Guide for a Germaphobe: Shanghai Edition

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I would say that I am on the more liberal side of germaphobia. I have made great strides: I will now share straws with friends when before I would not even eat the fries if my brother touched it. However, there are still some things that make me internally shudder and externally cringe. This is just my laundry list of complaints. Honestly, most of them are not super terrible; they are shocking at first, but I think I have accepted most of the complications.


Sneeze and Squeeze 

Maybe it is specific to Chinese people, maybe it is an Asian thing, but no one here knows how to cover their nose when they sneeze. It is as if we are at an amusement park and anything in a one-meter proximity is an unspoken splash zone. Some people will just sneeze forward, others will turn to the left or right. I make have misspoken. Some people will cover their nose/mouth when they sneeze.. with their hands. Then they will proceed to hold the bars on the subway. Regardless, no one thinks about sneezing into their elbow. I already knew the metro was not the most sanitary place, but after witnessing the first sneeze and squeeze (sneezing into your hand then immediately holding onto the handrails), I refuse to come in contact with any of the handrails.

I have mastered the art of positioning myself to where I may slightly stumble when the subway speeds up or slows down but remain upright. Therefore, I would advise anyone who does not have an endless supply of hand sanitizer is to consider my method. I just made sure that my feet are shoulder-width apart and lean slightly toward the direction of where the train is headed. My physics might be completely wrong, but inertia would want you to stay in the same position, so technically it is pulling you back but if you lean forward, it kinda counteracts that. (Maybe.. my science may be slightly off, but my method is fairly flawless, at least for me.)


Soap is a Nope

I will never take toilet paper and soap for granted again. Most places in China, especially the more rural areas will make you appreciate these mundane items. I even get excited every time I see a western toilet. Not that I do not understand the efficiency of squatting toilets. It is easier and probably a lot cheaper to construct. Also, as a semi-germaphobe, it is in a way more clean. Think about all the butts that have touched western toilet seats; however, I still prefer those over the possibility of falling into the toilet. A constant fear of mine is that I am going to drop something in: either my phone or my foot. I try to leave my phone outside the stalls or give it to a friend, but sometimes it is just not possible (and my feet go everywhere I go). Horror story time.

We were on a weekend trip to creek crawl and kayak, so where we were headed was more rural. We took a quick restroom break at a rest stop, and it was a definite culture shock. I have adjusted to the squatting toilets and bringing my own toilet paper; however, these toilets were just a cement stream between the stalls. AKA, the pee of your stall neighbor would flow past you. I am not even sure if it was flowing. I was too shocked it even take a picture, but it has forever been ingrained into my brain. The stench has also left its mark on my nose; I am scrunching up my nose just remembering the smell. I am sure Google will have some images if you are curious, but I do not want to relive that experience, even just virtually.

As you are washing your hands, you better just scrub really hard and hope the friction kills the germs because there is no soap. A few of us have joked about how this will build up our immunity. I do not know how to justify this. The only reason I can think of us that is more cost efficient not to have to supply toilet paper or soap. You have to choose between sanitary and economical. Well, you do not really have a choice, but at least you can prepare for it. Therefore, my tip is to always carry tissues and hand sanitizer because you’ll need it!


Just Spit it Out

Again, not sure if this is just a Shanghai, China, or Asia thing, but people just randomly spit along the side of the road. It is honestly so disgusting. One of my friends theorized that this is to clear their throat of the pollution. Personally, I do not know how efficient that is, but I cannot think of a better explanation. Maybe I am a little more bias because I have always made an aversion to mucus.

My mom always yelled at me as a child to blow my nose or cough up the mucus in my throat (is that TMI?). I just hated the soggy feeling in the tissue. This could be the main reason why I hated being sick (along with the disgusting taste of the grape medicine and I could not swallow pills to save my life.. literally.) Anyways, there is not much you can do to avoid encounter other people’s spit, but I would just pay closer attention to where you are stepping.

I did not want to make a separate tab for this because I just want to briefly mention this. Be aware that some kids will just use the streets as their public restroom. I have only seen it once or twice, but kids will just pee freely on the streets. They even have special pants designed for the quick trip. I am just sharing this so that you might think again before thinking that it is no big deal to step in that puddle.


Popping my [comfort] bubble

In any public area, there is no concept of personal space. Lines are not a thing. People will push and shove to get to where they need to go. This is intensified on the metro. Even if you are already waiting by the door, someone will eventually push in front of you. It is something you grow accustomed to. It does not bother me as much if they step in front of me because the alternative would be for me to literally step right behind another person.

However, it does annoy me that they will brush against or elbow you and then glare at you like it is your fault. This has happened to me multiple times on the subway, and each time I am still as surprised as the last. I would be more understanding if I were the one bumping into the other person, but I am just standing there, and they invade my personal space.

Since I have to ride the metro to my internship every day, I have developed a routine of either Facetiming my friends or parents or listen to music. I am in my own world. However, the constant contact with strangers reminds me that I am not alone. I have adjusted my travel hours to accommodate Shanghai’s rush hour.

Mornings are fine because my class usually ends around 9 or 10 depending on the week so I miss the early rush, but evenings are a different story. I remember the first day (and only time), I left my internship at 6 PM. It was the worst mistake I have ever made. The subway was packed. It was a literal game of sardines. No one wanted to wait for the next train, so they just pushed. I think I was finally situated underneath someone’s arms since they were holding onto the upper railing. It was an experience!

Since then, I have just voluntarily stayed at the office a bit later to finish work or work on homework. I usually leave around 7:30 – 8:00, and even then, there are still quite a bit of people. That is my advice. Try and avoid busy hours unless you want to get close and friendly with strangers. Rush hour is usually around 7-9 AM and 4-8 PM. I estimated a wider range just because the work hours are a little more flexible here (not that the employees can decide but most companies do not have the standard 8-5 work hour).


This post may make it seem that I despise Shanghai, but that is not the case. This city has grown on me. I may not move here to live for an extended time (although I have not ruled it out), but I definitely survive living here for a year or two. There is always an adjustment period for any new place. I think I am finally coming to the end of mine. It only took a month. I do not think I am entire comfortable, but I am not longer surprised when I go to the restroom or see things on the streets.

In the relationship process, I think I am at acceptance. It has also made me appreciate home so much room. Being at my internship reminds me of home, which might be a reason I love it so much. It is in of the international skyscrapers in Pudong, so I am a bit spoiled. In the floor lobby, I have a breathtaking view of the Oriental Pearl as I wait for my hot chocolate to be delicately decorated with coffee art.

In the office, I have a view of the Shanghai Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. Nevertheless, every time I leave, I am reminded of the differences. It is a very unique experience to get two contrasting experience after crossing the river. Not that everything is segregated to one side of the river (i.e. the subway issue is continuous), but it some are more prevalent (i.e. Western restrooms are more likely found in Pudong).