At the start of my Chinese class each week, my tutor asks me if I have any questions. Usually I have a bunch of things I want to say and need to know the best way to go about it. This week at the top of my list was the word “disgusting.” I immediately feel bad when I ask her. My eyes dart sheepishly to the floor. “Of course I don’t want to use it, not really,” I say…back pedalling faster than a fox in a lion’s den.
“I just want to know if there’s a word for it, you know, just in case,” I stammer. I can almost feel her heavy sigh…reverberating through my own body.
Living in China, I am forced to constantly remind myself that what often seems inappropriate in my culture is certainly not in others.
Of course, on this particular occasion, I’m thinking about my recent flight south to Guangzhou, which is when I found myself mentally searching for the Chinese equivalent of “disgusting.”
On the trip down, a lady next to me proceeded to spit at random intervals into a paper bag, pulled from the seat pocket. She made no moves to disguise what she was doing and I guess I should be thankful she used a bag! And of course, no one but me batted an eyelid. Why would they? Spitting has been a ‘thing’ the world over since the dark ages and in China today, a good hoick (that’s Aussie slang for spit) is largely par for the course.
On my flight home, to Xi’an, a man next to me continuously made that loud, (to my untrained ears) cringe-worthy, hacking sound with this throat, you know, that guttural sound that signifies the build up of bodily fluids. I was tempted to reach over and pull out his paper bag!
I desperately wanted to tell him to stop, because, well… it sounded “disgusting.”
I didn’t though, mainly because I didn’t know the words — but mostly because I know to him it’s nothing of the sorts….and I was pretty sure I was also completely outnumbered in my disgust, as the only westerner on the plane!
It begs the question about whether the belief that “it’s better out than in” is warranted. Given the amount of polluted air I’ve no doubt inhaled in the last few weeks as winter descends rapidly upon us, while I can’t quite bring myself to ‘flob’ on the ground, in a paper bag (or the floating candles in the hotel lobby for that matter – yes that’s happened!) I am inclined to agree somewhat with the theory.
Unfortunately, while the jury is still out, most evidence points to the fact that spitting does spread airborne diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia and bronchitis.
My tutor does agree that spitting on the footpath is “not so nice” but says it’s hard to educate the older generations. In many ways, she’s right. I used to frown and shake my head profusely when I would see an elderly person or just for the record, a middle aged and often young person, spit directly in my line of sight…. suddenly causing me to veer sharply off my path to avoid colliding with said spittle.
Now I realise it’s probably futile…locals have no idea why the strange, white woman is screwing up her face like a donkey’s ass, gesturing madly. Is she having conniptions? Does she need the toilet herself?
“Spitting, my friends, is a sign of healthy lungs!” They proudly say.
For me, living in China, it’s often a case of two worlds colliding — sometimes the clashing of my moral high ground with reality rumbles a little louder.
The glamorous lady teetering on high heels up the main drag, so busy staring at my small person and I – with a cigarette swinging frantically in her pursed lips, as she shouts “Piaoliang!” (Beautiful) through her clenched teeth at my little blondie — all the while seemingly oblivious to the fact her own child is up against a tree, relieving himself in full view of a swarm of motorists and passersby on a busy tourist stretch.
Or the car stopped outside the hotel, doors flung open, traffic banking up behind, daddy holding little Daisy over the gutter. “When you’ve gotta go….”
Or how about the motorbike that ‘had to be seen to be believed’ this morning, it’s baskets front and back, piled high with dead chooks, feathers floating into the air. Disgusting right?
Only to me, the lone foreigner traversing the morning traffic.
And the toilets and their often obscene state which had my conference colleagues recoiling in horror.
To my tutor’s credit, she immediately turns the conversation onto us unyielding foreigners. Do we really blow our nose, loudly in public? She questions! I have to think about that. Yes, well….um — she cuts in, crinkles up her nose and tells me about a time at the dinner table in Australia, when a man took out a tissue and makes a jolly old show, raucously relieving the contents of his nose like a foghorn into a tissue! And then put it back into his pocket! Disgusting right?
Errr well…. I suppose it is. I nod meekly.
After all your perception is your reality.
And every culture is different.
This is China.