If you’re planning on coming to China, plan on seeing a lot of spitting. It’s everywhere: in elevators, restaurants, shopping malls and traversing the mucusy landmines on the sidewalk is a daily exercise when going anywhere. I cannot believe how much spitting has become part of my daily life in China; recently I even had a discussion about spitting in one of my ESL classes.
There is absolutely no cultural taboo in China when it comes to spitting. In deed this action seems as normal as breathing to most local people and so there is no shame in doing it anywhere at any time. A little phlegmy in the elevator, hock a loogie in the corner. Has shopping loosened a phlegm wad, then just meander over to the trashcan and spit it right out. The spitting itself wouldn’t be so bad, but the gut wrenching ferocity of the sound that accompanies it is nauseating. It’s a guttural rumble that works its way up from the belly, through the throat with the help of several hacking breaths then is forced out the mouth with a final repulsing expulsion. It makes me shutter to just write about.
Even more disgusting is when this spitting happens at the dinner table. In China’s chop stick food culture there is no cutting around fat or bone, instead the mouth is the tool for separating the edible bits from the inedible bits and then the unwanted waste is simply expelled back onto the table. I realize that in living in China I have to amend my ways to their culture, but this is a cultural gap I’ve never been able to traverse. I have even refused several dinner invitations from Chinese friends because I simply couldn’t stomach another meal involving spit.
Recently I was teaching a class and the topic was table manners and polite behavior. In the course of the lesson we talked about many differences between Chinese manners and American manners, and I highlighted for my students what I think are the basics of American table manners: say please and thank you, chew with your mouth closed, and no spitting. A very bright, young student then asked me if spitting is rude only at the dinner table or if it’s rude everywhere mentioning that she was aware in some cultures, like nearby Singapore, spitting is actually illegal. I told her that while it is not illegal in America, spitting is not considered polite and most people refrain from doing it in public. I also shared with them, as I often do, my personal feelings about spitting and how for me this is one cultural gap I still falter at. My student, being ever so helpful and ever so Chinese informed me that I might have an easier time dealing with it if I understood it for what it really is: the sign of healthy lungs. When pushed to explain how spitting is equated with health she told me that Chinese people are hard-working and their lungs are equally as hard working as evident by their continual cleaning of themselves and the resulting coughing up of contaminants. She told me that when I hear that hacking noise I should simply think, there are a pair of hard working lungs and be happy the person has such good health. Ah yes, I thought, the very Chinese ideology that if something sounds bad it must be good. I thanked her and said I’d try. See we only have an hour per lesson which I realized was not nearly enough time to address the deeply ingrained mindset that is culturally accepted spitting in China so I went with the more simple conclusion don’t spit when eating out in America and don’t spit around me, now moving on…