Without thinking I put my bags on the floor. No matter how many warnings my hosts had offered, concerned as they were about the soft tastes of coddled non-Chinese, I had boarded an old train with the infamous ‘hard’ seats. Actually, they were soft enough, although they did not recline and three had to fit in the space of what on newer trains is given over to two.

But as is my wont, my bags found a cosy place on the floor beside my seat. I thought nothing of it until the conductor came through with a mop (on a train! I had never seen that before). She mopped under seats and small tables, people lifted their feet … but not their bags. Not a suitcase, backpack, or even a simple paper bag was on the floor.


The secret, as I eventually found, lies with chopsticks – 筷子 (kuàizi). Or rather, the insight came via those two simple but most versatile eating implements. With a complex dexterity learned from childhood, all manner of foods are deftly moved from plate to mouth, often via another plate. Occasionally a small spoon may be used for soups and the like (I like to use it for the more slippery items). Even shellfish are placed in the mouth, before the various pieces of the exoskeleton appear on the lips, to be spat onto the plate.

Rarely does a finger touch the food. And if one must eat a Shaanxi bun, or perhaps a Shandong roll, or a spring festival rice cake, one does so with a piece of paper between hand and food.

That is, hygiene is simply and effectively observed. Given that hands come into contact with all manner of rather interesting objects, given that soap is not always readily available, one simply avoids touching food with one’s hands.

So also with floors. Given that feet may step where one knows not, given that squat toilets have all manner of sprays and curious objects around them, given that the earth on which we walk is alive with the bacteria of animal and plant, one keeps bags off the floor where myriad feet have trodden. Instead they go on your lap or on the seat beside you. For eventually they will be placed in a bench or a seat or a bed at home.

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