Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Asian Toilets

This week marks my six-month anniversary with breaking the bonds of North America and embarking on this Asian adventure. The half-year point seems a good place to stop, look back, look inward, and reflect on these past 180-odd days lived so far from home. And what better place for reflection than the toilet? (Mature content warning: if you are not comfortable with openly discussing personal manners of a secondary nature – and by secondary, I mean going number two – I strongly recommend you stop reading now. You’ve been warned.)

Astute readers with very good memories might recall that I had some difficulty with finding toilet paper on the very day I arrived in the Beijing airport. My memorable experiences with Asian toilets by no means ended there. Let’s look at China first, that emerging superpower with a fifth of the world’s folks and an economy on pace to take over the galaxy by 2037. The first thing I want to say about Chinese toilets is that not everyone uses them. In the empty grasslands of Inner Mongolia, that should come as no surprise. On the street corners of Hegang, an incredibly industrial city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang province, it might. I should stress that in my 84 days in China, I did not, in fact, see anyone going number two on a street corner. Not that it would have shocked me if I had, especially towards the end of the trip, but I didn’t. In Hegang, however, what I did see was a young lad of perhaps two, pelvis thrust proudly forward, standing on a busy street corner at rush hour, naked from the waist down, letting fly a yellow stream for all to see. More disturbing, perhaps, was Mom standing approvingly alongside. I since came to realize that parents in China don’t dress their toddlers in diapers. Instead, they give them pants with a couple snaps in the crotch and no undies. Whenever nature calls, wherever nature calls, relief is just a thumb-flick away.

Although modesty does increase with age, such teachings nevertheless carry over into adulthood. Standing by the overpass at the east end of the Daban yard in sunset light found me composing glinty photographs of steam locomotives and trackworkers one brisk November afternoon. In my viewfinder I noticed some glint where there shouldn’t have been any. Zooming in revealed the low sun catching a golden arc emitting from the midsection of one of those workers.

Be careful you don’t judge the mature Chinese too harshly, however. One visit to nearly any public toilet very far off the tourist track would have all but the most reserved of travelers looking for the nearest bush. While western-style, sit-down toilets are becoming more common in cosmopolitan Chinese cities, the eastern-style squat toilets are still maintain a commanding majority. The ones that are plumbed and flush when you pull the chain aren’t so bad. Those, however, remain a smallish minority group within the commanding majority of squat toilets.

Get a surprisingly short distance out of Beijing, and the average public Chinese toilet looks something like the following. What you’ll find is a smallish, rectangular brick building with open doorways on opposite ends. It’s important to learn the characters for male and female, as they’re often the only distinguishing characteristics, cast in concrete beside their respective doorways. Fortunately, with a good teacher like Ron, learning them is easy.

“The one for female has crossed legs, while the male one has a little dangly thing in the middle.”

It’s all the more important to learn the difference, because the facilities in each side are sometimes identical. They’re often not particularly private, either. In the men’s side, there’s often, but not always, a concrete trough for number one. The whole thing will be cast at a slight angle so it all runs down to one end and drains through a little hole. The stalls, one to six of them, depending on the size of the place, are typically separated only by low brick dividers with not so much as even a place to hang a door. In the middle of the concrete floor of each “stall,” you’ll find a long, rectangular slot that you’re supposed to squat over. The slot is maybe six to eight inches wide and two feet long. The size is an advantage, because it gives you a pretty good-sized landing zone. It’s just that these same slots are also big enough to put a leg in, or to swallow a small child.

Four things that you won’t find in one of these bathrooms are toilet paper, electricity, a sink, and running water. That hole at the end of the urinal trough? It might drain to an underground tank, but just as likely it simply drains to the outside. The slots are often constructed over top of rudimentary septic tanks, but that is by no means a steadfast rule of construction. Some toilets are constructed over dirt holes in the ground. Others are on the side of a steeply sloping hill, where gravity is left to dispose of the waste into the grove of poplars that border the town. Or, in the case of at least one public facility in Jixi, another city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang, the building (of wooden construction) sits directly, unfettered, and unfiltered above a swift-flowing stream. Above it is a coal processing plant. Below it is crowded residential neighborhood. Naturally, you bring your own roll to these establishments. You also bring a flashlight if you plan on going by night, especially given the size of those holes.

The first time I hiked over the mountain to Lixin on the Huanan narrow gauge line, I didn’t find the wooden outhouse in back of the brick station building. The next morning, when my intestines had finished with the previous night’s eggs and potatoes, I simply found a likely spot in the wooded hillside above the station. This being early in my trip, I felt a little bad for not having a shovel to dig a proper hole. I needn’t have been so concerned. When I returned with Ron two months later, I found the outhouse in back of the brick station building, a three-walled box constructed of rough sticks. Nobody had bothered to dig a proper hole beneath it, either.

Nearly every traveler who spends much time in China comes home with a toilet horror story or two. One quiet day between trains, I asked Ron about his.

“My worst Chinese toilet story?” he repeated, no doubt surveying a lengthy list in his mind for the chart topper. “That would have to be from a trip I made a few winters back way up north to this little town in Heilongjiang where it got to 40 below at night and maybe warmed up to 20 below during the day. I walked into one of these toilets and I absolutely had to go right then. And when I got in there, what did I find? A solid sheet, several inches thick, of yellow ice on the floor. Here and there, little, frozen brown piles lay halfway sunken into the ice from where they’d been warm enough to melt it a little at first. (I warned you at the beginning, remember?) The one good thing about the cold was that at least the smell wasn’t too bad.”

Coming to Japan, I expected to leave such scenes behind me, and I did. I did not, however, completely escape memorable toilet moments. You may have noticed that I refrain from using the word “restroom.” That’s a habit I picked up from Ron. It seemed quite odd to me at first, saying “I have to use the toilet” all the time, no matter how grammatically correct it might be. It still seems a bit odd, even though I often say toilet now, myself. But the word “restroom” would definitely be something of a misnomer for many an Asian toilet, in China and Japan alike, as so many of them are quite far from being the restful reading place that lead so many American dads to half hour BMs.

The squat-plopper, as I have come to call the eastern squat toilet, does not hold the same commanding advantage over the western toilet in Japan that it does in China, but it does still hold something of a margin. With a little patience and enough exploring, however, the intrepid traveler to Japan can find a western-style toilet in most Japanese public establishments. Not in all of them, though. One of the most glaring omissions occurs on many of the trains here. If you travel in Japan, chances are you will go by the country’s extensive, extremely punctual railway system. If you travel very much, chances are will find yourself needing to go while on board. Likely as not, you will find yourself stepping up onto a small pedestal to squat over a porcelain basin. If you’re of a smallish stature, it might even go fairly well. If you’re closer to my size or, heaven forbid, larger, your knees will probably get jammed up against the wall and completely cover up the little metal bar they put there for you to steady yourself. And if you can’t steady yourself on the little metal bar, what you do is, you brace yourself against the sidewalls and start praying that the tracks are smooth and free of bumps for the duration of your business.

One nice thing about the toilets on board the trains is that they’ll come with toilet paper. There will probably even be a couple of extra rolls lying in a mesh shelf up in one corner. If you anticipate further movements upon arriving at the station of your destination, and don’t feel too badly about stealing, you might want to grab one of those rolls. To the best of my recollecting, I have yet to find a public toilet in a single Japanese railway station that came stocked with TP. There will, however, be a vending machine just outside on a wall selling small packs of tissues for Y50-100. On the street corners of some larger cities, you can often find vendors handing out free tissue packets with an advertisement stuffed inside them.

Today I had the occasion to use the toilet at JR Hokkaido’s Sapporo Station, a towering new building completed in 2003 in the middle of the city. Of course there was no toilet paper, but I was prepared for that. I walked in, closed the door, hung my camera bag and coat on the convenient metal hanger, and set myself to the task at hand. With accompaniment. No sooner had I shut the door behind me than a little speaker in the rear corner of the room began playing running water sounds. It didn’t stop until I finished and the automatic flush mechanism activated and whisked everything away. It wasn’t the first time I had seen such technology at work. Some toilets here have heated seats, some can spray your nether-region with jets of water (warm or cold, your choice), some can even cover the smell by spraying puffs of heavily-scented air freshener. Many toilets are lavishing decorated, like ours for example, with smiling cartoons and cuddly creatures. My bowel movements at home are faithfully witnessed by several manifestations of a little white rabbit named Miffy, with black eyes, a small x for a mouth, and, quite conveniently, no nose.

The public toilets in Japan are also impeccably clean, made so by a sizeable staff of cleaning ladies, who still manage to unnerve me when they march right in, mop in hand, as I’m unzipping at the urinal. And just in case they should come in while I’m tending to more pressing matters in one of the stalls, or in case someone else should be doing the same in the adjacent stall, there’s a recording of running water playing so nobody will hear when my own plop hits the water. It won’t entirely hit the water, though. Instead, it will half hit the water and half hit the bottom of the bowl, sliding the rest of the way down and leaving a nice, brown trail since the water level of the toilets is kept quite low here. But I guess that gives the cleaning ladies something to do when I’m gone.

So what I was thinking in the toilet today as I was fishing in my right hip pocket for my pack of tissues, is I how I really wish they’d just cut the crap in these Japanese toilets and let us get to crapping. That’s what we’re there for, afterall, and I, for one, don’t need any recordings covering the sound of my own bodily functions. I don’t even mind smelling them. I wouldn’t mind a roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall, though.

1 comment:

Edward said...

Having experienced toilets in Beijing and more recently in Guangzhou what you wrote is so true.

However I did find one exception. Just outside Guangzhou is a beautiful museum/park (I only know the name in Cantonese) with the cleanest public toilets I'd ever seen (this includes Western public toilets). My relatives who live in Guangzhou said that the toilet was one of the main attractions of the place.

Speaking to my relatives, they all acknowledged that toilets in China are in general in appalling states so they all marvel when a place takes the effort to keep their toilets clean.