A Brief Introduction to Chinese Bathroom Anxiety

When the time comes, I move swiftly, stealthily stealing down the stairs from my third floor dorm. Silence, save for a few birds chirping, a few trees rustling ominously in the distance. I look left. I look right. Not a soul. Now at the bottom of the stairs, I bow my head, and furtively change direction. I move left, toward my goal, maintaining my low profile (an epic feat for a white man in China). En route, I occasionally shoot a quick glance to either side, hoping, praying that my path remains unobstructed by one of my colleagues, or worse, one of my students. Seconds later, I arrive. I press the left side of my body up against the bare cement wall that precedes the opening. The only indication of what lies beyond is a lone character, 男. I slowly ease forward. As I reach the end of the wall, I crane my head forward ever so cautiously. And… BAM! I swing my head and body around in a rapid reconnaissance of this place, this chamber of despair. Empty. All mine. I exhale. I can use the bathroom.

Bathroom anxiety is perhaps the biggest hurdle to adaptation for Americans in China. The vast majority of toilets here are of the “squat” variety. Non-contact, if you will. Obviously, there is a certain amount of balance required to operate within this system. I’ve heard stories of the less composed losing control, of mind and body, and winding up in unenviable states. The first rule one must tell themselves is, much like a tightrope walker: Don’t fall. Unless you were a star catcher in high school, it’s going to take some getting used to. Squatting is a fact of life here, and as such, it must be adapted to. You may bring your own fork to China, but some Western conveniences are simply not transferable. So you learn to limbo.

Once you master the art of not falling into the toilet, you can begin to grapple with the next stage of bathroom anxiety: sensory onslaught. Sorry, but in rural China there’s no such thing as “jiggle the handle.” Sure, there’s a hole, but it doesn’t lead quite as far from the source as we’re used to. The lack of modern plumbing attracts a wide variety of curious species, not the least, spiders. Yes, you can try to “pee them away” but they will come back. They always come back. It’s not a pretty place to be. This brings me to rule two, in close conjunction with the all-important rule one: Don’t look down. Apart from the visual malaise of the place, there is an equally egregious attack on the sense of smell. You can try to close your eyes and imagine you are in some far off land, somewhere, anywhere, anywhere but here. But, no dice. Your nose will hastily erase the idyllic vision your imagination was hoping for. It’s like, well, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s bad. There’s no escape.

So, first, find your balance, inner and outer. Next, embrace the visual and olfactory invasion, it’s not going anywhere. Now, you are ready for the third, and most daunting stage of bathroom anxiety: publicity. Surely, as ominous as they may be, one can handle the above “duties” through a state of quiet inward reflection. Squat back, relax, and focus on the task at hand. But remember, you’re in a country of 1.4 billion people. Quiet inward reflection might be hard to come by. As a man, I am used to peeing in the company of other dudes. This does not require any amount of adaptive focus. However, “the little gift” (as it’s know in Chinese) is not the only bathroom function that requires a heightened level of intimacy. There are no stalls, here. It’s a little confusing at first, and you may be tempted to ask a colleague where the right place is to do that. But, you can go ahead and skip the trouble. Everyone’s in it together, we’re all one big team. The toilets are a successive row of slits, with no partition standing between them. Here, there’s no need for those vacant/occupied airplane bathroom locks. The availability of each slit is quite evident. Oh, and needless to say, there is no rack for toilet paper. Out here, it’s strictly BYOR.

Here’s where my advice falls short: I’ve been here three days, and the school is sparsely populated right now. Only a few teachers and no students are on campus. As such, I haven’t had to share yet. I’m quite anxiously anticipating the day—it will be soon—that I don’t have the chamber of despair all to myself. It will be a rare moment where shared misery does not improve one’s outlook. What will I say? “Hey how about that game last night?” Should I even say anything? Should I make eye contact? Will there be that one dude who always has to take the slit right next to me? No one’s going to mess around and try to push me, right? With all of this confusion and emotion welling up inside, it is easy to lose sight of the most important thing: Whatever you do, do not lose your balance.

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Daole

One thing that consistently fascinates me about cultural differences is how small they truly are, even in a relative sense. We grow up learning about our differences. Racists and separatists admonish our differences, while holidays and traditions celebrate our differences. But, what of our similarities? In reality, we eat different food, we dress differently, we speak different languages, we have some deep seeded cultural norms, and most conspicuously, we look different. But, we all eat, we all wear clothes, we all speak, we all have guiding principles, and we all have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.

            Today is my first time seeing my school, my home for the next two years, SanZhuang Elementary School.  I don’t formally start teaching for over a week, but I got here a little early to check the scene. Sidenote: a lot of teacher blogs are going to talk about teaching and cute kids etc. Based on recent Facebook activity, 98% of recent college graduates are now teachers, so I am going try to steer clear of the conventional teacher blog. I don’t think I would be very got at it anyway. I want this to be more of a commentary on life as an American in China.  

I digress. SanZhuang is a strikingly beautiful place. The setting feels more like a mountain resort or one of those high-end rehab “wellness” retreats than it does a school. The school building is painted bright pink, a color that basks beautifully in the bright sun. There is a basketball court, many ping-pong tables, an exercise area, and seemingly endless gardens wind and wend their way all across the grounds. In a word: shocking. Well, stunning, beautiful, breathtaking, tranquil, perfect are the correct words for the scene, but shocking is the only word that can capture my thoughts upon arrival. I’m supposed to be teaching in one of the poorest areas in China and this school is infinity times more visually stunning than any elementary school I’ve ever seen. Not only is the view incredible, but the grounds are also meticulously maintained. It’s beyond my expectations to the nth degree. It’s… utterly absurd.

I’m greeted by the few staff that are already at the school. We have Yang Laoshi, Yang Laoshi, and Yang Laoshi (Laoshi meaning teacher). Every single teacher I meet has the same last name. The principle also has the surname Yang. Quite bizarre, I think. I’m informed that people from this town are usually named Yang, much like names often denoted origin in Western culture (think da Vinci or de Carlo). However, these Yangs have probably been living in this area for literally thousands of years. Not surprisingly, everyone who lives here are best friends.

Myself and my co-fellow, YaNan are invited to dinner with the teachers that are already at the school. We descend the mountain in Yang Laoshi’s Chevy and head into the village that lies at the base. It’s a small, quintessentially rural Chinese village with tight streets, courtyard style houses, and tons of different species running around. We arrive at the house of the school’s former security guard (the current security guard is also there). This dude is unmistakably the Chinese Tony Soprano. To a tee. He’s got a big gut, has a slight lisp when he talks, the sly facial expressions are identical, he just carries himself like Tony, like a mob boss. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s impossible to miss. We sit down in the courtyard, men at one table, women and kids at the other. I am one of two people at a table of 8 that doesn’t have the surname Yang. Somehow, none of them are related.

The host promptly breaks out the baijiu. Baijiu is by far the most widely consumed spirit in China. Its literal translation is “white wine,” but white wine it is not. It fluctuates between 40 and 60 percent alcohol, and has the smell and taste of nail polish remover. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this ubiquitous Chinese booze, it’s because American importers know better. After drinking it for a year in Shanghai, I still cannot understand how it became a cultural fixture. It’s absolutely abominable. In fact, most Chinese people I talk to hate it. It’s like some sort of mass cultural masochism.

Anyways, the Baijiu is in free flow. I’ve been warned about this. Chinese masculine drinking culture is intense. Whereas American kids “binge drink,” the Chinese way is supposedly somewhere along the lines of “Drink until you hate yourself or you’re not my friend.” A slight exaggeration, mind you, but only slight. There are a lot of complex status symbols and “face” undertones in Chinese drinking culture. Especially when it’s done with your boss. I’m ready to dive in, to show the Yangs what I learned in college. But, to my mild chagrin, my vice-principle steps in and tells the host that I’d better adapt to my surroundings before I start getting wasted with locals. Fair enough… I guess. I settle for Sprite.

The guys drink a lot. And smoke a lot. Everyone at the table chain smokes throughout the meal. This includes a few cigarette bongs, a fixture in this part of China. Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Cigarettes are placed, at the filter, on the bowl/airhole that protrudes from the tube. I saw one guy take a cigarette completely down to the filter in one puff. My lungs burned vicariously. I deny at least ten cigarettes.

No one gets too drunk. These guys can clearly booze. However, the party gets a little too loud, and Tony’s wife tells us to keep it down so we don’t bother the neighbors. He retorts, “Come on we’re not loud at all, there are planes flying overhead all the time here. He can deal with it.” She not convinced. He responds, “Well, look I have to deal with him killing his goats at seven in the morning. I will not lower my voice.” (Yes that is a direct quote, I did not make that up). It’s a classic scene, so vividly transferable to an American backyard barbeque, minus some details.

The party rages on. The neighbor clearly does not care one way or the other. Dinner is served. There are about eight dishes, cooked by Tony’s uncle (not old enough to be his real uncle, but that’s what he’s called. It’s too perfect). From where I sit, I can literally see the source of every single dish. “These radishes, they grow right next to you. Those peppers, turn around. That goat? Tomorrow, it’ll be his brother.” At one point, a herd of about twenty goats rushes by. I find out that Tony and his wife raise the goats and sell them. They fetch about $300 each. Do the math, and that’s a pretty damn good supplemental income in this part of China. The meal is delicious. It makes me chuckle to think that somewhere in America, countless yuppies are paying serious cash to get their hands on food like this. This is all these people know. Cut and dry. The supermarket is for Baijiu. If you want veggies, you plant a seed. If you want some meat, you raise it, kill it with your own hands, and cut it up. For them, going to KFC would be a serious financial hit. The system is so curiously out of whack.

The evening winds to a close around eight. I can already tell I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these people over the next few years. The village is incredibly tight knit and I’m going to fit somewhere into the picture. It’s pretty special that I get to be a teacher and a bona fide community member at the same time. It’s true immersion. It’s not some glossy “white guy goes and helps poor Chinese kids” story. I’m going to be held to the same standards as everyone. I’ll be reprimanded when I screw up. I’ll know full well that I am probably, no, definitely the worst teacher at my school. Conversely, I’ll be talked to in Chinese. I’ll fight through shots of Baijiu. I’ll probably kill a pig and drink its blood. As I alluded to once before, that can be nearly impossible to come by as a foreigner in China. But SanZhuang is already giving me that vibe. This place feels so genuine, like the realest place I’ve ever been.

Day one, in the books.

We go to a Chinese Hospital

I cannot remember the last time I went to the hospital in the States. I made it through four years in New Orleans of essentially complete disregard for my body without once needing immediate medical attention. In fact, I can only think of two, maybe three times that I even required the services of the Tulane Health Center. Once for swine flu, once for mono. I don’t like getting sick, but I don’t really mind lying in my bed. I hate going to the hospital. It’s tiring, expensive, and often completely fruitless.

I am currently in a hotel in Xiaguan City, Dali Prefecture, Yunnan Province –here for some final training/team building sessions before we disperse to our respective schools. Accommodations are substantially better than those at Summer Institute.

Around 10 pm last Sunday night I went out to get a bite. I tried a few places I had passed by earlier in the day. Nothing was open, except for a tiny hole in the wall that served some sort of soupy looking thing. I ordered, waited, and took my soupy thing to go. I knew immediately that the meat should not have been eaten. Dubious color, dubious texture, dubious taste. But, alas, it was too late. I ate the whole thing and hoped for the best.

Shortly after lunch the next day, I started to get a hint of things to come. It began rather harmlessly, but quickly escalated to previously uncharted waters. By four o’clock, I had checked out of class. By 7:30 it was hospital time. I struggled into the elevator with my roommate, Brandon. We hailed a cab in front of the hotel. White people alone are a surprise to any cab driver in this part of China, much less delirious white people demanding medical care.

We planned to meet our supervisor at a hospital a few minutes away. I writhed in the backseat, trying painstakingly to keep my vomit from destroying the sign on my seat that said “Welcome ride the car!” First the cab driver arrived at the wrong address. At home, the exact hospital would not have mattered. However, there was no way Brandon and I were about to dive into this situation without a native Chinese speaker. A few seconds of confusion ensued as Brandon repeatedly shoved the address our supervisor had texted him into the driver’s face. We got to the right hospital a few minutes later. Our supervisor, Ma LiJun was waiting outside. I stumbled out of the backseat, mired in what was probably the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life. My stomach, from my belly button to my sternum throbbed and panged relentlessly as though the whole thing wanted nothing more than to jump out of my body at once. At that moment, all I wanted was anesthesia. I didn’t care at all about “getting better,” I just wanted to be unable to feel.

First, we went into a small room. Ma LiJun translated my barely intelligible groans to a middle-aged nurse. She took my blood pressure and checked my temperature. She also repeatedly applied force to my stomach with her thumb, asking, “Does this hurt?” The answer was an emphatic “Yes!” every time. She must have thought my answer was insufficient, because the exercise continued for an excruciating minute or more. After getting my stomach pressed on for a minute, I was moved into a room with five beds in a row, two of which were already full. The patients in the room looked pretty stable, which made me feel at ease. I settled into the back corner bed.

After what seemed like an eternity, a nurse wearing a nose/mouth guard and glasses matter-of-factly wheeled in a table full of medical devices. She was followed by an almost identical matter-of-fact nurse carrying a movable IV. They were straight out of a sci-fi movie. I was scared of them. At this point, I was feverish, completely dehydrated, and still writhing from stomach pain. It was all very blurry. My supervisor informed me I was about to get an amino acid shot in the ass and “a bunch” of IV’s. Sidenote: IV’s are the most common form of pain relief in China. Hospitals do not give patients pills like Tylenol or Alleve, but rather do almost everything intravenously. It would all cost around $40. This hospital had a giant “menu” in the hallway that clearly displayed the price of each type of treatment (slightly more transparent than what we are used to in the States). I gladly accepted my shot and IV from the matter-of-fact duo.

Accompanying me during these torturous hours were my supervisor/boss Ma LiJun, a second year fellow Zu Mei, and my roommate, Brandon. The hospital visit proved to be a great time to get to know my direct boss a little better. Ma LiJun is a small woman with short black hair from China’s Anhui province. She is organized to a tee and unfailingly punctual. What I did not know was that behind this façade of rigid structure is a biting sardonic sense of humor that came out in full force during our hours in the hospital. People often try too hard to be upbeat in places full of pain and gloom. Ma LiJun was having none of it. “It’s like an American party, yes! Drugs, people passed out. I am so happy to share this great moment with you.” She was relentless, but it was just what I needed. The teaching profession is pretty devoid of negativity, and it was nice to be reminded that some people in this line of work don’t take themselves too seriously.

I spent the next three hours drifting in and out of sleep. At one point I was woken up by a new guest to our party. A man in a stretcher was wheeled in by three or four family members. Truthfully, I thought he was dead. His feet were wrapped in saran wrap and he was totally unconscious. When I saw his family laughing, I was doubly disturbed and got scared again. They quickly explained to Ma LiJun that he was just wasted. I eased up a little. It’s quite common in China, often expected, to get drunk to the point of sickness, incoherency, and passing out. Apparently our new guest was a fixture at the hospital. Within the hour he was groaning and babbling things that even a fluent speaker of local dialect would not be able to ascribe meaning to.

I was told I would receive three water bags in total. When the second one finally finished, Ma LiJun joked that we would we like to take the third to go. Halfway through the third bag, at around 1 am, I decided I was good to go. I yanked off the IV and tried to stand up. I promptly fell back down onto the bed in a drug-induced daze. With a little help from my support staff, I got back up, walked out, got into a cab, and headed back to the hotel. The drunk groaned one last time as if to say goodnight.

The whole experience was incredibly surreal. The mix of intense pain, numbing drugs, and a totally foreign environment was a sensory rollercoaster. I almost wish I could have written this in the state of experience. It was all very lucid. Experiencing something so new in such an altered state was purely wild. Extremely serious situations seemed like an absurd farce. Extremely normal moments were often terrifying. It was totally bizarre. I kind of want to go back.

Look out below

There is a famous  idiom in Chinese, “哭笑不得,ku xiao bu de.” The phrase literally translates to: “Not to know whether to laugh or cry.” It’s clearly transferable to any cultural context. We’ve all had those moments. Say you’ve got a final paper due at eight in the morning. You haven’t started. You stay up all night grinding. You finish it. Ten pages, single-spaced. You get to your teacher’s office at 7:58 only to realize that the paper isn’t due til next week. Living in a foreign place, especially one as foreign as rural China provides a daily supply of “ku xiao bu de” moments.

            I teach class at 11:10 everyday during Summer Institute. The bell rings at 11:50. I take a tuk-tuk back for lunch. I eat. Lunch is followed by five hours of pedagogy training which consists of three segments of one hour and forty five minutes separated by 15 minute breaks. During these breaks you eat and you use the bathroom. You do the things you need to do because you won’t get to do them for another two hours. Lucky for me, I found a “secret bathroom” to the side of our teaching building. Now, I don’t have to walk the ten minutes back and forth to my dorm. There’s a makeshift fence of wooden boards separating the building from the property behind it. We can see the land outside our classroom windows. I can’t really tell what the people who live there do, but there are always a lot of farm animals hanging out.

Anyways, there is a small opening in the wooden board fence that leads to their property from campus. A few steps past, there is a little cement shack with the characters for man and woman crudely painted on the front. The bathroom (I’ve decided against including pictures) is kind of like the one from that famous scene in Slumdog Millionaire. Basically, it’s a pit with “stalls” delineated by wooden slats across the floor. There are certainly no vertical partitions. It’s intimate. The destination of goings-on in the secret bathroom is not the sewer system, it’s the ground below. Today, I went in my secret bathroom (my peaceful sanctuary) to do a 小便(little gift) as opposed to a 大便(big gift). Not 10 seconds in, I heard a piercing “bawk bawk” and a frantic ruffling of feathers. I jumped back, startled. My secret bathroom is a very quiet place where I am infrequently disturbed. I looked around… no one. I peered down through the openings between wooden slats (the toilet). There was a rather large chicken down there. I didn’t know what to feel. At first, I felt shocked. Shock turned to confusion. Confusion turned to sympathy. I settled somewhere on the emotional spectrum of “ku xiao bu de.” I just peed on a chicken.

In a few days, I will be going to a town significantly more rural than where I am now. But, even here it is amazing how frequently I see things that, not only have I never seen before, but I simply never ever could have even concocted in my imagination what these things would look like. Ninety-nine percent of the things I see/do are familiar/distantly connected in some way to some sort of past life experience. The vast majority of things fit into my mental schema of what is possible. When I see or experience things that I have never even pondered in my infinite stream of thoughts, it is a definitively surreal moment. It must be how a baby feels all day everyday. It must be how a Chinese villager feels when they see a tall, handsome white man for the first time. It’s like “woah… what?” It’s a really strange feeling that I haven’t experienced in a really long time. There’s a split second where sensory perception and cognitive processing don’t mesh right. Seeing the goat being slaughtered in the middle of the street was one of those moments. Peeing on a chicken’s head, though trailing in shock value, was also one of those moments. I have simply never even approached the possibility of accidentally urinating on a chicken.

 The phrase “Who knows what tomorrow will bring,” is taken to a whole new level here. Usually, one has a solid list of possibilities of what tomorrow may bring. You walk down the same streets, you see the same people, you pee on the same chickens. I do not know, nor could I imagine what kind of new things I may see on a daily basis. Like I said, the vast majority of my experiences “fit” into my preconceived schema of what daily life looks like, even in remote China. Every once is a while, though, my definition of “daily life” and “impossibility” are slightly redefined. 

Farm to Market

 On my way back from class, I usually take a shortcut that leads me through a relatively vast open-air market. To describe this market, which accounts for about 8-10 minutes of the near-20 minute walk, I need only say it is exactly what would appear if you were to bring to life your average person’s internalized image associated with the phrase “Chinese market.” The market wends up a hillside alley, kind of like a rice terrace.. The school where I live is located at the top of the hill. The school where I work is at the bottom.  There are cages upon cages of squawking chickens. You will see fish (not the kind you put in a fishbowl) swimming around in little washing bowls. Giant hunks of red, fleshy meat are conspicuously laid out on tables, much to the delight of endless amounts of flies and mosquitoes. There are vendors on either side and very little space to move. All the while, motorcycles and tuk-tuks (the primary form of taxi in the village) power their way through shoppers and passersby. Needless to say, the stench is exactly how you would image it to be. Obviously, it’s a pretty good shortcut.

 

Yesterday, as I walked to class, I saw a mountain goat tied up to a fence at the edge of the market. Random animals are not uncommon in smaller Chinese cities, especially the ones that are located in less developed regions. The goat seemed pretty happy. It was defecating all over the street, helping to keep the market stench at a status quo of “breathe through your mouth.” I continued onward to class.

 

Tuesday was my second day. I was scheduled to give my students a diagnostic exam that would test their English ability and give us a barometer to chart their progress. I will only teach these students for three weeks before I move to a more impoverished/rural placement location for the next two years. I was assigned rising fourth graders. I’m usually pretty ambivalent toward kids. I think they’re totally fun to have around for a little while, but when they start crying, I’m out. My kids however, are pretty much awesome. There are about twenty in the class. We have the troublemaker (Zhang Zhenghao (boy)), the quiet genius (Luo Jin (girl)), the kid who you just can’t get mad at, no matter what they do (You You (boy)), among others. Seriously though, his name is You You (Pronounced yo yo). Not like Yo-Yo Ma. Like, first name Yo, last name Yo. He is without question the most appropriately named person I have ever met. I gave him the English name JoJo.

 

The test went pretty smoothly, however there were some very intriguing mistakes that kept popping up. In a pictures-with-words matching section, almost half the students confused the words and pictures for “Taxi” and “Chicken.” These two words don’t really sound alike. The other elements of the question were Canada (w/ the flag), teacher, and nose. The students almost unanimously got these right. The problem, I deduced, was in the pictures. The picture provided for “Chicken” was a very rough, cartoonish drumstick. The picture for “taxi” was your typical yellow cab. For students in rural-ish China, a chicken is a thing in a cage in the market. It has feathers and a beak. For children in urban China, who study at KFC, a chicken is a delicious, meaty, cartoonish drumstick. As far as “taxi,” there are absolutely no yellow cabs here. Every taxi is a three-wheeled tuk-tuk. There is no light to tell potential passengers whether it’s occupied. You kind of just… look inside. If the words had been in Chinese, they still would have gotten it wrong.

 

When I walked back through the market an hour later, I saw the goat again. This time, it was tied down on its side. A boy that looked to be about 8 or 9 (the age of my students) was holding its head down and his father was holding its legs. The goat was making a sound that I’ve never heard before. It was the exact audible expression of agony. The goat was about to be slaughtered, right there, in the middle of the street, in front of a very large amount of shoppers. This shocking scene was evidently so commonplace that no one even stopped to look. No one even glanced as they walked by.  I continued up the hill.

 

Today on the way to class, I saw the goat being skinned and washed. When I headed back up the hill after class, the goat was sprawled out across a wooden wagon. It looked like it had been smoked. But, it still maintained very “alive” features. Maybe tomorrow it will go on sale.

 

It was complete coincidence that I was able to see these four vivid stages of the life and death of the goat. There are a lot of things about living abroad, particularly in China that stick out as “different from home.” You eat with chopsticks. You have a camera in your face almost daily. My lights go off at 11:30pm. You squat when you go number two. Those are all cultural differences that are pretty quickly adapted to. The slaughter of a really big animal in the middle of a busy street is not really one of those things. This was my first “Holy shit!” moment, including the year I spent in Shanghai. This is the kind of thing I can’t adapt to overnight.  I am really out there now. In this part of the world, food doesn’t come in a cartoonish uniform shape. It’s literally farm to market, and even that distinction if ambiguous. The crazy thing is, I feel more comfortable eating the drumstick, even though I have no earthly idea where it came from or what it even really is. But, this blog isn’t a commentary on the food industry. I’ll just say, I don’t think I’ll eat goat for the next week or so.

 

Sidenote: As I write this (at 1130pm), my two Chinese roommates are passionately singing in unison to “Love Story” by Taylor Swift (not really in a joking manner) as they prepare for bed. This, I have learned to adapt to.