Thursday, August 31, 2006

COLUMN: Chinese Toilets.

I've always considered myself to be somewhat of a "worldly" person. I'm not saying that I know my way around the Louvre or that I'm familiar with the customs of Aboriginal tribesmen. I've never learned a single Japanese character, and I've never climbed the cloudy steps of Machu Picchu.

But I still like to think of myself as being fairly clued in. After all, I watch a whole lot of TV. Between the Travel Channel, BBC America, and Discovery, you can take a vacation from your living room. Every week, the folks at Borders hold the newest British import music magazines for me. I'd die without daily access to and news from around the world. I have e-mail buddies everywhere from London to Sydney to Tokyo.

And yet, other than 2 ill-advised hours in Ontario, I've never left the USA. I've always wished that I had the guts to just pack a bag and fly off to some strange and exciting landscape. But, since me and airplanes don't get along well (there's another column for another day,) I instead play Armchair World Traveler and live vicariously through the travels of my friends.

This is where I've rapidly learned that I've been a bit naive in my "worldliness." A friend of mine just left Illinois for Beijing, where she's going to be teaching conversational English to a Chinese classroom for five months. Since her departure last week, she's been sending near-daily e-mails that have raised my eyebrows on more than a few occasions.

Principally, THIS sentence: "I'm very relieved to find that my apartment has Western toilets." Umm, what? Until the PRECISE moment that I read this statement, I was blissfully unaware that toilets differentiated from one culture to another. Sure, there are those fancy ones that shoot water onto your nether-regions, but I'm talking BASIC toilet construction here.

That's when I made a VERY dumb move. I did a Google image search for "Chinese toilets." Here's a helpful and fun tip to remember: Never, under any circumstances, do a Google image search for "Chinese toilets." Unless, of course, you're an aspiring bulemic and need some good purging incentives. Suffice to say, you'll never turn your nose at a Port-a-potty again. The results, while thoroughly disgusting, were insightful.

I learned about traditional Asian toilets, which most English-speaking folk refer to as "squatters." That's right, you heard me -- squatters. Some appear to be porcelain, others appears to be little more than holes in the ground. But one thing is perfectly clear: One does not sit. One squats.

This is, quite obviously, insane. I've been obsessing on this to all of my friends for the past week, and some have politely reminded me that once upon a time, even here in America, toilets were of the squat variety. As though that makes it acceptable or something. Pshaw.

Common sense dictates that toilets should have seats. In fact, the inventions that our cave-dwelling ancestors should have focused on are, in order: (1) Fire. (2) The wheel. (3) The toilet seat. (4) The X-Box 360.

The question becomes: If push came to shove, could I accomplish aforementioned squat manoeuvre? I'm not so thoroughly convinced. First off, I'm an uncoordinated boob. If I lived in Beijing, I would be voted Most Likely To Fall Into The Squatter. At the very least, I would require some form of safety/balancing handrails, and even then, the results could be iffy. Looking at these photos of squatters, I wasn't quite positive how you even USED them. There had better be a diagram.

Without a toilet seat, there's no lap. And without a lap, there's no place to put the Sports section. Without the Sports section, guys everywhere would be cancelling their newspaper subscriptions and -- BAM! -- suddenly I'm unemployed. So, to sum, if it wasn't for the advent of the Western toilet seat, I would be falling into squatters willy-nilly AND be out of a job. That's not a rosy picture. I've been looking this gift seat in the mouth.

Bathroom visits should be a special time of personal reflection and relaxation. After all, that's why we call them REST-rooms. It should NOT require the balance and poise of a gymnast.

Then I thought about it. Martial arts, a spiritual discipline that requires strength, agility, balance, and grace, originated in Asia. Without perpetuating stereotypes, perhaps this is due to their forced early balance training at the hands of the squatter. Over here in the states, we've all been brought up on toilet seats -- hence all the uncoordinated klutzes you see walking around.

The end trade-off is this -- AMERICA: Smart enough to put seats on our toilets, yet sadly lacking in ninjas.

Personally, it's a sacrifice I can live with.


Renee said...

Yep, my pal Kelly told me about such toilets on her China trip too. I am with you on every level here. Except about reading material. Personally we keep a copy of Etiquette for Outlaws for laughs. Well that and my puppy has decided to follow me into the bathroom constantly and proceeds to jump into my pants as they're around my ankles and take a little nap. That might have been too much info. Sorry.

Chrissy said...

Japan sounds like they know the right way to 'go'...

Everyday Critic said...

Yes, Chinese toilets can be very frightening. I've even written an article about my experiences so far with them. And I have great respect for any woman who can use one... especially after a night of drinking.