Bodily Sounds

One of my ex girlfriends had a “thing” about body sounds. By that, I mean she couldn’t stand “loud breathers” or “lip smackers.” If we sat in a restaurant next to anyone who was a “wheezer” or who made any slurping or lip noises while eating, we had to move.

I grew up with a sister who was frequently ill and stuffed up with allergies. She often had to open her mouth, smack her lips and breathe loudly through her noise in order to taste anything. She is also asthmatic. I guess I got used to these kinds of audio additions to a meal from an early age.

But then my ex- girlfriend infected me with her intolerance and these kinds of sounds started to drive me crazy.

Many years went by with these new high sound standards and then….

I moved to China.

In Chinese medicine, one is supposed to relieve the body of the unwanted bad energy or “汽 qi.” Burping and farting openly, while not considered all that classy, is generally just seen as a normal non-event based on these health theories. Especially among people you’re familiar with. “Get it out,” they say.

The same goes for phlegm. Loud hacking and horking of lugies (that’s Canadian for “spit balls”) is considered necessary to clean the system. Who can argue with that? But I still think it’s just gross. I mean, it sounds absolutely disgusting to my Western ears. It sometimes even makes my stomach turn. I feel sorry for the Beijing sidewalks.

Recent “civilization training” in China (or government-sponsored social training propaganda) has focused on things like public spitting and, as a result, I’ve actually heard a lot less of it in Beijing than I used to. Yet, there is still a realm of body sounds that no one in China seems the least bit concerned about:

Eating Noises.

Slurping, smacking, talking with a mouth full of food, sucking soup from a bowl, you name it and I’ve heard it here. When I first came, I still suffered from this long-acquired sound intolerance that I picked up from that long-ago ex-girlfriend. I couldn’t deal with it. It would stall my appetite in Chinese restaurants. More than once, it inspired me to take my food to go so that I could eat alone in my rented room, peacefully and silently chewing.

That ex-girlfriend of mine would never survive here!

For the first six months of my relationship with Guo Jian, he was a quiet eater. In fact, I didn’t notice he was quiet, I just noticed that eating with him didn’t grate on my nerves like eating with other Chinese friends seemed to.  (Admission: it might have been because I was too busy admiring his beauty to notice anything else.)

And that’s entirely possible, because the first time he took me back to his hometown and we ate with his family, it was all I could do to remain at the table and keep my chopsticks moving for all the mid-chewing laughter and lip noise, not to mention his mother burping like a bullfrog every five seconds and the way his uncle seemed only able to loudly suck back a glass of beer, vacuum-style. Has anyone ever heard of sipping? My chopsticks kept freezing in mid air in these moments with a look of surprise directed at the noise maker. I’ve never been very subtle.

And Guo Jian was right in there with them.

We Westerners generally think of this as brutish, piggish behavior. We think it’s proof that people lack table manners and upbringing. But, in Chinese culture, making noise while eating proves that you’re enjoying the meal, you have an appetite, you’re “into it”! There’s even an expression in Chinese that goes like this: “想吃就吃 吃得响亮” and can be roughly translated as: “If you want to eat then eat, eat loud!” So, smacking one’s lips does not reflect one’s poor cultivation here. Chinese people think our quiet, subdued restaurants are very strange and awkward and must surely reflect on the sub-standard cuisine, whereas in China, the rowdier the meal, the more compliments to the chef.

Mouth music?

I obviously needed to change my perspective.

Still, after those initial six months ended, Guo Jian pretty much stopped caring whether he made bodily noises while eating (or any other time for that matter!) and it was a real turn off for me. We had several arguments about it to no avail. They’re just cultural differences and no one’s wrong, no one’s right. He admitted that the first six months were just about knowing Western preferences and trying to impress me, but that he wasn’t being himself. Now he was being natural, he’d assert. Couldn’t he be comfortable in his own home?

Then it felt like I was being once again accused of imposing formality where it didn’t belong. (This came up before in a language capacity.) But really, who am I to impose my foreign table manners on him?

“Still, not sexy,” I’d say.

And it still isn’t.

But, gradually, I’ve gotten used to it. Auditory (and cultural) adaptation, i suppose. After all, i chose to live here. Now, even I slurp my soup sometimes because I’ve discovered that it actually cools it off! Who knew!?

When I’m tired or irritable (or both), I have to admit, though, that it’s still common for those eating noises to start tugging on my nerves like a pestering child. At these times, I can still say this to him: “Can we please just pretend we are eating this meal in Canada for one night?! Stop smacking or I might have to kill you!” And he will stop. Usually after he smacks a bit louder first, though, just to tug one last time, with an obnoxious smirk. It’s the kid in him.

And in Canada at friends’ dinner tables, he does as the Canadians do. He’s quiet. When in Rome… 入乡随俗 !

But, my immediate family’s pretty easy going about these things anyway. Maybe a little wheezing and lip smacking is more natural for us Swifts, anyway, on account of my sister? In any case, I now also have a Chinese family of loud eaters and so, that’s just the way it is.

We always find our way home eventually.

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