“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”


The earth shook for months. Everyday, every single day, they pounded and blasted. Dust drenched men and women took hammer to stone, trowel to loam, and heart to progress. Their toil, routinely forged under oppressive sun, often endeavored through searing torrents, was a toil for the future. It was a toil for henceforth. It was a toil for progress. It was a toil for a toilet.

It’s over now. History is written. The scent of the past will soon be flushed from our collective consciousness. For that, at least, no one will complain. But I have lost a dear friend.

On the night of Sunday, December 7, 2014—a day before a day that might live in infamy—I walked to the bathroom. It was late. After 10:30. I heard two voices, one unmistakable. I walked in. The sole bulb tasked with illuminating all nocturnal lavatorial activity dangled and swayed, as always. Spider webs clutched at wooden beams, as always. Some place to live. Chinese schools teem with inspirational graffiti. In the cafeteria it says, “Food Safety is Golden.” On the basketball court it says, “Health Comes from Exercise.” On the peeling, faded wall above the communal urinal it says, “For a Little Gift Approach the Trough. For a Big Gift Approach the Hole.”


As I prepared to follow the latter instruction, I noticed the sources of the voices. The unmistakable one was Mr. Yang, my ubiquitous principal. The other was a fifth grade student, Shane (Liu XingYang). Shane is a chubby, reserved kid with buckteeth and a crew cut. He’s the number one student in 5th grade. Shane apparently didn’t feel so good.

“Yes. I think so.” Shane managed.

“Of course it’s important! A person needs good habits. Habits are everything. An idiot even knows it.”

“Yes. That’s true.”

Mr. Yang turns to me. “Good evening, Mr. Luo! I was just talking about the importance of habits with this guy here… What’s the name guy?”

“Liu XingYang.”

“Yes, XingYang. He’s quite sick.”

“Good evening, Mr. Yang. Yeah, Liu XingYang. He’s the best student in my class.” I take the spot next to principal Yang.

“Wah! How about that? Then he knows about all of this. You know about all of this. Never mind it.”

“OK.” Shane squeaks.

“But, I bet you don’t know a damn thing about traffic safety.”

“I don’t know.”

“What are you up to Mr. Luo?” The principal asks me as Shane mentally checks off the shortlist of less desirable places on earth.

“Using the bathroom.”

“Ah, yes. An honest man. Ha!”

We chat for a few moments. I did what I did and departed. Walking away, I could still hear Mr. Yang’s virtuous seminar and Shane’s strained acknowledgements. Preachers have their pulpits. Professors have their lectern. Mr. Yang, too, has his oratory platform. Oh! The pure, raw humanity of it all!

When the sun rose on December 8th an era would close. The era of the new bathroom—under construction (and “nearly done”) for over half a year—would be (fl)ushered in. It is a crowning achievement of sorts—an architectural marvel. It is a flawlessly white building, replete with elegant artwork and sophisticated Chinese proverbs that I don’t really understand. It has stalls with wraparound walls that almost create an illusion of privacy. It has squeaky, easy to scrub tile floors. It smells bad (it’s a bathroom) but nothing like its predecessor. It has a mirror. It has a sink. It flushes. It is Principal Yang’s magnum opus, his urinalis maximus, his Big Gift to Sanzhuang. He is proud.

IMG_0478 IMG_0479

I feel weird though. I’ve had a rather ambivalent year-and-a-half relationship with the old guard. It’s all I know. A piece from August 30, 2013 may help put my then and now into perspective. Consider this an update. Back then, the thought of public Big Gifting was almost out of the question. Imagine going full-squat right next to your elementary school teachers. That’s a notion you’d have trouble warming up to, even next to your dearest of dear friends. Now, imagine you’re the teacher—and you’re foreign. I generally made use of the fact that students are in class 90% of the day. Sometimes though, we are slaves to nature. In a school with 150 male students, 15 male teachers, and one men’s room, privacy is a laughing matter. I learned to deal with it and even disentangle decades of bathroom usage schema embedded deep into my conscience.

I’m not going to write that approaching the hole in the presence of others is a profoundly delightful leisure pursuit. I was never psyched about the proposition. I never brought the People’s Daily and made a morning of it (as some teachers did). But, at the very least, it was an interesting process in destigmatization. Hygienic privacy is not a universal human right. In fact, I would venture to guess that half the world doesn’t have it and certainly a far greater number do not approach rigorous American standards.

I won’t miss that, though. But, this building with seemingly no redeeming qualities has been a fixture of my time here. The new swirled order will change things. Some indelible memories have been forged. There was the time Frank—my fourth grade student—fell in. This is not funny. It is incredibly hilarious. There was the time when Mr. Yang brought all of the boys in the school together to investigate the party responsible for a footprint on the white paint. There was the time Mr. Yang gave a school-wide lecture about “屁股位置” (positioning) after one too many missed approaches. There was the time Mr. Yang lectured Shane about traffic safety under a cold moon and a swaying light bulb. The new toilet will deprive me of this inexhaustible preposterousness. I used to make egregiously bad students clean the bathroom. The new toilet even undermines my authority.

IMG_0486IMG_0482Old & New

It’s quite a contrast—the shiny white new and the drab flaky old. There’s still a long way to go. After all, this new toilet isn’t exactly a model of seclusion. It’s not the best on the market. It’s progress though, I can’t deny. It’s interesting, the excuses we make for tradition. It feels strange to espouse the virtues of something that a group of outside observers would unanimously regard as “not so good” or “ungodly” or “I cannot breathe in here” A day will come when some other conflicted and confused blogger living in rural Yunnan writes this same piece about the new toilet that, by then, will seem so unseemly. “The memories!” But, you know, I have to tell myself, “Taylor, you can’t live in the past. You must squat forward with the people. You must receive the future as inevitable. You, too, must change.” That is what I tell myself. That is how one copes.

In China there is the phenomenon of the “钉子户”(Ding Zi Hu). You know it. It translates roughly into “saboteur householder.” These are the people who won’t leave their homes in the face of developers. They place themselves between hulking construction apparatuses and their house. The Ding Zi Hu almost always loses. But, they fight an honest fight. They stand up—quite literally—for their past. I wonder, has a Ding Zi Hu ever squatted for his past.

I wonder… Has there ever been a Ding Zi Hu for a toilet?



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.