Spitting, Peeing, Snot Rockets, and Me (part 1)

My time in China has exposed me to my fair share of public spitting, peeing, and snot rocketing. Thoughtful fellow that I am, this makes me all introspective. What are the effects of five years of phlegm? How potent is the power that all that pissing poses to me, personally? Let us examine.



It’s no secret that freedom of expectoration is a widely held ideal in the PRC. Some of the enlightened city folk of this great nation are fighting the good fight of hygiene, but if they’re making any progress, it’s extremely slow.

How am I affected? Well, I haven’t picked up the habit. I tried spitting once when I was about 10. A neighbor boy convinced me that swallowing my own saliva was uncool, and I enthusiastically followed his example for a week or so. Pretty soon I realized, though, that there was really no point. I had no surplus of phlegm to purge, and as I rarely found myself atop tall buildings, I gained nothing from the habit. I dropped it.

China hasn’t offered any compelling reasons to pick up the habit again. (Maybe the laobaixing snob thinks otherwise?) Still, I now find that if I ever have something unpleasant in my mouth while outside, I don’t hesitate to expel it orally. Back home I might have hesitated.


Ah, public urination. One of the (finer) joys of being a man! There are a few unwritten rules to be observed when participating in this glorious ritual in China. They seem to be: (1) do it outside, and (2) face a wall. That’s pretty much it.

Do I do it? No. At least I won’t admit to it. If I were to do it (hypothetically), it would have to be at night. None of this daytime peeing. It would have to be a relative emergency. I wouldn’t water an innocent wall if I could hold it until I got home. Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to see me doing it, because (1) I’d be embarrassed, and (2) I wouldn’t want to look like a Western hypocrite. (We Enlightened Occidentals must be a shining beacon of model urination to the misguided micturating masses, you know.) So I’d have to find some out-of-the-way, semi-private urinary sanctuary. Such circumstances might conceivably conspire to occur in China — hypothetically — very late at night after I’ve been drinking. I guess.

Snot Rockets

The Chinese have the “Four Great Inventions” to be proud of. With all the enthusiasm with which they celebrate its exsitence, I would be wholly unsurprised to learn that the snot rocket is a technique bequeathed unto the world by the Chinese as well. Who needs tissues when you’ve perfected the art of snot rocketation?

Well, I do. Which is not to say that I’ve perfected its execution… I just can’t bring myself to do a public snot rocket ever. I guess some cultural mores remain secure.

Tune in tomorrow for PART 2: INDOORS!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. You don’t do these things INDOORS too! Do you?

  2. I have to laugh at the Google ads that this headline has engendered: there are 4 for OTHER types of rockets. No one offers snot rockets for sale though.

  3. Wow, I’m learning new English vocabulary left and right!

    I do have to disagree with one of the urination rules, though. At times, the act of micturition is aired at the top level of a staircase, making it necessary for those walking up to look the other way (one would hope to have a raincoat too).

  4. Why did you have to publish this at exactly dinner time in my part of the world?!

  5. Can’t wait for tomorrow! Don’t forget the amazing ability to eat at a restaurant and go shirtless at the same time. By the time I worked up the courage to take part in that accepted behavior, it got too cold to do it. Oh well, maybe in the spring.

    Spitting is awesome though, but unfortunately it seems the students I hang around never spit.

  6. Honestly, I am a little upset to read this article. I never spit neither outdoor nor indoor, because I can’t do that and I don’t learn to do that. And I don’t have these other bad habits you mentioned either. I need tissues to clean my nose.

    My point is that many foreigners like to say Chinese this, Chinese that, but it’s incorrect. Not all Chinese have these bad habits, and some Chinese even hate these bad habits, like me. So the right way to say is that some Chinese have………. or some Chinese do…….

    My husband used to say Chinese……….., too. I corrected him to say some/most/many Chinese or this/that/these/those Chinese.

    Just please don’t point to all Chinese.

  7. I’m more offended seeing people throw trash on the ground everywhere than I am by public pissers and snot rocket launchers. At least human body fluids are biodegradable. I actually witnessed two teenaged girls stop right in front of a trashcan at Jusco and just drop their paper cups on the ground. I don’t think they even registered that there was a trashcan right in front of them. On another occasion, I went hiking in beautiful Laoshan with some older Chinese folks. After we had a picnic lunch, they proceeded to pitch their trash on the ground. The whole point of the trip was to show me the scenic beauty of the mountain, and they were polluting the place with their garbage. ARRRRGG!!! I know about face and all, but I couldn’t help trying to pick up the trash and put it in my backpack. “Hwanbao, hwanbao,” they muttered in a “yeah, right” tone. I realized that Chinese people are good at thumbing their noses at government slogans, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

  8. 翠花儿,

    Of course you’re right. But I spend enough time on other entries carefully crafting my opinions and qualified generalizations that I’m not going to feel guilty for having a little fun with an entry every once in a while. Call it artistic license. If you’ve read many of my other entries you should know my true stance.

  9. I’ve gotten used to the spitting and the peeing happens relatively infrequently enough (and aside from the smell it is generally harmless), but snot rocketation (you’ve coined a new term..congrats!) seems to be something that I shall never be able to get over. It’s just so dirty on so many levels. It makes me sick just thinking about it. Urban snot rocketation just should not be allowed.

    Looking forward to part 2

  10. Tim P,

    Tune in tomorrow!

  11. Canuckster Says: December 7, 2005 at 11:26 am

    I’ve been planning my move to Shanghai, which will take place in February, and reading random blogs of expats to get a sense of what life is like in that part of the world. I feel a bit hesitant about the move, although I’m sure one can’t make any general assumptions about all of China or Chinese people, from reading these blogs. Is it as bad as expats make it out to be?

  12. Canuckster,

    No, in Shanghai it’s seriously not bad at all. I prefer to think of it as interesting.

    As 翠花儿 will tell you, many Chinese people are clean, upstanding individuals, and the members of the population which exhibit the behavior above are a separate group.

  13. Drew and Sonagi,

    Let me remind you that the purpose of the post was not to make a laundry list of crude Chinese behavior. Rather, it was to determine if certain behaviors common in China have any effect on my behavior. Parts 1 and 2 should be taken together for the full scope of the thing.

  14. Some friends of mine (I’m not going to claim this as my IP…) came up with the term “laowaixing” to describe the same category you are calling “laobaixing snobs.” It has a certain ring to it. Even if it is technically nonsensical in Chinese.

    It was defined in opposition to the Laowaione (pronounced laowai’o’ne – these were italian friends) type who lives in a villa and gets driven from work to the pub out to the rugby and never has to mix with the “natives”… (DISCLAIMER: I use that highly pejorative term ironically before anyone attacks me for it)

    Both terms entered the lexicon of our social network and refuse to be dislodged.

  15. Going around a corner to piss, after a night of drinking? That would never happen in Australia! That sound like trickling water accompanied by drunken singing? That’s, um, a freak incidence of rain, yeah that’s it.

  16. Snot rocket science is tricky. You have to get the head, shoulder, and arm at the exact right angle or you wind up with a snotty sleeve. Fortunately you are living with an experienced snot rocket scientist. I’d be happy to provide instruction…for 150 RMB/hour (pro-rated after the first hour, plus transportation).

  17. Canuckster,

    Be forewarned that although you should understand that only a (small) percent of people would display such behavior, in China any small percentage would translate to many, many persons. On the other hand, don’t let a thing like this dissuade you from moving to Shanghai. What’s the fun in relocation or travel if the city you go to is an indentical twin of your original place?

  18. Dan,

    Thanks. I also briefly considered “snot rockulation.”

  19. Phil,

    “Laiwaixing”! Ha! I like it!

    (Not sure I can say the same for “Laowaione” though…)

  20. Gin,

    Not only does a small precentage translate to many persons, but it seems to be a very visible group of people. Hence this kind of behavior is one of the favorite topics on expat China blogs, because you don’t have to be in China long at all to see it.

  21. You know, the main shopping/business areas of Shanghai are remarkably clean for an Asian (non-Japanese) city. I’d say that they’re cleaner than comparables in NYC, for instance. Plus, I’d say that you’d generally find less stomach contents emptied out on the streets of Shanghai than Chicago, SF, NYC (or probably any major American city outside of Utah) on a Friday or Saturday night. And the subways in Shanghai are far cleaner than the El in Chicago (the Red Line stop that is closest to me always reeks of urine; heck the Red Line cars usually reek of unwashed homeless people, even though I never see/smell one riding) or the subway in NYC (so far, I’m 1-for-1 in rat-sightings down there).

    BTW, I hope that we Chinese aren’t so insecure that we get upset over people pointing out that Chinese people (yes, only some of us) spit, piss, and snot in public. I personally don’t consider them “bad” habits (so long as they’re done against a tree, bushes, in to a trash can, etc.) just because some folks from some other parts of the world consider them so (as someone pointed out, everything’s biodegradable).

  22. Into a trash can Richard? Wow, now if someone has such control and accuracy in their snot rocketation so as to hit the inside of a trash can that might warrant a streaming video…well, maybe not.

  23. Did you see this? I would have e-mailed it to you but wanted your readers to vote.


  24. Sorry here it is again.

  25. Thanks, Tim. I might make a post about that later in the week. I don’t do the beg for votes thing though.

  26. John,

    Just now, after finishing my hamburger, I left my many girlfriends alone in my luxury apartment, and went outside. Outside, I used my big nose and blue eyes to investigate the above claims. No smell of urine or sight of people spitting. I used my English to ask several people about the spitting, pissing and so on. They said it wasn’t true. I asked my very beautiful and intelligent half chinese half caucasian friend about this, and she had no idea. The only explanation I have is that because I am a foreigner, I don’t understand.

    Come on, we all generalize! All of us! Everysingle one of us!

  27. J,

    I knew you wouldn’t, so that’s why I put it here.

  28. Oh my God Rob stop generalizing!

  29. I have also heard a “snot rocket” called a “farmer’s blow.” I wonder if you can apply any of your Chomsky linguistic magic to either term? Here is a pic of down hill skier engaged in this act…commited only by the most deviant of septums.

  30. John,

    Of course! Thorns are visible, and deadly.

  31. snot rockets execution is really like an art. no one can get it right at the first time. i once tried this in my bathroom and well i miscalculated the degree of ejection … just like someone has mentioned here, i got used to the spitting and urination but snot rockets (cool term john) will still make me cringe when i see this get executed.
    but of course, not every chinese does this, this i have to agree.

    john, nice blog here. i’ve known your blog for quite some time but never actually seriously read it until now. you are not those who will take pot shots at china just because its different from where they live.

  32. One thing that bothers me as much as do public spitting peeing and snot rocketeeering is smoking in public and on busses.

  33. Mr. Doom, I first knew snot rocketeering (I like that version, thanks Gin) as the “farmer blow”. That’s what I called it when I first began noticing it (often) in China. I don’t remember where I first heard the term snot rocket but it was after I went to China in 2003.

  34. John,

    You have worked as a teacher and hold an advanced degree. I wonder if a Chinese man of your age, education, and social status would spit, piss, and blow snot rockets. Spitting probably, peeing only discreetly in an emergency, and no snot rockets, that’s my guess.

    People can have wrong perceptions of behavior even in their own culture. For example, during a discussion on eating habits, a Korean language teacher insisted that chewing with your mouth open was done only by uneducated people. I disagreed with her, telling her that I often saw and heard young men in the college cafeteria chomping away with their mouths open. This was a top university which draws its student body mostly from Seoul’s middle class and upper middle class. The teacher dismissed my observation. The next day, I looked around and saw lots of chompers. I think the teacher was assuming her personal manners were shared by the rest of Korea’s middle class. We as Americans, Canadians, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, etc. may make the same mistake by thinking, “Well, I don’t do that.”

  35. Back in Xi’an the “snot rocket” was dubbed the “air hankie”. And every single person in Xi’an used the air hankie. Usually while peeing down a staircase.

  36. I’d have to think that these practices may be geography-specific as well. I just can’t imagine pissing down a staircase to be culturally acceptable behavior in Jiang-Zhe (though I guess I should go ask my father his opinion on that).

  37. Dalian Dragon Says: December 8, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    As for myself, the first time that I urinated in public (excluding out in the woods or forests) was in China.

    I was at Dalian’s Annual Beer Festival. There was beer from around the world, domestic and imported. There were around 10,000 people per night, but only about 100 porto-poties.

    After a half-dozen beers, I and my 6 or 7 compatriates decided that we had to find a place to pee… quick! However, after walking quite a distance, we found a long line at every pot. So, a friend came up with a GENIOUS solution…………….. “Follow the drunk Chinese guy!” He CERTAINLY knows where to take a leak!

    So, we found our guide and followed him… through the crowd, around the vendors, behind some signs and… urine-eeka! We found a hedge-row with about 15 guys in line whizzing on it. So, we joined in.

    Time to water the bushes!


    That wasn’t the last time I urinated in public in China. However, it does seem that everytime I do, it’s when I’m drunk!

  38. Disappointed Says: December 10, 2005 at 12:17 am

    John, spitting in public is disgusting. Seriously. My mom would be very disappointed.
    PS: John, don’t be a nongmin, be a ke ai de Shanghairen

  39. A new meaning to the expression ‘And that’s no rocket science’’ : ) Hehe
    That’s an interesting cultural issue. Excuse me for being somewhat brief on such an exciting topic : )

    From the cultural perspective it’s not as simple as might seem. In my circle of sinologist-friends there was once a discussion on the same issue, I’ll just write down what it burned down to. There are still some questions open, I’ll mention them below, and they are not necessarily to be answered, mere thinking about them may open up some new perspectives in understanding another culture.

    Expectoration. First off, it’s not healthy to hold the phlegm in – if nothing else it’s a refuse of the bodily functions, there would be no doubt about that I presume. But what should people do if they found themselves with such a thing in their mouth after coughing it up? Swallow? A possibility. Get rid as soon as possible? That’s what the subjects under investigation do.

    I abhorred that habit before, casting glaring stares at violators of my cultural law I brought with myself to China. Until I got myself a nasty respiratory disease (twice, both times in China, and at the time of SARS, which had some resemblance to pneumonia and was thus named by the doctors who cured me) and felt for myself that the phlegm in the mouth is no fun. It just comes out at most inappropriate times and places. It just happens and there’s nothing you can do thinking about appropriateness – you just start understanding others, but due to your knowledge of good manners try to find a secluded place to dispose of it, preferably using a napkin.

    I don’t justify. But understand. And life in China until recently was welcoming to such behavior as the only suitable and ergonomic. People didn’t have to think about strange rules, they lived, worked, survived.

    Snot-rocketeers. Take that photo of the skier some comments up, that’s funny and all, but if his clogged up nose impedes his breathing – thus it will his speed, thus victory. If something more important than behavioral norms comes to the fore, those standards are sacrificed to that more important thing, aren’t they? Now the issue here is how much more important for the Chinese is carrying it all in themselves or waiting till a more appropriate time and place. And here our perspectives differ.

    Let’s try to see from the Chinese’ perspective what we do with our snivel. Ready? Laowai consider it better to put the snots in a cloth and carry it around. Again, I don’t justify or ask anyone to follow their habits. I simply highlight the idea of why they do it and what may think about other ways.

    Sanitation. Germs generally don’t live long outside a cozy warms of a human body if they are spat on the ground or fly out in an air-hankie. The Chinese did it for centuries. So it’s not about sanitation that much (though it is to some degree). It’s simply as un-aesthetic as the favorite nose-picking.

    The thing that bugs me is the sneezing without covering the mouth. The germs are really rocketing around at high speeds. But nose-picking is aesthetically warped. I first thought that it is culturally justified. But when taking an unofficial survey of most of my students (and that ranged from 12 year-olds to 25 year-olds) I realized that they ALL have the notion that it is not comely. If you overtly pay attention to their digging activities and they register that they are noticed, most will blush and stop. They have it placed on their value-scale pretty clearly. Thing is, this scale is flexible as to what hypothetically is good and bad and what is practically useful (or pleasant, or hard to resist, etc.).

    And another thought – maybe they don’t care about others? Not aggressively, but simply do not possess the notion? They were close up together for generations, private life is on display and bothers nobody because others’ life is on a display for them as well. Bodily functions are no shame, no unpleasantness, you do it, I do the same, so what? : ) It’s even better if I show you how clean I am, ridding my body of the nasty things. Because you see, “if laowai are keeping their stuff in themselves while running around looking for a place to get rid of it in privacy, I am devoid of it as soon as I notice that I have it.” Could this explain it?

  40. Some germs can survive outside the body for a period of time. Scientists doing tests on the SARS virus discovered that the virus’ ability to live outside the host varied according to the surface temperature. It died quickly in warmer temperatures and could live as long as three days on the inside door of a refrigerator. That is one reason why people get sick more often in the winter. Viruses thrive better in the cold. Most people pick up germs not by breathing them but by touching something contaminated and then touching their eye, nose, or mouth.

  41. Peeing in public is not only the limited to China, I guess its pretty well universal – particularly after sunset. In Durham, UK I recently had a double take on seeing the “Urilift” in full use, located conveniently for the town centre taxi rank. Alas, there is as yet no equal relief for our female friends.

    NB my Chinese wife refers to snot as “nose shit” which to me seems apt and appropriate. Is that a Chinese transliteration?
    As offered above, I think rocketeering would be a much better term for the practice of nose shit expulsion as would rocketry for the science thereof 😉

  42. what do you do when your toilet actually seems to absorb all your urine, and gets all crusty and smelly after only a couple days? this seems to be a unique characteristic of chinese toilets and it drives me nuts. i am not a fan of urine, even my own, and am revolted by its apparent staying power in china.

  43. I had invited a Chinese friend for dinner here in Chicago. When she ate steak, the sound that came from her mouth was abysmal. Just loud chomp, chomp, chomp. You would think after her having spent a year in the States she would’ve picked up the most basic social graces. It was absolutely disgusting and distracting. Never can I invite another Chinese to dinner again.

  44. Lisa Henry Says: August 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Not being racist but these are the common traits of chinese

    Definition of Chinese:-
    Loud and noisy, Insensitive to people’s feelings and surroundings, Dirty, Gluttonous, Greedy, Nose-picking in public (snot rocketing), Gorge food, No table etiquette / table manners, Spit, Slurp and belching loudly, Fart openly, Peeing in Public (open air), Gamble to Death, Superstitious, prostitution

  45. Robert M Says: August 8, 2008 at 3:50 am

    I used to be proficient at the jumping, spinning fart monster. Sometimes I could belch at the same rime. My kids finally tired of it. I’ll have to try it in China. Should be good for some laughs at an American custom.

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