Once I appalled even myself by saying in the presence of a Chinese person that I would never rent my apartment to a Chinese. Fortunately I said it under my breath, and he didn't hear. Now, I hasten to add that the statement doesn't happen to be true, but that's not the point. More interesting is what would lead a person like me, someone who loves China, is married to a Chinese and has been here for 11 years, to have such an awful thought, however fleetingly, in the first place.
The reason is this: By and large, Chinese housekeeping and building maintenance are far from the world's best. It always amazes foreigners in China to discover that a building which they assumed was put up over 50 years ago is in fact only four or five years old. Why do Chinese buildings look so old when they are still relatively new? The key is in the run-down state of the public parts, i.e. the stairwells, the elevators, the entrance. Who are the barbarians who put footprints on whitewashed walls, who throw chewing gum and cigarette butts on the stairs, who spit and even blow their nose on the floor? Apparently what belongs to the community in China is no one's responsibility. Let a pane break in a public window and it will go unrepaired for months. Abuse and neglect in buildings controlled by state-owned units appear to me to be the norm.
Of course, nowadays many people own their homes, but attitudes toward public property have not changed as a result. If a difference can be detected, it's inside the apartments, because this is private property that the owners have paid for with their own cash. Yet even here there are problems: When owners have bought their flats from state units, they tend to carry over a lot of bad habits. In particular, they too often fail to pay attention to maintenance and minor repairs, repairs that can easily become major problems. And untidy housekeepers don't necessarily become adepts ofsgroupsand cleanliness just because they now have the title to their digs.
Once I told my husband that if we purchased a flat, I would paint the walls of the stairwell and the landing myself; I would also sweep the stairs twice a week and clean the windows and elevator doors. At the same time I would organize a committee of neighbours to take turns caring for the public spaces. And there would be no garbage around the building, none! We would collect a small sum from each resident to plant flowers and bushes. My husband was not encouraging: "You'll do a lot of work for nothing, and the neighbours will think the less of you for it all!" Can that be true?
A relative of mine once told me that if you want to judge the overall cleanliness of a home, check the bathroom. In many Chinese households, alas, the bathroom and kitchen seem not even to count as parts of the apartment. This attitude is regrettable, I think; they should be as clean as the living room! When a French friend of mine decided to change her wallpaper after 25 years, it was because she was bored with it - the paper was still clean and bright. When a cousin got rid of her aging refrigerator, it didn't need any extra cleaning before being sold, because it had regularly been thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Look around you: Do many Chinese cooks wash the kitchen range with soap and water after each use? And do they wash it all, or are the sides covered with dried gunk? Is the wall behind clean or sticky with grease? I know some people who only wash the upper sides of dishes or the inside of cooking pots with soap, while everything else just gets a quick rinse in cold water!
In some homes, people wisely refrain from walking on the carpets with their shoes on, but the wood or tile floors around the carpets have "round corners". When they sweep the floor, they don't bother to use the broom under the furniture; when they wash the floor - a rare event -, they don't take pains to use a cloth to clean the corners that the mop doesn't reach. Around the door handles and light switches there are unsightly zones of dirty finger marks.
Perhaps I sound like a nag, but the fact is that human beings are mentally affected by a lack of beauty around them. There are still too many people in Beijing who can't distinguish between a pile of empty boxes, bottles and old newspapers in front of their houses and a pot of geraniums. Personally, I don't think there's much hope that Beijing will become a truly pleasant city until people learn to keep their homes and immediate environs clean as a matter of course.