“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.
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