Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Teeth Brushing in China

Ok, you think I’ve run out topics and have resorted to something as banal as brushing teeth. But really, for those who choose to keep dental hygiene habits, brushing one’s teeth is quite the event here.

I’ve noticed two puzzling traits about brushing teeth in China. First, it is occasionally a public event. Second, it is always done in conjunction with a cup.
By public brushing, I don’t mean like in a public office bathroom after lunch break. I mean public like in front of your business on the street! I recently went to a tiny Kodak store to get visa pictures taken. It was mid-morning and the twenty-something year old technician with a rattail and wispy bangs was apparently just beginning his day. He conducted the entire half hour exchange from photographing to printing to payment with toothpaste foam a half inch wide around his mouth and a toothbrush rolling around in his teeth as he spoke. The fact that I walked away with the right sized pictures at a decent price, I consider to be a listening comprehension victory!

I reckon that this young man lives in dormitory style living quarters with no sink. These kinds of rooms are tucked away in otherwise un-rentable basements and first floors of old apartment buildings everywhere. At night, when the lights are still on, one can peer in on the lives of single young men trying to minimize their rent, content to have a place to sleep after long hours of work at little pay. My multi-tasking Kodak technician friend either shared such a room with 15 other men with little or no bathroom access, or he actually lives in the Kodak store itself and I caught him in his morning routine. Either way, he joined others that morning along a line of storefronts for public face washing, hair washing, and teeth brushing.

My Kodak friend also had a cup for brushing his teeth. Why he did not bother to deposit the toothbrush in the cup while he spoke to me, I cannot say. Anyway, my observations on Chinese teeth brushing must start with an explanation of where I’m coming from on the matter. So, excuse me for a moment while I take you through the intimacies of my own diurnal routine. I wet my tooth brush and paste with a drizzle from the faucet to start, brush modestly, and finish by rinsing my mouth, toothbrush, and sink basin with the water from the faucet, directed by my cupped hand. If I am feeling extra responsible that day I’ll add in a flossing session too.

In contrast, all of my observations of Chinese teeth brushing sessions begin with filling a cup from the faucet, dipping the toothbrush into the cup followed by an extended furious brushing period, which unabashedly spreads toothpaste foam from nostrils to chin. The session ends with, what seems to me, an exaggerated amount of swirling, stirring, swishing, splashing, and tapping in a percussion show among mouth, cup, and basin. Again, this may seem a tedious topic…but it is nearly an art and diverged enough from my experiences to make me stop and observe. Watching my roommate brushing her teeth, I actually thought of writing to the alternative percussion group, ‘STOMP’ to suggest a new idea for their percussion performances. Oh and the flossing? Non-existent. I think only Americans do that after all. In fact, my current Chinese roommate reported that her dentist informed her that flossing actually damages your teeth and gums.

So why the cup? I have a hypothesis about this and did a little research to test it. I surveyed a set of randomly selected candidates as to their preference for using a cup when brushing (this really means I asked those friends who happen to be on G-mail chat or Skype at that moment.) I found that none of my native born American friends use a cup to brush their teeth. Yet, my first and second generation Chinese American friends do in fact use a cup. Actually, one does not, but upon further inquiry I found that her parents do. This only further supports my hunch that the cup habit is due to a lack of running water. While the majority of Chinese teeth brushers in my generation have running water, our parents’ generation (i.e. the models of all hygienic habits) likely did not have running water. Thus, while the cup may once have been a necessity, the habit has been passed down one or two generations merely by example. But, my research methods are shaky and open to peer review! Feel free to suggest other explanations for the cup brushing phenomenon.

The second reason for this practice, I believe, also relates to water supply issues. Reflecting on her own cup use habit, my Chinese American friend pointed out that using a cup simply saves more water than repeated bursts from the faucet; it is an environmentally friendly habit. I have observed a general frugality when it comes to water use in Chinese homes. My Chinese roommates have all used as little water as possible during showers, turning on and off the water throughout the shower. They have even used a basin in the shower so as to not loose water down the drain. However, while I credit my Chinese American friend’s water conservation to environmental motives, for many others here in China, these habits have little to do with environmental morals and everything to do with saving money. This is evidenced by my experiences in public bath houses, which have flat fees. There women take hours scrubbing every inch of skin multiple times under continuously gushing water. By the way, I also observed that even under the full stream of a showerhead, these women will still make use of the complimentary plastic cups to brush their teeth!

I recall yet another example while staying with a sick friend in a hospital in Dalian. The woman caring for the girl in the adjacent bed took full advantage of free water in the bathroom. By the end of the week she had washed half her wardrobe and two pairs of shoes, all of which were strung about the room adding to the humidity of the already clammy room. I liken this indulgent behavior to Americans at an all you can eat buffet!

Speaking of Americans, it is perhaps more appropriate to be astonished not by Chinese frugality, but by the global exceptions, Americans. Chinese are more in keeping with the rest of the world’s water consumption habits. Whereas, Midwest Americans in particular enjoy the luxury of cheap, abundant, clean water. I have watched dormitory mates brush their teeth with the water running the entire time. I myself am guilty of taking leisurely showers at home on my parents’ water bill…and of course… not using a cup.


  1. Oh Laura, you are such the objective experimenter! I'm only half-joking. You are quite unbiased in your conclusions of Americans and Chinese. If I wrote this, it would be much more a scathing critique of American wastefulness and how they almost single-handedly destroy the earth for other people. And Chinese, whose economic and water saving habits collide (barring minority gushing water splurges), would be the heroes of this story of sustainability.

  2. :) I may begin to experiment with this so called 'cup'device.

  3. Could the cup influence also relate to the quality of water available? Water poured from a boiled pot would be less likely to make one sick than from a flowing tap of questionable quality.
    Isn't it interesting that somehow water conservation and money conservation is separated in American culture, at least as it pertains to personal hygene?