I've recently found myself getting angry at the Chinese for acting like Chinese. (Doh!) When that happens it's a sign that I need to go back to the U.S. for a while to regain my sanity. Since I'm here for the long haul this time, though, I'll just have to hunker down. Fortunately I can use this blog to vent.
You can find an (incomplete) list of Chinese behaviors that irritate foreigners here. My favorite pet peeve is that the Chinese put chocolate ice cream on watermelon and call it a "fruit sundae," but it didn't make the list. Oh, well, it's a bit too idiosyncratic to make a good post, anyway, so instead I'll harp on a subject than has been harped on extensively by many other foreigners: spitting.
American men engage in "ritual spitting" as part of the National Pastime, baseball, but in
China it seems as though spitting itself is the national pastime. Odds are you'll hear the Voice
of China ("Hachh, Ptui") within minutes after arriving in the country. It's usually men who spit,
but sometimes old women do, too, and occasionally even younger women. They usually
confine their spitting to the outdoors, but not always; when they do spit indoors they usually
use a trash can, but not always. You're well advised to watch where you walk no matter where
A few years back I lived in a first floor apartment across an alley from a meeting hall. Every
morning just before 7:00 men would gather around outside and serenade me while they waited
for their meeting to start. Hachh, hachh, ptui, ad nauseam, literally. The silver lining was, I didn't
need to buy an alarm clock.
The Chinese government periodically tries to get people to stop spitting, especially when
they're expecting a lot of foreign visitors. These two photos, for example, were published on
the net shortly before the Beijing Olympics. The poster on the top was primarily in Chinese
but included an English translation because, well, your guess is as good as mine. The guy on
the bottom is being arrested for spitting in public, and judging from the look on his face, he
really feels like he's the one being wronged.
Also, there's an interesting film from the 1950s on YouTube -- click here. None of these
campaigns has had much effect, though. The spitting habit is apparently too deeply ingrained.
Several theories have been offered to explain habitual spitting in China. Most are patently ridiculous (like, getting rid of "evil humors" in the body) or just plain silly (like, the greasy food leaves an uncomfortable film in the mouth). One theory sounds reasonable -- the air is so polluted that people have to constantly clear their lungs -- but it doesn't withstand analysis. Mexicans don't spit even though the pollution in Mexico City is worse than in China; nor do long-time foreign residents in China. In fact the Chinese don't spit, either, when they grow up in a cultured environment like Hong Kong.
Habitual spitting was common in the U.S. until the late 19th century. Many people say that the anti-tuberculosis campaigns by government health agencies eradicated the habit, but I think the real reason was that the women's movement strongly supported those campaigns. The men stopped spitting as soon as they realized it turned off the women. Here in China, as long as Chinese women continue to find spitting a desirable (or at least acceptable) trait in a potential mate, Chinese men will continue to spit.
In the 19th century, the British built a small park in an area of Shanghai they controlled. They erected a sign at the entrance listing ten park rules. The first rule was that only foreigners were allowed inside, and the fourth rule was that bicycles and dogs were prohibited. Our friends in the Chinese propaganda department have revised the wording of the sign to suit their own purposes: They claim it said No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.
I think the Chinese are missing the point. They should be asking why Chinese people were banned from the park. The answer seems obvious to me: The Brits wanted to have one place in this beautiful country where they could stroll and enjoy the wonderful scenery, without having to worry about stepping in some sort of human effluvia. And even if the wording of the sign was insulting, well, maybe the Brits were trying to wake the Chinese up, to make them realize that they were turning their beautiful homeland into a cesspool. If that was the Brits' plan, it failed.
I take a somewhat different view. I think the country belongs to the Chinese people, and if they want to spit on it, they have every right to do so. I mean, they don't have many other ways to express their true feelings about the place, do they?
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