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.