You don’t really know a place until you’ve met the toilets.* Toilets are like people, there are good ones, and bad ones; the calm, reliable sort, and the kind that blow up when you feed them a bunch of BS; and some of them… well, some of them are a little different.
Unlike people however, when it comes to toilets there are times when you can’t afford to be a snob. You don’t care where that toilet’s from or who his mother is. Gold-tone handles and marble stalls would be nice, but you’re not going to look down on that giant pit in the ground either. No, seriously, don’t look down. If you fall in, I’m not getting you out.
Along with death and hemorrhoids it’s a great leveler. Sooner or later (probably sooner), if you travel anyplace remotely interesting you are going to become uncomfortably familiar with the local plumbing, or lack thereof. In some ways, it’s easier when you’re camping (really camping, not being a pansy in an RV. Like Thoreau). What better way to commune with nature than to squat with a chill Appalachian breeze airing your southern regions, the gentle tickle of branches and the rattlesnake rustling of the leaves in your ear? That is if you brought enough biodegradable toilet paper. Otherwise it could get a mite stressful.
Shit happens. It’s just sometimes you don’t expect it to happen. Not having ten pence on you for a pay toilet which is ten kilometers away from an ATM can be a nasty surprise. Obviously not a tragedy, but getting arrested for panhandling or public exposure can be an unpleasant way to spend your vacation.
Of course most people have some sort of story about being stuck in a foreign country without their universal translator, trying to shout “Dónde está el baño!” over the sirens to the man running away from them with the stolen purse only to realize — once they clear their heads and their colons — that they’re in Portugal.
Forget this for a minute though. Pretend you’ve never traveled. Furthermore your character grew up in the Midwest and the most exotic place she’s ever been to is Niagara Falls. For the last few years she’s lived in Ingleton, population one hundred and fifty. She hasn’t even been camping. She’s also just had her second child. She and her husband arrive in 1995 China.
Just to be clear she does not arrive in tourist friendly, Hong Kong-style China. No. That would be too easy. That is not the point. Your non-fictional character arrives in Chengdu. Chengdu, the gateway to Tibet. Chengdu of the coal fires. Chendgu, where westerners are still as rare as a kosher renminbi note.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. She is not sent there by Glinda the good witch, or even her non-fictional approximation, Southwest Airlines. She takes a twenty hour China Air flight with a hundred plus other people. Three out of four toilets are clogged, and that’s only because her fearlessly altruistic husband fixed one of them. Everyone smokes. She has two children and one of them has a tendency to put other people’s shoes in his mouth. By the time they get to Beijing everyone is inexplicably ill.
After her brilliant experience with the airplane bathrooms, the barely toilet-trained toddler is eagerly looking forward to sampling more of what Chinese plumbing has to offer. Beijing’s airport is happy to oblige; enter the ‘squatty potty.’ Now I know what you’re going to say: squatting is biologically sound, and really, much better for you than a hemorrhoid-inducing “throne.” Be that as it may, coming into a huge metropolitan airport and having to unexpectedly rough it like you’re boyscouting in the Smokies compounds your culture-shock. The tiny, reptilian part of your brain keeps thinking “they’ve even screwed up the goram bathrooms.” Most of your energies are focused on making sure your three year old jitterbug doesn’t fall in. There are a few squares of something almost but not entirely quite unlike toilet paper.
The next time of course there is no toilet paper. You are in Chengdu. Your hosts (not mentioned here because it will require a long and tedious explanation about why you were in China in the first place) are chomping at the bit to give you a tour. However, everyone — translation: your husband — has spent the last few weeks cleaning out the Mother Hubbard-sized apartment. It is not made to comfortably accommodate corn-fed midwesterners. Because of this and the terrifying thought of a bus ride with your vomiting children, for some reason you pass on a trip to see the Leshan Buddha.
They are not to be dissuaded and plan a day-trip to the DuJianYan River Irrigation Works, where they cheerfully point out the Chinese dam that has been in continuous use for the last millennium, and contrast it with the fifty year old Russian dam that never worked. You see a few temples, wave at peasants and smile as if you are a gracious tourist.
Lunch features the usual delicious fare, plus some interesting walnut milk. Your stomach starts to rumble. In Ingleton this is fine, you probably just ate beans or something, but after only a few weeks in China you are now sufficiently paranoid to not trust liquid that you haven’t seen come to a rolling boil with your own two eyes. You try to make a preemptive visit to the restaurant’s bathroom (two-watt light bulb, walls ‘slick with ick’ and a bar of soap that looks like it’ll do more harm than good). Then your Weiban (foreign affairs officer) takes you down the mountain, on a set of stairs that looks decorative. Six inches wide, a foot deep. Surely such steep, slender, slippery stairs could only have been constructed for aesthetic purposes. Surely.
There are no railings. Not that you could have held onto them while using both arms to clutch your wheezing infant to you. (In a sling of course, being an idiot doesn’t necessarily make one a bad mother.) The husband is helping the toddler, who has already managed to smash her face in an up close and personal encounter with Chinese architecture. Did I mention that there were no railings?
By the time they get to the bottom of the hill you’re certainly thankful to be alive, but there are more pressing issues. You are also somewhat concerned because your past interactions with Chinese bureaucrats have led you to believe that all requests have to be made via a discreet chat about the your problem with the official’s grandmother’s sister.
But, you tell the Weiban that you have to find a bathroom immediately. Fortunately your fears are wrong (if not entirely unfounded) and he points the way. You sprint to the bathroom, only to find your way blocked by a tiny woman with a fistful o’ Renminbi (actually, fēn, the pennies). Your character checks her pockets to find… Kleenex. This lady might as well be Leonidas and the three hundred. You run back to the Weiban (and remember you missed most of your high school PE classes due to a recurring bout of mono) and he returns, waving you through with his open wallet.
The bathroom consists of a long trench separated by stalls, it’s well-lit and relatively clean. You skip toward the end and dutifully squat. Your form is darn near perfect for a westerner if you do say so yourself. Then you realize that there are no doors on the stall. You look up to see around two dozen women and children staring through the opening.
This is obviously not the ideal way in which to meet the locals, but you wave and say Hi! in your cheeriest voice, because hey, what else can you do? You continue to squat. They continue to watch. You’re kind of tied down and they’re enjoying the show, but hey at least you have Kleenex. You have a feeling that trying to communicate a need for toilet paper with your limited Sichuanhua vocabulary could irreparably damage Chinese-American relations.
..but eventually, every mortifying, horrible experience has to come to an end. You rejoin the group having learned that carrying a few fēn with you is far more essential than the phrase “Zai nar tze swo?” since that usually only works if someone takes you by the hand and leads you there. You fall in love with Immodium and live happily ever after.
Obviously, life goes on. You see the city since you’re there, you become acquainted with the indigenous bacteria (giardia being a local favorite) and click your chopsticks together helplessly until a kind waitress takes pity on you and brings you a fork. Eventually you’re comfortable enough that your family can visit the local park along with a couple of friends. The park consist of great , towering stands of deep green bamboo. Everyone passes on getting an ear cleaning with tools that look like they were made for removing plaque.
Lest we forget, in this area of China at this time, children do not wear diapers for the most part, but instead wear split pants. Their parents simply hold them over the nearest sewer and let them get it over with. For those of you that did not take introductory economics the low demand for disposable diapers means that people who do use disposable diapers pay a shitload of money ( When not on family outings you use cloth diapers.)
Like all infants your youngling seems to be perpetually in need of a diaper change. You spot some clean tables near the outdoor tea house. Clean tables. Try not to wet yourself. That’s kind of counterproductive. And more than a little ironic. So you put out your changing mat on this clean! table and go through the motions. Of course a large crowd gathers to watch you do this.
It’s moments like these that define you. At that instant you know you will never be able to look at a Koala Care changing station again without taking a solemn moment of silence. It’s natural of course; you and your family are all very white, you have two children, because as foreigners the one-child policy clearly does not apply to you, and you have curly hair. At least you’re not a red head. Then there’s no way to blend in. Plus, people on the bus are always be trying to take some. (True story.) However, recognizing this doesn’t make it any less difficult and your blonde friend that happens to be with you, who is the very antithesis of shy, simply can’t stand it anymore
She sticks out her hand and traverses the crowd shouting “Yi Kwai! Yi Kwai!” (one buck!) No one is exactly sure how to respond to this. Since it no longer appears to be free entertainment most of them leave. But some of them follow you around as you take your son’s neatly wrapped gift in search of a trash can. When you finally find one it is naturally overflowing. Their eyes follow you as you carefully place it on top of the mound of junk.
I know a lot of this doubtless sounds very chauvinistic and intolerant of cultural differences. ..and yes it is odd that sometimes four star hotels didn’t have toilet paper. It’s strange to someone who grew up in a different way. But you can have pretty weird stuff happen anywhere.
There was, and certainly is, a lot more to China than squatty potties and soot. There were wonderful students, phantom doughnut shops (there on the corner one day and never seen again), epic searches for “efficacious disinfetant [sic]” (bleach), the sound of pedicabs, bicycles and more bicycles, giant red panda balloons, Mongolian hot pot, Chinese not-cinammon buns (red bean paste, apparently if it looked like the real thing that was good enough), the abundance of la jao peppers (hot), and hua jao (with seeds so hot that it feels as if your esophagus is being lovingly flayed with a half-tempered katana) and always, ceaselessly, never-endingly boiling water.
Chengdu was so much more than that though, and definitely a lot more than a series of toilets.
* If you think is just a hook put there for the shock value of bathroom humor, well… it’s not. If you’re not into scatology you’d probably better skip this post.