September 14, 2013

"No place on earth celebrates the loogie quite like China does."

"At any given moment in China, there are millions of people hawking enormous globs of phlegm and expelling them in great cascading arcs until they splatter on streets and sidewalks. It’s done for medicinal reasons, a way of expelling bad elements from the body. The government has observed that westerners find the habit strange and more than a little icky and so they’ve undertaken a campaign to stifle the spitting. I can only hope that they fail. Having grown up in a loogie-sensitive culture, to suddenly encounter a nation of hurling spitballs is one of those up-is-down, black-is-white experiences that periodically makes traveling so gratifying. I should note that I mean that in the broad, philosophical sense and not as an endorsement of spitballs and the like."

Said Maarten Troost in 2008 in an interview about his then-newest book "Lost on Planet China," which I'm just noticing today along with his now-newest book "Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story" and his 2006 book "Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu."

As you may know, I'm addicted to listening to audiobooks to get to sleep. (I use this small under-pillow speaker so Meade doesn't have to hear it.) I have about 100 audiobooks, but only about 10 of them are really any good for falling asleep. I've listened to some of the books hundreds of times because they work so well for me, for various reasons. I need a gentle voice. Fiction never works because it's always read dramatically on these recordings and because if you drift away from the thread of the story and come back it's hard to reconnect. It needs to be interesting sentence by sentence and also out of context. One of the books that has worked — over and over — is Troost's "The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific."

Looking for some new sleepable books, I saw there were 3 other books — with the same narrator — and I bought them all.

The quote at the top of the post might remind you of the chapter about China in David Sedaris's new book "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls," which I also use, in audiobook form, for sleeping, even though its usefulness for that purpose is undercut by the musical bumpers between chapters and, in at least one chapter, noise from a live audience. Unlike Troost, Sedaris isn't enigmatically bemused about phlegm:
I saw wads of phlegm glistening like freshly shucked oysters on staircases and escalators. I saw them frozen into slicks on the sidewalk and oozing down the sides of walls. It often seemed that if people weren’t spitting they were coughing without covering their mouths, or shooting wads of snot out of their noses. This was done by plugging one nostril and using the other as a blowhole. “We Chinese think it’s best just to get it out,” a woman told me over dinner one night. She said that, in her opinion, it’s disgusting that a Westerner would use a handkerchief and then put it back into his pocket.

“Well, it’s not for sentimental reasons,” I told her. “We don’t hold on to our snot forever. The handkerchief’s mainly a sanitary consideration.”

13 comments:

Jeff with one 'f' said...

Here in New York I once saw an Asian woman, very elegant in a skirt suit with high heels and tasteful makeup, every bit the picture of a successful professional, suddenly make that hocking sound and spit a HUGE loogie on the street. This was in midtown, the sidewalks full of men and women dressed for white collar jobs. I knew then that she wasn't an American!

CatherineM said...

Jeff - Try walking around Chinatown

jimbino said...

Right, and there in Katmandu the make those burgers right on the stoop where folks have been depositing loogies.

gbarto said...

Saw Simon Vance at the local audiobook store. He's also the voice for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and did a reading when the third one came out. His readings of Troost are fantastic, but the Larson books probably aren't so good to go to sleep to.

Inga said...

My son in law travels to China several times a year for business. This past spring my daughter and grandchildren went along during spring break. Many of the men have a long fingernail on the pinky fingers, to pick the ears and nose with I'm told. My grandson thought is was kind of awesome, my granddaughters were grossed out and my daughter was horrified. And these were not "country peasants", they were businessmen. Also people in China do not often say "thank you", it's just not something that is done in their culture according to friends from Singapore. I have no idea if this is correct, or just bigotry by the Sinagporians.

Michael said...

In China in the 80s the peasants/farmers were the only segment of society that had money and leisure and they flocked to the city flinging their spit here and there. There were no spitting signs in all the museums. The farmers would crowd in, cram in, and push each other in long lines through the exhibits. Never bothering to look.

Kelly said...

We were stationed in Korea. I was about three months pregnant and in a shack waiting on the bus. It was so cold out, something about the cold in Korea is bone chilling. An elderly man sitting next to me casually leaned over and blew snot out of his nose onto the floor. I ran outside and threw up and stayed there until the bus came.

tim maguire said...

I'm more on the Sedaris side. I think spitting is one of the most disgusting things a person can do and when I see someone do it, I don't want to be within 10 feet of them. They are walking plague as far as I'm concerned.

So, good luck to China in curbing that habit; if I ever want to visit, I'll have to check their progress first.

That and pre-potty-trained kids going...wherever. China actually sounds like a pretty gross place.

Jeff said...

As to tim maguire's comment about pre potty trained children going wherever: I was sitting in my car getting ready to go in to the Griffith Observatory recently, and a family walked by to get to their car. Their little boy, just able to walk by himself suddenly felt the urge and pulled down his sweat pants and began to urinate in the parking lot while staring straight at me. His grandfather reached down to help guide his stream so as not to get any on his sweats, all without so much as a sound from the three other members of the family. When the little guy was done, he pulled up his pants and off they went in their mini van. Different customs, I guess.

Iapetus said...

I read Troost's book, "Getting Stoned...," before I went off last year on a trip to Fiji, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. His writing style reminded me of the travel writer, Paul Theroux. Troost took a liking to kava. I thought it wasn't too bad, but even after drinking 5 or 6 bowls of the stuff I didn't experience any of the buzz or facial numbness that some people claim to get. It was just a cordial way to pass the time with some of the locals.

Robert Cook said...

"Try walking around Chinatown."

I have...for over 30 years. In all that time I have never seen any such chronic or frequent behavior among those who live and work there. I don't say they don't do it, and I don't say it is not frequent and widespread; I only say I have never seen it.

I have seen people spit in public in NYC, and it always offends me, but I have seen no particular racial group predominating in this behavior.

In my entire life, I have never coughed up and spit out any gobs of phlegm; when I first witnessed teenage boys in high school doing it I was disgusted and could not imagine why anyone would want to do it. Maybe some people suffer chronic build up of phlegm they must expel. I don't, fortunately.

Joe said...

Is the result of the cultural revolution where the the upper-middle and upper classes were basically slaughtered? Welcome to Idiocracy.

Brian Gulino said...

I agree with Joe. Spitting inside is more a legacy of Mao's aggressive egalitarianism. Its the honest peasant showing that, "I'm as good as you." Younger Chinese are more polite.

U.S.A. seems the opposite, with young people emulating tobacco chewing professional athletes on ESPN and spitting wherever the want.