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Culture Shock in China – Bathrooms Posted by on Oct 30, 2013 in Culture, travel, Uncategorized

We’ve already discussed culture shock in China a bit on here in the last few months. In case you didn’t catch those posts, here’s a quick recap:

  • Part One – Food/Eating Habits: In the first post, I share some details about the culture shock I encountered with Chinese food and just eating in China in general. Pig’s head in the market anyone?
  • Part Two – Drinks and Drinking: People in China LOVE hot drinks. They also love pounding small glasses of lukewarm beer. Read more about it here!
  • Part Three – Getting Around: Transport in China can be pretty intense. Check out some of my stories and photos in this post.

Next up, we’re exploring the public bathroom situation in China. For Westerners visiting the Middle Kingdom, their first stop in a Chinese latrine can be downright terrifying. Don’t expect a nice porcelain throne tucked away in a private stall here. Instead, you’re almost definitely going to find a squatty potty. What’s that, you ask? Well, sometimes pictures are better than words at explaining things:

Most toilets are like these.

Most toilets are like these.

There it is. Go with a friend!

There it is. Go with a friend!

Practicing my squat in the hutong bathrooms.

Practicing my squat in the hutong bathrooms.

Approaching this thing for the first time can be quite intimidating. I had one friend get completely naked, sans his socks and shoes, before attempting to use one. Some people just refuse to even try and do everything in their power to avoid having to squat. I once had a colleague tell me he’d walk 20 minutes back to his apartment from work in favor of using the school’s facilities.

If you’re lucky, there will be an actual stall with a door that you can lock for a little privacy. However, in most public restrooms, you’ll only find a small wall on either side of the toilet – no doors here. Think of a voting booth without the curtain. Basically, take your average Western bathroom, remove the toilet and doors, and you’ve got the Chinese version.  Say goodbye to privacy, and get used to watching other people go to the bathroom while they watch you. I’m not sure about the ladies’ room, but at least for guys you can expect to share the space with Chinese men who yell into their cell phones, smoke, and read the newspaper while doing their business. I do my best to divert my eyes, take care of business, and get the hell out of there.

Take a great tour of Chinese bathrooms in this video.

Did I mention that China is a BYOTP society? It’s true. Always make sure to carry a few packets of tissue with you, because you will not find even a shred of toilet paper in a Chinese bathroom. Forgetting to bring your own can land you in some sticky situations out there. Sometimes after eating a big plate of spicy and oily ma la tang, nature calls and you have to answer. Without any TP, you might just have to get creative – 1 RMB notes, socks, and other odd objects have to be considered to get the job done. Here’s one particularly funny exchange I had with a friend one day when one of us ended up in this less than desirable situation:

“Hey. I’m wiping my ass with your lesson plans.”

“Literally or figuratively? I do make some pretty shitty lesson plans.”

“Literally. No TP in here and it’s the best I could find.”

“It’s alright. That’s probably a better use for them anyways.”

A great Chinglish sign in a bathroom.

A great Chinglish sign in a bathroom.

After such a traumatic experience, all you want to do is wash your hands thoroughly. Once again, you’re SOL in a Chinese bathroom – no soap anywhere here. Make sure you carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you if you’re going out in China. A small bottle of whiskey might not be a bad idea, either – it’ll help you forget about what you just went through.

More funny signs in Chinese bathrooms.

More funny signs in Chinese bathrooms.

Hopefully things will get better in Chinese bathrooms in the future, as the Chinese government has really lost face due to the poor impression that most tourists have of them. According to this Huffington Post piece, there’s now a two fly limit in public Beijing restrooms. Who knows how one could even go about enforcing that, but hey, at least they’re somewhat trying, right?

Of course, not all bathrooms in China are a horror story. In upscale shopping malls, Western restaurants, and airports, you’ll find Western style thrones, toilet paper, and soap. Thankfully, you will not find the offensive smell that comes along with common public facilities. If you’re out there and you find yourself urgently in need of a toilet, a good rule-of-thumb is to find the nearest McDonald’s or KFC. You won’t always find a great bathroom in these places, but they’ll most certainly be better than a public latrine down a hutong.

If you’re too lazy to read the whole blog post, just watch this video.

So what’s the deal with these Chinese bathrooms and toilets? Well, Chinese people believe that squatting is much better for you. This idea is catching on even in the West; you can even buy a squatty potter from this website. Chinese people are also totally grossed out about the idea of sitting on a toilet seat that tons of other people use. If you’ve ever seen footprints on a toilet seat, they’re probably from a visiting Chinese person. Finally, they also believe it is disgusting for so many people to touch doors, hence the wide open bathrooms and lack of stalls. I’m not sure what they have against toilet paper or soap, though. I guess you just don’t want to pay for those things for so many people!

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About the Author:sasha

Sasha is a teacher, student, writer, photographer, web designer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently planning a trip through Central/South America.


Comments:

  1. Mike Stalder:

    I love this topic. Most westerners wouldn’t know how well we have it with our public toilets. Even the bad ones in the west don’t compare to some of the really bad ones I saw when I live in China. I went to school in Nanning, Guangxi in 1994 and I never saw a 3, 4, or 5 star toilet outside my dorm room. I always hoped the ones we had to use off campus were at least a 2 star. The Nanning airport had a hole in the floor that went to a pond below the building. And the bus stops…. Anyway, that is part of the China experience. When we went on a train ride and one of the USA college students actually stood on his train seat with out taking his shoes off, the entire car went tsk, tsk tsk really loud. I knew why, but the student was clueless. I love China, even it’s quirky toilets…Think I’ll wait until I get back to my room.

  2. Peter Simon:

    Dear Sasha,

    Thank you for this informative text about such a notorious issue for some. It can really be a huge problem. However, it also causes a culture shock of another kind. Let me explain.

    I have respect for people well-travelled and open-minded, and I know a number of them from the USA as well. However, I find it more and more irritating when people born on top of a golden throne, perhaps, explain the sure thing in contrast to the West. Well, at every single turn, they should use the word “America” instead of the “West” and “American people” instead of “Western people”. Let me explain further.

    Almost everything from China seems to be “West”. Although they wouldn’t mean Thailand or India by that, but at least in the North, they know this also includes Russia, or France, or Britain. Some also know about Australia and send their children to study there. Europe is also West to Chinese, but I find it horrendous to substitute it with World, or USA, for that matter.

    The meaning of “western” is indeed ‘more highly civilized’, whatever that means. This ‘whatever’ may mean different, though completely tolerable, toilets as well. The squat type is a natural development from the old village types, which are still used in small places in Hungary and other Middle-European countries, where sanitation systems are impossible to install. The next step was taken by the French, and that spread to countries under their cultural influence, to lands as far as Romania, Bulgaria, or Russia. I’m also quite sure that civilised Latin-American countries, or Canada for that matter belong to the idea of the West, but with toilets of the French type quite often. I still remember the worst toilet I’ve ever been to in the centre of Leningrad 35 years ago (now the place is called St. Petersburgh or something like that …, otherwise quite a large Western city). In contrast, I offer the ‘best toilet in the world’, in my experience, to be seen – I visited it in China, of all places, in the middle of nowhere – you can see my short video here: http://speterkar1.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/wulingyuan-national-park-in-the-west-of-hunan-province-part-3/?preview=true&preview_id=537&preview_nonce=826a2b1199&post_format=standard, or on my youtube site here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvIeOrCaa-Q

    I’m afraid to have to add that those videos, while the first is informative, are ridiculous as well. Both pose as if they knew all, and are terribly biassed. The first guy also fails to mention that though the word ‘toilet’ is rarely used in the US (he is honest to mention it like this there), it is used in European English, where the ‘restroom’ would be frowned upon or misunderstood.

    Time to change perspective. America is not only the USA, and the world is already very far from being America. There are a lot of equally valid, high-level, developed cultures, though they differ from the USA. Where, I’m sure, not everybody has a golden throne at home either. No reason to look down on others in American media.

  3. Peter Simon:

    OK, guys, I think I have to give up. My week-old remarks are still ‘waiting moderation’. I’ve been telling you in vain that if a Westerner means only an American, than I’m a European, or Russian, or Asian, or African, or Latin-American, whatever, because not everyone is an American, and we aren’t supposed to be. I want nothing to do with Western ideas meaning American any more. I like diversity and I like China too. As a result, I highly disagree with treating this subject as a focal point of seemingly juxtaposing China with the world, whereas a large part of the world is on, or below, the level of China with American eyes. The haven’t been given a better, or different, opportunity, which is no sin, don’t make it look like it. This blog should be way above this level of cultural thinking and I mostly find it to be just like that. So don’t overdo the inconvenient aspects to your underparts please. Besides, Mike, it’s not 1994 any more either, it’s way better now. What would you say to, say, Chinese people buying up a very large section of the American economy in 20 years’ time and some (definitely not all) demanding French/Russin/Chinese style toilets to be installed because they wouldn’t like to be infected by sweaty American bums at their companies? Have some perspective if you please!

  4. Mike Stalder:

    Peter, I said Westerner, not American. If I had meant American, I would have narrowed my term. But perhaps I shouldn’t have used a geographic term, Europe is East of China. Lets just say folks not used to squat toilets. Also, I’ve been to China many times, the longest in 1994. While big cities change, the rural areas essentially remain the same. I was trying to point out differences in what we do…not better, or worse, just different. Sorry if I offended you.

  5. Maureen J.:

    One of my students is from China. She spent some of her life in the United States, but she went back to China for a year in 3rd grade. I have her now as a 4th grader and she recently told me about her experiences with the bathrooms in her elementary school in China. She said they were filthy! She said students had to squat over a hole in the ground and go to the bathroom without any privacy because there were no walls or doors and that boys and girls had to use the same bathroom! Then she said if you thought the teachers’ bathrooms were any better, you would be wrong! There was no toilet paper or soap and water to wash up afterwards. She said she never could use the bathroom the entire year she was at the school after she realized how disgusting it was!
    China is working on improving the lives of her people, but I would highly recommend westernized bathrooms with toilets, privacy stalls, and soap and water!


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