Shexplainer: Why Chinese People Spit
Shexplainer is a weekly column where we take a scalpel to an aspect of Chinese culture that expats experience everyday but have never really explored in detail. Need something Shexplained? Email us at email@example.com.
No we're not taking about that discrete spit you do to expel a straggler from a recent lunch. We're talking about that guttural hocking sound an old-timer makes in broad daylight as they click a raw oyster into place, and then discharge it onto the sidewalk with a water balloon-like splat. Shanghai is a veritable phlegm brulee factory. Even worse than the spitter is its Hezbollah-like splinter faction: the snot rocketeers, who shoot globs of phlegm onto the curb with the accuracy of Yanomami blow-gunners. You live here long enough and that guy who hocks into a napkin or between the dividers on the subway seems mannerly. So why do people do it? The short answer: health. It's believed that when pollutants have been accumulating in your lungs all day, the failure to clear them out via spitting could lead to respiratory illness (blowing your nose just doesn't do it properly). Whereas in Western culture it's said that hocking phlegm spreads respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis. The long answer?
The same reason people cut in line, litter, burp loudly, pick noses, open the emergency exit on the plane, and myriad other behaviors viewed as bad manners in the West. If you see someone with a white patina on their beard, they've lived through a horrific period in Chinese history. People forget that though China may be atop the wealth chain, the nation was poor just yesterday. It's rich like Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk; the manners haven't really had time to catch up to the moula. This is not unique to the Middle Kingdom. If you recall, the US' rapid 1950s wealth boom spawned the "ugly American" tourist. It simply might be China's turn to be the "ugly American."
Head of the Sarita Institute, Sara Jane Ho recognizes these historical factors: "When you're struggling to get to the front of the food ration line during the Cultural Revolution you're not thinking about personal space and queuing up."
According to Ross Coomber, a sociology professor at Britain's Plymouth University, it's even more subjective than that (first published in the NY Times): “For India and China, I feel that a lot of elites are looking elsewhere to get a gauge on what civilization is. My personal opinion is that spitting is so embedded in these cultures that I don’t see why they have to modify their behavior. A strong, confident country should be able to say, ‘No, these are things that we do and you need to understand that.’”