Comfort zone WMDs

Have you ever had parents, siblings, friends, etc. visit you in China after you’d been here a while, and it was their first time in China? Did you tell them anything beforehand? How did it go?

“Normal”
I had a weird experience this week while I was looking out the window. It was a typical busy street scene and I wasn’t really paying attention; mundane daily Tianjin cityscape is no longer terribly novel for me. But then I suddenly realized my parents are coming — it’s their first trip to China. I looked out the window again and tried to identify all the things that would be new or different for them, the things I would have noticed during our first semester and maybe even photographed. I wasn’t sure I could remember them all, and it’s a strange feeling to suddenly realize your idea of normal is drastically changed.

Comfort Zone WMD
Had a similar experience again last night. I was going through photos that two of my photographically-gifted American friends took of our other friends’ wedding. They have a good eye for photos and had taken entertaining street shots around the church, which is in an older, not yet totally redeveloped neighbuorhood. But then right in with all the interesting photos was a shot of the women’s bathroom at the church. I thought, ‘what’s this doing in here?’ and completely failed to see the significance of the photo. No interesting angles, patterns, colours, people, activity, or funny signage. Just a quick shot of the can.

And then I realized why it caught their eye. And then I thought about my parents coming. And then I remembered the first time (and the second time) that I encountered this kind of old school Chinese bathroom and the unbidden incomprehension/shock/horror/so-bad-I-have-to-look-car-wreck-feeling that instantly raises your pulse. The communal, “privacy-what’s-that?” old school Chinese public washroom has got to be the most effective method ever devised for mortifying privacy-loving Westerners. It’s not like eating chicken feet or double-dipping your chopsticks in a communal plate or learning to use a squatty potty — those things merely stretch Westerners’ comfort zones, and stretching your comfort zone is a good thing. But a tiny room with an open, cramped row of squatty potties where people will be brushing past you or asking you what country you’re from while you’re in the middle of doing your business? That’s not “stretching” our comfort zones; it’s dropping a WMD on our comfort zones.

I’m not a big fan of these things and I don’t mind avoiding them, but it’s strange to realize I looked right at a comfort zone WMD and didn’t even notice.

(P.S. Mom and Dad — most bathrooms in Tianjin city aren’t like this; you won’t get stuck having to use one… probably. Just don’t be surprised when people don’t bother to close their stall door… assuming there’s a stall… with doors.)

(P.P.S. If you didn’t already know, the cross-cultural potty dispute goes both ways. A lot of Mainlanders feel that Western-style sit down toilets are a “comfort zone WMD” because even the idea of a sit down toilet is so appallingly unsanitary they can hardly believe we would even consider inventing sit down toilets. We have Chinese friends who refuse to use them, even in peoples’ homes.)