What I learned from China and a roll of toilet paper

I was sitting in the dining room of our West Los Angeles airbnb apartment when I noticed a roll of toilet paper on the dining table.

What the heck” was my first thought, and I proceeded to call out my Chinese husband on his “error”.

Why is the toilet paper in the dining room? We have paper towels, napkins, and tissue boxes…so why bring the toilet paper out of the toilet?

Return culture shock
By the second time I noticed this, it occurred to me that this was normal in China. Even though we bought tissue paper and paper towels, sometimes we would resort to toilet paper in the house. At many offices I worked, my colleagues had toilet paper in their desk drawers or placed on the pantry dining table. I’ve even seen college students bring out a huge roll of toilet paper from their jacket pockets to unroll enough for a sneeze while out walking.

All of this was pretty normal because toilet paper is more economical, you can buy it in bulk, and it’s a daily necessity. In comparison, you could go without tissue paper (Kleenex), paper napkins, and paper towels. Toilet paper is obviously a practical person’s go-to-paper.

Yet here I was, a few weeks back in the US, and already judging my husband for using toilet paper the “wrong” way. It’s one of those things that I used to think makes me feel more “civilized”, and now that we were back in the West, I felt a need to return to our old ways.

Dreadfully uncivilized
But, wait, why does it matter if toilet paper is on the dining table? The same reason why there are coffee and tea cups, coffee mugs, water glasses, glogi glasses, shot glasses, beer mugs, whiskey glasses, red wine glasses, champagne glasses, and the list goes on–capitalism.

If you use the wrong glass, you’re uncivilized. If you use the wrong fork, you’re uncivilized. If you use the wrong plate, you’re uncivilized.

…See where I’m going with this? There’s no practical purpose in these “rules”. If you learn about etiquette, you might learn of some convincing reason, like how the aroma of wine stays within the glass longer or enters your nostrils better, but is it practical? No, it just sounds fancy. You can drink wine from a plastic cup, the bottle, or even a barrel as many of us might’ve discovered in college.

Designating specific types of paper for different purposes is just like having a whole aisle for “liquid coffee creamers” at the supermarket (only in the US!). You don’t need such variety, but product designers and marketers will tell you you do in order to sell you more stuff.

Revolution a Privilege
We can look at China’s cultural revolution and shake our heads at her supposed backwardness, shaming the nation for its cultural loss. Or, we can look at China’s cultural revolution and recognize the revolution for what it is: a revolution.

In the West, there are cultural norms, rules that dictate what is civilized and what is not. If you’re uncivilized, you’re backward, uneducated, and even, savage. These are colonial terms that many still throw around to establish class differences. If you’re poor, you didn’t take etiquette classes as a child, and missed out on valuable lessons from your private tutor. Poor people are always uncivilized.

China in that sense is like a blank slate. Rich Chinese can be of any class, like the infamous tuhao. They have the power to revolutionize society on their terms, rather than follow the age old lead of the west, where they will never be revered as equals. Young Chinese are free to educate themselves and pick and choose their values and build their own cultural identity. Is this not enviable?

Maybe I can too. I took a piece of the toilet paper on the dining table and wiped my nose. Huh. Why was this a big deal again?

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