking about is compounded by the fact that the sidewalks also serve as bicycle storage depots and parking lots for cars. Too often, one must walk in the street because the sidewalks are overcrowded with parked vehicles.
Another problem that must be overcome is the lack of western goods. One can find stores that carry western products, especially in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but even in provincial capitals like Zhengzhou, it is a hit and miss proposition. For a while, I was able to buy Campbell’s tomato soup imported from America. But there must have only been one shipment to this city. After finally exhausting the supply of tomato soup in every store that carried it, I have resigned myself to never seeing Campbell’s tomato soup again until I return to America. There is, however, still an adequate supply of Campbell’s oxtail soup. Once I found Land-O-Lakes butter. Now I know where I can get refried beans rather regularly, but nacho chips were a one-time deal.
Whatever American products I find are usually twice the cost of what I can pay for them in the States. I paid $8.00 for a bottle of Suave shampoo. I will not buy more because the store ran out. This is partly due to the cost of shipping, but mostly it is because of protectionist import tariffs. Automobiles are the most heavily taxed items, with an import tax of 100%. Import taxes on car parts are much cheaper, so many companies, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, etc., ship the cars to China in parts and assemble them here. When China starts importing cars to America, we should tax them the same, but that would be prohibited by the World Trade Organization as a retaliatory tax.
Income tax is another problem. When I lived in China the first time, my salary was less than $400 per month, so I did not pay taxes. Now I earn about the same as an American teacher, and I pay about 22% of my income in taxes. It is a straight tax, and everything over the first $780 per month is taxed. Taxes pay for never-completed construction projects, banquets and resort vacations for Communist party leaders, as well as their expensive cars and prostitutes. But here we cannot complain about it.
Now there is a new income tax just for foreign workers, which is an extra flat tax of 10%. The tax has not yet taken effect, but when it does, it will be retroactive to October 15, 2011. Imagine trying to push that pill down an American taxpayer’s throat.
Most Chinese business people pay very little income tax. That is because tax on businesses is only 10%. Business owners do no pay themselves a salary, paying for everything from their business account, so they have no personal tax. Government officials have low salaries, so pay no tax. Money obtained through graft and corruption is tax free, so are the expensive gifts they receive, such as cars, houses, Las Vegas junkets, and similar incentives.
When the stress gets to be too much, you can always find a nice spa for a massage. But these days, you cannot pay for one massage at the better spas; you need to pay for a package. One of the better spas in town here charges about $80 for a 100-minute massage for men (about half that for women), but you must pay for 30 massages in advance. While there, though, you can purchase many health-care supplements, including a bottle of something that is good for “healthy manual of the removing and blocking housekeeper.” That is another thing to get used to. Most Chinese businesses like to advertise in English, but they will not pay anybody to check the English.
Everybody should visit China. Everybody will have a different impression of it. It is vastly different than America, but there are similarities. In America, we also encourage people to not squat on the seats.

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