Morning Story: Cops and robbers

By MARK STORY - MORNING STORY

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In Shanghai seven months ago I was sipping coffee under plane trees in the city's beautiful French Concession.

Bikes, scores of them of course, emerged with stone-faced riders from the soupy 40C streets.

Amid the crowd, a middle-aged cyclist materialised from the smog to steal the show.

Her stunning ankle-length red dress looked out of place draped over the rusting bike, as too did her wide-brimmed hat. So flawless was her presence that she ought to have been riding side-saddle.

The closer she got, the more immaculate she became: heels, porcelain skin and a silk scarf that waved, gently heralding her approach.

At three metres and closing, she lowered her chin, made a growling sound like a jug at deep boil and let fire an impressive wad of phlegm.

A gorgeous, spitting assassin.

It was a stark introduction to the Chinese proclivity to expectorate often, nonchalantly and noisily.

And for some reason they take great delight in being indiscreet about it.

In the instances I saw, which were countless, the offending spittle ended up not on a grass verge or gutter, but the pavement.

Authorities tried to curb the habit during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, knowing it would inevitably offend. If that met with success, the phenomenon has returned with a vengeance.

The vexing issue of what constitutes bad taste has been the talk of the newsroom these past few weeks.

Isolated outrage at a Tui billboard boasting the word "p*ss" got the ball rolling. Why did I put an asterisk in that word?

Because most cases are about context. Given it was beer advertising, this word on a billboard came across as nothing more than an assemblage of four letters.

In a primary school classroom it's a little more wincing. Yes, the kids may have been parroting the billboard, but let's teach them about context.

The following week this newspaper published a letter admonishing of the use of the word "cops" in a headline. Disrespectful to police, apparently.

When we were kids we'd play "cops and robbers". There was no question in that context who the good guys were. Much respect, I think.

Interesting too how many cops I've heard refer to themselves as cops. That is, many, and often.

In fact, a quick "cops" search on the www.police.govt.nz official website, threw up no fewer than 60 references to the word. Penned by no other than those working for NZ Police.

Amazing how many of us are willing to be offended on behalf of someone else. Understandable perhaps, in cases where those targeted were unable to defend themselves. Our local constabulary obviously doesn't view the word as pejorative. Neither do I. Hence this column's headline.

That said, I took the liberty of taking great offence last week.

Hankering for a pie, I popped into a superette in Mahora and was served by a friendly owner with limited English. As I was leaving, a slim blonde woman in her mid-20s entered with her pre-school son.

I overheard her telling him she needed to get cash out from the dairy.

Her idea turned to custard when the Asian proprietor denied her request, presumably as he didn't consider his shop an ATM. She vented her spleen, calling the owner a "n*gger". (That's one instance where I'm unequivocal about using the asterisk). Upset at the fracas, her son asked why she couldn't get money, and she replied, again directing her sentence at the shop owner: "Because they're n*ggers."

Good luck to that boy. His is a future imperiled by his mum; a woman whose English was more limited than the shop owner's.

I wondered how she'd cope in China, surrounded by people of a continent she obviously finds repugnant. No offence, young lady, but from where I'm sitting (and hopefully from where you're reading), even if you were to be dodging spitballs in Shanghai, you'd be associating with a people of much higher class.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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