How do you say ‘sniffle’ in Chinese?

I should know.

I need to know.

I may have known at some point, but I forgot.

It’s important to know because sniffling is common in China and other countries of South East Asia, and I hate it.

‘Sniff, sniff,” during the entire train trip from Shanghai to Xiamen.

“Sniff, sniff,” continued the woman giving me a massage. How can I relax with someone sniffling? How can I relax when the person giving me health therapy sounds like she’s sick? Whether it’s a Thai, Japanese or Chinese massage, I don’t know how to ask the therapist to stop sniffling, without completely confusing them, or offending them.

The one word I did learn during massages in China was ‘tong’ – or pain.

“Tong ma?”

“Hao, feicheng tong” – yes, it hurts a lot I would say, before she smiled and inflicted more pain. Still, the pain was better than the sniffling, because at least the pain had therapeutic benefits.

“Sniff, sniff” broke the tense silence of the 2-hour English exam I had set for my senior students in China. This won’t do, and so I disguised my displeasure as a cultural lesson and explained to my students that sniffling was far less common in the Western world, and that a tissue or handkerchief was an acceptable receptacle for these bodily fluids.

The next day, one boy brought a box of tissues to class. Good boy.

A ‘bush hanky’ is another way to expel nasal build up in Australia, but no one wants a bush hanky employed in a school classroom. Bush hanky is an Aussie term for spitting saliva and mucus directly onto the ground, normally onto the dirt, or for covering one nostril with a finger so as to empty the other nostril directly onto the ground.

And herein lies the cultural lesson. As I gleaned from various students and friends throughout South East Asia, it is traditionally unheard of to use a tissue or handkerchief to catch one’s mucus as the sinuses are emptied. It’s just not done, so people will sniffle until they find a time and place to expel the fluids politely and discreetly.

In this light, it is also considered strange and disgusting to carry one’s mucus around inside a handkerchief in one’s pocket, for an hour or a day. Which does make sense upon reflection. Why do we carry this substance around in our pockets?

A more pertinent question is why I hate sniffling. Why does it grate me so?

I hate sniffling as much as I hate hearing people eat and drink. As much as I hate people tapping, fidgeting and biting their nails. As much as I hate whistling.

For me, torture is being stuck in a dark internet cafe full of dweeby teenagers sniffling and chowing down on instant noodles and energy drinks for hours on end. The stench, the fidgeting, the stale air, and the sniffling.

But, still, why do I hate it so?

“Sniff, sniff,” broke the serious silence of my own senior school exams, the HSC. Jason Blanco sat behind me for most of my HSC exams, and sniffled his way through English, Maths, History…

“Sniff, sniff.”

I couldn’t turn around and tell him to stop or I would have been punished for speaking. Jason didn’t have a cold, that’s just how he reacted to exam stress. I still blame Jason for the fact that I’m not a multi-millionaire.

The cultural aversion to tissues and ‘hankies’ among Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures might explain why spitting is illegal in Singapore. Foreigners like to laugh about Singapore’s pedantic spitting laws, but having lived and travelled through other parts of the Asian continent, it now makes sense to me.

It makes sense after I saw the old man at the bus stop in China. The bus was late – well, later than expected, it didn’t really run to a timetable. Either way, the old man was bored; so bored, he started spitting. A spit here, a spit there, and still the bus hadn’t arrived.

The old man became frustrated, so instead of just spitting, he hocked one up from the recesses of his soul and sprayed it onto the asphalt. Then another, and another. By the time the bus appeared in the middle distance, he had spat a horseshoe around his front as if to create a protective force field, from what I don’t know – maybe from the ‘weiguoren’ with his pockets full of tissues.


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