Unfortunately, it is not much fun to step on spit or hear the familiar guttural sound prior to spitting on the floor. This is a habit not only amongst Beijingers but throughout China.
Even if you sit next to a local, he or she can spit accurately not hitting your shoes. Some even use their shoes to smear the evidence on the floor - a normal reflex action.
For most Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia and USA, spitting habit has been more or less "eradicated". Hopefully soon it will no longer be a way of life in Beijing and China soon. But in the mean time, be tolerant. No harm done. I do not think a picture is necessary here.
Spitting is really common - in order to prevent SARS the government tried to ban spitting in public places. The Olympics 2008 are another reason why Beijing tries to clean up.
Mayor Liu Qi has embarked on another mission to reshape human nature. He outlined six areas for attention: Spitting, cursing, disorderly queuing, not apologising and not smiling. He had decided to embark on an effort to change human nature to eliminate these strongly ingrained habits.
Let's see whether he is successful in this ambitious attempt.
"Oh Confucius! That's disgusting! How dare you include "spitting" as a local custom in Beijing!!"
Yet it's true. Although not officially sanctioned as a local custom, spitting is a fact of life in China and especially in Beijing.
You will see signs all over the city, occasionally with English translation, that spitting is forbidden. In fact, the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square is where the national government convenes and is also where you can see the world's largest "Please don't spit" sign. (Discreetly located to the left of the front stage when seen from the 10,000 seat auditorium, no English translation)
When the political wind is blowing particularly strong (or the Olympic Committee is in town) neighborhood militia are organized to patrol the streets and fine spitters a token penalty, armed with a red armband on their sleeve and a humiliating bullhorn.
Beijing citizens do not justify spitting because of the air pollution or sandstorms, nor are they unaware that spitting transmits the flu and a few other diseases. They simply believe it is a necessity of human existence and will spit on streets, on the bus, and even spit bones on restaurant floors (the cheap restaurants that foreigners never go to).
Will Beijing ever crack down on spitters with stiffer fines and other punishment?
As Johnny Cochran once observed in Tiananmen Square, "If they need to spit, then you must acquit."
In Singapore you will be fined if you spit in public. But in Beijing, it seems like they will be fined if they dont spit. You will see people, specially the elderly and men, spitting on the street all the time. Im told that the fact they try to drag the thing out of their throat with sound effect like that is a way to get unhealthy thing out of their body. Obviously, they dont care about others....
The Chinese are huges fans of hocking up everything in their throat and spitting it anywhere and everywhere. They believe that it is a hygenic thing to do, more so than our western tradition of blowing our noses and sticking the tissue in our pockets!
Do not be offended by the constant sounds of loosening throats, just remember to watch where you're walking!!
One thing that is a bit of a surprise here is the hawking and spitting. It seems to be mostly carried out - entirely unapologetically - by the old folk, and takes a bit of getting used to. There is a government drive to stop this habit, and there are posters up everywhere with threats of fines for those caught in the act, but it still happens. A lot.
Most of the locals do not speak English and if you can't speak Chinese, you should get yourself a tour guide to avoid getting lost.
Do not be suprised to find the locals spitting every now and then. In winter, you can find frozen spit globs splattered all over the ground.
Avoid hugging or kissing someone if you want to thank or say goodbye to them. They are a rather conservative bunch.
Beijingers are not formal, nor do they have a set of enigmatic social rules that excludes outsiders. The Chinese do not bow (as the Japanese do), and they do not remove their shoes upon entering a house. Beijingers tend to be frank, and they do not, as a rule, thank others for favors, except by later actions. They shake hands but seldom embrace or kiss in public. They joke, but they do not speak loudly; and they seldom brag about their own accomplishments. Until recently, spitting in public and smoking whenever and wherever one pleased were common habits, but in recent years in Beijing, spitting has become unacceptable and smoking, in many public areas, has become unlawful. Don't expect the same thing when you leave Beijing and explore the country. I especialy found the smoking very bad in busses and trains. In sleepertrains it is okay, but in sleeperbusses they smoke like crazy.
People are generally ambivalent about westerners. It would seem they don't encounter many. English rarely spoken. The most difficult local habit to contend with is the constant spitting you see everywhere. Men, women, young and old. When you hear someone winding up, --stand clear..
We soon discovered that coughing up great wads of spit is a natural part of the everyday life in Beijing. I’m not sure if people cough and spit because of the air pollution or because they have a lot of dust being blown in from the deserts in the north. It seems like there is quite a lot of downfall in Beijing. I read somewhere that an average big city gets about 8 tons of downfall pr square kilometre but Beijing gets about 18 tons. Well, I can tell you that it is noticeable…some days when I blew my nose the tissue ended up kinda dirty…I shall not go into more details :-)
Don't be too disgusted by all the spitting. The Chinese in Beijing live in a dustbowl and they see spitting as healthy.