Chinese Toilet Training

I know that no one really wants to talk about what goes on in the bathroom (and those who do should probably not be blogging), but this is really a subject that I feel must be broached. Because before I came to China, I had no idea what I was getting into, bathroom-wise.

Case-in-point: About a week after Justin and I first arrived in China, our school sent us to a medical facility in Hangzhou to be examined. It was a creepy, invasive, but required rite of passage for anyone wanting to extend their work visa in China, and my only comfort was sharing the experience with all of the other foreigners who were being poked and prodded right along next to me. After having my heart, eyes, ears, throat, and everything else examined, I thought that I was finally finished. And then they sent me to the restroom with a cup to take a urine sample. That’s not so bad, right? Except that for me, it was my first trip into a public restroom in China…

I was horrified when I stepped into the bathroom and saw this:

It looked to me almost like they’d just yanked the toilet up out of the floor and left a hole in its place. It also kind of resembled a urinal…and how is a girl to use one of those? Do I stand over it? Do I hover over it? Do I squat down mere inches from the floor? Gah! I was not ready to try it out yet, especially with the prospect of taking a urine sample at the same time.

I looked into each stall to check and see if they had any “normal” toilets (one stall had a woman inside who had neglected to lock her door…oops!…so that’s how you use it!) and finally happened upon one stall with a western-style toilet. Yes! Only to find that the lock on that stall door was broken and the door kept wanting to swing open. What happens when you’re trying to hold a cup and hold a lid and hold a skirt from falling and hold a door closed? Having only two hands, you end up letting go of at least one thing.

Thankfully, Grace was there (the secretary from our school), sent with us to translate for us and help us out with our medical exam. “Grace,” I called, “Could you come and stand in front of this door for me and hold it closed?” Grace, looking alarmed that her foreign charge seemed to be requesting assistance in the bathroom said, “What?” I tried to explain what I wanted her to do, and her English being limited, she seemed very confused. But in the end, I got her standing in front of the door. As soon as I *finally* got to business (the doctor outside was still impatiently waiting on my urine sample), Grace inexplicably stepped away from the door, and the door swung out beyond my reach to pull it back. And there I was, in front of every curious passerby, publicly collecting my urine sample. I tried to call Grace back to the door, but she took one horrified glimpse at me on the toilet and went running out of the restroom.

The door to the women’s bathroom, ironically, was being held open by a door-jamb, so the spectacle I made really was on display for the entire second-floor wing to see. Justin happened to be standing out in the lobby waiting for me, and when he glanced towards the women’s bathroom to see if I was coming out yet, his eyes met mine and his jaw dropped. “What are you doing?” he mouthed, throwing up his hands in alarm. “Hating China,” I muttered through gritted teeth. “Everyone can see you!” he mouthed again. “I know…” I mouthed back to him, wishing that I could get him to stand in front of the door for me, but that would call even more attention.

The icing on the cake was looking around and realizing that my particular stall had no toilet paper.

So I feel compelled, for anyone thinking about visiting China (or people who are just curious about bathroom etiquette in the far east) to put together a list of Do’s and Don’ts for using the bathroom in China so that you’re never stuck in the same grisly situation that I was:

1. DO bring your own toilet paper. I quickly learned that it was not only that particular stall at the medical facility that was out of toilet paper–just about every public restroom in China refuses to supply toilet paper. I have visited some fancy restaurants that supply a roll, but even then it’s usually only one roll next to the sink area, so you must remember to grab a handful of it before you lock yourself into the bathroom stall and get down to business.

Don’t leave home without it!

2. DON’T be cowed by modesty. Many of the bathrooms I’ve seen in China were designed with the presumption that bathroom-goers only really need to cover their bottom-halves while using the toilet, and it’s okay to leave their head and shoulders visible to everyone else in the restroom. I’ve also seen many a restroom and clothing store dressing room with little more than a flimsy shower curtain to keep things covered.

Chinese people are not modest when it comes to the call of nature. I’ve seen too many Chinese guys publicly peeing onto sidewalks and into rivers who would only smile and wave when they noticed me staring at them, mouth agape. Also, Chinese children are not toilet trained–they are trained to drop their drawers and poo on the sidewalk when it’s time to go, even up to the age of three and four. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly dirtied my shoes walking into that situation. To think that people in America get upset when pet-owners allow their dogs to poo on the sidewalk without picking it up…I can’t imagine what they’d say about this!

“Is anyone using this one? Oh what the heck…I’ll just look and see.”

The point is, you must get over the modesty factor (as my urine sample story illustrates) because at some point during your extended stay in China, you will find yourself in a situation in which you are forced to do your business in the open. It’s pretty much inevitable.

Justin and I recently took a trip to Anji, and I held Justin’s belongings for him while he went to use the bus station bathroom. He stalked out moments later, looking angry and disgusted. “What happened?” I asked. Apparently the stalls in that bathroom were only half the height of the ones shown in the picture above. Justin went into one, and a man smoking a cigarette was content to stand on the other side of the stall door (about six inches away from Justin), staring at Justin intently and waiting to see him pee. Maybe he was wondering if foreigners do it differently. “I can’t pee with that dude staring at me like that!” Justin said, announcing that he was going to go outside the bus station to look for a restroom.

What was his next best option? Peeing on a wall in an alley around the corner. There were absolutely no other restrooms within a three-block radius. The moral of the story is that your efforts to be modest are futile, and will only somehow end up making you even more immodest.

3. DON’T flush your toilet paper. The toilets in China do not handle wads of paper well, and many public bathrooms post signs in multiple languages requesting that bathroom-goers dispose of their paper in the trashcan. It can be difficult to break the automatic habit of throwing your paper into the toilet, but the results can be disastrous and embarrassing (I know from experience–I’ve shamefully run out of more than one public bathroom leaving an overflowing toilet in my wake). The trash can rule is also the reason that Chinese public bathrooms are among the most pungent bathrooms I’ve ever had to set foot in. If you’re wandering around an airport or bus station in search of the bathroom, you can usually smell it before you see it, and you may have to cover your nose with your sleeve to keep from retching from the overpowering stench.

4. DO bring your own soap or hand sanitizer. I rarely visit a Chinese bathroom that supplies free soap, though they all have sinks with (cold) running water if you’d like to run your hands under that. I carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere, though I usually end up wanting to take a shower after setting foot inside a Chinese public bathroom.

There you have it–the guidelines for paying a visit to the Chinese toilet. I wish someone had told me this before I’d ever visited China! I would have avoided many embarrassing situations…