The meaning of dirty

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The Chinese idea of sanitation is absolutely disgusting.

About two months ago, I realized this as I sat in a "restaurant" on a side street in the Chinese city of Harbin. Surrounding my "patio" table were three other outdoor tables, each with its own assortment of semi-eaten items scattered underneath. Based on this assortment, one could determine what previous customers had eaten merely minutes ago: perhaps clams stir-fried in a dark sauce (evidenced by mounds of shells under the table), perhaps beef chunks cooked shishkabob style (evidenced by chunks of half-chewed fat on the ground at spitting distance from a table).

I should interrupt here to designate this example as an over-generalization; if one wants to eat at a clean, well-run establishment in China, such places exist. Among the cleanest places to eat are McDonald's and KFC. However, the particular restaurant I visited was more of a side-shack fast food joint--the equivalent of a hot dog vendor who might have some tables scattered around his/her cart. You would never see such a joint in Calgary--it would never receive a licence.

This said, I must add to my realization described above. Yes, certain Chinese individual's ideas of what is clean or dirty are very different from the standards we hold here. However, one realizes these ideas are culturally instilled; that is, what we regard as clean is something we, as a culture, have decided is clean. If everybody in Canada could experience some of the filthiest places in foreign countries, they would likely have more liberal ideas about what constitutes good sanitation practices. We are a small minority who practise such rigid sanitation standards--most of the world lives similarly to what I described. Our general level of health is probably quite better, but it's also easy to think we take things to another extreme.

At my serving job back home, it's odd how "used" food suddenly becomes the equivalent of trash, even if a customer took only a single bite. It's odd how a single hair pollutes an entire plate of freshly cooked food, whether or not that hair is the customer's own.

To Western eyes, Chinese sanitation lacks heavily on several fronts. However, to Chinese eyes, Western sanitation probably amounts to something bordering on the obsessive-compulsive, driven by cultural practices an ordinary Chinese person may or may not understand.