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.

The original ending to The Seven Year Laowai

Expat Jimmy comes out May 11, available for pre-order now. It’s about James’s first day in Wuhan, China, as he’s shown around by Adam, a jaded seven-year laowai.


I’m at the end of a two-week trip to China. I found the original typescript for Little Red King, the source material for The Seven Year Laowai. Much changed from draft 1 to publication, but looking at it again, I was surprised at just how much it had changed.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some excerpts from the original draft, unedited. You won’t find anything *completely* new below. Different wording, speculation to John Ingram’s fate (Little Red King’s main character)…in the context of Little Red King, The Seven Year Laowai becomes a richer tale. It also provides an impending sense of doom — we know what Keith did to Walter and Tom, and that it got worse with Tom. How will he show John Ingram out of China, and how much worse will it get? Add in his developing romance with Michelle, a local Chinese woman, and that she is risking being unmarriageable by dating him.








I’ve already talked at length about how for a lot of people this is the place where they can succeed, where they can reinvent themselves into whatever they wish, sometimes constructing narratives so strong they come to embrace them whole heartedly.

In China, dirty old men from the West can indulge their fantasies and still be allowed to walk into a classroom. The lack of structure, the lack of qualifications, it allows these men a life. Jack ought to be in an institution somewhere, locked far away from daylight for the sun’s protection. But if his latest incoherent ramblings are any clue, this is the face representing a top five UK university: graveyard teeth, purple spider veins, red patches and eyes that when you look at them you know that whatever’s behind them is lost–and never coming back.

When one teacher leaves, often what happens is that teacher is not spoken of again. They’ve left, they’ve betrayed the unit, they’ve abandoned desperate KTV girls and cheap beer for the rat race in the West.

John Ingram did not do that, but don’t think he didn’t get that treatment. John was a young man from Tennessee, like Tom. One of Keith’s recruits, like Tom, and like Tom, and like Tom, Keith saw to it that John was given a special farewell.

Except this time, Keith upped the ante: he threw in a rape charge…a rape that lead the Hubei Finance Minister’s daughter to commit suicide.

Where was the evidence? What exactly did they have on the poor boy? Before I left, I did so some checking. Candy had referred to a “laowai”, and if she’s referring to a laowai, then she’s not referring to no one. She’s not making it up, in other words. Who could she have been referring to? I checked and found out that semester she had a foreign teacher.


Who’d gone crazy and shot someone, before killing himself.

Here’s what I think happened: Jeff was dead. What he did was a serious loss of face for Wuhan Computer University. They needed to cover it up somehow, while suggesting to people that although they had a problem, they remedied it. They harmonized it, and quickly.
John Ingram was already on the hot seat for accidentally reminding Keith of how inadequate he was. He was gone, and since he was going…why not send the problems with him?

And so they did. And if you check the local newspaper website at that time, you can see it for yourself. Rapist, sent home. You should know that they paid good money for that newspaper spot. You can bet on it.

Except…something happened, something off the record. Something they’d rather you not know about. I got this from one of the guys who used to work in the Foreign Affairs Office. I later got it from Jack, and other students I’d taught there. Much like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution, the topic of John Ingram’s true fate had become something that everybody knows…and yet no one will speak aloud of, for fear of repercussion. That’s how it is in today’s China. You know the truth. So you shut the fuck up about it.

On that day the police took him to the station, John Ingram escaped. To this day, he has not been found. For every shot of the Great Wall they export, China is still very much a developing country. Mostly countryside, and there are just so many places for someone to hide. All that space. He could have gone anywhere.

Like the other teachers who left, John Ingram became something of an unperson. Jack found it shitty what they did, yet at the same time mocked his newspaper columns. “He’s just American,” Jack said with a heavy roll of his eyes while his barely legal jailbait girlfriend giggled on cue. Yes Jack, he is just American…which is so much better than whatever the fuck it is you are. John Ingram has left us.He could be dead, he could be alive, but whatever he is, I think he has the last laugh here. Keith wanted him gone, not just from Wuhan Computer University, but China itself. The borders of Keith’s playhouse extended far and wide. It had to cook his ass knowing that John was still in _his_ China in some capacity, as he lay in that cold hospital room, as he inched towards a forgotten death.

Now I’m gone too. I can only imagine what they say about me, when they bother to speak of me. No doubt Jack is cooking up some story about who he held me over a balcony and then threw me out on my ass, another fine anecdote to go with his past life as a worldwide hitman-bodyguard-lawyer extraordinaire.

I started writing this a day or two before I left and here I am, thirty-hours later, finishing it right before we touchdown. Strange how things work out sometimes. I spent seven years in that place, and now I’m coming back to a home that is in its own way as strange to me as China was when I first arrived. Will I be okay here? I couldn’t make it before. I hope I can now.

I think the first thing I’ll do when I arrive is to take a moment and look at the sky. Then I’ll check into my hotel. Then…

I got the numbers before I left. They’re sitting in my pocket. Several times I felt down there, just to make sure they hadn’t gone anywhere. Just to make sure they were real. I’ve never felt so nervous about anything in my life. All I’ve got is a couple hundred dollars and some phone numbers. It might be stupid, but so is going to China to teach English. So’s any chance, if you think about it long enough. Long enough not to take it.

Here is mine. I know I’d feel worse for not trying. And that is all I can do.

The rest is out of my hands.

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.

The Prophet Penis – a review of Arthur Meursault’s ‘Party Members’ (spoilers)

A repost. Find the original on Medium.

When you’re a dick you can do anything — that’s the only way to success!
When you’re a dick you can do anything — that’s the only way to success!

There is a scene close to the end of Party Members in which Yang Wei is confronted by his lackey, Pangpang. Pangpang has evidence which could doom Yang Wei’s ambitions: an audio recording of the night Yang Wei and his mistress ran over the daughter of migrant workers. Seeing that the little girl was still alive, Yang Wei backed over her to make sure she was dead.

I thought that perhaps Pangpang has some noble motive. Does he want justice for the girl Shanshan, whose grieving parents were railroaded for non-existent crimes and whose money was embezzled by Yang Wei — harmonizing at its finest — or perhaps he wants to send a message to the other officials, that they aren’t above the law?


“Do you think this is about something else?” asked Pangpang, confidence beginning to emerge on his face. “I don’t know why you started talking about justice and changing things. I don’t care for any of that. I don’t care about that stupid girl who died — if her parents were so stupid as to allow her to play on the road then they deserve to have their daughter smashed up. I just want my fair share of all that money you’ve made for yourself over the last few months.”

Yang Wei promptly clubs Pangpang to death with his giant, talking penis.

Party Members follows Yang Wei has he moves from low-level desk jockey to powerful city official in the nameless and drab Ministry, fucking anyone who stands in his way. He appropriates funds intended for earthquake victims, netting him the favor of Director Liang, the monstrously overweight head official.

The trigger for Yang Wei’s journey is his co-worker, Little Qi. After a dinner where Little Qi shows off his wealth, Yang Wei’s penis decides enough is enough: it comes to life, guiding him to the top.

Along the way, Yang Wei acquires all the status symbols of a powerful official: an iPhone-addicted mistress, a black Audi, a Louis Vuitton bag (for storing his growing, sentient penis) and most importantly, a taste for KFC.

Keenly aware of what it takes to succeed in Chinese officialdom, the penis encourages Yang Wei to eat more KFC. We’re introduced to the bucket of KFC chicken by seeing a child defecate in one, where the penis teaches Yang Wei his first lesson. KFC continues to turn up throughout the book and its significance cannot be understated. To get rich is glorious; to consume fried chicken is erotic:

Grabbing the chicken, Yang Wei tore the flesh open with his fingernails, soiling the inside of his nails with breadcrumbs and fat. He brought the chicken up to his mouth, his tongue flicked in and out of the meat as he used his tongue and teeth to widen the hole he had made. Once done, he rammed the remaining shreds back down into the man-bag, the hot meat pocket fully encasing the head of his salivating cock.

Shortly before Yang Wei’s metamorphosis into a penis, he visits a prostitute. Among the choking smog, he sees the words EAT PEOPLE on a sign for a hair salon. The words change to FUCK PEOPLE.

Lu Xun used EAT PEOPLE as reference to the cannibalistic nature of Chinese society. Updated to the twenty-first century and the continued glory of getting rich (and eating KFC), Meursault puts a modern twist on Lu Xun’s critique. Simply put, the elite no longer eat people. They fuck people, and to paraphrase George Carlin: when you’re fucking people you have to keep fucking them until they’re all dead.

The strong devour the weak, and Yang Wei’s penis ends up devouring him, walking upright and transforming Yang Wei into a flaccid, helpless penis. The book ends with a test designed to weed out the final stragglers: the sodomy of Little Qi, told from Yang Wei’s perspective. And when I say Yang Wei’s perspective, remember that at this point Yang Wei is the penis and the penis is walking upright. We are spared no detail, of course, and as I was reading a near first person description of someone else’s bleeding anus, I thought, an editor gave this his blessing. Or, he told Meursault to crank it up to eleven. Either way, the scene made me uncomfortable and that’s the whole point.

We finish Party Members understanding that the penis will continue its rise through the ranks without its due comeuppance, and this takes us back to the penis’s first lesson, given after Yang Wei sees the child defecate in a bucket of KFC:

That no matter what you do, no matter how badly you behave, even if you are literally turning everything you touch into shit — nobody will stop you. Be careful of those with more power than you; but in regards to everything else, you should treat the world like a leftover bucket of KFC. Just shit all over it.

I once worked with a man who proclaimed that God had sent him to China. Prone to long soliloquies on how China would soon overtake the West, he dismissed the Great Firewall as a Western myth while simultaneously defending the blocking of Facebook. He bragged about his powerful Chinese connections and frequently promised the people he liked that he could keep them “safe” come contract renewal time. Once he was too old and the school no longer felt like lying about his age to secure his residence permit, he had no choice but to return to America, where he published a glowing book about China through a vanity press. Party Members is a sharp critique of a nation that takes itself too seriously, and I wish I could force him to read it.

Preferably with a bucket of KFC.

Party Members is available on Amazon. Check out Arthur Meusault’s blog too.

Read my other book reviews here.

Quotes from Party Members:

Originality, creativity, self-reflection, and all the other useless qualities unnecessary to China’s relentless growth had been expunged to create a reliable army of the unreliable. Any morsels of these vices that may have sat nascent within the young Yang Wei had been successfully harmonised out of his system.

As long as there was always somebody unimportant around to clear up the mess, everybody would just concentrate on their own affairs out of fear of attracting attention to themselves and losing the little empires they had struggled so hard to accumulate.

They had never existed, and any memory of them was soon replaced with the intricate details of who a certain Shanghai actress was dating and the fact that a new season of China’s Got Talent had been approved. Shanshan’s life was as short, fleeting, and unimportant as that of the butterfly that had led to her death.

These days all of the old gods were dead, buried beneath decades of Mao’s destruction and forgotten by the unstoppable march of modernity. Only the God of Wealth remained, grown fat by the offerings and prayers for sports cars, designer clothes, and the latest mobile phones.

intReview: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu

I met Travis Lee on a cool November morning in 2016. He was waiting for the library to open, and I noticed he was holding a book. I decided to ask him about it…

W: What are you reading?

T: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu. I just finished it.

W: What’s it about?

T: This guy went around over the years interviewing people in China. This is a translation of some of his interviews.

W: What kinds of people?

T: The book’s subtitle is ‘Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom-Up’, and I guess you could say that’s true. These are all ordinary people. A lot of his interviews skew towards those who have been mistreated by the Chinese government.

W: Maybe it doesn’t skew; maybe it’s normal.

T: I’ve thought about that too. Of course, Liao Yiwu is a dissident writer. The introduction to this book makes that clear, with a good deal of mythologizing.

W: Mythologizing?

T: In the introduction, Wen Huang, the book’s translator, relates the story of Liao Yiwu’s birth: he was born when the Great Leap Forward was launched. During the famine, he nearly died from edema. According to Huang, Liao’s mother took him to an herbal doctor in the countryside who held him over a wok that contained boiling herbal water. The herbal steam miraculously restored him.

I like the use of the word ‘restore’ rather than ‘cure’. ‘Cure’ denotes serious weakness. Restore? Temporary weakness. Liao Yiwu wasn’t afflicted, not really, and the steam allowed him to return to his previously strong state. Pair it with ‘miraculously’, and a myth is born.

So, during a famine that killed 45 million people, we are to believe that Liao Yiwu was “miraculously restored”, a presumably divine act that would allow him to later live on the lam as a dissident writer, barely known in his own country. But there’s nothing “miraculous” about it; hydrotherapy is a well-known alternative treatment for swelling.

Throughout this book I had to wonder, is this true? Am I reading what people actually said?

Let me give you another example: The Human Trafficker. Now, according to the introduction, Liao gained these people’s trust. He interviewed this guy in prison and says that he could not take any recording equipment inside.

W: As you’d expect.

T: Right. He had to write up the interview from memory, but what is he remembering? What happened or what he wanted to happen? Take the ending. After the Human Trafficker expresses no remorse over conning young women into sexual slavery, Liao Yiwu claims he said this:

“If it were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off.”

I don’t doubt that Liao feels this way. But did he end the interview like that? Did it say it at all?

W: Does it matter?

T: It doesn’t ruin the book for me. It is interesting to contemplate though; what was lost or added?

W: You called him a “dissident writer”. Did he conduct these interviews illegally?

T: According to the introduction, most of his works are banned in China. Liao himself was arrested after Tiananmen Square for recording a poem dedicated to the victims of the massacre, among other things.

The introduction states that he has spent most of his career on the run.

W: Do you consider that more mythologizing?

T: Oh yes. He’s a renegade writer who was “miraculously restored” during one of the worst famines in history, remember? And now, the government fears him so much they will do anything to silence him.

W: It makes sense. From what I’ve, the CCP is quick to silence any dissent, however small.

T: True. Look at Liu Xiaobo. The Hong Kong booksellers. I don’t think he or his supporters are lying, but they are using it to craft a narrative. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

W: In his interviews, is Liao crafting a narrative?

T: When it comes to government reprisal, few in this book go unscathed. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Tiananmen Father. Have you heard of the Tiananmen Mothers?

W: No.

T: The Tiananmen Mothers are a group of friends, relatives and parents of the victims. They demand that the Party acknowledge the massacre, name the dead, compensate families of the victims and punish those responsible.

W: I hesitate to ask how their efforts are coming along.

T: Ding Zilin, the group’s founder, is under house arrest.

W: How about the Tiananmen Father?

T: He’s a Sichuanese man whose son was murdered in the protests. The government did not let him take his son’s body home for burial. They let him view it, before hastily burning it along with the other victims’ bodies.

It’s a moving interview. Let me tell you how he ends it:

“Our life is too hard right now. We live on two hundred yuan a month. We have to raise our granddaughter and support her education. She is our only hope. She is the only thing left after the loss of my two sons. Despite this, we don’t want to bother Professor Ding [leader of the Tiananmen Mothers]. It doesn’t matter if we live or die. Professor Ding has to live. She is the one who helps keep the issue alive. It’s been sixteen years since the June 4 massacre happened. Sooner or later, justice will be done. We probably won’t live long enough to see the day. Whatever happens, we can’t let the Communist Party get away with the bloody debt owed to families like mine.”

W: Next year will mark twenty-eight years. No acknowledgement seems to be forthcoming.

T: I lived in China for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. People were scared. Perhaps they still are. The thing is, the Party is in power. All they need to do is wait. Sooner or later, all those pesky eyewitnesses will die, leaving rumor and hearsay.

W: There are records too.

T: Records can be altered. Destroyed.

W: History is written by the winners.

T: There are no winners here. In 1989 everyone lost.

W: Were there other stories that caught your eye?

T: The interviews near the end were weak. Some of what the interviewees said, such as the prison stories. There are about three people who were sent to Chinese prison, and they were tortured and sexually assaulted by the other inmates.

W: Are you saying it didn’t happen?

T: I’m saying the events seem exaggerated, yes. “Needlessly dramatic”, might be the right words.

W: How do you know it didn’t happen?

T: I don’t, but I suspect they’re dramatizing.

W: You hope they are?

T: Yeah, sure.

W: You’ve talked about exaggeration. Was there anything in the book besides the Tiananmen Father that you didn’t doubt?

T: It’s not that I doubt every interview in the book. Only that some statements, from the interviewees and Liao Yiwu himself, seem farfetched. I mean, the Street Singer claims that his blind father drowned in a river. The Street Singer was supposed to be watching him, but why was a blind man swimming in the first place?

What doesn’t seem farfetched is what we know happened. Tales from the Anti-Rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution.

Liao Yiwu interviews a former Red Guard. He, the former Red Guard, has no remorse over what he did. They bullied, harassed, tortured and killed people, all in the name of Mao Zedong. If you want to see the power of a cult of personality, forget North Korea. Look at China, 1966 to about 1975. Mao Zedong knew he was on his way out, and he was determined to make his country pay.

W: You seem more inclined to believe people who were hurt by the government.

T: Even their stories don’t escape the narrative trap. The basic events…I mean, someone’s father was a landlord. They were persecuted. I’ll believe that before I believe that a leper’s wife was burned alive and no one did anything about it.

W: Some of the stories are more rooted in well-documented history, it seems. Did you enjoy the book overall?

T: I did. For all the questions it raises, it tells you a lot about China and the Chinese people.

This book is abridged, by the way.

W: How so?

T: Straight from the introduction: They selected twenty-seven stories that they felt were representative of his work and of interest to Western readers. I’m interested in reading the whole book, not what someone has decided would interest me.

W: That might explain the skewing towards people who’ve been mistreated by the government.

T: Perhaps. I want to read the whole book to find out.

W: Would you recommend The Corpse Walker to others?

T: Yes, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Read the introduction carefully. The translator’s acknowledgements too, where he treats you to this:

“Following his release from a Chinese prison, Liao Yiwu asked a blind fortune-teller to forecast his future. The fortune-teller felt around Liao’s face, inquired the date and time of his birth, and told Liao that his future would start to look promising because he would be assisted and blessed by several guiren, or noblemen.”

The translator than goes on to thank several people who helped bring the book to life. Without them, we wouldn’t have The Corpse Walker.

W: Seems that fortune-teller had a point.

T: I know, right? Who am I to doubt him?



The Corpse Walker is available on Amazon. Check out more of my reviews here.