Pissing on the Street

Shenzhen, the city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province where I do most of my field research, has a wide variety of neighborhoods. In fact, until it was declared a special economic zone (SEZ) about thirty years ago, this now thriving metropolis was little more than a fishing village (Bach 2010). The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted this past winter, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow alleys, wet markets and vibrant street vendors season this border area with the spice of raw, human commerce.

Moving west along the main arc of the city, we come to Futian and Coco Park, Windows of the World, and swooping south, finally arrive at Shekou. These areas, in varying degrees, are sharp departures from the street-level petty capitalism of Dongmen. The shimmering windows of high-rise office buildings tower above broad, clean boulevards. There are numerous high-end malls, and both the shopping and eating are priced for the business elite, Chinese and expat alike. Yet, one thing unites the decidedly distinct eastern and western parts of the city: Parents letting their children piss on the street.

I’ve seen it at 9:00 on a Friday night on the busiest pedestrian road in Dongmen, and I’ve seen it at noon on a Monday in one of the ritziest malls in southern China at Coco Park. A toddler with crotchless sweatpants squats by the curb, while his father checks text messages. A mother holds her daughter over a trashcan, with a public restroom no more than 20-feet across the hall. So, news of the recent kerfuffle in Hong Kong is neither surprising nor without precedent. Nor is it surprising that the subsequent Sina poll revealed that only 11% of Chinese people think it’s not okay for parents to let their children piss in public. I’m not surprised for the very simple reason that, as I began to discuss in my last piece, China is in transition.

anti-spitting_posterPublic expulsion of bodily fluids, hopefully limited to urine and saliva, are both common and relatively harmless in villages of 200, 300, or even a thousand households. Let’s not forget that no more than thirty years ago, the majority of China lived in such places, and that these people are today’s parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders. But, in cities of ten, twenty, even thirty million people, with some of the highest population densities on earth, these rural norms quickly become public health hazards. The Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive campaign to end public spitting during the SARS epidemic. I hope it won’t take another major outbreak for them to take action on public urination.

We of course don’t need a poll to assess the views of those outside mainland China on this issue. But, criticism without understanding and constructive suggestions is both self-serving and counter-productive. So, the question becomes: What approach can the Chinese authorities take to reduce public urination that will be in line with the way the Chinese people view the issue? In other words, how can we rebrand the practice within emic categories of right and wrong?

I invite anyone genuinely interested in solving this dilemma to post suggestions.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in China and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s