I've been thinking that people coming to live in China for the first time are probably researching to learn as much as possible about living in China before they come. I decided I should write a couple of posts to share what I have learned about living in China. I hope it will be helpful.
You should know that China is not a clean place to live. The air pollution is far above the healthy limit, especially in the winter. Heating in China is from burning coal, and most plants don't have any sort of pollution control, so the pollution is spewed directly in to the air. In Beijing they are starting to put some pollution controls in the plants, but that hasn't really been done much yet. So if you have any sort of lung problems, China may not be the location for you, especially in the cold months. In addition, there is a lot of construction that causes dust, and there are many cars that bring more pollution.
The ground in China is also not clean. In Chinese culture, the ground is thought of as a dirty place, so everyone expects it to be dirty, and it is just part of the mentality here. It would not be avisable to ever sit on the sidewalk or street. Many people spit, or blow their nose on the ground. Also, little children often urinate or even occasionally defecate on the ground. There are workers who sweep up trash, and do a good job of keeping litter picked up. There are also cleaning trucks that clean the main streets. But still, the ground is not really clean. This is one reason that so many Chinese take off their shoes when they come in the house.
From my experience, cleaning products are not often used in China. So if you go to a restaurant, do not assume that the tables are clean. I had a friend who had a toddler, She put the baby's food directly on the table for her to eat. I quickly asked the waiter for a plate, because the tables aren't clean enough to eat directly off of. You may want to inspect your chopsticks/spoon/glass, and plate as well. In addition, even at very nice hotels, cloth napkins are just for show. In fact, when you sit down to eat, the waitress will take the beautifully folded napkin away from you. You can, for a small price purchase a package of kleenexes from the restaurant to be used as napkins when you eat.
When it comes to food, you should be careful where you eat. The U.S. Consolate does not advise eating at roadside stands. My practice has been to stay away from any meat product at a roadside stand because they don't keep the meat cool during the day. You can kind of judge how clean the food will be by how clean the person/stand is, and by their cooking practices. I look for people who do not directly touch the money when you pay them, because chances are that they don't wash their hands after handling money. In addition, you should always carefully wash any fruit or vegetables before eating them. Occasionally you will meet a fruit seller who will offer to cut a piece of fruit for you to taste. I would not advise eating fruit cut with their knife, because that knife isn't very often cleaned. But I do eat some street food, and frankly, I don't think that many restaurants are any cleaner. But at least the restaurants chefs have to get a health inspection before they can work.
In public bathrooms, there will usually be water to wash your hands, but rarely will there be any soap, also paper towels and air dryers are almost non-existent. You should plan on carrying hand sanitizer. You also should carry your own toilet paper as it is rarely supplied in public bathrooms. Most stores sell small packets of tissue that can be carried in your pocket. If you go to a really nice hotel, or sometimes a U.S. fast food chain, there will be toilet paper in the bathroom. But most bathrooms have none. In China, when you use the bathroom you are expected to place your soiled toilet paper in a trash can that is next to the toilet, instead of flushing it. I have to admit that I don't do this in my own home. I flush it here. But because their toilets clog easily, and because so many people use the same sewer system, people are asked to not flush the paper. So most bathrooms smell really bad. Also, while we are on the subject, you should know that most public toilets will be squat toilets. It is a porcelain hole in the ground that you squat over. There is a foot pedal or hand knob that you can use to flush it. If your bathroom does not have a door, it is etiquette to face outward while using the toilet. If you do not, you will be exposing your back side. If you face forward while you squat, you don't expose much of anything.
The U.S. government suggests that in China you only drink bottled water, or water that has been boiled for atleast 10 minutes. Most roadside stalls and stores sell bottled water, although it may not be cold. Chinese do not like to drink any cold liquids. They believe it is bad for your health. But you can find cold water. In our home, we have a water dispenser, and have a local company deliver water to us regularly. When I cook, I only use tap water if I know I will be boiling it long enough. When I brush my teeth, I just use regular tap water, but I make sure not to swallow any.
Here in our apartment we have a washing machine for clothing. Chinese washing machines are designed to not use much water. They have a very vigorous spin action, so if you have delicate clothing, you should only wash it by hand. I have several t-shirts that got stretched out around the neck from being spun in this washer. These washers only wash very small loads, maybe 6 items (pants, shirts). Most people hang their clothing out to dry. We have a couple of large drying racks that we put outside on the porch in the sun. You can also find extremely large and long hangers to use to hang things like towels and sheets. They also sell small round hangers with clips hanging from them. These are used to hang small things likc socks. Usually the clothes can dry within one day if the weather isn't too rainy.
Most apartments do not have any type of automatic dishwasher. I've never seen one in a private home. Some restaurants do have them. So be prepared to wash dishes by hand! :)
For personal cleanliness, China has a wide variety of products. You can buy "Pantene" brand shampoo and conditioner, as well as "Head and Shoulders", and a few other American brands. You can also buy deoderant in many Walmarts now, but read the labels carefully to make sure if it is also an anti-perspirant. You can buy "Colgate" toothpaste, but the Chinese brands are also good. Feminine products are kind of skimpy, and tampons are not common, so you may want to bring those things with you. You can also buy shaving cream for men, and razors. You can buy dental floss, but more common are the dental floss picks.
Next post I will discuss more about what kinds of things you should bring with you, and how to make your life in China feel more like home.