The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
When I first came to China, I had enough drugs in my suitcase to put a pharmacy to shame: Extra-strength Tylenol, Sudafed, Sinutab, calcium tablets, multi-vitamins, oregano oil, garlic pills, Calms – an herbal sleep-aid, tetracycline, acetaminophine, Maalox, Pepto-Bismol, Metamusil, milk of magnesium, Gas-X, Immodium – in fact, over half of the pills I had were for digestive problems, which I had more of than Mike Tyson has missing teeth.
Mornings were the worst. My stomach never cared for anything I’d ingested the night before and would make it known in a big way first thing in the morning. Even if I ate nothing the night before, my stomach would dry heave out of habit. Lunch was OK, as I usually ate little. But then, come dinner time I was famished and would start eating what my stomach considered crap again.
Walking to and from work I learned where to go for a pit stop. About ten minutes from work, there was a florist from whom I would frequently purchase a bouquet of Oriental lilies. They had a small, but clean bathroom with a squat toilet.
Five minutes from home, Jenny, the owner of my favorite restaurant would let me use her bathroom without my having to order anything. Jenny is Taiwanese and runs a tight ship of a restaurant with the cleanest bathrooms I’ve seen and smelled anywhere in China. I once joked with her that her bathroom floors are clean enough to eat off of. After those words left my mouth, I could see the cogs in Jenny’s brain turning my suggestion into a surreality.
Have a discounted three-course steak meal with the best ‘seats’ in the house! First come first served! the ad would say. Jenny would transform the restaurant bathroom into a yoga studio with a juice bar, if someone suggested it.
In the month of March, Jenny is giving her guests an “amuse bouche” of dandelion greens, seaweed, tomatoes, capers and mozzarella, topped with a rose petal, a blade of grass, or a pine cone – whatever was about to expire in her pantry and freezer, or whatever she could find on the ground. “Confuse bouche” would be a better term for these creations. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure how much of my digestive problems can be attributed to Jenny and her food experimentation.
At the midpoint between work and home, there is also a row of disgusting public squat toilets. I know they’re squat toilets, because I went in once, paid the toilet attendant – in China there sometimes are public toilet attendants who take money, keep the area clean and give you toilet paper, which you definitely shouldn’t take, even though is no toilet paper in public toilet stalls – then came right back out when I saw the condition of the facilities.
Although squat toilets are quite common in China and Taiwan and are considered more sanitary than regular toilets, as they don’t allow for any skin-to-toilet contact, I will never get used to them. Usually, a squat toilet is a hole in the ground that’s rectangular in shape. They might have a little backsplash. The idea is to have the backsplash in front of you when you do your business. And each squat toilet has a flush system, just like a regular toilet.
But in more rural areas of China a squat toilet may be nothing more than a trench in the ground that runs the whole length of the bathroom, without any stalls or doors.
On a visit to Shangdong, I had to stand by my Mother with a black umbrella (because the pink one with Hello Kitties would attract too much attention) while she did her business in a public squat trench without any stalls or doors.
Instead of deflecting attention, everyone who came into the public toilet tried to catch a glimpse of what was going on behind the black umbrella, while my Mother was unable to go, squatting and exasperatedly yelling things like, Nothing to see here, people! You think I’m dropping a baby? What, haven’t you seen a woman take a dump before?!
It finally took a century-old old toothless woman holding her granddaughter, while carrying her grandson strapped to her back – both granddaughter and old woman were doing their businesses over the trench – to point out, that putting the umbrella away would probably help tremendously in keeping the curious at bay.
Missus, I’ve seen enough Brillo pads in my day, and yours ain’t anything to look at, so just do us all a favor – put that goddamn umbrella away and shut the fuck up!
My Mother thought the old woman was incredibly crass and uncivilized and kept shooting her dirty looks from behind the umbrella while desperately squatting over the trench. But I believed the old woman showed great balance, dexterity and chutzpah. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a water buffalo parked outside, which she was leading to slaughter through voice command – Water Buffalo, lay the fuck down on the ground and stay perfectly still, so I can slit your goddamn throat! (Or however the hell water buffaloes are killed.)
I regretted not giving her the umbrella.
One of the drawbacks to my office in China is that it has only one sink and one toilet stall, and I have about 10 people in my office, most of them women. But at least the toilet is a regular toilet and not a hole in the ground.
Fortunately, unless my stomach is having one of its hissy fits, I could work the entire morning without going to the bathroom, as I’m often too busy to even think about the bathroom. But whenever I do use the bathroom it’s inevitably occupied…for a longgg time.
“VV,” I asked my Accounting Manager Assistant one day, “What’s up with the bathroom, why is it always occupied?”
“Oh, it is because people close the door after using the bathroom, but there’s actually nobody inside. Let me notify everyone to keep the door open a crack.”
The next day, there was a notice on the door of the bathroom:
Please do not close the bathroom door fully after use to ensure proper air flow.
It wasn’t what I really meant, and the proper air flow statement was ripe for ridicule, but as long as it got the job done, who was I to complain. Besides, I always felt nobody in my company had a sense of humor – especially one that was as sophomoric as mine.
But the next day, someone had caught onto the “air flow” comment and scrawled underneath the notice,
The door is closed after use because we don’t want our noxious “air” to “flow” out of the bathroom and contaminate everyone.
Vivian was livid, “Look at how the notice is vandalized! It’s stupid and disgusting!” So, another notice was put up on the door.
Please don’t vandalize the notices posted for everyone’s benefit. or else you’ll be punished.
I didn’t agree with that notice either – how do you **punish** someone for vandalizing a reminder about closing the bathroom door? Lock him or her in the bathroom with the noxious odors? Besides, a notice like that was just inviting more ridicule.
People started posting their feelings or their own notices in the bathroom. You couldn’t even walk into the bathroom without a notice sticking you in the eye or glaring at you when you’re sitting on the john doing your business -
Please do not splatter your urine everywhere. Are you so blind that you miss the target completely? Why don’t you just go in your pants? It is disgusting!
If I follow the rules of the bathroom, will that count towards my raise?
Be sure to wipe off the sink counter after use. Thank you.
To Whomever is on a Big Bean Diet – PLEASE FLUSH THE TOILET COMPLETELY AFTER USE!!!
Please vote here, if you think there are too many notices in the bathroom.
Big Brother is watching you do number two….
Jesus saves, but you should flush!
Another more serious issue with the toilets in China is the water pressure, which never seems adequate enough to get “everything down in one flush”. Both China and Taiwan have poor plumbing systems, causing toilets in most places to flush half-heartedly, as if flushing was a part-time job that the toilets took on, before they moved onto bigger and better things, like being part of a gallery display, or the prop in a movie. Most toilets can’t even handle things, like toilet paper. And if you’re higher up in a highrise building, the problem is magnified. That’s why you’ll often see toilet paper thrown into a garbage can next to a toilet.
Fortunately, there’s also an extra faucet coming out of the walls of most bathrooms in China, for the convenience of filling up a bucket for mopping the floor. Except I use it mainly for filling up buckets of water and throwing the water down the toilet in lieu of flushing.
On this particular day, my stomach was performing somersaults and I had to excuse myself from an important client meeting to go to the bathroom. However, the person who had used the bathroom before me (Big Bean Diet), didn’t flush completely, so I proceeded to fill up the mop bucket with water.
Halfway through filling up the bucket, the faucet suddenly came apart. By this I mean that the water started spraying everywhere instead of falling down into the bucket. I turned off the water and threw it down the toilet. It wasn’t enough to do the job.
I tried filling up a bowl at the sink while continuing to fill up the mop bucket, at the same time mopping the floor, which was becoming increasingly wet. Besides ridding the toilet of Big Bean I had to get enough water to flush my own toilet afterwards.
I didn’t realize how much time had gone by till Tracy, one of my Account Reps, knocked on the bathroom door, asking if I was OK and saying that the customer would also like to use the bathroom.
I swung open the bathroom door and Tracy shrieked when she saw me. The only other time I had ever made a woman shriek like that was when I’d forgotten to lock the door of my bathroom stall while in the EVA Airline Lounge in Taipei. Women in China – albeit older women from rural areas – often used the john with the doors wide open. I didn’t see what the big deal at the EVA Lounge was – hadn’t the woman ever seen other women sitting on the john playing Scrabble on their iPhones before? It’s not like she could see anything anyways.
But I understood why Tracy screamed: the front of my white shirt was soaked through to the bra. One of my earrings was dangling precariously from my ear lobe, about to commit suicide and fall out of my ear completely. My hair was a mess. I’d taken off my shoes, as the floor was wet and slippery and I didn’t want to take a nasty spill. I was also sweating like a pig.
“Who… WHO…is this Big Bean Diet!” I demanded, my voice an ominous whisper. “He, she, or it is driving me insane with…the toilet!”
Kudos to Tracy for suggesting that I dry off and put on my jacket to hide my wet t-shirt contest. She also made reservations for lunch at a restaurant with a nice, clean bathroom and roomy stalls. Then, the other employees cleaned up the bathroom. We later got the faucet fixed.
Big Bean Diet was never to be seen in the toilet again.