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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I like what I see

I haven’t been to Knoxville in four years, and I don’t think last weekend’s drive through on I-40 counts as a visit.

Last time I was there was not just four years ago, but the weekend before I left for China. August, 2008. Just four months prior, I knew where I was headed: to France, for the assistant d’anglais program. From there? To a good graduate program, a tenured professorship coupled with a solid writing career. I was twenty-two years old, in my last year of college, taking the best class I’ve ever had with the best teacher I’ve ever had, with the best friends I’ve ever had, and all that good shit.

I’ve written two articles, one a column for the Daily Beacon, the other an article for Lost Laowai. The Lost Laowai article is a “sequel” to the Daily Beacon article, and it deals with how you change when you go abroad. When I wrote the Daily Beacon column, I had told people I was going for nine months. They asked. They asked, How long are you going to be over there?, and I had to answer them. My contract was for nine months, so that’s the answer I gave. Nine months.

Well, friends and neighbors, we all know the rest of the story, don’t we? As I was driving through Knoxville, old memories and feelings returned to me. I felt a sense of longing, for those old times, a life that has vanished.

You aren’t him anymore, that guy. Two and a half years in China, and it’s come true. What you said would happen in that initial column.

In some ways I’m still him. We like the same things, and we still like studying foreign languages. But on a larger level, it works; I’m not him anymore — I’m a better writer than him, more focused on what really matters. And though the times come when I miss the days I had to hunt change just to buy a coffee, those days when I had nothing in the fridge but some carrots and a few scraps of meat, you have to put aside the nostalgia. Look where you are now.

I do. I look where I am now, and you know what?

I like what I see.

This is a de-duction

At the second university, they decided whether or not to renew a foreign teacher’s contract by observing a class twice, or for Jarrett’s class, three times. They had two lists of what they’d seen and what the class monitor had told them. They called the good stuff Yes Points, the bad stuff No Points. First time Jarrett had heard the name was in Orientation, where they gathered all the Chinese and foreign teachers in a conference room and made them watch a Powerpoint on the dos and donts of teaching English in China. This was one of the few times all the foreign teachers would be together, just as it was the only time every Chinese and foreign teacher would be together.

Jarrett’s Yes Points were as follows: nice, not late, friendly.

Jarrett’s No Points were as follows: late, strict, and once he’d given a hard assignment.

He asked about that last one. The woman in charge of giving foreign teachers their evaluations, an auntie who covered her smiles with her hand, said, According to the monitor, you make the students write some words.

Yeah, I assigned them an essay.

She looked at him.

That is, I had them write about either their high school, their families, or –

It is not a writing class, she said, shaking.

It’s an English class.

It is oral English.

Yeah, but these students are all going to study abroad, right?

She looked at him like she didn’t know what he was talking about, despite at the beginning of the semester having told him that this was a special class, for students who were going to the Czech Republic to finish their degrees. They talked up how important this class was, how these students had been specially selected to do this.

Now . . .

Never mind, he said. Is that all?

This is a . . . She sought the word. So did Jarrett, and the word she found surprised him: De-duction. This is a de-duction. Is this okay?

Is it okay?

This is a de-duction.

Now it was Jarrett who sought his words, trying on different ones and settling for: Yeah. Sure. That’s fine.

Okay, she said. This is a de-duction.

She took a red pen and made a mark on a paper. Okay, she said. Now we must discuss why you are late.

Old blog imported

I’ve imported all the posts from my old blog, Chronicles of the Dancing Laowai, all under the aptly titled category, Chronicles of the Dancing Laowai.

You are now free to wince your way through my early China columns, ruminations, rants and general musings.