United in Mutual Revulsion: Spit and Shoes

Comic on spitting and shoes

It is amusing how horrified we can be about the behaviors of others, while turning a blind eye to our own horrifying habits.

Spitting is an entrenched habit of many in Mainland China. Entering the elevator in my Chinese high-rise apartment, I was often greeted by a slick of opaque spit in the corner. Fortunately, in my present home of Hong Kong, a SARS-related aversion to germ-spreading has wiped out most public spitting.

A spitter has explained the logic behind the habit to me: essentially, since the air is so polluted and your phlegm captures this pollution, why would you dream of swallowing it? Far more healthy to eject this filth. I can understand the logic. (The logic, however, would still work if a tissue were employed between a person’s mouth and the ground.)

While I have yet to established my own ‘cleansing-through-spitting’ practice, my time in Asia has completely cured me of the habit of wearing shoes indoors. For years my mother tried to convince us to remove our shoes inside. We mainly ignored her: what a pain to unlace our sneakers just to cut down on vacuuming.

Now I cannot bear to enter a house with my shoes on. I find it mildly revolting when others march in with their filthy outdoor shoes on.

After all, who would want to track all that hacked up pollution (dog shit/car oil/mud) back into their homes?

41 responses to “United in Mutual Revulsion: Spit and Shoes

  1. Urgh, that spit thing is revolting! But I did see a lot of people spitting out on the streets of Seattle, too, I have to say. And it is one of the reasons why wearing shoes indoors also grosses me out. The worst thing is when people don’t take off their shoes before entering a bed- or bathroom, I find!
    Always love your cartoons!

    • Now that I think about it, I too can think of many times I’ve seen cyclists and runners spitting in Seattle (and they don’t even have the terrible pollution excuse!). Always gross when there is a near miss going around Greenlake …

  2. Interesting comparison, although I think spitting is more likely to have potential to spread disease. I like the prevalence of “Room Shoes” in Hong Kong homes. I have 5 pairs for myself & guests (& I live alone!). Also the standards even with in China are vastly different. I was a live in teacher to a mainland kid last summer. His home in Shenzhen was spotless but when we visited relatives in rural Sichuan it was a different story. In Sichuan they had a toilets in the farm houses but many people preferred not to use them & had chickens, cats & people with shoes wandering in & out as they pleased.

    • I suppose once you have animals wandering in and out of your house, whether shoes are on or off becomes rather pointless! Thanks for sharing another interesting data point.

      I am in desperate need of more house slippers… In this heat, I’m mainly going around barefoot, but slippers are always nice in the kitchen.

  3. Reblogged this on Ain't Mine No More and commented:
    So true! Isn’t it just amazing how deeply ingrained some of these reactions are? Some thinsg are “disgusting”, whereas others are “completely normal” (how about blowing your nose and then putting the tissue in your pocket?). So good to be confronted by someone else’s “normal” every once in a while!

    • Thanks a million!

      Also, you’ve just made me realize that my Great-Grandmother’s habit of using one wadded up paper tissue all day long (a habit of the Great Depression) was actually kind of gross.

  4. I can totally relate to this! I take off my shoes ALL the time now, and I remember fighting my mom on this for many years… The spitting thing totally makes sense to me, too, though it would take some getting used to. The one thing I’ve heard about Mainland is that, in some parts, people pee beside the road… (Actually, I’ve seen that in other places, too, but…) But that is not something I’d find easy to get used to.

    • I think the place I’ve been with the most public peeing was India. Made for some unpleasantly fragrant walks on hot days….!

      As for my mom (and yours): they can only shake their heads and laugh now that we finally “get it.”

  5. You so captured my feelings on this subject!! I can hardly stand to think about having my shoes in the house or in a suitcase.

  6. Kind of related — My thing is pants. I can’t wear pants in the house. They drive me nuts and I imagine all the public transport cooties getting on everything. Yuck.

    Definitely not related — back when it was in the news, my best friend and I took to changing the lyrics to the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” to be “SARS! All I really want is SARS! In the morning it’s SARS!” It made the whole situation less scary.

    • Pants? Does that mean you have special indoor and outdoor trousers that you switch in and out of (like Mr. Roger’s with his sweaters)? I wouldn’t have had you pegged as a mysophobic!

      When you come up with a cheery song for “avian flu” let me know. I may need to keep it in reserve.

      • My special indoor clothes are pjs. I put them on almost immediately because I love being comfy. The germs thing is a side bonus.

        You can make a bird flu song to the tune of “Born Free” quite easily, but it won’t be as good as my song about monkey pox in the style of MC Hammer: “STOP! Monkey pox!” [dance, dance, dance]

      • Red letter day!!! This is the furthest laugh I’ve ever gotten in (almost) real time! Like George Costanza, I should leave on a high note so I bid you a good weekend. I’m outta here!

  7. I also don’t understand why spitting is so prevalent back here among professional baseball players. You see them doing it all the time on TV. I can understand that it may be necessary while they are out there on the field concentrating during the game but there is really no excuse for the act in the dugout. And then you start seeing kids imitating them in little league. Ackk!.

    • This is a really good point. I hadn’t thought about the professional baseball players and their spitting!

      The cross-cultural difference is not nearly so clear-cut as I initially imagined…

  8. In Sweden, nobody wears shoes inside the house. We took over that habit and the house stayed much cleaner and as I don’t like cleaning this was a good thing! 😉 We kept the habit when we moved to the Netherlands. We can all learn from each others cultural habits and keep the habits we like.

    • So true! One of the nicest things about being an expat is exposure to different ways of doing things.

      When my first born was a new baby, I lived in China. The Chinese were always commenting that I should do things this way or that way. I also knew lots of expats from Europe and S. America and they all also had a lot of different ideas about raising a baby. In the end it was completely freeing to realize that everyone does things a little bit differently and that I could really do whatever I liked (borrowing the best bits from everyone)!

  9. Yes!!! Shoes indoors is gross!! Esp in N America where most houses have carpet! Glad to hear you’re a covert. And yes, the spitting thing is gross too, and like you I find that somehow it’s acceptable during athletic activities (running around Greenlake… I’ve had to dodge quite a few over-zealous splitters myself!)

    • I can remember spitting a few times while either running or cycling around Greenlake after a bug fly in my mouth. All spitting etiquette is waived in such circumstances.

      Looking forward to what your writing for this week’s post 😉

  10. I wonder if there’s a correlation with spitting phlegm onto public spaces and getting all types of weird diseases in China that you don’t get in North America. Like the H1N1, etc. I’m sure it has something to do with the hygiene (or lack thereof) in public, but maybe also the close proximity of people to each other, as well as the weather in southern China, which is hot and humid. Perfect for all types of bacteria to survive? Just a very unscientific rambling.

    • Come back to me next week with a more detailed analysis including some sort of scientific graphic. Also be sure to compare the emergence of new scary diseases against combined number of fake and genuine luxury items sold. I think we’ll find a direct correlation.

  11. No one wears shoes in the house in Norway either… At first I felt like this was an inconvenience, now I think it’s the best! The house is much cleaner and it’s more comfortable too 🙂
    As for spitting, I think that’s disgusting (no matter what) 😦

    • You’re the second person to mention this great Scandinavian habit. Goodness knows why my Scandinavian great-grandparetns didn’t carry the habit with them to America!

      As for inconvenience: now I only buy slip on shoes! Of course this is easier done in a hot climate…

  12. Pingback: Summer slippers | 中国 Jumble·

  13. The real thing to learn here is that there is always some sort of logic in cultural habits. They may be outdated at times but they always come from somewhere…

    I’m happy I have clean air to breathe, but I know I only have it because the Chinese are doing the bulk of the dirty, industrial work we used to do here. Growing up with a heavy exposure to Asian culture, I’ve always had a shoes-off policy in my house. I like your explanation as to why it is done. There’s too much dog poo in the world, and that’s exactly why we don’t want it tracked in as well!

    • Very well said, that there is usually a logical reason behind lots of things that “outsiders” view as horrid. Though, sometimes the initial logic behind the behavior may become moot, and yet we keep doing these things anyhow out of habit (probably applies to many of our own small superstitions).

      The logic behind shoes off in the house, however, remains sound!

  14. Heh, love the cartoon. And after living in a shoeless house in Asia and knowing how dirty our non carpeted floors get, I will never go back to carpet! If I can help it!

  15. actually people from the mainland urinate and defecate everywhere they are in HK, ie indoors malls, subway stations, streets, even in restaurant counters; even in front of a hospital.

    need I say more?

    • There are uncouth people everywhere. I just saw a grown man pee in the middle of a children’s play field in Seattle. But I know there are many “rustic” Mainlanders whose behaviors aren’t up to Hong Kong standards. Shanghaiese also complain about them. People change (but sometimes slowly).

  16. Pingback: The Great Urine Wars of Hong Kong | Expat Lingo·

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