CULTURAL BEHAVIOR IN CHINA
By being aware of some of the differences, you lessen the impact of culture shock and you make your life considerably easier. You are in their culture. Part of the deal is tolerating, accepting and simply dealing with everything as best you can. It’s even fun to behave like they do. Here is a list of some of the more overt cultural differences of Western culture in relation to Chinese culture:
1. Food Etiquette. Food etiquette in China is different from other cultures. Watch what they do. You will be amazed. Reaching for food is totally acceptable as it removing food from one’s mouth and putting it on the table. Slurping loudly while eating, chewing loudly with your mouth open, speaking with food in their mouth, using personal chopsticks to grab food from common plates, and no please and thank-you are all normal behaviour. Note that playing with chopsticks and making faces at the food (no matter how disgusted you might be) is not acceptable. Showing this emotion is considered a loss of face. Also note that going “dutch” is seen as unfriendly. If you offer to pay for everyone’s meal, it will develop your relationship with him or her or them, even though they may not let you actually pay.
2. Crowds. This is the one thing you have to get used to. People. Ands lots of them. If you choose to travel or go out you will be exposed to crowds. On public holidays the masses of people will become readily apparent as you shop with 1.3 billion Chinese. Don’t expect people to wait in line/queues. There is very little sense of personal space. They don’t line up one side of the escalator allowing a climbing line. They never hold the door open for you. When walking on a sidewalk, many are slow and meander so passing them is a challenge. If you give up your seat to an old person or a pregnant woman, don’t expect any acknowledgement.
3. Visiting a Person’s House. If invited to a Chinese person’s house, which will happen, always take a gift of fruit or flowers. A pre-made basket of fruit costs about 30RMB. A bag of oranges or a bunch of flowers only costs a couple of Chinese RMB. Red flowers are good to take. White flowers are only used at funerals. Fish is also a good gift.
4. Smoking. Smoking is seen as a manly thing and very few think of it as a health threat or as offensive. Often people will smoke in restaurants with little or no regard for smoking or non-smoking sections. Chinese men constantly offer cigarettes and alcohol to other men. The type of cigarettes a person smokes establishes a class system. To decline an offer of a cigarette or alcohol say gently, “Wo bu hui. Xie xie.”
4. Tipping. Today, attitudes towards tipping are changing. Although the practice is not officially recognized, tips are now frequently offered to and accepted by travel guides, tour bus drivers, porters and waiters in top-class hotels and restaurants. However, tipping is still not expected in most restaurants and hotels. Consumer taxes are included in price tags on goods but big hotels and fine restaurants may include a service charge of 10% or more.
5. Physical Contact/Holding Hands in Public. Chinese are not big on public displays of affection, you will rarely if ever see couples kissing or making out in public. Shake hands but refrain from hugging, kissing, winking, patting or making physical contact.
As a “friend”, you will find that men will hold hands with men and women will hold hands with women and walk on the street. This may be “weird” in the west, but it is a common, friendly practice for young people/adults in China. You may even have a friend of the same-sex try to hold your hand at some point. It’s a very weird feeling.
6. Eye Contact. In Western countries one expects to maintain eye contact when we talk with people. This is a norm we consider basic and essential. This is not the case among the Chinese. On the contrary, because of the more authoritarian nature of the Chinese society, steady eye contact is viewed as inappropriate, especially when subordinates talk with their superiors.
Chinese students are not brought up to maintain constant eye contact with their teachers. Eye contact is sometimes viewed as a gesture of challenge or defiance. When people get angry, they tend to maintain steady eye contact. Otherwise, they keep talking looking elsewhere or nonchalant. Also, try to avoid physical contact and eye contact with the opposite sex.
7. Bowing. Bowing or nodding is the common greeting; however, you may be offered a handshake. Wait for the Chinese to offer their hand first.
8. Spitting. Not one of the most beautiful elements of Chinese culture but definitely a predominant one. Many Westerners are put off by the “horking” and violent phlegm raising efforts of Chinese people. They do this big horklike sound – imagine this, say hawk but now pretend you are gurgling while you say it and clear your throat at the same time, that’s what is meant by “hork”. Men especially, but also 80-year old grannies, beautiful young women, that is everyone – wow. Spitting and littering is normal yet frowned upon. Even in a restaurant spitting and littering occurs. It is important to always consider where you sit or put your bag down and you are highly advised not to walk around barefoot. Refer to the extensive post following this for the complete discussion of spitting and what it is all about.
Just as unattractive is the common Chinese habit of the “one-hand nose clear”. I have never been able to do this but Chinese seem to be able to completely clear one side of their nose in one blow. Ugh.
8. Teeth. Not sure where to start here. There is no fluoride in the water. There are few dentists. Teeth are ugly here. Imagine the UK a hundred years ago… teeth are like that. As a result, breath has a tendency to be rather putrid too. Deal with it. Good luck
9. Inviting People Home. You are definitely welcome to invite Chinese people to your home. Expect that if you invite them that you will be required to supply everything, just the same as if you invite them to dinner in a restaurant. One thing to remember, it is best NOT to invite a Chinese person to your home country. Travel is not easy for Chinese people. If they want to go to your home country they will bring it up.
9. Age. Be prepared to be asked your age, or why you’re not married or don’t have any children. This is not considered prying but rather considered friendly and expressing interest in your life. Maybe a little prying too.
10. Chinese Hosts Offering Something. Usually when a Chinese host offers a guest refreshments, if the guest declines, the host will ask again twice. Remember this if you entertain at your place. If someone declines, they may really want something so you should really ask a couple more times. It makes it look like you are really concerned with their comfort… I know… Most guys don’t have the patience for this sort of stuff. Consider this scenario and then watch or participate in a Chinese Tea Ceremony. Quite remarkable.
11. Animals/”pets” in China. Most animals are not treated with kindness in China. Many Westerns have adopted pets during their stays which is great and humane and all those good things. But Chinese seem to have developed a pet culture too. Dogs are common, often in little jackets and booties. They are carried around and seem cherished. Dog poop is not cleaned up by the owners but surprisingly, there is not much to avoid as you walk around.
12. Disagreeable habits. Disgusting habits can be more narrowly defined as public behaviors that involve viewing of digestive processes and engaging in behaviors that could possibly spread bodily fluids. The reason that so many cultures have taboos around these body parts and processes is to limit the spread of disease and to constrain sexual behavior.
For some reason the non-sexual body taboos are very weak in mainland China. Here are some of them:
a. Breathing System – loudly clearing the throat, horking up mucus / phlegm and spitting it out in public areas (sometimes even indoors), picking the nose openly in public, one-handed nasal clears, farting in public.
b. Urinating – male adults urinating in public (though keeping genitals out of view), parents guiding or allowing their children to urinate openly in public (even on the sidewalks), little to no privacy measures taken for urinal areas in male washrooms.
c. Defecation – once in a while seeing a human turd on the side of the road or in the grass.
d. Smells – Mainland Chinese public use toilets are invariably very smelly. There is a stale urine smell to almost all of them. This seems to be no problem for the people responsible for taking care of them and elicits no consequential complaints from the people who use them.
1. Agricultural values. The social mores of agricultural workers and rural people are generally looser than that of urban people. There is a high percentage of rural people in China and many of them now live in the cities. Also, because of their strong representation, their values tend to influence the social mores much of the urban population.
2. Poverty. Poverty tends to make a people less civilized (or citified) and rudder. Because China has been poor for much of its recent history, social habits have degraded from a time when urban niceties may have been the norm in the cities. This has started to turn around with the rise of the quality of life but still is an important factor.
3. Valuing genuineness. Does Chinese culture eschew the rigid politeness and etiquette and rules of manner and custom that are common in other cultures? I suspect so. There is a stream of Chinese culture that values just letting it all hang out and not standing on ceremony.
4. Individualism and independence. At least part of this mentality comes from refusing to be the white man’s lackey, from wanting to emerge triumphantly from oppression, from a need to say, “I told you so” to former imperial powers. Maybe it comes from a place not so different from where young people want not only to deconstruct the mainstream but fight it as well.
These feelings cannot be ignored; in fact, a fundamental problem with how Western powers often deal with former colonies is that they do simply ignore what to them seem like irrational hang-ups. These feelings need to be acknowledged and only then can we put them behind us. Our colonial pasts must matter and then, as soon as they do, they must start to matter less.
SPITTING IN CHINA
Hearing the sound of somebody clearing their throat from way deep down and then horking out the product is a frequent daily occurrence in China. If you’re planning on coming here, plan on seeing a lot of spitting. It’s everywhere: in elevators, restaurants, shopping malls and traversing the mucousy landmines on the sidewalk is a daily exercise when going anywhere. Just take a look at the road at any set of traffic lights; you’ll see big dark brown/red splotches from where taxi drivers and the like have spat out. And everyone does it – men especially but also women from 80-year-old grannies to beautiful young women. It is especially bad in the mornings after awakening. Men hork multiple times in a row. I’ve seen guys in hostels do it for 15 minutes while brushing their teeth.
There is absolutely no cultural taboo in China when it comes to spitting. Indeed this action seems as normal as breathing to most local people and so there is no shame in doing it anywhere at any time. A little phlegmy in the elevator, hock a loogie in the corner.
The spitting itself wouldn’t be so bad, but the gut wrenching ferocity of the sound that accompanies it is nauseating. It’s a guttural rumble that works its way up from the belly, through the throat with the help of several hacking breaths, then is forced out the mouth with a final repulsing expulsion.
Even more disgusting is when this spitting happens at the dinner table. In China’s chop stick food culture there is no cutting around fat or bone, instead the mouth is the tool for separating the edible bits from the inedible bits and then the unwanted waste is simply expelled back onto the table. I realize that in living in China I have to amend my ways to their culture, but this is a cultural gap I’ve never been able to traverse. Some refuse dinner invitations from Chinese friends because they simply couldn’t stomach another meal involving spit.
Once you stop seeing spitting as a personal offence to your sense of decency, it could possibly fade into the background. From the time I spent in China I didn’t notice spitting to have any correlation to economic conditions. It is all about to culture and education.
I have become very interested in the cultural habit of spitting in China and want to understand this phenomenon. I hope to have 3 questions answered in order to increase my understanding:
1. Why do the mainland Chinese value the clearing of the throat more than other people? What benefits do they believe are derived from this expunging?
2. Why do they not feel socially inhibited from engaging in this anti-social act? In most other societies this behavior is considered extremely rude and socially malicious. Why not in China?
3. Why do they hork – make such a throat clearing noise – so loudly?
This is what I came up with.
Cultural Differenced Between Countries
A few hundred years ago, spitting was all the rage – as natural as walking through mud or drinking beer from a tankard. Only relatively recently in human history has it become taboo. Non-spitting is a largely recent phenomenon. Just about every society used to spit commonly. Today we swallow when once we would not have done. If we were not to some extent bound by cultural norms, it would simply be to get stuff out that feels like it should come out. Culture, however, can affect the extent to which we feel the need to do this.
While spitting is celebrated in some areas – there are Guinness World Records for spitting grapes, cherry stones and champagne corks – hurling your own saliva on to the street with your tongue is generally frowned upon.
Taiwan. Why is spitting in public very common in mainland China but very rare in Taiwan? Spitting is not an element of Chinese culture that people had “at the time they moved”. It’s actually rather rude in traditional Chinese culture. A good fraction of affluent and well-educated Chinese in mainland China will not randomly spit on the streets, either. If you want to see better Chinese behavior and respect for traditional Chinese culture, Taiwan is much better. They never jump queues. And they always stand to the side on escalators allowing the walkers to climb. Spitting happens but it is not nearly as common. 1. Japanese influence. The origin may in no small part be due to Taiwan’s history with Japan. I’m sure there are Japanese who spit, but you don’t notice that habit in Japan much. 2. The fact that it is rare in Taiwan is likely a combination of the island’s statistically higher affluence combined with a consistent standard of education that emphasizes etiquette and social responsibility (and the social inertia to maintain that higher level of etiquette). 3. Another mildly contributing factor may very well be the lower levels of pollution in Taiwan. A lot of people feel the need to spit due to the levels of dust and air pollution particularly in northern China. 4. Taiwan is more civilized than China because it never went through the Cultural Revolution. Mao, in the last decade of his life, deliberately tried to destroy the more refined aspects of traditional Chinese culture, and in particular wanted to smash the intellectual class and old rich. Focus on the slogans which were used during the Cultural Revolution and you will get a good idea. Many people in their 50s and 60s in China grew up during the CR period, so their veneer of civilized behavior can get very thin at times. Younger people tend to behave better but not always. 5. Many things in Taiwan are different. The culture of Taiwan is largely based on the values of the ruling KMT that came over to Taiwan in 1949; made up of land owners and generally the “upper classes”; where spitting and other such things wouldn’t have been acceptable in the way that it’s not acceptable in the upper echelons of any other society. In China, their culture is now shaped by communism, made up of the “lower classes” (a generalization of course), amongst whom spitting wouldn’t be frowned upon and thus it has taken hold.
Singapore. Even though the majority of the population is Chinese, spitting is actually illegal.
Hong Kong. it took the British decades to put a lid on it. It used to be common to see spittoons under the tables in restaurants and cafes. It is now considered unacceptable to be seen doing it in public. You can actually incur a spot fine if caught.
India. A lot of it is the dribbling-out kind of spitting, ‘embedded behavior’ that goes with the chewing of pan, a combination of betel leaf and tobacco. There is much less bringing up from the back of the throat.
South Korea. It is usually men smoking. They smoke very urgently. In Seoul, a smoker can finish a cigarette in 90 seconds, and also spit six times into an ashtray.
America. There are many differences between Chinese manners and American manners. The basics of American table manners are: say please and thank you, chew with your mouth closed, and no spitting. While it is not illegal in America, spitting is not considered polite and most people refrain from doing it in public.
Britain. British pubs had spitting troughs at the base of the bar right up until the 1930s. Spitting was phased out when public health campaigns began connecting it to the spread of tuberculosis, even though there was little evidence it caused more cases, and in fact, there are no known health risks. Most people find urinating in public and spitting equally repulsive. Indeed, for the thousands attending Britain’s music festival scene, spotting someone spitting is probably more disgusting than watching someone peeing in public, such is the regularity of the latter. There is really very little spitting in the UK now. If you take away the oft-used argument that outdoor spitting spreads diseases – the likelihood is very, very small – then you are left only with an argument about manners, something that is far less powerful.
Russia. Spitting over your left shoulder three times is seen as a way of warding off the devil.
Maasai tribes in East Africa greet each other through spitting.
Spitting in Sports. Footballers spit a lot. Squash players exert themselves to a greater degree than footballers yet they never spit. Tiger Woods spits but doesn’t need to. Tennis players don’t spit regardless of how tired they are.
REASONS WHY CHINESE SPIT
1. Spitting is embedded in this culture and most Chinese don’t see why they have to modify their behavior. This is something that they do and you need to understand that. Spitting is not a universally rude gesture. People in China spit because they are brought up in a culture that does not see spitting as especially bad. When you see someone spit you are grossed out because you’ve been taught to be grossed out by spitting.
It is a deeply ingrained mindset. Spitting, farting, growing a long fingernail, to pick one’s nose, not brushing teeth, in these things, all Chinese people are unrestrained. It’s a lot more visible and audible. The spitting culture in China isn’t aligned with a particular substance. Spitting is culturally bound only in the sense that this is what they do. They don’t swallow. Swallowing to many Chinese people is a disgusting thought – as is blowing your nose into a hanky and putting it back into your pocket or up your sleeve – they prefer to spit.
It is part and parcel of their way of life. Spitting doesn’t exist for many separately to breathing or eating: it is part of the gamut of what they do. It is us or other non-spitters that separate it out and see it as different to the manners that we prefer. People in the West shouldn’t see themselves as more civilized because spitting is discouraged. We are just civilizing in a different way.
2. Language. The verb “to spit” has two ways to pronounce it and each has a different meaning – tù means both “to spit” and “to vomit,” but if you change the tone — tǔ — “to spit” has a third meaning, spitting to show your contempt for someone. The big distinction is voluntary vs. involuntary. That makes sense until you separate horking lugies from spitting at people and put it together with puking: They believe puking and clearing your throat are more or less the same because “it’s something you do because your body is uncomfortable” and “you don’t choose to do it – you just can’t help it, it is a necessity”. They are basically the same. But spitting in contempt is different (and thus has a different pronunciation) “because it’s something you do on purpose”. Chinese seem surprised that we didn’t find this plainly obvious. They’re obviously fundamentally different physical actions, and their explanation — even though the language itself reflects it — makes no sense. Puking is something you usually can’t help doing even when you want to, and it’s something you wouldn’t normally do on purpose, never mind that it involves different parts of your body from spitting. But to us, clearing your throat is almost always a choice; people have to deliberately work up a bunch of phlegm before letting it fly. Horking and spitting should be in the same category because (a) they are physically pretty much the same action, and (b) it’s almost always a voluntary action, whereas puking is a different physical action and you usually have no choice.
Chinese are surprised that we disagree with this. So what do Chinese people think when they see foreigners not spitting. Most people assume that we spit, too, but that we just spit in private! I hadn’t thought of that. They are surprised and quite skeptical that we pretty much don’t spit. “Well then what do you do?? Do you [makes a swallowing gesture]???” They are totally grossed out that we just swallow our regular daily spit. If we’re sick and coughing a lot of phlegm, we spit that out in the bathroom, but they are disgusted at the amount of spit we swallow daily.
Cross-cultural category disputes are interesting because they sometimes reflect differences in the deeper, often unconscious assumptions underlying our respective worldviews. For example, I most naturally — and I think reflects my own general cultural heritage — try to classify things according to what I perceive as their innate properties. Here we see the influence of science and individualism. So with spitting and puking, I look exclusively at the biological aspect of the actions to determine their respective classifications. In this case, the what (food vs. saliva), why (involuntary vs. deliberate), and the how are all different. The social aspects of these actions didn’t even factor in. Horking is voluntary; puking is usually unavoidable. But their categorization makes sense according to a different criterion: spitting in a way that is socially/relationally irrelevant (puking, spitting to clear your throat), and spitting as a relationally relevant action (spitting to show your contempt for someone).
So since it’s fun to play with irresponsible intercultural speculation, is Chinese culture in any way reflected in the way that spitting is divided into relationally relevant and relationally irrelevant actions (rather than categorized according to the innate physical properties/characteristics of each action), or whether that’s all just a stereotype-driven coincidence? East Asians are generally culturally more predisposed to think about and define objects in terms of their relational context, while Westerners are more likely to define and categorize objects according to their perceived innate characteristics and properties.
So the short answer: Why is there so much spitting in China? Because a lot of people pretty much see it as a necessity, and the idea of swallowing all that spit is just gross! What is involved is not just a difference in language and opinion regarding a somewhat sensitive topic, but also a difference in thought categories.
3. Keeping demons away. When a waiter spit on the floor while taking their order, it was suggested that it was a superstition meant to keep demons away.
4. Spitting in public reflects a deeper issue: the breakdown of a mutually respectful relationship between the individual and society at large. Chinese people would never spit on the ground in their own homes. In fact, the home is usually kept spanking clean: different slippers for bathroom, kitchen and living room, plastic wrap on couches months after buying them, etc.
The difference is that while present day Chinese people feel the same sense of duty and respect for their own home and family, the sense of respect for ‘public property’ or the common good is almost completely lost among most people. A person from any culture wouldn’t mind spitting on something he has absolutely no regard of, as long as it is socially acceptable. In China, despite government signs everywhere suggesting spitting is uncouth, such behavior is not totally frowned upon.
5. Most Chinese see it as a sign of healthy lungs. Chinese people are hard-working and their lungs are equally as hard working as evident by their continual cleaning of themselves and the resulting coughing up of contaminants. When you hear that hacking noise you should simply think, there are a pair of hard working lungs and be happy the person has such good health.
6. Why do men spit when they go for a pee? Not every male hocks a loogie upon lowering his zipper – but a lot do. Look out for it next time you happen to be in a men’s public toilet. Toilets have to be – for men, anyway – the number one place. And in many Asian countries spitting in the urinal is often a louder, more forceful event. Maybe men spit as they are urinating because they figure they may as well kill two birds with one stone – why dispel just one substance from your body when you are in the perfect position to dispel two?
7. Spitting can be a way of displaying our anger or marking our territory.
8,.And yes, the very Chinese ideology that if something sounds bad it must be good.
Spitting is a major reason Chinese tourists can feel unwelcome abroad. And more are traveling: Chinese will make about 100 million trips next year, up from 82 million last year, and over 90 million this year. They have passed Germans as the most traveled people.
But discrimination and prejudice against Chinese people abroad hasn’t diminished. Even though Chinese people bring tourist business with them, they are also castigated by foreigners. Some foreigners don’t feel kindly toward Chinese tourists because they say they are ill-mannered – spitting, loudness, line-cutting and littering.