Here’s an article about Chinese spitting and a bunch of other weird things that’ll make you scratch your head.
I remember my first hour in China.
Through immigration at Beijing Capital Airport, reunited with luggage, in a mini-bus and looking forward to sleeping off some jet lag.
Everything seemed pretty normal.
The bus stopped at some lights, and a schoolgirl pulled up on our right. She was probably seven years old, wearing a school uniform, with a rucksack on her back.
It was the sort of thing you might see on the roads in your country.
Except for the fact that she had a pig in her rucksack! Its head was stuck out, looking over her shoulder.
‘You’re a long way from home now,’ I thought.
Almost all first-time visitors and expats in China have a honeymoon period, where they alternate between the ‘Isn’t China great?’ conversation and the ‘Isn’t China weird?’ conversation.
After that, some decide it isn’t for them.
The spitting, the smog, the staring and the toilets claim a lot of victims in those first few weeks.
No one is going to force you to stay, but I would argue that sticking it out and getting to understand the quirks, foibles and habits of Chinese life and people is worth the effort.
So, let me answer some of the most commonly asked questions about why the Chinese do what they do.
Why do Chinese people spit?
The first thing many people notice after arriving in China is that people spit in public.
It’s mainly older people, but middle-aged men have no shame about expectorating onto the pavement either.
The second thing people notice is that some Chinese cities are quite polluted, especially if you get to visit some of the smaller or lesser-known cities.
And the third thing many people notice is that Chinese men smoke a lot.
Clearly, these three facts are linked and the latter two explain the Chinese inclination to spit. But why don’t they have any shame about doing it?
Some people believe that it’s linked to Chinese traditional medicine, an attempt to get rid of an excess of one fluid in order to balance the whole system.
But, if you ask them, they often have a far simpler explanation: “Better out than in”.
If you have an excess of phlegm, or a bad taste in your mouth, get rid of it, and why be ashamed of that?
Conversely, they can’t understand our habit of blowing our nose into tissues, then returning them to our pockets like some treasured possession. To them, that is both unhygienic and pointless.
Any Chinese person with experience of dealing with foreigners knows we find it disgusting, and no one is asking you to like it.
I particularly dislike seeing puddles of spit in toilet cubicles or anywhere where I have to stare at it for long periods of time.
I’ve even witnessed a man spit in an elevator. It was just him and me, and although I wanted to cry out for help, I was simply lost for words.
You’re entitled to get angry if someone spits too close to you, or onto your clothing or possessions.
Government tries to rein in Chinese spitting habits
Many major cities are on your side, encouraging residents to avoid spitting, or at least direct their saliva into the bins or drains, especially in communal spaces like subway stations.
In preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, local residents were encouraged to clean up their act to help ‘civilize’ the city.
Signage urging good behavior was placed around the city, fines imposed on persistent offenders, and special ‘spit bags’ were handed out by volunteers.
And in Kunming, southwest China, there’s a loudspeaker message that plays on repeat at subway stations. It advises customers not to do four things on the train: eat, drink, litter or spit.
The Kunming subway is sparkling, by the way, but it just goes to show how prevalent spitting is across the country.
Why do Chinese people use squat toilets?
Lonely Planet writes that travelers “relate Chinese toilet tales to each other like war veterans comparing old wounds”.
Certainly, some public toilets are appalling.
But we’re not talking about the cleanliness, state of repair, or level of privacy here. We’re talking about squat toilets in general.
Even in an otherwise clean, inviting bathroom, the sight of a squat toilet – essentially a hole sunk into the ground with no seat, which you’re supposed to straddle and aim for – can be intimidating.
While there are plenty of tips on using them, you’ll have the luxury of a Western toilet in your hotel in China.
So it’s just when you venture out that you’ll have to perfect the art of using a squat toilet (insider tip: always have tissues handy!).
See also: Strange things you might do in China
Why are squat toilets preferred in China? Hygiene is a large part of the answer.
On a Western toilet, your buttocks come into direct contact with the same surface someone else’s buttocks have just touched, and then your hands (assuming you’re a man and you therefore move the seat up and down in the course of a normal day).
Unless you disinfect the seat very regularly, germs will be transmitted.
Squat toilets are quicker and easier to clean, and have fewer moving parts to wear out and replace.
They’re also cheaper to buy and install, and there is a theory that squat toilets promote – how should I put this – a more thorough evacuation than a Western toilet.
I’ll leave it to an article on Quora to fill you in on the details, but be warned: there are intestinal diagrams!
What is undeniably true is that they discourage lingering like Western toilets do. They deny you the chance to get too comfortable while doing your ablutions, so you can get about your day quicker.
And what’s not to like about that?
Why do Chinese people dislike the number four?
In standard Mandarin, ‘four’ is ‘sì’ (四), and the verb ‘to die’ is ‘sĭ’ (死).
They are different characters and different words, and the difference between the two is obvious to native Chinese speakers as they come up in conversation.
But they are nonetheless close enough to make the number four toxic in many areas of life.
Never give a set of four of anything as a gift. Don’t let the phone company give you a phone number with too many fours in it. And never get into a taxi that has lots of fours in its number plate.
Tetraphobic Chinese people will tell you that all of these are asking for trouble.
The number four is viewed in a similar way to the number 13 in Christian cultures, and indeed, some places that have high numbers of visitors from China and the West have to cater for both superstitions.
I once stayed at a hotel in Macau that didn’t have a fourth, thirteenth or fourteenth floor.
So, if your room was on the fifteenth floor and the lift was out of order, you could take comfort in the fact that you only had eleven flights of stairs to walk up or down to get to the lobby.
There’s an entire article on The Helpful Panda dedicated to this topic, including Chinese lucky numbers combinations, if you want to dig deeper.
Why do Chinese people have trouble understanding the English past tense?
If you ever teach English in China like I did, you’ll experience lots of weird and wonderful things.
For most teachers, if you want to indicate the past, you point behind your back, and to indicate the future, you point forward.
But that doesn’t work in China.
In Mandarin, there technically isn’t such a thing as verb tenses.
The Chinese word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ is ‘hòutiān’ (后天) – literally, ‘the day behind’. Similarly, ‘the day before yesterday’ is ‘qiántiān’ (前天), ‘the day in front’.
Also, English ‘next’ corresponds to the Chinese ‘down’ while ‘previous’ corresponds to ‘up’.
So, whereas the English language sees progress as forwards and upwards, Chinese seems to do the opposite. This seems absurd to us, but there is a reason for it.
This is how one colleague explained it to me: “You can’t see the future. You can’t see what’s behind you. You can see the past (in memories). And you can see what’s in front of you.”
Why do Chinese people check banknotes?
China is moving to a cashless society pretty fast, thanks to some amazing apps like WeChat Pay and Alipay.
But when you first arrive in China, you’ll probably have a wallet stuffed with Chinese cash.
Settle any bill using a 100 yuan note, and the shop or restaurant staff will usually scratch the edge of the bill, tilt it under light or rub it against a piece of white paper or cloth to check it’s real.
Bank staff and currency changers will have a machine next to them to check authenticity.
Counterfeit money is a known scam in China. Naturally, nobody knows exactly how many fake notes are circulating, and not just high-value ones.
While I’ve never been given any fake money (as far as I’m aware), a fellow teacher in China received a fake 10 yuan note from a market trader in change for a 20.
Under proper light, it looked fake even to him, and he couldn’t get rid of it.
See also: How to count money in Chinese
There are various methods for checking a note, such as running your finger over the image of Mao Zedong and feeling the embossed surface of his shoulder. However, advice changes as new editions of notes are produced and counterfeiters change their methods to catch up.
Above all, remember that fake notes are most likely to be offloaded on naive tourists. So watch out.
Lastly, remember that the Chinese are as scared of receiving (and, 99% of the time, giving out) counterfeit money as you are.
They don’t mean anything by checking the 100 you just gave them, and they’re not implicitly accusing you of trying to hand them forged money. It’s just force of habit.
I say the sooner you start using the local payment apps, the better!
What weird things have you experienced in China? Why do you think Chinese people spit? Share your thoughts below, then find out why Chinese drink hot water.
This article originally appeared on Hello Teacher and was penned by Alex Moore. Main image credit: Alex Segre on Shutterstock.
FAQ about Chinese spitting and other weird things
Why do Chinese spit all the time?
I wouldn’t say they spit all the time, but there’s definitely a large proportion of middle-aged and elderly Chinese people, especially those who live in smaller cities, who spit a lot.
Why do the Chinese spit in public?
They have no shame about getting rid of the excess fluid, and it’s a custom that goes back centuries. So, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Slowly, however, Chinese society is changing and you won’t see young people spit. You can also find signs in China reminding people not to spit. But it still doesn’t seem to stop middle-aged and seniors from doing it, especially in smaller cities. Old habits die hard.
Do Chinese people spit on the floor?
Some Chinese people spit on the floor of public areas including on buses and train stations, as well as on the street, though it’s becoming less common in big cities these days as customs slowly change.