The very dangerous habit of promiscuous spitting. So read a section of a letter to the editor of The Daily Gleaner for Friday, April 30, 1948, pg. 8. The letter writer was responding to The Daily Gleaner’s opinion piece, “Ugly Habit” (Thursday, April 22, 1948, pg. 8), in which the following was stated:
…we think that the streets of Kingston must indeed be a breeding ground for T.B. germs in view of the amount of spitting which goes on. This habit – so revolting in itself, yet now regarded as quite normal – is certainly a very effective way of spreading T.B. and (we should think) a good many other complaints.
I should note here that tuberculosis, or TB for short, plagued Jamaica, and was the leading cause of death in the country, during the 1930s and 1940s. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), TB “is a contagious lung disease that spreads through the air. When people with the disease cough, sneeze, talk or spit, they propel TB germs, known as bacilli, into the air. Only a small number of the bacilli need to be inhaled to cause an infection.”
The Daily Gleaner article continues as follows:
It is revolting even to write of the practice but the fact must be faced that people in Kingston spit right and left, from trams and shops and houses, sometimes without any apparent effort to find out whether there is room to do it, and quite often from no other cause than to find employment for the muscles of the jaws and throat in the brief intervals when they are not occupied with talking. It is very difficult to deal with such a widespread bad habit; and it is therefore necessary to refer to it in print, because there seems to be little public opinion on the subject, and what there is favours complete liberty of expectoration.
To expectorate is to eject or expel phlegm from the throat or lungs by coughing or hawking and spitting.
I already see the question marks over your heads, readers! Why all of a sudden my interest in the very disgusting act of spitting in public?! Location, location, location, that’s why. Let me explain.
Since moving to Beijing, China in February my Jamaican sense and sensibilities have been bombarded by cultural practices alien to my being. One of those practices has to do with the dirty habit of spitting. Now many Jamaican cringe at the thought of spitting in public because of the lessons learnt – and for many of us the hard way! – that spitting in public must NEVER be done! It is an abominable act! Of course there are many Jamaicans who spit in public, because it has become a normal act for them to do so, but generally the act is publicly frowned upon and is not an accepted social practice. Not so in China, my pretties! The Chinese spit here, there, anywhere and everywhere! Mi too lie, you say, with your wide-eyed stares of disbelief. Let me share just one of my experiences with you.
Flashback – Saturday, May 5, 2013
At exactly 7:02 p.m. on Saturday, May 5, 2013, I was having a very animated conversation with my friend Dawn and Mr Percival Darby (a wonderful man!) in a train in Tianjin, a small city close to Beijing. I sat to the right of a 20-something looking Chinese guy. In the middle of our conversation, the 20-something Chinese guy coughed (instantly warning bells went off in my head!) hawked up the mucus in his throat and, like breathing air, bent and spat out the mucus on the floor of the train next to his left foot…..
I think I had an out of body experience where this was actually happening but I’m not really there. Oh …. my….GOOOOOOOOOD!!!!! SCREAM SCREAM SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!!
Anyway, I had to get over it, after all I am in China and this is a regular habit of spitting in public, in the most dramatic of ways. And who cares if you’re spitting in a train, in the station, in an elevator, in a store, almost on someone’s foot (yep, it nearly happened to me and I almost threw up!) that is their culture. However, by the time my heart finally calmed itself down, a woman who looked like she flung cement bags all day on a construction site, ate poorly and had the teeth to match, who was sitting on the floor of the train on a bucket directly in front of me, coughed up a mouthful and then proceeded to spit it out quite dramatically on the train floor in front of her.
The water bottle I had in my right hand fell.
Dawn said: “Lef it!”
Our stop finally came.
20th Century Public Pleas to End Spitting in Public
So while the practice was quite commonplace in Jamaica in the early 20th century, spitting was seen as a scourge on the land, especially as TB outbreaks grew across the country and reached epidemic status, and people took to writing letters to The Daily Gleaner, for instance, to get their pleas heard for an official end to the practice to save lives. My search of the Gleaner Archives resulted in locating several such letters, the earliest from 1918, which dealt with the issue of spitting in the city of Kingston:
Sir, can not something be done to prevent people from spitting and blowing their nostrils on the streets and side-walks? That it is, at any time, a most disgusting and dangerous habit, we know, but it is still more so now when there is an epidemic in the city.
In another letter in the Sunday Gleaner for October 19, 1947, pg. 6, a letter writer who referred to himself as “Anti-T.B, Pro-Tourist” pleaded with the Government, via the Minister for Social Services, to consider implementing regulations to curb spitting in streets to not only reduce the spread of TB but also to increase the number of tourists coming to the city. In fact, the writer suggested making two specific streets in the city “immune” to spitting:
Allow me the medium of your columns to suggest something to our Hon. Minister for Social Services … Enforce regulations against expectorating along or on the two most popular streets in Jamaica viz: Harbour Street and King Street, both in Kingston. Consider the drive against T.B., and the Tourist drive. Even these two streets made “immune” to spitting would be a great relief to visitors as well as “locals.”
Official Responses to End Spitting
I came across two references to local government attempts to put an end to spitting in public during this time. For instance, back in December 1928, members of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) discussed the issue at a meeting of the Public Health Committee, and a suggestion was made to erect “No Spitting Allowed” signs at conspicuous places in the markets, theatres and court houses. This was adopted and it was agreed that the signs were to be put in place in a short time thereafter (The Gleaner, Wednesday, December 19, 1928, pg. 2).
During the regular meeting of the Manchester Association, held on February 5, 1948, a resolution was moved and agreed upon “for the prohibition of spitting in the town of Mandeville” (The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, February 25, 1948, pg. 19). All the members agreed to paint signs to that effect for distribution throughout the town.
But there doesn’t seem to have been a national effort to put an end to spitting in public for the health of is citizens. By 1954, calls were still being made for Government-led public education and eradication campaigns to put an end to the habit, especially in light of certain diseases like poliomyelitis (The Daily Gleaner, Thursday, August 26, 1954, pg. 8).
Today we still have a major problem with spitting in public places, as well as other quite disgusting habits, and while there may be “no spitting signs” around the city and major towns across the country, for instance, the “promiscuous habit” persists, although it is generally accepted that the habit is a no no!
I must admit though, I’ve never experienced the level of hawking and spitting in Jamaica as I do here in Beijing on a daily basis. Bwoy, cultures do differ!
Until next time…
The Gleaner, Wednesday, November 13, 1918, g. 10
The Gleaner, Wednesday, December 19, 1928, pg. 2
The Sunday Gleaner, October 19, 1947, pg. 6
The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, February 25, 1948, pg. 19
The Daily Gleaner, Thursday, April 22, 1948, pg. 8
The Daily Gleaner, Friday, April 30, 1948, pg. 8
The Daily Gleaner, Thursday, August 26, 1954, pg. 8