The first time I used a squat toilet

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.


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.