3 Internalized Idiosyncrasies from China

Sometimes after one returns from travels, they search for some pithy declaration on how their world views may have changed. (Does that sentence count?) That truism is certainly worthwhile and meaningful, but often it’s the minutiae of daily life that is rather interesting. We go our whole lives fruitlessly searching for deeper meaning; let’s just find joy in the more fun points, shall we?

I was thinking about things about China that may have changed me a bit, not so much about world altering views, say, on the current state of democracy in the world vis-a-vis the West, but more about, say, spitting in the shower. “What?” you say.

In numerous countries around the globe and in Flint, Michigan, you may not drink the tap water. Sometimes it’s because of disease small microbes, so boiling it might work. In some cases, it’s the pipes, so lest you wish to ingest mercury or lead, bottled water is the smart choice. Some people had advised me to take all precautions possible to avoid Chinese water.

Use bottled water only backed by American corporations. (Wasteful.) Never, EVER! open your mouth in the shower. (Extreme.) Only get steaming, boiled water at restaurants. (In vogue.)

In truth it depends where you live when it comes to China. In some places it’s the pipes; in others it’s the microorganisms. And in some you miiiiight be fine. Who knows? In any case, I had always avoided the water with all costs, so much that I wouldn’t even really cook or wash fruit. Then, one day I reasoned that that is absolutely horrendous logic and I should at least test out a teensy bit of water.

Outside my subway stop was a fruit vendor, or more precisely a variety of vendors, the number of which ebbed and flowed with the…something? One day there was one, the next there were ten. It was pretty random save one man, my soon-to-be, go-to fruit guy.

One day, he finally got the courage to speak to the laowai who passed his stand daily, thus starting my nightly ritual of eating one serving of fruit. It was a pretty boring ritual, if I must say.

So one sultry evening, I took my newly acquired piece of fruit (a plum) and headed upstairs to my apartment. Like the total badass I am, I rinsed that mother****er under the sink, wiped it on my shirt – yeah, you read that correctly: on. my. shirt – and took a bite. How brazen of me.

The next morning I did normal morning things and nothing happened. And so I realized the water really isn’t so bad after all, at least in Foshan. But still when brushing my teeth or taking a shower I still took precaution not to swallow. I got in the habit of spitting four or five times after I was done just to be sure.

And somehow this habit has followed me back to the US, where for some reason I refuse to drink water in the shower, even though I’ll obviously drink from any tap not near The Great Lakes State. Even this morning, I found myself spitting several times before even daring to towel dry myself off.

So that’s definitely one small quirk I developed living in China. Another one is more noticeable, and you can find it in my speech patterns, and seeing as how I speak a lot, it’s fairly obvious.

In Chinese you can respond in the affirmative by making a nasalized en sound. (嗯) Personally I don’t think the pinyin (Romanization) is 100% perfect here, but what do you expect from a system that uses a Q to represent the English “ch-“ sound? (I’m kidding, I think pinyin is amazing actually.)

In any case, this is a very normal response.

Do you like pancakes? En.
Do you spit in the shower? En.
Do you want to marry me? En.
Can you, just like, not say en? En.

And so because this is normal in Chinese, I’ve internalized it in my coding of the world around me. Thus I say en in English to any questions. So many, many apologies to any and all confused people in conversation with me stateside.

Do you spit bones out onto the table? En.
Was this an awfully transparent segue? En.

So, one last little idiosyncrasy I’ve normalized: the spitting out of food on the dinner table. In China, it is very normal to spit out food on the table. The cuisine itself is designed around it; if it were taboo eating would be miserable.

Chinese food is designed to be bite sized or at least designed to be eaten with chopsticks. So if you have ribs, you just suck the meat of the bone in your mouth and spit the rib on the table. Eating fish and a little bone gets stuck in your teeth? Spit her out. You really want to get the chicken feet bones out, so you plop them right back on the table, too.

If you eat with friends or family at home, you often lay out newspaper or paper in general on the table for easy clean up. If you don’t, most people don’t have tablecloths, so you can just wipe the hard table clean. Many restaurants have plastic over the roundtable so they just pick it up and trash it. It’s normal.

So when I was eating a clementine and a seed said hello to my tongue, it was natural for me to rebound it onto the table. As I stared up having done something to me that was as ordinary as scratching your nose, I was met with horrified faces. Did you just…spit on the table?

Yes. Yes I did.

And so there you have it, three internalized idiosyncrasies from the Middle Kingdom: spitting shower water, saying en, and spitting food.

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

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