Toothbrushes and cultural differences

3 Apr

I’ve used an electric toothbrush for a number of years now – I don’t remember when I switched, but I like the extra clean feeling that I get when I use my Spinbrush.  Unfortunately, dental hygiene is not necessarily top of mind in China (I wrote a post on dental floss and the global supply chain some time ago) and so electric toothbrushes are not yet a standard part of daily life.

To make a long story short – I needed a new head for my electric toothbrush and we couldn’t find one.   While we searched Taobao (the Chinese version of Amazon or eBay) – I switched to a standard, old-fashioned brush.  Since this became a joint effort my husband and I talked a lot about toothbrushes and teeth brushing.  It appears that Chinese children are taught differently than American children about how to brush their teeth.

I remember very clearly that you were supposed to brush in small circles – make sure you get into the back of the mouth and you needed to sing “Happy Birthday” three times to yourself to make sure you brushed long enough.

Li told me that when he was small they were taught to brush up and down – and that was it.  I started asking – but how did you know how long to brush?  Didn’t they teach you that small circles help get the food out better?  Electric toothbrushes get into the gaps better than regular brushes.  They strengthen your gums – didn’t you know?

I didn’t even bother to ask if he was taught to floss – as dental floss has only been available in China for about five to ten years.  It wasn’t even an option when he was small.

But – as far as he remembers – none of what I asked was normal.  He looked at me very strangely during this conversation.

Normal can be very different depending on where you start.  Brushing your teeth is not one of those areas that I expected – but cultural differences are everywhere.

How did you learn to brush your teeth?


20 Responses to “Toothbrushes and cultural differences”

  1. Naomi Baltuck April 3, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    Very interesting!

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      Something I hadn’t thought about!

  2. thisgirlabroad April 3, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Agreed – I love my electric toothbrush! Haven’t seen any in the shops in Hong Kong either, though I haven’t exactly looked too hard. I always stock up when I go home or have friends visiting.
    Ever had a routine dentist/hygienist “cleaning”? If you’d even call it that. Now that’s completely different than what I experienced in Canada.

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Very true – they don’t actually scrape teeth or floss – much quicker than in the US!

  3. darrell April 3, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    I’m heading that way next month, would you like me to pick a few up for you?

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      Thanks, but we have found a source online now so I am set – took us quite a while though!

  4. Shmruthi April 3, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Haha, growing up in India was a bit similar too. We brush as long as we want 😉 And flossing wasn’t common at all. Interesting to see cultural differences at this level. Thanks for sharing!

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      In India do you use toothpicks instead of floss? I think that originally that may have been the traditional way in China.

      • Shmruthi April 4, 2014 at 12:01 am #

        Ah yes! We do. Now it’s little more comforting that we didn’t actually neglect dental hygiene.

  5. CrazyChineseFamily April 3, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    Like that one, reminds me of my parents in law who only use toothpaste in the morning while brushing their teeth. In the evenening they brush with water…They think toothpaste is only some kind of scam to make the companies rich and to my horror I found out that all the rest of the family and their friends are doing it the same way. Ofcourse they have the teeth accordingly to show for.
    My wife was raised the same way and even lerned in school that once a day tootpaste is usually enough but she learned a bit more ever since she moved to Europe 🙂

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

      I have never heard of brushing without toothpaste – that is a new one! Funny how normal can change so easily!

  6. sarahinguangzhou April 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Well I was taught up and down as well. I’m not sure when floss arrived in the UK but if it was here when I was a child then my parents didn’t know about it.
    A lot of Brits say how Americans are ‘like us but with better teeth’. Maybe this is why?

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Maybe that is the case – we have a new theory!

  7. Chinadoll April 4, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    I learnt it the exact same way as you did, except from the “happy birthday” song haha, my bf told me that when he was little he would always brush he’s teeth, but it would be the first thing he did in the morning and he wouldn’t do it for that long, pretty much as Li, I guess 😛 but now that he is living in Scotland he even got himself a electric toothbrush! Haha

  8. Kristin April 5, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    Huh, I agree, dental hygiene is always an issue when living abroad. I learned the circular motion brushing as well, however, here in Mexico the dentist told me that brushing up and down was the right thing to do. People here have exceptionally bad teeth, it took me some time getting used to it and not stare at people’s mouths all the time. However, I just returned from Germany and noticed that people of my parents’ generation there (even or especially celebrities) have remarkably worse teeth than the Americans. It completely grosses me out! Happy Brushing! 🙂

    • gkm2011 April 5, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      Dental hygiene seems to me to be the problem of a society where basic needs are already met – which seems to connect with all the comments on this post. I will stick to my brushing ritual – brush, floss and mouthwash. Glad you stopped by!

  9. Basti May 29, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Hong Kong is a bit further advanced but a visit to the dentist is still fascinating. Yesterday I had my teeth cleaned and x-rayed. The dentist mentioned some of my fillings are a bit old and might need to be replaced. Plus, there’s an area between two teeth that might need a filling. So I asked “might”? So shall we do it right now? The dentist’s answer: “No, just monitor it. It’s not that bad yet. Come back in a year and we make a decision”. I was flabbergasted….

    • gkm2011 June 4, 2014 at 7:09 am #

      I had a dentist in the states once who was like that – sometimes small fillings aren’t worth it. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Chris P July 22, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    When I was young, I was always taught to brush up and down. As I got older, the dentist started telling me to do circles. In a recent visit to a Hong Kong dentist, I was instructed to brush from side to side.

    I’m sure next time I’ll be told to brush in a “triangular motion.” 😛

    • gkm2011 September 13, 2014 at 10:50 am #

      That triangular motion may be the wave of the future! Funny how things go in circles. I think the most important is to brush and floss in general, regardless of which method you use!

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