Thursday, April 15, 2010

Series: Cultural Stereotype Buster: Western people are more hygienic - NOT!

Western people are so much more hygienic. They don't eat with their hands, don't spit on the floor, have superclean flats and streets, don't blow their nose with their hands, you know what I'm talking about... When I encountered other cultures more intensely this world view that I had absorbed from my environment was suddenly challenged.
The first time was with an Italian friend of mine on my stay abroad in Ireland. A group of some of my international student friends was discussing hygiene and my Italian friend complained that there wasn't a bidet in any bathroom in Ireland. He asked how you are supposed to clean yourself after the toilet without a bidet. My Dutch friend and I told him that that was what the paper was for. He looked at us in disgust and said: "But that's not enough to clean yourself!"
You haven't seen a bidet yet? Neither had I when I went to Italy for the first time as a teen. This is what I discovered:

As you can see, it's a very low washbasin. My first thought was that it looked like a men's toilet. My parents were so kind as to explain... Still, being told how to use it and being able to use it properly are two different things.  If you ever come in need of using one, here's a description of how to handle the situation (believe me, a bidet is not self-explanatory, really).
In India I have seen heaps of trash on the street. People spit on the ground in public and had no (!) toilet paper. On the other hand, Indians keep the left hand off the food at all times. One hand is the one for the bathroom and the other for the food. I guess many Indians don't mind if us Europeans struggle to eat with only one hand and use both, but they'd never do it themselves. And if you've ever tried to rip some bread off a loaf with one hand you know a second hand comes in handy. If you're saying this is just a small exception to an otherwise less hygienic people let me tell you you are wrong. How do you drink straight from a bottle? Well, you surely put the bottle to your lips and - Not the Indians! They pour the water in their mouth without touching the bottle with their lips. They use their right hand to hold the bottle to keep it above the mouth and then pour the water. Unfortunately I don't think there is a video online showing how it is done. Drinking like that requires quite some practice. Lucky for me it is warm in India and it wasn't so bad that I spilled water all over my clothes...
Eating with only one hand and not drinking straight from the bottle are both measures that reduce the risk of infection by bacteria in the warm and humid Indian climate.
Other Asian countries also have hygiene habits that are stricter than Europe's. Whenever I see pictures of streets in Japan and Singapore I am amazed by the cleanliness of the streets. Not one piece of paper in any of the images. They must either be really disciplined photoshoppers or they just have much cleaner streets than us Europeans. I know the punishment for littering is quite high in Singapore and I'm not sure about Japan, but rules like that wouldn't work that well here.
How about you? Did you visit a country that had much stricter hygiene habits than your home country? How did you feel? Did you follow or stick to your own system?

2 comments:

Maria Isabel said...

Come to think of it, I never say a bidet while I lived in the USA. Here only the fancy bathrooms in the houses have it (by here I mean Puerto Rico)And I do have a bidet in the house and use it, but I use toilet paper too. I avoid feeling sure that Im "superior" or "better" than any other culture. Other cultures are better than us in different ways.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for your comment, I agree with you absolutely. It's just what I've heard people say, even from people who travel. Luckily not everybody is that way.