For those of you who are sensitive to political correctness, brace yourselves…
Cultures sometimes have customs that are detrimental to their people. We all know that this is true to some extent, but many of us are afraid to say it out loud. I’m thinking specifically of two customs here in China, spitting and public urination. It may not be PC, but should “culture” really trump public health?
If you have spent any amount of time in China, you have probably given someone a dirty look as they work up the phlegm lodged deeply in their lungs and spit it at your feet. The sight and sound has ruined a number of meals for my wife and I.
In China spitting isn’t just acceptable outside, it is pretty much acceptable on any floor. I’ve seen it in the classroom, in restaurants, in malls, even in the hospital.
This tradition of spitting (really, they call it a tradition), comes out of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The idea being that phlegm is a manifestation of the illness inside you, so it must come out.
This may have wonderful curative effects for the spitter, but as the spittee it seems like a part of the reason that TB is a common disease here, and that diseases like SARS spread faster than the plague.
As an anthropology major I have tried to be open and understanding of this part of Chinese culture, but I have little patience left for it at this point.
In Guangxi I once sat next to a man on the bus with a terrible cough (probably bronchitis or pneumonia) who was hacking his phlegm into a thin plastic bag, which is better than the floor, but by the end of the 4 hour ride he had created a water-balloon sized pouch of spit that still makes my stomach churn. He left it on the bus for the attendant to dispose of.
The other custom that worries me is that Chinese children are often encouraged (until they are 6-7) to urinate whenever and wherever they feel the need.
I think I have seen every possible manifestation of this act, but they always find new ways to surprise me. I have seen groups of boys peeing in the sandbox they play in, I saw parents helping a child pee into an exhibit at the Beijing zoo, and last week I saw a 6 year old pee into a garbage can at a nice restaurant, when the bathroom was mere feet away.
When I pointed this issue out to one of my Chinese friends, she quickly brushed off the notion that there was anything wrong with it, “Children’s urine is clean,” she said as if it were an established fact. Urine in fact is only sterile in the bladder, it picks up bacteria as it leaves the urinary tract. As it sits on the sidewalk bacteria quickly grows in the warm liquid, which spreads disease (which is also why it smells bad).
Again we have outdated ideas from Traditional Chinese Medicine that encourage acts that work against public health. The problem here is that Chinese Medicine and “Western” Medicine are presented as equals here in China (full disclosure, I only trust Chinese medicine that stands up to the scientific method).
For example, in an article about eating eggs boiled in urine, the Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor says, “Urine crystallizes after standing for a while. The crystal is similar in terms of efficacy to a kind of Chinese medicine called renzhongbai. It can treat yin deficiency, decrease internal body heat, promote blood circulation and remove blood stasis.”
Meanwhile the director of the nephrology department says, “Urine is waste expelled from human body and basically contains no substance conducive to human health.”
Who should be believed in this matter? To me it shouldn’t be an issue of “culture”.