The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Ugly #1, #2, and #3

1. Fingernail-grooming kit

I was on the train back from Beijing last week and noticed one of my fellow passengers grooming his fingernails with what looked like the top half of a tiny toy train. It turned out to be a two-piece model of a high-speed train which the railroad company was selling to passengers. Inside was a five-piece fingernail-grooming kit. There was even a keychain loop so you could keep it with you at all times. This is another of those things in Chinese culture I just don’t understand. People on trains, in restaurants, outside coffee shops have no qualms about, say, engaging in long, elaborate grooming sessions in their ears or fingernails. More disgusting still (to me, anyway) is the habit many women have here of popping their boyfriends’ zits for them, in public places at that. Empirically gross, or just my own personal close-mindedness?

2. Bike helmet hair

Why not include myself in this list? I have the fashion sense of a sea sponge, so I’m sure I’ve qualified for the Ugly section before. I bought a bike helmet a few months ago, the first time I’ve owned one in China. I probably should have bought one long before, but things like that (safety, I mean) don’t occur to most of us here, principally because no one else seems to care. Every so often, though, you realize what it is you’re doing, that perhaps biking against the flow of traffic on a dark street with no lights or good brakes on your bike is not the best idea in the world. I bought a helmet shortly after I bought my new bike, which is WAY faster than my old bike, the way a Ferrari is faster than. . .I don’t know. . .a pogo stick. I was absolutely BURNING down one of the streets here one evening, passing cars and blowing other bikes off the road, and it suddenly occurred to me that if I hit a grease patch or got into an accident, it would be game over for me. So I bought a helmet. The thing is, I have very fine hair, and the padding in my helmet is set in a series of three short rows, so that when I take my helmet off it looks like I’m trying for corn rows. One of my friends told me I looked like Vanilla Ice, another that I’d had a lobotomy, and one of my Chinese friends said my head looked like a newly-plowed field. I think that puts me nicely in the Ugly category. But I’ll stay here rather than risk bashing my brains into tapioca.

3. Mopping my dorm room

Technically the building I live in is a hotel, though the vast majority of the rooms are taken up by international students. Still, we get regular conventions coming through, and occasionally when I pass by the front desk I hear people haggling over room prices. That means, of course, that there has to be some form of housekeeping. Our floors are faux-wood paneling, and if you’re not quick about it, the person on housekeeping duty will mop them for you. You might notice that my phrasing makes it sound as though mopping the floor is something to be avoided. You’d be right, too. There seems to be a belief among at least the support personnel in China that water is just water. It doesn’t matter where it comes from; if you use it to mop a floor, then the floor has in some way been improved. If you use an old-fashioned mop and don’t wring it out, so that you don’t so much mop as push puddles of murky water about the floor, and if the water you’re using is the same water you’ve been using for every room in the building, and if perhaps you’ve used toilet water a time or two (I’m not kidding here, either; I’ve seen it done), that’s all neither here nor there. It’s still water. I’ll grant you, there’s a shared delusion among many people in the world that water is somehow inherently clean, which is why lots of people go to public restrooms, and after doing their business just dip their hands under a faucet for a few seconds and assume all their hygiene requirements have been met. But there’s something ultra-disgusting about coming back to a dorm room that looks as though it’s been hosed down with bog water.

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