A funny-in-an-appalling-sort-of-way conversation about spitting last week in Chinese class uncovered an interesting thought category difference between our Chinese teacher and her North American students. So without further ado, read on for some irresponsible speculation regarding a Chinese-North American category dispute and some stomach-churning subject matter!
Spitting in Chinese Class
There’ve been public campaigns to curb spitting since at least the 1950’s and especially in the run up to the Olympics. Spitting seems down compared to before the Olympics, but it’s still everywhere. The topic rarely comes up with our Chinese friends because it’s just not nice for foreigners to bring up embarrassing discussion topics. If this particular conversation hadn’t uncovered some (I think) interesting cultural differences, then I probably wouldn’t be writing about it. But I have a latent obnoxious streak, and when our teacher was teaching us how to use the verb “to spit/vomit,” I couldn’t resist jumping on the chance to ask questions about something we usually don’t ask about. The ensuing discussion turned into a revealing but maddening category dispute because it involved not just a difference in language and opinion regarding a somewhat sensitive topic, but also a difference in thought categories. I’m pretty sure my teacher was annoyed, but I sure learned a lot. :)
When introducing the verb “to spit” (吐) our teacher explained there are two ways to pronounce this word and each has a different meaning. She said tù means both “to spit” and “to vomit,” but if you change the tone — tǔ — you can say “to spit” with a third meaning: spitting to show your contempt for someone. The big distinction in her mind was voluntary vs. involuntary “spitting,” and that made sense to us until she separated horking lugies from spitting at people and put it together with puking:
|吐 — to spit/vomit
|Involuntary, physical necessity
|puking, horking, spitting to clear mouth (tù)
||spitting in contempt (tǔ)
I think this rubbed our fur backwards a little because the spitting is something that foreigners try to ignore but can’t accept; it’s embarrassing. I really wanted to find out what the deal was, especially considering that foreigners’ bodies don’t force them to spit, even though spitting is supposedly involuntary. So I asked.
To my teacher’s mind, 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 (“没办法“). But spitting in contempt is different (and thus has a different pronunciation) “because it’s something you do on purpose.” We protested, but she countered with saying that horking and puking are basically the same — and seemed surprised that we didn’t find this plainly obvious.
The two Canadians and one Yank in the class couldn’t let it go just yet; we figured it’s kind of important to know how to distinguish between puking and spitting no matter what language you’re learning. They’re obviously fundamentally different physical actions, and her explanation — even though the language itself reflects it — made no sense to me. 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, nevermind that it involves different parts of your body from spitting. But 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:
|Wet stuff coming out of people’s mouths
We tried to object with most of that, but our teacher seemed surprised that we disagreed at all. So I asked her what people think when they see foreigners not spitting. She said most people assume that we spit, too, but that we just spit in private(!). I hadn’t thought of that. She was surprised and quite skeptical when I and my two classmates told her that aside from being really sick, we pretty much don’t spit. Once she saw that we were serious, she looked slightly alarmed and asked, “Well then what do you do?? Do you [makes a swallowing gesture]???” She was totally grossed out that we just swallow our regular daily spit (we explained that if we’re sick and coughing a lot of phlegm, we spit that out in the bathroom, but she was still disgusted at the amount of spit we swallow daily).
Going way overboard
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 (self-definition). 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.
My teacher also claimed to categorize according to the deliberate vs. involuntary distinction, and she probably honestly thinks this is what she’s done, though I think we can say that, objectively speaking, she hasn’t: horking is voluntary; puking is usually unavoidable. But her 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, I wonder if Chinese culture is 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. Some people, like psychologist Richard Nisbett in the Geography of Thought, say that 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. In this classroom experience, my teacher and her students happened to disagree along this line drawn by Nisbett.
This little anecdote isn’t near enough to go drawing conclusions about connections between this particular Chinese verb and potential underlying worldview predispositions. One anecdote is just an anecdote, and there is more than one Chinese verb for spit. But irresponsible cultural speculation is still fun to write some times. =)
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!