The first time I used a squat toilet

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Is successfully using a squat toilet a sign you’ve “adjusted” to life in China?

I never grew comfortable with squat toilets, and the more public they were, the worse shape they were in. The absolute worst was in a public restroom in a smalltown bus station, where you had rectangle-shaped stone holes, side-by-side. No privacy.

I did everything I could to avoid using squat toilets, including running all the way from a restaurant back to my apartment when my stomach had an argument with one of Wuhan’s streetside offerings, and lost. Always thankful for the western toilet in my apartment; I never went as far as to worship it, but I did kneel before it a few times after some unfortunate nights with baijiu.

Others might come to China with prior squat toilet experience. If you stick to the highly developed areas, you may not have to worry about it. In France, there apparently are squat toilets. I never encountered any. Instead, in my dorm, we had Western toilets lacking seats. Weird, but I guess since you could buy portable toilet seats at the local Carrefour, there was no need to include any.

So China was my first experience with squat toilets, and I want to tell you about that. I don’t often write about my life — there’s a reason — but I feel like getting this off my chest.

I was taking morning Chinese classes at Wuhan University, while teaching elsewhere. The university where I taught was on the outskirts of Wuhan. The bus ride to Wu Da took an hour at least, sometimes more in heavy traffic. The best you could say about it was that since it was so close to the bus’s starting point, I didn’t have to push or shove with a lot of people to get on the bus. Just kids, and let me tell you, I dominated each morning.

There was a huge marketplace by my apartment. You’d have the merchants up at the crack of dawn. Usually I bought hot dry noodles, but one morning, I decided to try some jiǎozi.

A woman sold it from a tiny alcove next to the noodle place. I’m not sure if her presence there was even legal. She steamed them right there, grinning at me, as if she knew something I didn’t. As you would expect, this wasn’t gourmet jiaozi.

This was the greasy, gritty jiaozi you get in the “real” China. The kind that didn’t even demand a bowl; she handed all six to me wrapped in plastic, with a pair of fragile, disposable chopsticks.

I got on the bus and cranked my iPod to my Chinese playlist. A few stops later, by which time the bus was packed, I had wolfed down the whole bag of jiaozi.

My stomach buzzed.

I felt movement. Like the turning of a great gear in my gut. It started out slow. As the bus lurched on through Wuhan’s early morning traffic, I hoped I could wait — preferrably all morning, and the bus ride back to my apartment.

But the gear had no pity: it turned faster and faster, until it became one throbbing, shaking entity.

The bus was not stopped. I got up, pushed my way through people and started pounding on the door with both fists. I didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to; when someone’s pounding on a door like a maniac, words aren’t necessary.

I took off running, no idea where I was going. The gear had ceased moving, and I knew it was coming, ready or not.

Up ahead I spotted the characters: 网巴. Salvation awaited me.

I remember when a man could go grab a computer for .5 RMB an hour — with a pack of cigarettes and a crate of beer — watching pirated movies among the netbar ambiance of yells, squeals and lighter clicks. The good ole days.

I ran into the netbar. I believe my exact words to the girl behind the desk were: cèsuǒ! She pointed, said something. She understood what I said while I didn’t really catch what she said. Just that she’d pointed to the back.

I ran to the back.

Problem was, there was no restroom back here. I spotted an open door nearby, and ran outside.

The restroom was in an adjacent little building, a waist-high wall for privacy.

I squatted. But of course, I’m not used to squatting flat on my feet. When I tried, I nearly fell back. I managed to steady myself with my palms, covered them in something wet, with an odd smell.

A woman came in, grabbed a mop from the sinkbasin, and left without a word to me.

After using the squat toilet and vowing never to eat jiaozi from that place again, I needed to do part 2 of this act. I checked my pockets. I checked my backpack.

I had no tissue. I looked around.

Neither did the restroom.

I could tell you about how it had no soap either…but why make things worse?

I’m sure you get the unfortunate picture.

Postscript:

This story isn’t complete without the following confession:

You’d think that I’d have learned my lesson after the jiaozi fiasco. If so, you give me too much credit. While on a nightly walk with my wife, I ended up eating some backstreet offering or another, and the gear again began turning. I tried to ignore it.

But that just made things worse.

Me: We need to find a bathroom.

She pointed out a classroom building. All the lights were on, and the doors were wide open.

Me: I’ll be right back.

I ran in, and after a few false turns, I finally found the sign for the restroom. The sink was separate from the restroom itself, and as I tried to go in, I found myself stuck.

The door wouldn’t budge. It was locked.

Yes, that’s right. The building was open, students entering and leaving, and yet, someone had the bright idea of putting a padlock on the bathroom door.

The gear was out of control. No time left. So I did what I could. The only thing I could do, really.

I let it out by the sink.

When it was over, I sat there for a few minutes, thinking about what I’d just done. This had never been on my list, but I guess I could still put it on there and cross it out. I thought over my life, what had led me to this moment. Of all the things I could be doing, here I was.

I stood, said a quick prayer for the cleaning lady, and hurried back to my apartment. I never went back to that building.

So yeah, there’s a reason I don’t often write about my life.

Talk on The first time I used a squat toilet


30 Comments
  1. Profile photo of

    Hilarious. And I can definitely relate.

    For the first year or so living in China my “gut gear” would start churning just at the thought of getting caught out and in need of a toilet. The anxiety of it was actually causing the problem. Well, that and the cheap oily food.

    I found that after, ahem, bearing down and getting over my squatter fear, life in China got a whole lot easier. Well, that and well-developed calf muscles.

    Thanks for sharing — good to know I’m not alone in my disgusting squatter experiences.

  2. Hotels! Hotels almost always have reasonably clean facilities, often western toilets, and even toilet paper and soap! I love hotels. Even your 2-3 star joints will usually have someplace at least marginally acceptable. I love them so. Once I walked urgently into a 2 star place which regrettably did NOT have a lobby bathroom but some nice girls who worked at the spa upstairs invited me to come up and use theirs. Which was a locked squatter but they nicely ran and got me the key. Hooray!

    Worst I’ve had was a lovely newly built and completely padlocked bathroom building in a remote fishing village…when I asked the locals where they went, they pointed at the woods. I didn’t feel too happy with the idea of the woods, so I posted a lookout (thanks Marian!) and left them a gift directly behind their lovely new locked facility. So you are not alone in the locked bathroom department, sadly!

    • Profile photo of Travis

      That reminds me of something I saw in a small town: a well. It was a well, but it was being used as a toilet. It was full of water and … other stuff.

      My wife told me that one of her cousins, when she was a kid, fell in. Talk about traumatic childhood experiences.

      • Most Chinese really prefer a squat toilet to western ones in a public restroom, at least in the past. it’s supposed to be more hygienic. But the western toilets look promising to many people now.

        • Profile photo of

          I think it’s the devil you know. Hovering over a disgusting squat toilet may turn the stomach, but you don’t (or shouldn’t, at least — poor Travis) have any direct contact with the filth. However, public Western toilets you’re sticking your bits on a “well, it looks clean, but…” plastic seat, leaving you wondering what you’re really s(h)itting on. :)

  3. I’ve thought twice about whether to leave a comment here. In the end I think I have to. I still have tears in my eyes since your story has made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t help. I admit I love reading your article, it makes me miss China even more, for good or bad.

    Yes, growing up in China needs a pair of strong legs for the least.:-) Filthy squatter is something that most people are trying to avoid. The way my Mom did was to keep an up-to-date map of clean washrooms for the whole area that she could possibly go. Being proactive when she’s near any one of the clean ones, have a go even if she’s not in dear needs. She has bladder control issues and is very picky on the sanity level of a washroom.

    My advice for you would be: Being proactive, have that “washroom GPS” in your mind or on a map. And one more, avoid suspicious food on the street, doing so will make your life much easier, believe me. Thanks for sharing …

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  5. I’ve been in China 8 years now, at first the squatters were to be avoided like the plague, but in all that time you can’t avoid using them completely. I’ve since become completely desensitised to all manner of squalor and can even use the partition-less public ones without embarrassment. 2 important lessons I’ve learned the hard way:

    1) ALWAYS carry toilet paper with you, and enough to see you through a few “visits” if you get a bad stomach.
    2) NEVER eat shitty street food, for god’s sake there are enough cheapo restaurants around if you are on a budget.

  6. Your story sounds all too familiar and I applaud your bravery for sharing it on the internet. It is nice to be reminded I am not the only one suffering. Even as a squat toilet lover, I have to admit that most of the public squat toilets in China are quite disgusting. Although I do believe that the western toilets in the majority of public bathrooms (outside the big cities) might actually be worse.
    And I second Grace’s idea of a bathroom GPS. The minute you take your first bite of street food is the minute to start keeping an eye out for a bathroom (just in case!).

  7. i am on my 2nd year here in mainland… and oh boy!!!!! i am still vomitting everytime i used this squat toilets…

    even the toilets in some american food chain… they have the most awful smell i could ever smell….

    especially during the winter weather, i am so close to using this public toilets… and really can drown me to so much smell…

    i just don’t know why they can not maintain to clean and make their toilets free of smell.

    sometimes even though it’s clean… really it does smell too bad…
    also the toilets from the trains…

    even though water is so available they tend to leave their somethings…

    i may say most of the people here lack of hygiene…..
    no level of living…. poor or rich…
    with money nor none…

    i even experienced some of the parents in our early childhood school…. they squat in an upright toilets and leave it disgustingly dirty…..

    they can not be in our school if they do not have money in their pockets… but still the hygiene i guess was not taught in their early years….

    as to continue my life here in mainland i do not mind too much the disgusting matters of the people around me….

    but if i can not contain myself…. i just blow whatever i need to burst….. literally…… disgusting i may say… but yes… i often vomit even in front of them….. (LOL!!!!)

    to get even atleast….

    have it said and let others know….

    in exchange of higher salary….

    the price i get to be paid….

  8. Wow what a traumatic experience! Yes always bring toilet paper with you. Reminds me of that scene in the movie bridesmaids where they ate bad food and one of the girls had to squat on the sink.

    I’m glad that despite all that, you still enjoy China :)

  9. Your story brought back many memories, good, bad, hysterical, and more.
    We used to have open sewers – and a tree or a parked car was good enough privacy when nature was busting out.
    On factory visits, I miss the sewers, at least the rain moved the contents.

  10. My school (private elementary and middle school) has doorless trough toilets. Let me tell you, they are an experience! I make it a point to never go in them after noon, since we have 1600 kids at our school, and they aren’t cleaned more than once a day.

  11. not a fan of squatters, though I shouldn’t complain: my girlfriend took part in a volunteer program in Yunnan, and the toilets there were not only communal but effectively open sewers. Plus it was the height of summer. There were flies. And maggots. And chickens pecking at the maggots. And she once dropped her torch in there … my stomach turns just thinking about it.

  12. The funny thing about the whole squating toilet thing is it is actually healthier for your body. It’s actually the correct position for humans to ‘take a dump’ in.

    City Chinese toilets are luxury when you’ve tried countryside toilets… with piles of steaming hot poo greeting your presence.

    As usual, China is a case of ‘comparisons’.

  13. Having been in Okinawa for a few years, I had no problem when I began to use the squat toilets! My in laws were amazed! Kid you not! Both thought I be the typical foreigner having trouble adjusting to that common squat seen in Asian countries. However give a porcelain throne to sit anytime of the year and you will see a very happy guy.

  14. I just ran across this story as I’m preparing some colleagues for their first trip to China–two women in the group. I’m just not sure how much to prepare/scare them, but we will be visiting a lot of factories and its hit-or-miss, depending on the factory. I concur with what others have said: take care of business before you leave the comforts of your own toilet, but if necessary, hotels are awesome! Be prepared: paper and hand sanitizer–which come in handy in many other situations.

    I too started my experience in Wuhan and along the Yangtze (up-and-down the river between Wuhan and Chongqing while working on a couple of the cruise ships in the Three Gorges). While I got off pretty good the first year or so, I never had any truly horrific experiences (knock on wood)–plan ahead and it saves a lot of problems.

    I got married in Wuhan, in 2000, and my parents flew in to Hong Kong and took a train from Hong Kong to Wuhan. The first thing off the train my mom said (well, after the greetings) was, “Where can I buy some new shoes.” My mom is not the most flexible and definitely NOT used to squatting like that…let alone on a moving train where you can barely keep your footing and where you can see the tracks passing below, through the open hole. Been there…done that…, now though, you can find western toilets on many trains, so not so bad, and if they are squatty potties, they at least aren’t open directly to the tracks below.

    With most things, just get in, get used to it and it will all go much more smoothly!

    • Profile photo of Travis

      An open hole on the train? I never encountered that myself, though I did get the squat toilets, which are plenty of fun on something moves fast and rocks.

      My favorite is still the restaurant in Jingdezhen, in which the restroom was one small room with six urinals and one squat toilet, in the middle with no privacy at all. It’s stuff like this that builds character.

      Planning ahead is indeed key. My first week in Wuhan, our head foreign teacher gave me a packet of tissue and said to keep it on me at all times.

      As you can tell in the story above, I learned what good advice that truly was. :)

  15. It’s better to install more squat toilets in public restrooms since it effectively avoid some unsanitary touch. I know it may still be unacceptable by a lot of people that prefer to using the sitting toilets. So, why not building the restrooms with both squat and sitting types installed? In this way, the people from both sides can be satisfied.

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  17. Funny that Chinese say that western toilets are dirty – I don’t think I have ever smelt so much urine/excrement smeared on the walls in western toilets as I did while I was in China this March.

  18. Hi Travis,
    squatting is really hard now that im fat, but when we were younger its fun to do it with friends, China and Japan is totally different, Japan have the high tech public toilets, while your experience tells a different story.. I also love to eat jiaozi, though the name is different here, but one time it also made me sick, my ass leaks, kinda hot and painful, swear never to eat that again in volume..

    Poor cleaner must be thinking some pranks on her after seeing that poop on the sink … but you did say some prayers so you’re forgiven…

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  20. When it comes to public toilets, I prefer the squat type. Why? Because the ONLY thing touching ANYTHING else are the soles of my shoes. With a western toilet you have to do the whole pad with tp or stand in a really awkward half-squat thing to avoid contact.

    Also, squat toilets are better for your body and are less likely to give you hemoroids. In fact, it’s the most natural, traditional way to take a dump, the way of our ancestors. :-)

    P.S. Remember to always bring a pack of tissues in China.

  21. hahahahahahahaaahahah Omgg soo hilarious i nearly cried , saw this after looking up if anyone else ever dropped their room key into one of those toilets as it is the case for me ….

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