Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spitting in public

It's getting milder here -- and nothing like the horror stories I've heard from my American friends, about piles of snow and near-zero temperatures -- but it's still cold-and-flu season. As I've mentioned, I got a walloping dose of it myself.

I've heard that, according to Chinese medicine, it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. This sounds pretty reasonable to me. I'm also told that it is considered disgusting to blow one's nose in public, no matter how quietly and discretely. I have seen only two people do it in my six weeks here. Both were students of mine, both female, and both went quietly "puff, puff, puff" into little tissues that quickly disappeared from view. I wouldn't have noticed at all, if I hadn't been alerted to the fact that it's an uncommon practice.

So this leaves really just one option: apparently, the norm (at least for men) is to hawk and spit in public. Because somehow that's not nearly as disgusting as blowing into a tissue. (?!?!)

I had been told that it's considered acceptable for men to spit in public. This was wrong: it's not "accepted," it's a cherished art form. If the normal onomatopoetic "hawk" describes the American practice, here it would be a polysyllable. They lean into it. They relish it. There should be competitions for poetic expectoration.

It seems not to be done indoors, though. I suppose that indoors, there is an assumption that someone will have to clean up after you. Whereas outdoors on the street, the only person "cleaning up" will be some stupid American who walks by looking upwards, as Americans tend to do, instead of down at the ground.

I wonder why Chinese people always take their shoes off when they enter the home.

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