Chinese tourists abroad and China’s spitting image

today I was interviewed by the BBC for the badly behaved Chinese abroad. my piece about spitting can explain why so many still do.

BBC News Story

China’s state media says a top official has called for Chinese tourists to behave more politely when travelling abroad. Wang Yang, one of the country’s four vice prime ministers, said the uncivilised behaviour of some Chinese tourists was harming the country’s image. Among the vices he singled out were talking loudly in public places and spitting. He said the quality and breeding of some Chinese tourists was not high. Foreign holidays have become ever more popular with China’s increasingly affluent consumers. (Mr Wang’s comments came as the government discussed implementing a new tourism law.)

Spitting Image

Zhang Lijia

Nowadays, I hear a lot more spitting around my new house. Not that China is getting worse with the ubiquitous habit but simply because we’ve recently moved from a fairly up-market compound in Beijing city center resided by affluent Chinese and expats to a pingfang – low rise houses area further out of the town where many migrant workers congregate. In our Wine God Village, the narrow streets are splattered with web blobs and dried yellowish phlegm decorated the wall of red brick houses, even though in the neighbourhood committee’s propaganda board, red slogans talks about “Building a civilized, hygienic and harmonious community.”

The Chinese themselves have repeatedly voted spitting as the most hateful habit and two thirds of adult admitted spitting regular, according to one survey. That means that there are 900 million habitual spitters in China.

It usually comes with a loud throat clearing “hhggaarrkh” as sort of foreplay before the actual spit flies out one’s mouth. For me, the worst part is when people, after shooting the spit to the ground, try to grind it with a foot as if it would make it disappear but they only make a sticky wet patch.

"Oh, Yak, look, mum, that man just spat again." “Why do Chinese have to speak so loudly?” Just about everyday, my two daughters, aged at 12 and 14, make such complaints. I have to remind them that they are actually half-Chinese and were born here. However, having lived in London for years and now going to the British school, they find certain Chinese habits, such as spitting, littering and loud speaking as well as nose-picking in public, disturbing.

I find myself trying hard to explain to them – not exactly defend – why the Chinese behave in this way. Loud talking, for example, is often the 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 is rude if you speak on top of your lungs. My ex-husband, a soft-spoken British man, used to complain about my volume. "Sh, I am here, right in front of you. No need to shout," he used to say. But it was just the way I was brought up. If I shout, my father, an amateur opera singer, thunders whenever he opens his mouth, which startles my children.

Many Chinese claim that they spit due to health reasons, saying that they have phlegm in their throat as a result of suffering from chronic bronchitis, colds that never get better and other respiratory problems. Hacking and spitting is just a way to clear the lung and throat. One important reason that the Chinese spit more than anyone else is our deep belief that swallowing phlegm is bad for you; while in the west, people swallow it to avoid spitting in the public. And in China, the air is often polluted which generates more phlegm. And there are plenty of heavy smokers.

Lack of education is often blamed for some of the uncivilized behaviour. But it doesn’t explain everything. In late Qing Dynasty, Li Hongzhang, as a great learnt man, was given the important task of dealing with the outside world – the “barbarian handler” as he was known. Western diplomats were disgusted by his habit of spitting into a pocket spittoon while negotiating state affairs! After all, for too many years, spitting was socially acceptable.

And using a spittoon is a civilized behaviour to a Chinese mind. Until recently, our Chinese leaders had their ceramic spittoons by their chairs when they received visiting foreign dignitaries or royalties. Chairman Mao had one right by his feet when he granted an audience to President Nixon in 1972.

No campaigns actually want people to stop spitting but to spit into spittoons, rubbish bins or your own tissues. Just about in every Chinese city, you can see a poster which urges people “No spitting everywhere!” beneath the Chinese characters: 禁止随地吐痰。

There can be a sharp edge to the blobs of spittle. You can convey your dislike or disrespect of someone by spitting hard purposefully in front of the person. It was used by the boxers during the Boxers Rebellion. In 1990, a banner raised by them read: "Certainly foreign soldiers are a horde; but if each of our people spits once, they will drown."

It seems impossible to stamp out the dir-hard habit despite the authority’s repeated effort. In the run-up to the Olympics, Beijing government made fresh effort by imposing heavy fine of 50 yuan for anyone caught spewing out his product. Officials handed out paper bags and tissues and patriotic or civic-minded volunteers rushed out to train stations or squares, serving as “spit-spotters”, alert to any sound of hawking and spitting. In 2010, Guangzhou government went even further by issuing a regulation which can evict a tenant in a government-subsidized housing estate if he is caught spitting more than seven times in public.

Nevertheless, I believe that many of the uncivilized habits here come down to the lack of public concern. Speaking loud privately is one thing, but doing so at dawn in a hotel when everyone else is sleeping is another matter.

Of course, there’s the force of habit. I actually much prefer my new neighbourhood of Wine God Village. The streets are full of life and energy; people are friendly. And it is authentic. Some of my neighbours have indeed brought their habits from their village where the social norms are looser. Another reason for their uncaring behaviour, I suppose, is that they feel that they are not accepted or respected by the locals. Beijing is not their city. So why should they care?

Spitting is the most notorious among the uncivilized Chinese manners and has made its way into travel literature. In his Riding the Iron Rooster, travel writer Paul Theroux wrote about the Chinese: “Spat all the time. . . You expected them to propel it about five yards, like a Laramie stockman sitting over a fence. But no they never gave it any force. They seldom spat more than a few inches from where they stood. They did not spit out, they spit down."

Overall, spitting has become much less a problem. As a former champion of spitting competitions, I used to spit a great deal. When I was a worker at a rocket factory, we used to have spitting competitions when we were bored. We would line up and see who could shot the furthest or hit a certain spot with force and accuracy. Theroux would have changed his lines if he had seen us! 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. But the changed living environment and the realization of its unpleasantness – especially the foreplay – have transformed me. If I can change, anyone can.

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2 thoughts on “Chinese tourists abroad and China’s spitting image

  1. Very, very interesting
    Special for me it’s fantastic!!!
    I am working as an etiquette and protocol coach (social, diplomatic and business Etiquette and Protocol)
    I wish I could go to China to coach Easten Protocol and learn more about Chinese Protocol and Etiquete.

    Kind regards
    Ana de Brito

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