Spitting image

As the Games approach, the state is trying to wipe out habits visitors may find offensive

"Oh, yuk! Look, Mum, that man just spat!"

"Why do Chinese people have to speak so loudly?"

Just about every day, my 11-year-old daughter, May, makes such complaints. I have to remind her she is actually half-Chinese and was born here. However, having lived in Britain for four years and returned only recently, she does find some behaviour in Beijing streets shocking.

Not just her. Very soon, western athletes, journalists and tourists arriving for China's Olympics may express similar sentiments. Those venturing off the beaten track may find themselves surrounded by staring crowds asking all kinds of personal questions.

To ensure the success of the Games and to make visitors feel comfortable and welcomed, the government has launched a mass campaign to wipe out embarrassing habits. Downstairs on our local propaganda board, red slogans urge the public to try hard to be civilised citizens, and not to spit, litter or jump queues. At train stations, grannies with red banners round their arms behave as spit-spotters, fining anyone who dares to pollute the ground. And state media warn readers that asking for a visitor's salary and age is regarded as rude in the west and should be avoided.

I find myself trying hard to explain to my daughter - not exactly defend - why people behave in such a fashion. Loud talking, for example, is often a necessity. It's so noisy here that no one can hear you if you hum like a mosquito. And, of course, no one thinks it rude if you speak at the top of your lungs.

My ex-husband, a softly spoken British man, used to complain about my volume. "Shhh, I'm here, right in front of you, no need to shout," he used to say. But it was just the way I was brought up. I may shout, but my father, an amateur opera singer, thunders whenever he opens his mouth, which startles my children.

The Chinese themselves have repeatedly voted spitting as the most hateful public habit, but it is nevertheless common. It usually comes with a prelude of loud throat-clearing. For me, the worst part is when people shoot their spit to the ground and then try to grind it with their feet to make it disappear, but succeed only in making a sticky wet patch. Even in our upmarket compound, I can spot traces of dried phlegm everywhere - on stairs, walls, and even in the lifts.

For many years, it was socially acceptable to spit. When I worked at a rocket factory, my fellow workers and I used to have spitting competitions if we were bored to death with greasing the machine parts. We would line up and see who could shoot the furthest or hit a certain spot with force and accuracy. In those days, most parts of China were pretty dirty, so it didn't really matter if you added some dark yellow bits here and there. For the same reason, people dropped litter anywhere they liked.

If the Chinese spit more than anyone else, one reason may be our deep belief that swallowing phlegm is bad for you; in the west, by contrast, people swallow it to avoid spitting in public. The famed pollution may be another reason.

Open curiosity

Nevertheless, I must admit that many of the uncivilised habits here come down to a lack of public concern. Speaking loudly in private is one thing, but doing so at dawn in a hotel when everyone else is sleeping is another. Once I took my nanny, an uneducated village girl, to the cinema to see a new film. In the middle of it, her laughing and loud comments about a black character's large backside forced me to drag her out.

The Chinese are openly curious. My daughters May and Kirsty are bothered by it. "Why do you look like foreigners?" people ask all the time. "Who is your father?" Some pinch their cheeks and others pull the golden hairs on their arms to see if they are real. Westerners may consider such behaviour intrusive, but in our crowded living environment, there isn't room for privacy.

And please, bear in mind that the Chinese people's curiosity is generally warm and harmless. My family has experienced so much kindness from strangers: people let us sit down on crowded underground trains; villagers offer food and drink when they have so little.

As a former champion of spitting competitions, I, of course, used to spit a great deal. When I had had enough of spitting and the oppressive routine at my factory, I turned to literature and I taught myself English. Learning English in effect changed my life and brought me to the west. The different living environment transformed me. I still talk more loudly than the average westerner, but I have long stopped spitting - it wasn't too hard to kick the habit.

And things are changing. With improved living standards, the streets are becoming cleaner, with less litter and fewer yellow stains. I trust, overall, that people will behave during the Olympics, not just because of the government's mass campaign, but because of one simple fact - we Chinese are proud people and we would like to put on our best face.

Lijia Zhang is an author and journalist. Her book "Socialism Is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China" (Atlas & Co, £14.99) was published in FebruaryH

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State