Having spent some time in foreign countries and still having frequent business trips to other countries, I have come to realize that there is one peculiar thing that can be observed on the streets in Seoul. It is interesting, to say the least, to note that walking down the streets of Seoul we frequently encounter people who spit on the sidewalk. Some drivers do this while their cars are waiting for the green signal and gentlemen in nice suits clear their throat on the pavement without the slightest sign of hesitation.
More interestingly, other pedestrians and, in fact, society seem to be also generous about spitting in public. Believe it or not, according to Korea’s Minor Offences Punishment Act, this is a public offence, along with littering, throwing down cigarette butts and leaving dog mess, punishable with a fine of 100,000 won or less, but I still have yet to meet someone who has paid the fine after spitting. The National Police Agency’s introductory pamphlets for foreign visitors also warn of spitting as punishable by fine.
Of course, this is a social problem in other countries as well, but we just encounter this behavior more frequently here in this city. Find a seat in a coffee shop in downtown Seoul, preferably by the window, and watch carefully people passing by. You will find one or two incidents within a couple of minutes.
This is a phenomenon that is not observed in other countries ― whether economically more developed or less developed than Korea. Seoul has changed a lot, for the better, recently and become much cleaner, but this street habit still sticks with the city. And to quite a few foreign visitors, constant spitting on the sidewalks stands out as one of the unpleasant memories of Seoul.
In fact, spitting has been around for a long time. Ancient Egyptians documented spitting as a way of conveying a particular message. Some of the early Native American tribes used to chew yucca leaves and habitually spit them out, remnants of which are traced by scientists to confirm early migration routes. It is also said that back in the Middle Ages spitting in public to clear the throat was entirely appropriate.
Some sociologists attach a special meaning to this conduct such as showing strength, claiming space and expressing anger. Instances of prisoners’ anger-prompted spitting at correction officers in Australia led to the introduction of spitting hoods, something similar to a head net beekeepers wear, which were put on certain inmates’ heads to discourage them from repeating the conduct, triggering human rights debates.
Then I should wonder why there are many people who spit on the streets in public, apparently without any special meaning intended. If anything, a strong case can be made that what we see is more of a knee-jerk habitual behavior than indication of any urgent need to respond to a physical problem ― such as the need to clear the throat or discharge a glob of saliva from the mouth immediately.
Few people would throw garbage on the street in broad daylight, and even fewer yet would spit in their own front yards, but people are remarkably inattentive when it comes to this behavior in public places. This is a country where people care so much about keeping their houses clean that they even take off their shoes upon entering a house, but does this care just stop at the outside perimeter of one’s home?
In the course of hosting various high-profile global events in Seoul for the past couple of years, the national energy has been focused on elevating the “national stature.”
The term national stature is appearing in almost all governmental projects and programs. Again, please don’t get me wrong, Seoul has changed a lot recently. These positive recent changes, however, make this unseemly conduct on the street all the more peculiar and embarrassing.
It is unfortunate that spitting on the pavement is still frequently observed in downtown Seoul and that foreign visitors list this as one of their unpleasant experiences in Seoul. It is time to shed the permissive social atmosphere, and time to help inattentive pedestrians drop this habit. Cold stares upon encountering a scene will certainly help. So will having young students realize that salivary discharge in public can be anything but cool. More important, the law regulating this conduct could be more rigorously enforced. Maybe a spit hood too?
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.