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.

For more, follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Or both, if you feel daring.

Book Passage of the Week – from Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos

So much good in Manhattan Transfer, I’ll just stick with what stood out to me the most:

A nickel before midnight buys tomorrow . . . holdup headlines, a cup of coffee in the automat, a ride to Woodlawn, Fort Lee, Flatbush . . . A nickel in the slot buys chewing gum. Somebody Loves Me, Baby Divine, You’re in Kentucky Juss Shu’ As You’re Born . . . bruised notes of foxtrots go limping out of doors, blues, waltzes (We’d Danced the Whole Night Through) trail gyrating tinsel memories . . . On Sixth Avenue on Fourteenth there are still flyspecked stereopticons where for a nickel you can peep at yellowed yesterdays. Beside the peppering shooting gallery you stoop into the flicker A Hot Time, The Bachelor’s Surprise, The Stolen Garter . . . wastebasket of tornup daydreams . . . A nickel before midnight buys yesterday.

Take a break from this week’s fashionable outrage or regiurgitated opinions on gun control, and check out this portrait of early twentieth century New York City. Highly recommended, and I’d bet a toenail that Cormac McCarthy read Manhattan Transfer at some point in his life prior to writing Suttree.

 

Expat Jimmy review roundup + TV Tropes page

I wish I had the support some other authors have, but I am thankful for the few reviews Expat Jimmy has received. They are genuine, and I’ll take four real reviews over a bunch of tossed-off five star write-ups from either people who expect a future favor from me or buddies in the publishing industry.

I am further detaching day-by-day.

On to the reviews:

First we have Quincy Carroll, author of Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside, which I reviewed here. It was recently reissued by Camphor Press out of Taiwan with a new edit.

 I very much enjoyed this story by Travis Lee and would recommend it to anyone who has spent time in Asia. There’s an undeniable sense of nostalgia permeating the narrative, and Lee successfully captures the “sensory overload” aspect of stepping off the plane for the first time. Tons of books have been written on the subject, but many devolve into stereotype and/or condescension. Expat Jimmy takes an honest look at what it’s like to transplant oneself across countries and cultures, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to those unfamiliar with China, too.

Ray Hecht, author of South China Morning Blues (which I reviewed and recommended here), offered his take:

In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

Jocelyn Eikenberg was kind enough to feature Expat Jimmy on her blog Speaking of China:

In 62 gripping pages, we follow the eponymous newcomer on a tour through Wuhan with Adam, a rather unscrupulous ESL teacher involved in some shady business. Lee skillfully captures those little details of living in China easily forgotten to longtime expats. It reminded me of how China appeared to me once upon a time, when I was still fighting jetlag and struggling to speak Mandarin.

And finally, Arthur Meursault. He wrote a great satire called Party Members which didn’t receive nearly the coverage it deserved. You can read my review here or go on Amazon and check some of the better reviews. David I Cahill’s is a good one.

The amount of places visited is unrealistic, though I can understand that the author is trying to present an introduction to all the weird and wonderful aspects of life in China within the vehicle of a one-day timeline. It doesn’t quite work and there is almost a little too much happening within the one hundred pages of this story for it to settle in the reader’s head and leave an impression

Huge thanks to the people who reviewed Expat Jimmy. I appreciate it. I’ll post more reviews as they come in.

In the meantime, check out the Expat Jimmy‘s TV Tropes page.

Book Passage of the Week: from Lancelot, by Walker Percy

I spent much of the book believing that Percival is a figment of Lancelot’s imagination. The brilliance of Lancelot‘s format is that by addressing the reader directly, we become Percival, the priest who hears his confession and his deranged ideas about ushering in a new order.

Good book. Highly recommended.

On to the quotes:

Next follows catastrophe of some sort. I can feel it in my bones. Perhaps it has already happened. Has it? Have you noticed anything unusual on the “outside”? I’ve noticed that the doctors and guards and attendants here who are supposed to be healthy — we’re the sick ones — seem depressed, anxious, gloomy, as if something awful had already happened.

Talk? Talk about what? Some years ago I discovered that I had nothing to say to anybody nor anybody to me, that is, anything worth listening to. There is nothing left to say. So I stopped talking. Until you showed up. … It’s strange, I have to tell you in order to know what I already know. I talk, you don’t. Perhaps you know even better than I that too much has been said already. Perhaps I talk to you because of your silence. Your silence is the only conversation I can listen to.

That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our own sense of virtue and in what we took to be their gratitude. Maybe that was why it didn’t last very long. Who can stand gratitude?

I’ve discovered that even in this madhouse if you tell someone something, face to face, with perfect seriousness, without emotion, gazing directly at him, he will believe you. One need only speak with authority.

Book Passage of the Week – Everyone is Dead

I read The Moviegoer in 2011. This quote occurs to me from time to time, especially when I’m on Facebook. Could I adjust to life off-the-grid? I think so. A home, a typewriter, a bookshelf. What else do I need? The complexity of a human being. But some people are nothing more than a few emojis and an empty reaction to this month’s fashionable outrage.

For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but–” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However–” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord.