China’s Spitting Image

A shorter version of this article was published in South China Morning Post on 27 Sept.

China’s Spitting Image

By Lijia Zhang

I smile to myself, just to think that I, a former spitting champion, should write a piece about manners, (or rather lack of them), among the Chinese. Back in the 80s’ when I was still a rocket factory girl in Nanjing, I used to have spitting competitions with fellow workers, to see who could shot the farthest. This seemed okay at the time as everyone spat. The floors and walls of our workshop were splattered with yellow stains.

But spitting on the street in a foreign country in the 21st century? Some of my compatriots obviously do this. Spitting, littering, speaking loudly, queue-jumping and writing graffiti on cultural relics are among the common ill-behaviors of Chinese tourists abroad.

Last week, while visiting Maldives, a popular destination among Chinese holiday makers, our president Xi Jingping urged the tourists to behave themselves: “Do not litter water bottles everywhere. Do not damage the coral reefs.”

The leaders have reasons to worry. Already, China, despite its rising position, has some image issue in the world, beyond tourism industry. Wang Yang, a vice premier, said last year that the misconduct of tourists “damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact”.

Even before the two leaders’ warning, the government, in their typical paternal fashion, had issued detailed decrees as how tourists should behave while on tours abroad. I am glad that the authorities are taking the manners issue seriously. It’s a big question how much the increasingly individualistic Chinese people will take notice.

I ask myself: Why are the citizens of China, a country that boasts the oldest continuous civilization, incapable of comporting themselves in a more civilized fashion?

I think some aspects of such bad behavior can be attributed to cultural environment. Take for example the habit of speaking in a loud voice. The Chinese environment is often quite noisy, and if you speak too softly – or ‘hum like a mosquito’ as we would say – no one can hear you. My ex-husband, a Brit, used to complain that I spoke unnecessarily loudly. But that was just the way I was brought up. My father never speaks but thunders, which always startled my children when they were little.

As to China’s ubiquitous spitting, the Chinese people do seem to spit more than anyone else. Many claim to do so for health reasons: hacking and spitting are just the way to clear the lungs and throat. There’s also a deep belief that swallowing phlegm is bad for you whereas some westerners consider it preferable to spitting in public.

And spitting is generally socially acceptable. Li Hongzhang, the late Qing’s de facto foreign minister, frequently disgusted foreign dignitaries when he spat into his spittoon that he carried with him everywhere.

Some poor behavior is just not excusable. I blame the Chinese people’s lack of public concern, one of the short-comings of our national character. Some of my neighbours casually throw rubbish out of their kitchen windows while keeping their own floor as polished as a mirror.

The better educated citizens tend to have better public manners. But those who can afford overseas holidays are not necessarily well-educated, worldly or sophisticated. Indeed it takes greater effort to acquire sophistication than money. Newly-gained wealth might have lent certain arrogance to some who feel that they are entitled to do whatever they are pleased simply because they are paying.

Plenty of Chinese have not learnt to respect the local cultures or the local laws. “The rule of law” isn’t well-established in this country. If they can break the multitude of regulations without facing the consequences, many will readily do so. It’s little wonder that the smoking ban in restaurants hasn’t worked at all, something I’ve always predicted.

American and Japanese tourists also met with similar criticism when they first ventured abroad and misbehaved in public (I am not sure they were ever quite as rude as some of my compatriots.) Chinese tourists, ambassadors of the country, simply have to behave. The sheer volume – nearly 100 million Chinese travelled abroad last year – means their behabior has an impact.

An online survey conducted by South China Morning Post last summer indicated that more than 50 percent of Hongkongers held negative feelings towards Mainlanders because of the ill-behaved tourists. The people from the former colony are better-mannered, partly because they were spared of the brutal regime of Chairman Mao who deemed one’s good manners as “bourgeoisie pretention”.

The Japanese have become the most popular tourists in the world for their willingness to spend as well as their courtesy.

In the long run, with more money, higher education levels and more exposure to the outside world, I trust our fellow citizens will also adopt appropriate manners. I myself have modified the speaking volume, except when I give a public speech. I still spit, mostly into my own tissues. And I’ve learnt to refrain myself from spitting on the British ambassador’s lawn when I am invited to attend the Queen’s birthday party there.


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