Can “Culture” be a Problem?

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.

Public Urination

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”.

22 responses to “Can “Culture” be a Problem?”

  1. john book says:

    Thanks for your prayers!

    My wife finally got to her family’s home… but is afraid the radiation cloud from one of the ruptured reactors will soon be contaminating her and her family as the news says a radioactive cloud is headed for Tokyo/Chiba. She is to leave Japan on Thursday, your time. But the trains aren’t running, the roads aren’t safe for traffic, there is no gasoline…so we’re not sure how she gets to Narita….

    Re: your fine posting…Japan has similar spitting and urination “traditions”.
    In the more rural areas, you see urination as well as defecation… almost anywhere…but along side roads is common. Men and women are partakers of this “tradition”.

    As for spitting….the spit seems to react with whatever is on the sidewalk or street or station platform, etc…. It disfigures the surface….like chewing gum stains are all over the concrete or asphalt…. Go figure……

    I have not explored the cultural roots of these things…. but was wondering if these are “traditions” all over Asia……

    • Tom says:

      In China you still find these behaviors in the big cities. Beijing has tried and failed to stop spitting. I would imagine it’s roots through out Asia might be the same, I don’t know much about traditional medicine in Japan, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t at least influenced by China.

  2. Dan says:

    Well, what’s the medical problem with public urination?

  3. Pelo says:

    I made the mistake of reading this thread during breakfast! I thought I could handle it, but I was wrong! LOL!

    As far as the spitting and urination in public thing goes, I also heard that bodily functions such as belching (and other things, ah hem…) in public are not considered offensive. My question is, if these behaviors are considered acceptable, are there any behaviors that are considered to be impolite in public?

    • Tom says:

      Belching seems to be perfectly acceptable, but farting doesn’t seem to be.
      Excellent question, things that would be impolite would be more related to “face” things like getting angry, or declining polite requests are rude. Also Chinese people will tell you that spitting is rude, but they would never ask someone else to stop.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I read the piece about eggs boiled in young boys’ urine and wondered if the child public urination is a male thing. Have you ever seen the small girls urinating in the restaurant garbage cans? Is this a sexist piece of behaviour due to the fact that the boys have neater equipment for this activity? All your examples were of small boys. Is this another example of spoiling the little emperors in not requiring them to walk a few feet to the bathroom? In some kind of weird way, it would make sense to a person who is willing to eat the eggs boiled in a small boy’s urine. Not me though!

    • Tim says:

      In my 3+ years in China, I’ve never seen a girl peeing in public, but I’ve certainly see girls pooping in public, right on the sidewalk. Like Tom, I can’t understand this phenomenon and my soon-to-be (9 weeks away!) Chinese wife and I don’t intend to raise our children (should we be blessed with any) in that way.

    • Tom says:

      I didn’t mention in it the article, that I used to eat at a restaurant where the shopkeepers daughter would pee or poop on the sidewalk in front of it, even though the shop had proper facilities. I highlighted boys peeing, because the age for them sees to be later, and their equipment allows for more creativity.
      In Nanjing I also spot older men urinating in public on a regular basis, but have only seen older women do so a few times although once was at the Nanjing Massacre museum.

  5. Allan says:

    It seem to me that the “rule” is that wherever you need a pee or poop is where you must doing it (oh yeah…i never get tired of seeing grown men and women squatting down in full view of me and squeezing one out! Sometimes i wonder who is more shocked, me seeing them crapping or them seeing a foreigner! Maybe seeing a foreigner helps them loosen their bowels a little more, who knows. Sometimes i want to shout “If you can see me, i can see you! You are not Harry Plopper with his cloak of invisibility!”). I have seem mothers help their toddlers do their business outside McDs and even seen them take a dump in a fountain where other children were playing! Hell my own mother-in-law has made my daughter pee in the corner of a private room in a restaurant (unfortunately i was in the opposite corner and couldn’t get round in time.) But this is a culture that tells new mothers that they “shouldn’t clean their teeth after giving birth because…(wait for it)…it is bad for their teeth!” This happen to my wife!

    As for the spitting i have noticed it is like the way dog mark their territory if one guy in a group spits the rest seem to follow suit, like saying “Get off my land!”

    When i come into China and the Customs guys ask “anything to declare?” i always feel i should say “Common sense and logic!”

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for the stories (full disclosure: I cleaned up the language slightly to make it more family friendly).
      The number of bodily function stories in China is limitless.
      I have heard a variety of health suggestions for pregnant women, even coming from educated doctors, some of them make me want to pull my hair out. My current favorite is the concern over radiation from computers, which leads them to wear special aprons in the office.

  6. […] 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 … Continue reading → […]

  7. Bill Rich says:

    Chinese insist that they use Chinese methods of doing things that were invented in China, suitable for Chinese conditions. Public health is just another western ways that was created to humble the Chinese, slowing the development and opening of China, and therefore should not only be ignored, it should be considered harmful, for Chinese people personally, and to China, and its culture.

    • Tom says:

      I would love to hear an elaboration on this point Bill.
      From my understanding public health is actually a great way to speed up development. After all the plague didn’t really increase Europe’s GDP, just like TB and SARS slow down China’s development.
      Please, enlighten us on the trickery of the West when it comes to Public Health.

    • restuarant unemployee says:

      and don’t forget, your human bodies are entirely different from our human bodies, after all – your race has ‘chinese characteristics.’

      what did you think our thousands of medical schools at universities in europe and north america were DOING for the past 200 years?

      national exceptionalism is bs no matter what country it occurs in.

      your biology is our biology – in geological timescales our migrating races have only been seperated by a few thousand generations since we wandered out of africa.

      is it wrong if i hoch up a loogie louder than my chinese neighbor does… everytime he does it? his might be bigger – i stopped smoking..

  8. […] links, March 15, 2011 “Culture” be a Problem? :: Seeing Red in China Has China Gone Wrong :: Understanding China, one Blog at a Time […]

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Wow! Yes! Please enlighten us Bill. Tom you have certainly started something here! I don’t know when I laughed so much! Where I live, in rural North Scotland, public health is so important that I drive into the countryside so my dog can take a dump!

  10. restuarant unemployee says:

    i spent a few years working at an american owned family rib restaurant here in vancouver – one night i had a table of a mainland chinese family, parents and two boys.

    lots of the usual finger snapping and paying the cheque before the plates were cleared, but the worst was that he encouraged his boys to make a mess of the table – ice cream was dumped into glasses of coke and then onto a plate of mash potatos and stirred around, sugar poured everywhere, etc.

    then the hostess came to me and said “a man just told me he saw a chinese man tell his son to poop over the drain in the men’s room.”

    and sure enough, i had to get the broom to sweep up our free ‘nuggets’

    but it’s pure, donchyaknow??

  11. […] few weeks ago I wrote “Can Culture Be a Problem?” in which I detailed some of the public health problems that are common in China, and how […]

  12. […] 有个在中国当了几年老师的美国人,最近写了一篇博文,叫Can ‘Culture’ be a problem? (文化是不是个问题?)他写了以下两段:“在中国,在户外吐痰是可以让人接受的,不但如此,在任何地上都是可以接受的。我在教室里、餐馆、商场里都见过,甚至是在医院里。” […]

  13. samuel welsh says:

    its gross, they should stop it

  14. […] be believed in this matter? To me it shouldn’t be an issue of “culture". Can “Culture” be a Problem? | Seeing Red in China Reply With […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.