A Word to the Wise August 2002

I recently referred in this space to a sign that had been spotted in northern China, which contained some beautiful examples of the English language in translation. One such phrase was an admonition against the “spewing of sputum.” This is a problem that seems to prevail in (although it is not necessarily limited to!) developing countries. Early 20th century railroad cars in Germany had signs warning passengers in no uncertain terms – Nicht auf dem Boden spucken!! In the early 1960s in the U.P. of Michigan, a local hero named Jim Mackie could loft a missile all the way across Ludington Street in Escanaba! Jim must have had time on his hands to reach such a level of achievement, but his distance record remains unchallenged.

But Jim Mackie, a champion in his own event, could not hold a cuspidor to the latest phenomenon in China. This recent refinement of the art is based more on volume and tone than on distance. The first indication of participation is a low whooshing sound is finally transformed delicately into a low, deep growl originating, it seems, well below any part of the body that is actually used for breathing. The growl rapidly increases in volume as it rises through the lungs and into the upper throat. The crescendo can be deafening and certainly awe inspiring. The splat is an anticlimax. But the casual observer must be cautious. On a China airline flight late last year both Saga’s Operation Manager and I confused the whooshing sound of the planes sound system with an upcoming event. Passengers on the plane were surely confused that the two foreigners should burst into laughter over nothing! Later in the week the same manager was walking directly behind me as we were visiting a factory when I heard a real oyster being raised from the depths. “My god,” I thought joking is joking but how can he be so insensitive to so such thing in the presence of the factory owner and his wife. I whirled around and …oops!…it was the factory manager’s wife in action!! I blushed, choked, lowered my head, and spat weakly to one side…

Richard Keldsen
San Francisco
August 2002