An Acknowledgement of Profound Ignorance

Sorry for recent silence! This has been a very busy spring. Also, I can’t get a picture up here…

“Stop talking about this.” Ms. Zhang abruptly turned towards me, her razor-sharp whisper a dramatic contrast from her previously cordial tone. “We can’t let the others hear.”

We were in a second-floor barbershop, an upper-crust establishment whose self-aware class consciousness was reflected in its decor: walls of black glass, punctuated by ‘living walls’ of fake mosses and flowers; ironically large teddy bears amidst seemingly random assortments of decorative items fastidiously arranged into a carefully choreographed disorder; mirrors, marbled floors, and the works. I was squatting next to Ms. Zhang as I talked; nearby, two men sat at a table, seemingly here more for the conversation than to get a haircut or shave. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to us.

“I don’t want anyone to hear about this,” Ms. Zhang said again, more sharply. “We’ll talk later.”

Pleading a need to use the bathroom as an excuse for absence, I gave Ms. Zhang five minutes of time to cool off before I asked her to talk with me in a more private place – an alcove off the black-glass-lined stairwell. Nobody was in sight.

“I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable,” I said. “In the United States, having head lice is quite normal – and people talk about it to each other so they can cooperate on taking preventative measures.”

“That must be a difference between us,” she said. “And honestly, I’m surprised that there are lice in America. I always thought that the United States had higher standards of sanitation and hygiene than China. Now, I don’t know what to think.”

“Lice are quite common in many places of the world,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of them happening here in Beijing,” she said. “My grandparents’ and parents’ generations, sure. They had them, but they lived in more difficult times. We don’t have them now.”

We had just visited the Beijing United Family Hospital, a spotless facility in northeastern Beijing staffed with foreign doctors and graduates of top Chinese medical schools. The spotless exam rooms, pastel-colored furniture, and sterile hallways seemed straight out of an American hospital to the point that I could barely tell I was in China. Posters advertising special “Birth + 4 Days Postpartum Care” packages and “See Our New Neurosurgeon: Special Price!” lined the hallways. Doctors and nurses bustled with a smooth, unrushed confidence around the buildings.

We were here because a student had gotten head lice. Upon learning this, the student’s Chinese host parents – one being the abovementioned Ms. Zhang – became extremely worried.

“We have four generations in our house,” she said. “I need to guarantee everyone’s safety. Who’s to say this parasite won’t spread around the house and prove to be too much for the grandparents?”

“And our child – when she goes to San Francisco – can’t stay in the American child’s house,” she continued. “I’m shocked that their house would be so unsanitary as to have such a major infection.”

Our local partner organization had a similar understanding of head lice. Upon my announcement to the 37-strong group of American students I’m with here in Beijing, the faculty and staff from the partner organization were visibly confused. Their subsequent online research revealed that head lice were dangerous and frequently carried deadly, very infectious diseases. After exhaustive explanations of how lice are viewed, are spread, and are dealt with in the States, the others remained convinced that lice were a major hazard to public health and welfare (not to mention life and limb). As such, we ended up taking the student to the hospital while the other family members – armed with hundreds of yuan-worth of cleaning supplies – thoroughly disinfected their apartment from top to bottom.

And so, on a Sunday afternoon which happened to be the family’s great-grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday, we found ourselves in a hospital of near-Western levels of sterility, facing a skin doctor whose expression indicated that she was unimpressed by us and the problems with which we could provide her. After a perfunctory inspection of samples taken from our student’s hair, she came back to tell us the results of her investigation.

“This isn’t a big deal,” she said in a flat, emotionless voice. “Kids get this all the time here. Most schools, especially those in less sanitary areas, have lice outbreaks three or four times a year. You just have to be careful: disinfect all sheets and any fabrics that have come in contact with her hair, and wash her hair extensively with a special shampoo – for which I’ll give you a prescription. The description of how to use the shampoo is on the bottle. That’s it.”

“Can you get any diseases from the lice?” asked Ms. Zhang.  Minutes earlier, she had been sobbing in a nearby consulting room, worried about the safety of her family and the student she was hosting.

“This is not a big issue,” said the doctor, evidently bored. “Just follow the treatment plan and you won’t have any issues. We can bring her back and take a look in a few days if you’d like.”

After picking up some lice-killing shampoo, we headed out of the hospital to the abovementioned hair salon for a cut. Cutting the student’s hair short seemed to help Ms. Zhang feel better about the idea of lice in her family’s house. As we exited the shop, she seemed more relaxed but still somewhat flustered.

“I’m shocked at America’s sanitary condition,” she said, continuing in the same vein as before. “I thought the United States was so clean. I can’t believe you live with this!”

“In fact, this is very common in the states, especially in schools,” I said. “Most kids get lice at some point – and in most schools, lice ‘alerts’ go out three, four, or five times each year.”

“So does every household have lice?” she asked.

I explained that lice come in waves which hit large numbers of students at one time. I explained that students’ families then communicate about the issues and take immediate measures to kill off the lice – and then, that everyone is lice-free until the next outbreak.

“Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe that this parasite is so common there. You are so developed and wealthy; I wouldn’t expect it. I wouldn’t have guessed that us Beijingers would be more advanced.”

An awkward, spastic flicker of a lighbulb began to flash a dim and inconsistent light into my brain, a moment somewhat less than an “Eureka!” but a realization of sorts nonetheless.

When I’d talked to the student’s mother in America about lice, she was shocked that the host family seemed unfamiliar with them. “Lice are common many places I’ve traveled,” she said. “I thought they’d be more prevalent in China too.”

When I mentioned this to Ms. Zhang, however, she was shocked. “We haven’t had lice for years,” she said. “They used to be common in our parents’ and grandparents’ times; not anymore. The student must have brought them over herself.

Here, I bumblingly made a politically incorrect suggestion: that, as the student in question had already been in China for two weeks, and that the lice had appeared no more than twenty-four hours earlier, the lice themselves might have originated from somewhere in China.

“Bu keneng!” she said forcefully, a new energy blazing in her eyes. “Impossible! We don’t have them in Beijing. There is no way that the student got them here.”

The issue, I realized, was not simply about the lice themselves. This was about social status, both real and perceived, in the new China. This was about the old idea of ‘face’ – between nations, cultures, and individuals – writ large across the modern social landscape.

Lice, as the doctor said, are common, especially in rural areas. As such, they are seen as symbols of poor sanitation, poverty, and backwardness. For it to be known that one has lice in one’s home is tantamount to being seen as a tu baozi (literally, “dirt dumpling”), an uncultured and unwashed country bumpkin. For people who have spent their entire lives working tirelessly to improve their families’ material well-being and social status – indeed, to escape the fate of being a tu baozi, whether real or perceived – this was a serious matter indeed.

Ms. Zhang’s family had already put themselves out on a limb by welcoming a foreign student into their house for three weeks. Now, the fact that the foreign student had brought the dirt and stench and emotional baggage of poverty and of the countryside (or at least the stigma of such) into their clean, modern Beijing apartment was too much. The lice and the idea of their presence needed to be fully eradicated – hence the haircut – and whatever happened, it was crucial that nobody could know that the episode had ever occurred.

My first trip to China was a decade ago, an epically-proportioned high school choir trip that opened my eyes to another side of the world – and to the possibilities of the earth’s diversity. Since that time, and especially over the past five years, I’ve invested considerable time and effort into gaining at least a rudimentary grasp of Chinese language and culture. And yet, I lack the cultural knowledge and competence to successfully handle one American student’s case of head lice.

The more you know, the less you know; the longer I spend learning about China, the more it becomes clear how much I have to learn.

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