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April 18, 2010 / Katie

A Concert of Spitting

For most foreigners living in China (by choice, I should note, since these are patently different from expats relocated to Asia for work), there are things one learns to accept about the place: pollution, line cutting, paying the foreigner price for things, crowds everywhere, corruption, dicey traffic, Communist propaganda, and long, uncomfortable stares. To make it through the day you have to give into a willing suspension of disbelief, or in this case, a willing suspension of judgment, otherwise you’ll be frustrated to no end by things you have little control over.

a bilingual sign asking people not to spit in the elevator

One of the things I was more than happy to leave behind in China was the spitting, which was constant–morning, noon, and night. To give you an idea of why this might bother me more than the rest of its drawbacks, when I was a little girl I used to tip-toe down the sidewalk in my patent mary janes and lacy white socks in order to avoid all the black gum spots. Even as a less germaphobey adult, I still cringe at the sound of a throat-clearing kkkkueechtoooey. I remember always twitching to look behind me as I walked down the streets of Shanghai, trying to make sure that anyone spitting within earshot was not close enough for their spit to land on me.

I was amused when I read this passage from Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger (which is also one of the best books I’ve read this year); it brings the eternal loogey-hawking of China into vivid relief. Ironically, the book takes place in India and is told through letters from an Indian entrepreneur addressed to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao. Yet the scene is not too far off from one I can imagine taking place in China on a daily basis.

There was a fierce jam on the road to Gurgaon. Every five minutes the traffic would tremble—we’d move a foot—hope would rise—then the red lights would flash on the cars ahead of me, and we’d be stuck again. Everyone honked. Every now and then, the various horns, each with its own pitch, blended into one continuous wail that sounded like a calf taken from its mother. Fumes filled the air. Wisps of blue exhaust glowed in front of every headlight; the exhaust grew so fat and thick it could not rise or escape, but spread horizontally, sluggish and glossy, making a kind of fog around us. Matches were continually being struck—the drivers of autorickshaws lit cigarettes, adding tobacco pollution to petrol pollution.

The autorickshaw driver next to me began to cough violently—he turned to the side and spat, three times in a row. Some of the spit flecked the side of the Honda City. I glared—I raised my fist. He cringed, and namasted me in apology.

“It’s like we’re in a concert of spitting!” Mr. Ashok said, looking at the autorickshaw driver.

Well, if you were out there breathing that acid air, you’d be spitting like him too, I thought.

I used to be that empathetic narrator. I wanted to understand and embrace the ‘culture‘ while I was in China, so I tolerated the spitting. Besides, it’s true, the place is a hot toxic mess. Instead of seasonal colds, people get pollution colds. I could feel the gunk in my own throat gurgle up whenever I coughed or laughed. For heaven’s sake, the people had to spit to get that crap out of their bodies.

Everything changed, though, when I showed up in Chinatown one year later. In my mind, America had always been a spit free zone. Imagine my chagrin at realizing I was right back where I started: kkkkueechtoooey!

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