A couple of weeks ago I was in a hotel in Mandalay, Burma when I noticed this sign near the elevator. It says that when spitting up phlegm, one should do so in the restroom (literally, the “sanitary room”), “out of consideration for others.”


As one can see, this sign is in Chinese. There were no other signs there in the hotel in any other language telling people not to spit in the hotel lobby.

As I stood there looking at the sign, a Chinese man walked by me, hacking up phlegm as he passed, and spit into the garbage can next to the elevator, right in front of a Burmese hotel employee.

What does this have to do with Southeast Asian history? I’m not sure,and maybe I’m being biased here, but somehow I feel like I was able to see some aspect of the historical relations between “China” and “Southeast Asia” (to use those terms anachronistically) at that moment.

The Burmese, traditionally referred to by the Chinese as “Southwestern Barbarians” (Xinan Yi), telling the Chinese not to spit, and the Chinese, with their 5,000 years of “civilization,” paying no attention. . .

Is there nothing symbolic of the past in that?