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China: Spitting image

August 2, 2008

Lijia Zhang
The New Statesman (UK)
July 31, 2008

As the Games approach, the state is trying to wipe out habits
visitors may find offensive

"Oh, yuk! Look, Mum, that man just spat!"

"Why do Chinese people have to speak so loudly?"

Just about every day, my 11-year-old daughter, May, makes such
complaints. I have to remind her she is actually half-Chinese and was
born here. However, having lived in Britain for four years and
returned only recently, she does find some behaviour in Beijing
streets shocking.

Not just her. Very soon, western athletes, journalists and tourists
arriving for China's Olympics may express similar sentiments. Those
venturing off the beaten track may find themselves surrounded by
staring crowds asking all kinds of personal questions.

To ensure the success of the Games and to make visitors feel
comfortable and welcomed, the government has launched a mass campaign
to wipe out embarrassing habits. Downstairs on our local propaganda
board, red slogans urge the public to try hard to be civilised
citizens, and not to spit, litter or jump queues. At train stations,
grannies with red banners round their arms behave as spit-spotters,
fining anyone who dares to pollute the ground. And state media warn
readers that asking for a visitor's salary and age is regarded as
rude in the west and should be avoided.

I find myself trying hard to explain to my daughter - not exactly
defend - why people behave in such a fashion. Loud talking, for
example, is often a necessity. It's so noisy here that no one can
hear you if you hum like a mosquito. And, of course, no one thinks it
rude if you speak at the top of your lungs.

My ex-husband, a softly spoken British man, used to complain about my
volume. "Shhh, I'm here, right in front of you, no need to shout," he
used to say. But it was just the way I was brought up. I may shout,
but my father, an amateur opera singer, thunders whenever he opens
his mouth, which startles my children.

The Chinese themselves have repeatedly voted spitting as the most
hateful public habit, but it is nevertheless common. It usually comes
with a prelude of loud throat-clearing. For me, the worst part is
when people shoot their spit to the ground and then try to grind it
with their feet to make it disappear, but succeed only in making a
sticky wet patch. Even in our upmarket compound, I can spot traces of
dried phlegm everywhere - on stairs, walls, and even in the lifts.

For many years, it was socially acceptable to spit. When I worked at
a rocket factory, my fellow workers and I used to have spitting
competitions if we were bored to death with greasing the machine
parts. We would line up and see who could shoot the furthest or hit a
certain spot with force and accuracy. In those days, most parts of
China were pretty dirty, so it didn't really matter if you added some
dark yellow bits here and there. For the same reason, people dropped
litter anywhere they liked.

If the Chinese spit more than anyone else, one reason may be our deep
belief that swallowing phlegm is bad for you; in the west, by
contrast, people swallow it to avoid spitting in public. The famed
pollution may be another reason.


Nevertheless, I must admit that many of the uncivilised habits here
come down to a lack of public concern. Speaking loudly in private is
one thing, but doing so at dawn in a hotel when everyone else is
sleeping is another. Once I took my nanny, an uneducated village
girl, to the cinema to see a new film. In the middle of it, her
laughing and loud comments about a black character's large backside
forced me to drag her out.

The Chinese are openly curious. My daughters May and Kirsty are
bothered by it. "Why do you look like foreigners?" people ask all the
time. "Who is your father?" Some pinch their cheeks and others pull
the golden hairs on their arms to see if they are real. Westerners
may consider such behaviour intrusive, but in our crowded living
environment, there isn't room for privacy.

And please, bear in mind that the Chinese people's curiosity is
generally warm and harmless. My family has experienced so much
kindness from strangers: people let us sit down on crowded
underground trains; villagers offer food and drink when they have so little.

As a former champion of spitting competitions, I, of course, used to
spit a great deal. When I had had enough of spitting and the
oppressive routine at my factory, I turned to literature and I taught
myself English. Learning English in effect changed my life and
brought me to the west. The different living environment transformed
me. I still talk more loudly than the average westerner, but I have
long stopped spitting - it wasn't too hard to kick the habit.

And things are changing. With improved living standards, the streets
are becoming cleaner, with less litter and fewer yellow stains. I
trust, overall, that people will behave during the Olympics, not just
because of the government's mass campaign, but because of one simple
fact - we Chinese are proud people and we would like to put on our best face.

Lijia Zhang is an author and journalist. Her book "Socialism Is
Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China" (Atlas & Co, £14.99) was
published in February
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