When Using a Squat Toilet Goes Wrong: A Two-Part Confessional

Part 1:

don’t often write about my life— there is a reason — but I feel like getting this off my chest.

I lived in China for two and a half years. In that time I did everything I could to avoid using squat toilets, including running all the way 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, the mornings after an unfortunate dance with baijiu. Hard days and blurry nights.

I was taking morning Chinese classes at Wuhan University while teaching English. The university where I worked was on the outskirts of Wuhan and the bus ride to Wu Da took an hour on a good day, the bus lurching from traffic jam to traffic jam. The best you could say about it was that since you were so close to the starting point, you didn’t have to push or shove with a lot of people to get a seat. Just kids, and I had my pick of the best seats each morning.

One of my apartment’s perks was the huge marketplace right down the road. Merchants were up frying food at the crack of dawn. Usually I bought hot dry noodles but one morning I decided to brave some jiaozi.

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 fried them on a cast-iron pan and as you’d expect, this wasn’t gourmet jiaozi.

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

I broke the chopsticks apart and grabbed a jiaozi. The grease nearly made it slip off my sticks, and I cranked my iPod to my Chinese podcast playlist. A few stops later I’d wolfed down the whole bag, leaving only a puddle of greenish leftover cooking oil in the bottom of the bag.

My stomach buzzed.

I felt movement. Like the turning of a great gear in my stomach. It started out slow, but as the bus lurched on through Wuhan’s early morning traffic, I hoped I could wait. Preferably 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 stalled in traffic. I got up and shoved my way through the people and pounded on the doors. They opened and I stumbled onto the sidewalk.

I took off running with little idea where I was going. The gear had ceased moving and I knew it was coming, ready or not.

I spotted the characters for netbar.

I rushed past the girl sitting at the front desk and through the nicotine web of overworked college students and neglectful parents. I pushed through a doorway of plastic flaps into a courtyard, and there it was: a porcelain bowl laid in the ground, a waist-high wall for privacy.

I squatted and did my business. 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 hands, my palms covered in something wet with an odd smell.

A woman came in, grabbed a mop from the sinkbasin and left.

After finishing and vowing never to eat gritty jiaozi again, I had to perform 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 could tell you about how it had no soap either, but why make things worse?

I’m sure you get the unfortunate picture.

Part 2:

This story isn’t complete without the following confession:

You’d think 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 began to turn. I ignored it as best I could.

Then it sped up.

Me: We need to find a bathroom.

My wife pointed at a building. All the lights were on and students were shuffling in and out.

Me: I’ll be right back.

I hurried inside, and after a few false turns I finally found the sign for restroom. Salvation, yet again. I tried the door.

It wouldn’t budge.

I tried again, pounding on it as the gear stopping turning and became one great throbbing entity. No time to ask for a key. No time to find another restroom. Like before, it was coming ready or not, 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.

If you liked this story, you’ll like Expat Jimmy, a tale of James’s first day in China, and the jaded teacher determined to crush his spirit.

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2008 Wuhan backstreet vs 2017 Wuhan highrises

This is my third trip to China since leaving ESL in December 2010. I’m trying not to less of one of those people who takes pictures of everything because in the States a street sign is a street sign but in Wuhan it’s something exotic.

What isn’t exotic, and what makes me melancholy is the constant urban renewal erasing places I cherished. The backstreet was the place I first visited on my own in China. It’s also the place where my wife and I had our first dinner together. I remember everything about the restaurant.

It’s jarring to see the changes when your memories remain so strong. Here’s the backstreet in 2008:


And here it is today, new apartments charing an arm and a leg and probably a kidney per square meter:



Where has the time gone? Wrecking balls and clouds of construction dust.

Wuhan Style Streets

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Germany Style Street: a trio of Bavarian dancers.

Italy Style Street: a suspicious-looking Mario and pizza.

Spain Style Street: a matador on the run from a bull.

This is what greets you when you leave Guanggu Wuchang and enter the rest of the mall: Optics Valley Walking Street, the part they were building when I last lived in Wuhan. Each area is marked for the country it mimics, and there is a mock cathedral for weddings.

At the end of the Style Streets a small train hauls children around a pack of animatronic dinosaurs who screech at timed intervals. Beyond this a wall with cartoon characters promise a Children’s Park and much more, and looking at the dinosaurs and the wall and the sheer size of what was once a nice outdoor mall turned consumer wonderland, the old line from Jurassic Park occurs to me.

What else have they got in there, King Kong?

Style Streets is an appropriate name because this place has its own style. It’s not Italy or Spain or Germany, images of European life it hopes to conjure in the minds of the Chinese nouveau riche. This is a uniquely Chinese style, a monstrous maze of shops and restaurants and cafes, stacked so close you wonder how anyone ever turns a profit. This is not a billion Chinese jumping.

This is a billion Chinese swiping Union Pay cards, the middle class and their hopefuls keeping the economic bubble well-inflated.

In 2008 Guanggu Wuchang was relatively new. Incumbent foreign teachers spoke of a time before the huge mall, with its giant Starbucks cup and dusty Epcot center bubble. Behind Guanggu it looked like they were building apartments. Walls were raised. Construction crews were called. Money changed hands and the corporate planners stood by, awaiting profit.

Seven years later they have it.

The Style Streets aren’t the only thing that’s new. New World Plaza arose while I was gone. A mall like any other, the fourth floor of New World is dedicated to children. Children’s development centers, clothes stores, a children’s train that does a complete lap around the floor, a play area and a Toys R Us.

The Toys R Us is a compact version, but as a compact unit it crams in quite a bit; they have all the toys and games we have, at high prices. 779 RMB for a Lego set, 99 RMB for a small Winnie the Pooh doll. Big Pooh goes for 199. I don’t know about Piglet.

BalaBala, Me and City Kids and the other children’s stores are similarly priced. Custom-made children’s desks go for 1149 RMB and up. An English Library (爱说读) in the middle of the hall has shelves of children’s books in Chinese and English, and two child development centers will have your kids ready for Harvard before they’re potty-trained.

There are three play areas. One is an obstacle course, the other has a carousel and a small train.

The other is Happy Bar: Baby’s Paradise.

50 RMB per person grants you entry to a crowded play area. You remove your shoes but keep on your socks. Some parents come in while others stay at the counter, watching Chinese dramas on their phones or staring vacantly into antiquity as their children wear themselves out on a boat that rocks back and forth, plush ABC blocks, an obstacle course, four slides, a sand pit of fine grains, nine swings and a ball pit. An HDTV lords over a small stage. Children are doing ballet on a continuous loop or synchronized dances to classic Chinese children’s songs and doting grandparents lounge by the ABCs while their grandchildren dash up and down stairs and jump on trampolines and in the ball pit a toddler is crying while a fat boy keeps throwing balls at him, ignoring his mother’s gentle suggestions to stop. A child crashes his toy car into your shin. Sweat beads pop soundlessly on your collar. The letter B has gone missing.

In the middle a giant inflated polar bear spins ceaselessly.

The dinosaurs at the end of Optics Valley Walking Street screech. People take pictures with the dinosaurs and two girls exit Mean Dessert carrying cupcakes. I look over. A replica of a London tour bus is permanently parked in front of a cafe. Then I look back at the wall and the promise of more to come and I think it’s true.

King Kong isn’t far behind.


The Three Weeks in China that Shook Me

The last few weeks, summed up in one conversation:

女孩儿还是男孩儿? (Boy or girl?)

女孩儿。 (Girl)

她几岁? (How old is she?)

三岁。 (Three)

三岁!这么大!? (Three! That big!?)

她说汉语还是英语? (Can she speak Chinese or English?)

都可以。 (Both.)

哦!很棒! (Oh! Wonderful!)

她冷吗? (Is she cold?)

不冷。 (She’s not cold.)

*Feels her hands.* 多穿点衣服。(Put more clothes on her.)

Had a great time. See you again someday…