Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Everybody Wears Flipflops in the Rain

It is rainy season in South China. Whereas the Northern provinces are suffering in terrible droughts, the South has been inundated. Villages are being evacuated, crops are ruined, farmers and homesteaders alike are in despair over their waterlogged losses. In the cities, people are paying up to 40% higher prices for what vegetables and fruit are available. All over China, under the cloud cover, hovers an atmosphere of anxiety and doom.

Again I say: life is not easy in China. There is generally a ‘feast or famine’ situation with any aspect of living here. This time of year we are flooded with rain, which could result in economic famine for the farmers and businesses.

It has rained for nearly two weeks straight in Wuhan. Not a nice, gentle spring rain but torrential downfalls interspersed by steady misting. The pavement has been wet every day and one day, there was a lake of rain in the lane separating my apartment from the park. And there is no sign of the rain letting up.

Although rain does not bother me particularly, I am concerned about this phenomenon. How much rain can we endure and still maintain soil and subsoil integrity? Although buildings here are solid concrete, how can they not suffer structural instability if the underlying soil is grossly eroded? How can we avoid disease such as dengue fever and E. Coli if the trash pits are flooded and trash is now flowing freely into common thoroughfares?

I tend to want to stay home when it rains. Not just because I don’t like getting wet; I have an umbrella to help keep me dry. No, I don’t like to go out because of all of the mud. The ongoing construction displaces a lot of soil – another reason to be concerned about subsoil displacement and integrity. I don’t have so many pairs of shoes that I can afford to ruin one or two while frolicking in the rain and mud.

Construction workers wear rain boots: what the British call Wellingtons, or Wellies. They are large rubber boots that you wear over your basic shoes. Although the wellies are rather large and might be big enough to accommodate my lunky feet, they probably are not big enough to fit my feet while I’m wearing shoes. Besides, they are not attractive footwear at all. Nope, not in the least charming. I’d just as soon go barefoot.

And that is a strange phenomenon. The Chinese, normally so health and fashion conscious, run around in flipflops in the rain. All over campus, young and old alike can be seen or heard splashing around shod only in cheap, plastic flipflops. Some of the women will venture out in more fashionable, elevated ones but essentially, everyone wears what is tantamount to what Americans consider shower shoes.

Whatever happened to ‘You must keep warm and drink more hot water’ that every single Chinese person I’ve come in contact with has cautioned me to? Shouldn’t proper footgear be considered keeping warm in a downpour? And what about coming in contact with floating garbage, mud and other vermin that might lurk in puddles of standing water? Apparently it is not an issue.

I posed the question to my Chinese Mommy, Zhanni. She had ventured out in the rain to visit with me shod only in flipflops. What purpose is there to wearing flipflops in the rain?

As it turns out, it is quite a logical explanation. Chinese people don’t want to ruin their good shoes, so they wear flipflops and then wash their feet once they arrive at their destination. And then, they take their good shoes out of the bag that they carried them in and dress their feet properly. “Well” I argued, “that… makes sense!” As far as the fact that rain is actually pretty dirty water, especially if garbage is floating around in it? Well, they’re just careful to not touch the garbage, that’s all.

What about dengue fever, caused by mosquitoes who are in fact water loving insects? Not a problem there, either. They burn what is called a mosquito coil that dissuades those pesky mosquitoes from biting. I can attest to that; I burn a long lasting mosquito coil every night to keep from getting bitten. There are mosquito coils in America too, I’m informed. But they are supposed to be for outdoor use. Here they are used indoors and the outdoor mosquitoes fly around, scot-free.
I wish I could train mosquitoes to stay outside and not be subjected to my mosquito coils. They just won’t learn.

What Zhanni said makes a lot of sense, in an odd sort of way. Rather than ruining your shoes, run around barefooted. I remember allowing my kids to put on their bathing suits and go splashing in the rain barefooted on several occasions, and it never hurt them. Of course, we didn’t have floating garbage to contend with, just oil slicks. And everyone knows oil and water don’t mix; it was just a matter of keeping the kids wet and the oil never affected them.

Oddly enough, Martin did not wear flipflops during that major downpour. He had sent me a message asking me if I wanted to join him and several of my other students. They were playing and splashing around in the sports track, which is set in a bowl like depression on campus and was currently under about two feet of water. I elected to not join them, so they came over. The girls were all wearing flipflops but Martin had shoes on. More importantly, his shoes were dry and mud free, even after the walk across campus in the rain. How did he do that?

He told me he had taken off his shoes to play in the rain and then dried his feet. While walking across campus he was just very careful where he stepped and avoided puddles. If he did have to cross a puddle, he did so on tiptoe, thus he did not splash any water around.

When I was a young girl in France, I used to read a comic book series called Asterix that was set during the the Roman empire. The main character’s sidekick, Obelix had an explanation for the strange Roman behavior these Gauls were subjected to: These Romans are crazy.

Just call me Obelix. These Chinese are crazy.

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