(This is my final, and perhaps most important, China Impressions. Soon I will get back to writing about life in Chicago and the transition to London.)
Open any newspaper or talk to any economist and they’ll tell you China is the future. With their megacities and exploding economy, they’re theatening to overtake the US in terms of economic output within a decade. Yes, China is booming, but there’s one thing they need to work on–their toilets.
When I returned from my China trip last year, my friends joked that I could only talk about two things–pandas and bathrooms.
Most Chinese toilets are what I like to call squatters, because you have to squat over them. They are essentially a glorified hole in the ground. I say “glorified” because it’s not like something out of Slumdog Millionaire, many of these squatters have modern plumbing flushing capabilties. But there’s no seat. Many westerners probably travel to China and pop a squat, embracing these toilets as the way of life. For me, it is a giant roadblock. For whatever reason, my body is incapable of relieving itself without sitting down. Once in Chongqing at Stephen’s aunt and uncle’s house I actually tried to use a squatter. Nothing happened. So some people may be limited in their travel by expenses or fear of air travel. I am limited by toilets. I’ve been to China twice now and have yet to see the Great Wall. Why? Because they don’t have sit-down toilets there. On the third day of our trip this year we drove 2 1/2 hours outside of Shanghai to visit a shipyard in Jingjiang. I could tell it was the kind of town that had squatters–or worse. So I held it for seven hours. When we returned to Shanghai we stopped at a restaurant just outside the city for dinner. I rushed into the bathroom to find my arch nemesis. Stephen asked the waitress if by chance they had another bathroom. She looked up at me, (I was towering over her by two feet), gave a little “Oh, you waiguo ren,” smirk, then said they didn’t. As the only white person in the entire restaurant, I was attracting enough attention as it was. But then the guys who had driven us suggested we go to a different restaurant, so we left. And everyone who had heard Stephen’s conversation with the waitress knew it was because the white girl couldn’t pee.
In the book I’m reading the author suggested that perhaps one of the most important Chinese phrases to learn is “I’m sorry, I am not proficient at squatting. Do you have another toilet option?” If I were the tattoo-getting type, I would get the Chinese characters for this tattooed somewhere. I could tell white people it meant something like “peace, love and harmony”, then point to it whenever I’m in China. Maybe I should just get it printed on a T-shirt.
Throughout the trip finding a toilet for me was always an epic quest. At the Bank of China building in Nantong I got four people involved in my search. They led me down a hallway and up a floor in the elevator. We stopped at a reception desk, picked up a key, and went down a different hallway. I ended up in what seemed like a hotel room in the office building. It was at least 90 degrees in the room which likely hadn’t been occupied in several months, but it had a glorious normal toilet.
While at the Shenzhen airport, I was greeted by a room of squatters. Just as I was about to hold it until Hong Kong, I discovered a door with a giant handicapped symbol on it. I peeked inside to find my Shangri-La–a regular bathroom. I almost felt bad about using it, but then I realized something: in China, I am disabled–toilet-disabled.