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 (I never ended up going because they rescinded the offer when I gave them failing grades.)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?
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.
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.
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%.
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.