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an update

To everyone who’d been nagging me to update, I explained that of late, my life has been for the most part pretty boring, and that unless you wanted excerpts from my notes about textual variations in Zhuangzi, or the functions of 了1 and 了2 in Modern Chinese, you wouldn’t like any updates I wrote. Still, some people persisted in their demands for a new post, and so, for reasons childish and scatological, I present you with “The Worst Toilet Ever” as proof that you really didn’t want an update.


Chinese toilets are of the ‘squatter’ model: a seatless depression in the floor, usually flushable. It’s common to hear foreigners – especially new arrivals – complain about them: “They’re filthy! They clog! The basket next to them is always filled with used toilet paper! They SMELL!”
While basically sympathetic to these complaints, I always feel compelled to educate the complainers, firstly by explaining to them the basics of how Chinese toilets are to be used, and secondy by informing them of just how much worse things could be. Here goes:

As unfamiliar and uncomfortable as the squat required by Chinese toilets may be to those of us who grew up with Western-style sitdown toilets, it has some major advantages over the ostensibly more comfortable ass-planted-on-toilet-seat position, viz.:

– It provides good exercise.

– While reading a book or a newspaper is probably not feasible, you will be able to use the time you spend perched uncomfortably over the toilet to contemplate all of the things that have gone wrong in your life.

– At no point does your ass – or any other part of you – come into contact with the toilet. When you consider the number and variety of asses with which the average toilet seat is burdened throughout its lifetime – and you will consider it if you go home after getting used to squatters – this is a great comfort.

As for the basket next to the toilet: that’s just where the toilet paper goes. There’s sometimes a sign to this effect, but most Chinese people don’t need to be told. Think of it as a 对联 duilian antithetical couplet for the indoor-plumbing era — 水管窄, 水压低: “The water pipes are narrow / The water pressure is low.”
So yes; you are supposed to put your toilet paper in that basket after you’ve finished with it. You might be able to get away with flushing it along with the rest of your detritus, especially in a modern building, but be warned that it may well clog, leaving you with a backed-up john and the enmity of the service staff and future bathroom patrons.

Then there are the toilets that admonish you to 请勿大便 — “No a faeces,” as one Beijing duck restaurant memorably translated it. Take the advice, and here’s why: some toilets have had grates placed over the hole to keep people from flushing toilet paper, cigarette butts, evidence of recently-committed crimes, etc., and these grates will catch solid waste of other forms as well. And then there’s the problem, mentioned before, of the narrow pipes and low pressure. Besides this, if you’ve spent any amount of time in China you’ve probably come across toilets that ostensibly permitted Number Two, only to find that the person who used the toilet before you had left proof that this was not the case.

Even if you haven’t had this happen to you, I have, and so here’s a little story that I like to call “The Worst Toilet Ever.”


It was August, 2001, and my classmates and I were on a bus from Beijing University to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.

About an hour and a half into the trip, our bus stopped at a large roadside restaurant for a pit stop and we all piled out. Beijing and environs are hot and humid in the summer, and going from the bus (which was air-conditioned) into the great outdoors and the restaurant (which were not) was a rude shock. Beginning to sweat and stick to ourselves, we walked upstairs to the bathroom and saw…

…a perfectly ordinary truck-stop bathroom, with a piss-trough along one wall and squatter cubicles along the back wall. You could smell it from the hallway, but that wasn’t really anything special; you could smell the bathrooms in Shaoyuan Classroom Building 2 from like 10 metres away. On the face of things, this bathroom seemed no worse than most we’d seen up ’til then, and a good bit better than some, and so we went in, did our thing at the piss-trough, and then turned around to go to the sink.

And that’s when we saw Stall 2.

The door was open, revealing that someone, at some point, had deposited a prodigious amount of shit in and around the squatter. It had splashed all over the floor, and up to a height of about two feet on the wall behind, a blast radius indicating a violence that it didn’t take a forensic excretologist to imagine, but the majority of it had landed in the basin of the squatter, heaping in a quantity that suggested something inhuman.
“It’s like a shit-baby,” observed my classmate, and it seemd entirely plausible that someone, or something, had been incubating this shit in their colon for the past nine months only to unload it in a massive, explosive fecal birth.
Worst of all were the footprints on the floor, leading away from the pile. One of them swept out in a curve that suggested that their maker had slipped – and sure enough, the shit-baby had a butt-print in it where someone had fallen.

“Whatever you do,” we advised the classmates who were coming in as we left, “don’t look in Stall 2.” Then we went back on the bus and waited to go.

“You assholes!”– this was from the classmates we’d warned before they went in — “Why did you tell us to look in there?”

We made no reply, having decided that our lives could now be divided into two periods, “Before Stall 2” and “After Stall 2,” and as the bus ride went on towards Mutianyu, we fell silent, brought closer by shared adversity, knowing that we could never explain it to anyone who hadn’t seen it.

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