It’s the first rhythm of China, a percussion like the gongs of Beijing Opera, only less dramatic. You can hear it priming like an old pump in the chest, or a motor revving till the rust turns juicy, bubbles up and out.

Men spit. Women spit less often. I’ve never seen a child spit, but it could be something they grow up to, like high heels and sex. I picture a boy scraping his three short chin hairs in his first shave. Afterwards, his father takes him outdoors, arm across the shoulders, men together. They clear their throats. They have their first spit.

Outside every cheap hotel in Mexico lives a rooster. Outside every Chinese window lives a spitter. At six, he hawks the sun up, plants it for me in the street.

I wouldn’t look, but somehow I have to, the way a crowd gathers around a fatal accident. Even blind, the sounds would still be graphic, a long dry heave, sometimes in a series, like an endless morning-after.

I read the China Daily. It tells me there are fines for spitting. But the traffic cop spits, and the People’s Liberation Army in their green caps. I imagine a citizen’s arrest. The thought of all the forms I’d have to fill out stops me. The thought of someone asking for the evidence.

Good days the air is dust, bad days it’s soot. I smoke a pack a day in self-defense. Last night I lay in bed and felt the oily bubble starting in my chest. I begin to think it’s something to accept, gracefully, like the second line starting under my chin. In the dark I try a few half-silent crows. I wait for six a.m.




“Spitting” first appeared in Gulf Stream #2 (1989) and later appeared in James’ book In China with Harpo and Karl from Calyx Books.

Sibyl James has published nine books of fiction, poetry, and travel memoirs, most recently, The Last Woro Woro to Treichville: A West African Memoir from StringTown Press. Individual works have appeared in over 100 journals internationally. Recently retired, she has taught in the U.S., China, Mexico, and–as Fulbright professor–Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire.

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