Potty Break: Lessons from a First-Timer to Asia

I’ve been considering this post for a while, but given the content I’ve held off. However I realize that there are certain things that unite all of humanity in weird ways and using a toilet is one of them. It’s also a place I’ve noticed some of the biggest cultural differences over the last six months. Odd, I know. Though I think it’s worth sharing.

Firstly, the potties may be squatty, but at least you generally have privacy. Though you have to squat over a porcelain hole in the floor, at least the stall doors always reach to the floor.  Some places frequented by foreigners will have regular ‘normal’ johns, but no guarantee. So you learn to squat while desperately trying to not get the rebound splash of stuff everywhere. And a lesson you learn only once- do not have anything in your pockets, lest it slip out and land on the often soaking wet floor while you’re otherwise occupied.


Another further oddity I’ve noticed is that some locals take this one step further, and if there is a ‘western style’ seated toilet, some people lift the seat and will actually STAND ON THE RIM of the bowl, thus defeating the entire purpose of having a seated toilet. Sigh.

Since we’re talking bathrooms, I’ve been tempted to conduct a study on hand-washing in Chinese restrooms. I’ve noticed a very odd trend…. Most women wash their hands before going in a stall. Yes. You read that right. Before, not after.  I printed a few polite and office-friendly “wash your hands!” signs at my office showing all the reasons one should do so after using the restroom. Not sure it’s worked though.  If anyone can explain the “washing hands before the business” concept, please share.

You’re asking for another bathroom curiosity? I’m armed with a few!  Those floor-length doors I mentioned? Many women don’t shut them. So you think it’s a row of open stalls, but nope- there’s a woman doing her business in (almost) plain sight.

And toilet tissue….. If you like using it, you learn to carry it with you at all times as most toilets won’t have it. And when you’re done you better not toss it in the bowl.  Most sanitation systems are not equipped to handle tissues, so there’s always a small trash can in the stall with you.  If you think about this concept for a second, it will really gross you out- all of the used TP is IN THAT CAN.

There is also a ‘trough’ bathroom, which I’m sure you can visualize using the name.  these places have no doors or stalls, just low walls used as dividers.  And yep, it’s basically a long foot-wide trough hole along the length of the bathroom and you’re lucky if it’s one you can flush, though this means you get potential exposure to anything ‘upstream’ of you as well.  If you’re unlucky, it doesn’t flush.  Just let that thought sink in. A trough of waste with nowhere to go.  Nasty.  However, on the bright side a few of these kinds of bathrooms have been open-air and where you may get a great view across some beautiful landscape. So, as long as you can hold your breath and keep your balance, it’s almost OK.

The concept of “stand in line and wait your turn” has not quite fully taken off here.  More than once, I’ve had to defend my status as next-to-go using only hand signals and pointing, and since Bruce is the only one to speak Chinese, I have to resort to non verbal communication.

Overall, the bathroom experience in Asia has been….what’s the best word here?….humbling.  No matter what you’re wearing, how perfect your hair looks, how crappy you feel, how urgent your need, you will be met with a great equalizing effect in the public bathroom.

Here are some funny lost-in-translation signs we’ve seen in the bathrooms so far.  Enjoy!

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