Today, the leading front-page headline in Singapore’s Straits Times announces that 11 Singaporean men have been brought before a judge and heavily fined for spitting in public.
Normally this wouldn’t be a big story, but these aren’t normal times in Asia. Spitting may be a factor in spreading SARS, and the government obviously wanted to use these men to set an example. The full name and full-color photograph of each spitter was plastered across the front page.
(If the Chinese government were to launch a similar campaign and print the names and photos of spitters in the newspaper, the papers would be thicker than the Manhattan Yellow Pages. Spitting is pretty universal in the PRC and a major contributor to Westerners’ culture shock.)
It doesn’t take the newcomer long to see that SARS is taken very seriously here in my new country. At the big shopping malls there are medical stands where you can go to have your temperature taken and learn more about SARS. Immune-enhancing products are touted everywhere. Television stations are jammed with public service announcements of all kinds about the virus. One even offers detailed descriptions of how to properly blow your nose and then dispose of the tissue.
[Update: At this point, I had written a long discourse on hygiene in China, then I decided it was too harsh so I deleted it. Sorry; I got a little carried away.It’s true I had issues with this topic, and I feel it will be healthier for me to let these issues go and not let them dominate my memories of the PRC.]
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.