Chinese Toilets – a post by Brandon

Part 1:

Back when we first got to China and I had technical issues, I wrote this blog post for later use. In the meanwhile, conditions have changed, but for completeness, I will share this mostly as it was written and add a follow-up post later.

I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to write about squat toilets.” Well, the joke’s on YOU, sucker: I haven’t even USED a squat toilet yet! Because I have no idea HOW, smart guy. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I drop my pants and squat, I’m still right over top of my pants. I can think of a less-elaborate way to poop in my pants, thanks.

Actually, I’ve watched YouTube videos about how to use a squat toilet, and I think I have a better handle on how to go about my business. (Think “pants around knees,” not “pants around ankles.”)

“Hold on, fool,” you say. “You watched YouTube videos on how to use a toilet?” Yes. What of it? I know it makes me sound like a giant nerd, but YouTube videos can be really helpful. I basically taught myself effective swimming technique from library books and YouTube videos. I had some Indian students who invited me to play cricket with them, so I checked a book out of the library to make sure I knew what I should be doing. (I never ended up going because they rescinded the offer when I gave them failing grades.) People make fun of me when they hear these stories, but isn’t that what libraries and YouTube are for? (Well, libraries, anyway. YouTube is probably for watching this cat massage video.)

So anyway, if I’m not writing about squat toilets, what AM I writing about?

The stink.

We live on the fifth floor, 50 feet above the sewer, but our bathrooms stink like sewage day and night. You see, the shower drains connect to the toilet pipes, and each bathroom has two floor drains that do the same. So we have four holes in our apartment that conduct sewer gas into our place. We’ve taped up the floor drains, but the shower drains are still a problem. I’m thinking of getting plunger heads to set atop the drains when we’re not using the showers.

I was sort of relieved when I learned that it’s not just our bathroom that stinks. Every bathroom I’ve used has smelled like sewage, even in fancy restaurants and offices. The bathroom at church smells like the bathroom in an American bus station, and it is one of the nicest ones I’ve seen so far.

Part 2: 

A strange phenomenon around here is the sexy toilet ad. One I’ve seen in a few different subway stations has a painfully-attractive couple standing over a sleek toilet, giving it sultry looks. The man and woman are touching, but I can’t help feeling they both have the hots for the toilet. Every time I see the ad and want to take a picture, we’re either late going somewhere or the platform is incredibly crowded. I’ll keep trying, though.

When we were in Tianjin, we walked past a store selling home furnishings, and I noticed a billboard with a sexy toilet ad. Then I noticed another one, this one for a different brand, above the first. So sexy toilet ads are definitely a thing here.

My wife speculated that such ads are necessary because western toilet manufacturers have to induce Chinese customers to replace their squat toilets with bowl toilets. In America, they don’t have to convince you that you need a toilet, they just have to convince you that you need a cool one (like this wall-mounted one, which seems awesome until you realize that all the pee that normally ends up on the tank will instead be on your wall). The initial threshold is a little higher here, so they have to use gorgeous people to help get over it.

Part 3: 

It’s about to get awkward up in here.

How many toilet posts can I have before I start sharing things you wish I hadn’t? The answer is “two.”

I decided to be proactive and acclimate to squat toilets before I find myself in a dire situation. When the time comes that I’m rushing to a public toilet after eating some suspicious street food, only to find a solid phalanx of squat toilets, do I want that to be my first attempt at using one? I’ll be much better off if I’m used to them by then.

So one Saturday that I had to work (even though students were not in class–this place makes poor decisions sometimes), I decided to use the squat toilet for the first time.

This is your final warning.

Westerners cannot get into as deep of a squat as easterners because we all stopped squatting when we were two. When westerners squat, our heels come off the ground and we balance on the balls of our feet, still over a foot above the target. Because of this higher placement, aim becomes more important. An easterner can use a squat toilet completely hands-free, I’d bet, but westerners must ensure proper direction. And when you’re hunched over in a squat with a shirt bunched up and some extra weight around your midsection, you can’t always get a good read on what’s going on down there.

I became aware that I had urinated on my own ankle when I felt the dampness of my pants against my skin.

I texted my wife the three words no wife ever wants to receive in a text message: “Squat toilet mishap.” I requested she send a kid over with replacement pants, socks, and shoes. And then I waited in the bathroom until I heard my kid out in the building hallway. I changed in the bathroom and sent my kid back home with a bag of my soiled clothes. And I never explained to my coworkers why I changed clothes in the middle of the day.

Since then I’ve been flawless. My success rate is now over 90%. But it will never again be 100%.

Part 4: 

Amidst the raging debate over squat toilet v. sit toilet emerges a sizable party advocating the Third Way: just go in the street.

China has an open defecation problem that is not adequately communicated by this map. When you see that something less than 10% of rural Chinese poop in the open, you might reasonably expect that the cities have, literally speaking, their sh#* under control.

Tell that to the teenage boy I saw pooping in the planter outside the grocery store yesterday around noon.

The idea of using a store bathroom is anathema here. Although cities have public restrooms (our building is right next door to one), they are less frequent than necessary, and often difficult to find if you are unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

It’s not just a matter of poverty or culture or education. Seemingly-similar countries can have drastically different public pooping outcomes.

No one in our family has pooped in the street (yet), but Little Guy has peed in the streets several times. The first time, we were sitting in a Subway, eating ham sandwiches that smelled of fish, and he had to pee. There was no public restroom in the building on on the block. My wife hoped we could get some sympathy for a small child, and perhaps some business would let Little Guy pee in the employee restroom, but she took him out on the street to stand around and look helpless for a while, then turned it over to me. So we went down the alley behind Subway and found an area of relative seclusion. He resisted at first, but ended up deciding that peeing on a dumpster was better than peeing in his pants.

The next time, I took the boys to lunch. As we approached the restaurant, Little Guy said, “Oh, I forgot that I needed to go to the bathroom.” Since his mother wasn’t there, we didn’t have to start with the false attempts at civilization and modesty; I immediately guided him to an area behind a shrub, on the side of a convenience store near a busy intersection, and told him not to pee on the equipment the store owners were keeping back there or else they would come out and yell at him.

Later in the meal, he had to go again. We were nearly done, so I asked if he could wait until we got home. Since he’s six years old, of course he could not. I told him to go back to the side of the convenience store. He’s our most adventurous child, so he left on his own without a problem. A moment later, he was back. It seemed there were kids hanging out in his pee location. I thought of giving him the keys to our apartment and sending him home, but he can’t unlock the door by himself. I gave him directions to the public restroom outside our building, but it became obvious he would not make it that far. So I told him to suck it up and pee in front of the kids on the side of the building. He came back a little later, happy to report that the kids had left and he had some privacy at his busy intersection.

Chinese counties- a post by Brandon

My wife told me I would not be tracking my Chinese counties while we were here. Sometimes I think she just likes to say things she knows are incorrect.

China has first-level divisions (mostly called provinces, but four municipalities have province-level equivalence) and second-level divisions (mostly called prefectures, but called districts or counties in the province-level municipalities). I am in the process of making maps of our travels, but I have to do some editing of the base files I downloaded which were incomplete. So in the meanwhile, I’ll just use a list.
Aug. 22: Shunyi District, Beijing Municipality (1)
Aug. 22: Tongzhou District, Beijing Municipality (2)
Aug. 22: Chaoyang District, Beijing Municipality (3)
Aug. 22: Haidian District, Beijing Municipality (4)
Aug. 24: Shijingshan District, Beijing Municipality (5)
Aug. 24: Xicheng District, Beijing Municipality (6)
Aug. 24: Dongcheng District, Beijing Municipality (7)
Aug. 24: Fengtai District, Beijing Municipality (8)
Aug. 24: Daxing District, Beijing Municipality (9)
Oct. 31: Mentougou District, Beijing Municipality (10)
Nov. 9: Wuqing District, Tianjin Municipality (11)
Nov. 9: Beichen District, Tianjin Municipality (12)
Nov. 9: Hebei District, Tianjin Municipality (13)
Nov. 9: Hedong District, Tianjin Municipality (14)
Nov. 9: Nankai District, Tianjin Municipality (15)
Nov. 9: Hongqiao District, Tianjin Municipality (16)
Nov. 10: Heping District, Tianjin Municipality (17)
I’ve been to 10/16 of Beijing’s districts and 7/16 of Tianjin’s, with plans to visit one more Tianjin district before we return home on Wednesday. This is, of course, boring to everyone but me.

Kaolengmian – a food post by Brandon

Right after we figured out that our jianbing guy was actually our kaolengmian guy, he got chased off the streets for APEC. Because so many visiting dignitaries were cruising our neighborhood, let me tell you. All the street vendors had to vamoos, but the rotting garbage substation immediately next to our building was allowed to carry on, no questions asked.
Anyway, last night (11/15), in an effort to overcome my anger of having to work on a Saturday (I really should have included our “holiday replacement days” on my list of most-hated things), we went to see if they were back yet. And they were!
We celebrated their return by getting two. And they celebrated their return by making them twice as spicy as normal.
While we stood at the cart, watching the husband-and-wife team work, the guard from the nearby grocery store came over to tell everyone standing around that we have four kids. We don’t know this guard, but he knows us. He told them we have a daughter and three sons. The kaolengmian guy was incredulous.
An old lady wanted to chat us up, but we’d already passed the limit of our Chinese language skills. Like most people we’ve met, though, she was completely undeterred when I said to her, “Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen.” Another customer at the cart started translating for us, and the old lady also cut back some to simpler words we could recognize. She wanted to know if I was a teacher at the local school and if we came from America.
As we walked home, my wife said, “How did that guard know we have four kids? I haven’t taken all four kids with me to the grocery store in a long time. I usually leave at least three home.”
I said, “It’s probably a game to him. He’s like, ‘Here’s that white lady again, and this time with a different kid.’ He probably keeps track of how many different kids he sees you with.”
I had a meal of all the finest things China has to offer: kaolengmian, +C, knock-off Peachy-Os, and a single-serving cheesecake cup. It didn’t make up for my one-day weekend, but it helped a little.

Tianjin: Wednesday, Nov. 12

Finishing up in Tianjin.

The kids got ahold of my phone and took a lot of crazy pictures.  We woke, dressed, packed and went to the train station to buy tickets (to avoid a 5 hour wait).  I was unnessessary this time, we could have hopped on a train in 20 minutes but our luggage was at the hotel.  We ate breakfast at the train station McDonald’s (Egg McMuffins minus the cheese for some reason).  Tickets in hand, we headed back to the hotel, finished packing, double-checked that we’d left nothing behind and checked out.

Orange Juice machine in our mall.  We finally had a 10 yuan note and tried it out.  Pretty good.
Waiting for the train back to Beijing.

Tianjin: Tuesday, Nov. 11 – Part 2

Th main attractions we wanted to see in Tianjin were the Tianjin Tower (for the view) and the Tianjin Eye (for the view and because ferris wheels seem exciting and fun).  We also wanted to do a river cruise at night (for the view) but it was pretty cold so we opted to skip that on this trip.

After the Nanshi Food Mall, we walked across town (not too far) to the Tianjin Eye.  On the way we passed people launching lanterns like in the Disney movie Tangled but we were set on the ferris wheel, so we kept going.

The air wasn’t bad.  I think he was keeping his nose warm.

It was a cold night.  The outside part of the line was only about 25 minutes and then another 15-20 minutes inside.  Once you are in your “car,” it’s a 30 minute trip around the wheel.  Our car was our family plus one young Chinese guy.

Tianjin: Tuesday, Nov. 11 – Part 1

We woke up Tuesday morning with this view from our hotel room window.  I know that it doesn’t show much without a before comparison, but the air had been horrible the first two days we’d been in Tianjin and we’d only been able to see a handful of these buildings.  It was a clear day, perfect for all the “seeing” we had planned for Tianjin.

First up, the Tianjin Radio and TV Tower (very similar to the CCTV tower in Beijing). It was fun to go to the top and almost be able to see to the ocean.  Maybe on an even clearer day, the ocean would have been visible.  It’s 415 meters, so it’s actually 10 meters taller than the tower in Beijing. Inside it has pictures of other tall towers.  It was fun to see the Eiffel Tower (which I’ve been to), the Tokyo Tower (which I’ve been to), the CN Tower in Toronto (which B’s been to) and the John Hancock Center (which we’ve all been to).  Plus some other buildings we plan to see, like the Pearl Tower in Shanghai.

While up in the tower admiring the views it wasn’t Squirt and the other kids who drew a crowd, it was me.  Maybe they didn’t see the rest of the family, or maybe they just wanted a picture of the crazy foreigner with FOUR kids.  I had to spend a great deal of time while an older woman tried to take a picture of me with her husband on her cell phone camera.  I was trying hard not to crack up because she had the camera so low, it was obvious our heads weren’t going to make the picture.  Her husband just sort of shrugged and smiled at me after he saw what his wife had captured.  But then I had to have my picture taken with the wife and two of her friends.  Eventually they had me track down a kid for a picture, but the family was scattered about so I don’t think they ever ended up with a picture of all four kids, unless they were standing behind me while I took a picture (which happens a lot).

This was near a church we didn’t actually end up going in but it looks cool.

This was an area called Ancient Cultural Street full of lots of little vendors.

We then walked to Tianjin Nanshi Food Mall.  It has a McDonalds, and some other sit down style restaurants, but mostly it’s just people selling their food, or street foods, but off the street.  It’s a two story, mall-like building (although as far as we could tell, the 2nd story was closed).  I’d promised the kids we’d warm up on hot chocolate after the whole, Ancient Cultural Street plus a long walk, freezing part of the day.  We SLOWLY drank hot chocolate at a McDonald’s, even skimming the cooler part off the top with a straw.

We tried Jian Bing (which B’s students had told him was the street food he loves and described to them, it wasn’t, but we wanted to try Jian Bing now).

Part 2 coming soon to a new blog post.

Tianjin: Monday, Nov. 10

We requested two connected rooms at the Tianjin Aqua City (area of town/mall) Holiday Inn. We ended up with two rooms (1 King sized bed per room) across the hall from each other.  We put the three big kids in one bed (they all fit decently) and B and I took the larger room with a couch and a bench for Squirt’s bed.  Our hotel was connected to a mall and in the basement of the mall was a subway stop.

Monday we woke up and went to the McDonald’s in the mall for breakfast.  It was too late for breakfast (and we found out later in the trip that it didn’t matter because this mall McDonald’s didn’t serve breakfast ever) so the kids (and B) elected to have Chicken McNuggets, etc. for breakfast.

Our hotel from across the street.

An adorable street sweeper.

The air was horrible on Monday.  I don’t remember exactly what the number was, but it was above 200 which is “very unhealthy.”  This had us a bit worried because we’d planned to walk around town a lot and a lot of what we wanted to do in Tianjin depended on seeing views.

We started at Gulou N Street and walked toward the Drum Tower and then down Gulou S Street.

To illustrate how poor the air was.


The caution signs for drivers in China are great and Buddy already loved signs.  In Beijing, we aren’t really on any of the big streets that have these signs unless we are on a bus so we haven’t had a chance to get very man pictures.  In Tianjin we saw a lot.

Tianjin has an Italian Style Town. All that really looked different to us was the cobblestone street and the naked, marble statues.  Apparently, as a coastal town, Tianjin, in the 1880-1900s was the port of Beijing, so westerners trading with China had a lot of turn of the century, European architecture and history (similar to Shanghai).

We walked to a Walmart (B wanted to look for a better map of Tianjin) and learned that our Walmart is ghetto compared to this one in Tianjin.  Then we walked to a giant, outdoor mall (and fancy indoor mall) on Heping Rd. and walked past the St. Regis hotel which looked pretty cool.

Off this mall strip was a food alley.  A bunch of people jumped in front of us in the churro line so we walked to the end of the street and back.  Being a coastal city, there were a lot of fried squid on a stick options.  There were also these aebleskiver looking balls.  We bought a pack of them before I saw the guy making them put a bit of raw looking bacon in each one before flipping it over.  We were feeling adventurous, but I was wary of that raw looking bacon so I ate a small, not through the middle bite.  It was okay, but hot, and a little doughy in the middle.  We ended up trashing them and getting churros.  Later, we looked it up on the internet and found out those are squid balls and westerners find them thoroughly disgusting.  Glad we didn’t bite right into them!

After the food alley, we spotted a cool looking church (St. Joseph’s Cathedral or Lao Xikai Catholic Church), walked to it, found a Paris Baguette (my favorite of the Chinese/French bakeries), got a snack and headed to Five Great Avenues, where five streets intersect.

We headed back to our hotel and wandered over to the attached mall for dinner.  Outside the fancier restaurants in Chinese malls, at the host/hostess podium, there is usually a picture menu.  The food at this particular restaurant looked good so we went there.  After being seated in a shower-themed area, we looked at the tables near us (toilet-themed) and realized our restaurant had some sort of bathroom theme happening.  Complete with poop-filled bowls under the clear glass tables at the toilet booths.