“Don’t Mess With China”

Growing up in Texas, I became familiar with the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas.” I saw it on highway road signs, bumper stickers, and magazine covers. The slogan is a friendly reminder to take pride in your state, and to take care of it; namely, to throw your trash away, and even pick up other trash you might see on the ground. I often associated this slogan with a “no littering” sign that warned of some major fines for putting garbage where it didn’t go.

Raising kids in Texas, they learned this slogan as well. I can’t remember how many times I’ve reminded/trained my kids to throw their trash away. Napkins on a table, candy wrappers, juice boxes… you name it, they know it goes in the trash can and not on the ground. I might even give my kids the impression that they’re committing a crime by my response when I see that little gum wrapper fall. It’s kind of a big deal.

Well, at least it was. Now, it’s a bit confusing. When we moved to China, one of the biggest culture shocks we had (and currently have) is seeing people discard their trash on the ground without a second thought. And it isn’t just kids, like one might suspect. I’ve seen EVERY age let their trash fall. Sometimes, there’s even a trashcan within reach. To this day, it boggles my mind that someone would intentionally throw waste on the ground. But then again, I understand my culture better than I understand Chinese culture.

My kids have also noticed the cultural difference. While walking home from a mall one day, my son stared at the ground. As he was carefully stepping over masses of cardboard, paper, and plastic, he asked, “Mom, don’t they like China?” His question made me proud and sad at the same time. He remembered what we taught him about taking pride in your state, but he also equated litter with other people not taking pride in theirs. I told him of course they do and suggested that we could help by picking up trash when we see it.

On another occasion, we were taking a scenic route, walking through a small village avenue. Amidst the simple homes and shop fronts, smack in the middle of the lane, was a mound of trash that could have swallowed one of my littles ones. Noticing the pile of trash, and the wrapper in his hand, one of my younger sons left his trash on the pile. Now I was confused.

Do I applaud him for putting his trash with the other trash, or remind him that we don’t throw our trash on the ground? In the moment, I realized my 4-year old was trying to do the right thing. He put his trash with the other trash. Good job.

Both instances reminded me that as a parent, no matter where we live, I need to teach my kids the way I think they should go. In China, that means teaching my kids to put their trash where it goes- in a trashcan. I understand this will be more of a challenging lesson here in China, as they’ll be hearing one thing from their parents, but seeing another thing from others.

Just the other day I watched from a bus window as a girl peeled the wrapper off her snack and threw it on the ground as she was sitting on the back of an e-bike. Maybe a logical thought would be, she’s on a bike, there’s not a trashcan nearby. That’s no excuse! Put that trash in your pocket, in your bag, or ANYWHERE other than the ground and dispose of it later.

I know this lesson on littering isn’t taught by all, even back in Texas. But you can be sure, we’ll be instilling that pride in our kids. Whether they’re in America or China, they’ll learn to take care of the place in which they live by throwing their trash away, and even picking up trash now and then. I must confess, here in China I’m more inclined to make my kids leave discarded trash alone and let the street cleaners pick it up for the sake of sanitation.

I have a feeling that’s likely what other Chinese people feel as well- someone else will pick this up. I still hold my ground on not putting it there in the first place! Keep the roadsides and rivers cleaner and throw that trash away. It may be a long, dirty road, but our kids will learn to love their home, and maybe even start saying, “Don’t mess with China.”

How do you deal with littering expectations in China?

To share your thoughts, click the link for the group of other China-focused parents on Facebook or share on WeChat by scanning my QR code and asking to join the WeChat group.


Rachel Watters is making her home in Fuzhou, China. She and her husband, Sherman, have 8 children, three of which are adopted. Rachel spends her time teaching in their English Training Center, taking care of their youngest child, and teaching English in a local public school. She also spends a lot of time buying groceries and picking up packages from Taobao. Along with writing, she loves to hike, sing, bake, and nature watch. Spending time with her husband is her favorite way to enjoy a day, and she’s working on not being too serious.

Wechat: RachelWatters


Photo: Timquijano (Flickr)

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3 Thoughts to ““Don’t Mess With China””

  1. Samantha

    This is a super sticky topic because I similarly recoil at the normative littering here. (I’m from California and have been living in Shandong for over 5 years.) My kids and I make sure to throw our own garbage away, and we’ll sometimes throw away litter we find (though not often, as our xiaoqu has lots of sweepers). But last week we were in a sticky situation when we were playing with a little kid and her nainai. The nainai used a kleenex then threw it on the ground right in front of us! The choice was difficult: teach my kid to steward the environment or teach my kid to save the face of an old lady? We chose the latter route, which I think is more culturally appropriate for here.

    I think it’s a thoughtless habit, even somewhat rooted in thoughtful intention (job-provision). But it is a relational barrier when I assume they have the same underlying values as I do. If they’ve been taught not to litter, and littering shows irresponsibility and selfishness, then they must be lazy and selfish to litter! Those are some major base assumptions there, and I have to remember that relationships and people are more important than a tidy ground.

    1. Editor at China Family Blog

      It is a sticky subject! How I personally would have dealt with that situation (trying to be culturally appropriate) would have been, “Oh ayi, I think you dropped the tissue. Let me get that for you and take it to a trash can for you. It’s a little far out of the way. You stay here and I’ll do that for you.” It’s a super, overblown keqi way to deal with that situation, which would save face because you’re helping someone who is clearly older than you. I would love if someone who has been here longer than I have could comment on if this would actually cause for losing face, but I think it’s the best way to deal with that situation and still honor the values you both hold.

      1. Rachel Watters

        I completely agree about relationships and people being more important than a clean area! I think what teaches our kids the most in those times is how WE respond. Do I get visibly annoyed, or do I wait for the Nainai to leave and quietly pick up the trash after her? I do like your response, Vanessa, but my Chinese is no where near the level to communicate that!

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