Stuck in Ambrosia

You tumble out of a van that exceeds the legal capacity by a factor of three or four. The first thing is the dust—thick and mobile. All those trucks you see filled to the brim with loose rocks are coming here to be dumped, tirelessly smashed one by one with large hammers, and ground into the invisible substance floating in the air. Then the sound. Giant tankers incessantly, gratuitously announce their arrival with profound horn blasts. A little kids sets off a firecracker in the middle of the street. A stray dog yelps. Then the heat. All these people, all this movement, all this progress, a sun that cuts seamlessly though mountain air. You feel, in so many ways, at the heart a massive movement. You are at a literal intersection of then and now—people from the past fashioning the future because that is what people from the past do. Women in traditional Baizu dress splash water on rocky dust that congeals into cement and someday into a sidewalk. A chicken darts around a speeding, honking BYD SUV. It’s hard not to feel it.

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Then the smell. You follow it a moment—past drying concrete and some badminton-playing kids contemplating a birdie that just landed in it. You know where it’s coming from. It’s in a pot. It’s wedged between a tiny convenience store selling booze and cigarettes and ramen in a box and a stairwell that leads to an oft-empty bar. It’s at a dusty intersection in a dusty mountain town. It’s in Yunnan, China. It is the greatest food in the entire world.

I’ve eaten some things. Tsukiji fish market before sunrise, a quiet taco shop called La Gringa serving simply captivating al pastor with a lime on a hot dry street in Cuernavaca, $3 Banh Mi sandwiches from Dong Phuong bakery in the middle of desolate New Orleans East, a steak so preposterously good at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires that I pondered vegetarianism purely out of respect, the footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki crafted by my local green and yellow clad sandwich artist. Deep in the middle of nights (such as this one) as my feet dangle over icy tiles and my stomach grumbles without reprieve, I think of these things and how impossibly far off they are. And I feel like you feel when your girlfriend says its over. I feel deeply, deeply stomach-broken.

But, every Friday afternoon I squeeze into that van between a slobbering infant and a stare-y old lady and I am taken to the intersection. I get out and follow the smell. I take off my bag and fall onto a foot-high stool begging to be crushed under my weight. There’s a large-mouthed steel cigarette bong resting against my table. A line of thermoses sit under a shelf, hot with water for tea. I glance at the chef, waitress, owner, busser, personality, and possible validator of any and all claims of higher-power. She nods and reaches into a bag of long white strands that look like the transcribed remnants of a Bush-Cheney sit-down. She tosses the strands into a wok, film-thick with what remains of the pleasures of those who once sat in these stools—a well-crisped recent history of culinary perfection. There are two things on the menu—though there is no menu. Er si (thick rice noodles) and Mi xian (thin rice noodles). You may have them fried or you may have them boiled. You may have them in a small bowl or you may have them in a big bowl. Smoke flares up and I get Pavlovian.

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There’s an aged and withered man wearing a scuffed blue suit and a newsboy working on a cigarette at the table next to me. His bowl is empty. A young mother watches her infant daughter struggle with the epic historical pairing of evasive noodles and thin wooden sticks. Two middle-aged van drivers sip tea as they pound on the table and complain about the road, the sound of their keys jangling faintly discernible through the dust and commotion. Sometimes you’ll see the county mayor sitting here with his comrades, methodically slurping soup and talking about the high-quality of the road. There’s a sign above the chef displaying a green happy face, a yellow “satisfied” face, and a red sad face. The three faces are paired with A, B, or C. In the box where this particularly establishment’s happy, satisfied, or sad face should be, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter. A scruffy dog scoots out of the kitchen. A, B, C or “high likelihood of sickness and/or death”, it doesn’t matter. Everyone from every corner of the social spectrum can be found at these tables.

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A, B, C.

She calls my name and I shoot up. Sitting in the hazy window is a mountain of Er si capped with shredded scallions. I thank her and snatch the dish and set it down on another counter and generously add leaves of sour Chinese cabbage. I return to my stool and drown the noodles in a dose of vinegar. I say grace for the proprietor and begin. The noodles are sticky with oil. They bind together and I lean closer. The flavor is something like salt, sour, spice, heat, grease. The texture sticky and smooth. But, truthfully, like a special book or a transcendent movie or a glass of baijiu or the rice terraces down the road or anything that is incredible in its way, there is no description aside from experience. It is what it is.

I proceed through the mountain and watch it disappear before my eyes. For these few moments at this intersection of future and past, there is now and only now—so too feels the old man and the young mother and the drivers. The final few bites are golden-brown pork strips and scraps of sour cabbage and oily vinegar soaked noodles. Like a great novel that you can’t stop reading but never want to end, I finish them off. It is a flavor rollercoaster with no drops. I ponder the remaining pool of vinegar and grease and weigh the social implications of lifting it and pouring it into my mouth. I lift it and pour it into my mouth. I pat my stomach and rise for the bill.

“Boss, you work too hard.” I tell her.

“Every day, seven days a week.” She says, smiling.

Every day, seven days a week behind a smoky little opening at a hot and dusty intersection, bending and lifting—with only the occasional helper. I think for a moment about the riches she would reap with a shop like this on Canal and Mott.

“You need to take a rest, boss,” I say contradicting my true gastronomic desires.

“No breaks. This is my iron rice bowl. This is my life.” She says, referencing an indelible Chinese concept.

“Well, it’s the best food I know. You’re the best there is.”

“Bah. None of that! I just make noodles for people to eat, Mr. Luo. Today’s on me,” She says as I reach into my pocket.

“Not in a million years, boss.” I hand her a crumpled five and two ones. One dollar and ten cents. That’s like a small bottle of Poland Springs or four gumballs. Shit, I can’t think of anything worth a dollar and ten cents. I’d pay 15 bucks for it if she asked me to.

“You should charge more.” I tell her every time.

“I charge one Yuan more and no one comes. I charge one Yuan less and I go out of business. Seven Yuan is the price.” Hard to believe the initial statement, but I know it’s true.

“Take it easy, boss.” I head back into the dust’.

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This is where the best food in the world is. It’s here, lodged in an open stall at the intersection of before and after. Stuck firmly between six and eight Yuan. Caught between a day off and some extra cash. A simple rendition of something that’s been done here for centuries. Some noodles and a lot of oil. Something for the people to eat. A few sticks and a plate. A tiny stool. A newborn child and an old man in his twilight years. You can see it all from here. It’s hard to try to imagine it anywhere else. The reality of what it is, its genesis is so inextricably chained to this small corner. It’s not a gastropub or a hot new chef’s foray into molecular gastronomy. It’s function first with barely an eye to form—here they are the same. It really is the best there is. It is straight-up ambrosial. And it has to be. It’s a labor borne of necessity. It’s a matter of fact. It’s life. It’s the only way it could possibly be.

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(comm)Ode

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“只要去探索,美无所不在”

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

-Confucius

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Shangrila

In May 1938, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a research expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. The members of the party were anthropologists, mostly German. In exchange for the resources to complete their fieldwork, the group leaders, among them critics of the regime, agreed to become SS officers. While the team, led by renowned zoologist Ernst Schafer, would carry out anthropological study, as a final kicker Himmler required that the crew search for a lost tribe of pureblood Aryans. Remember, the Nazis believed the Aryan race sprang from a pre-Buddhist Indo-Asian society. The inverted swastika, now synonymous with hate is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for goodness. The group returned abruptly in 1939—with Europe on the brink of all-out war—with some valuable new material, but to everyone’s great surprise failed to locate any pureblood Aryans.

           

            Much of this wayward Nazi theory derived from mystical accounts of a high Himalayan Utopia, an earthen paradise shielded from the rest of the world by soaring snow-capped peeks and, potentially, overprotective gods. One of the major components of said ideology is James Hilton’s mythologically-informed 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon speaks of a place called “Shangri-La.” Shangri-La is a kind of original version of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s village of Macondo. It’s isolated and idyllic, has magical tendencies, and the inhabitants seem to live unearthly spans of life. It’s as close to heaven as you can get on god’s green earth. It’s position high above the horizon, deep within the clouds, adds to its aura of Nirvana. I went there a few days ago.

           

            Shangri-La is not real. Or, at least, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real until 2001, to be exact. In that year, the Chinese town of Zhongdian (中甸), located in the northernmost county of Yunnan province and firmly within the Tibetan Plateau, opted to change it’s name to Shangri-La (香格里拉). The local government claims that Zhongdian is the setting for the (not real) Shangri-La in Hilton’s novel. They also claim, more rationally, that such a name change would be a boon to local tourism. They were right. Changing a Tibetan city’s name to Shangri-La is akin to a down-and-out university in the British countryside changing its name to Hogwarts. It’s probably not illegal, and if you can fool people into belief or at least curiosity, why not?

           

            Shangri-La (香格里拉) is a fairly large city near Yunnan’s border with Tibet and Sichuan. It has a KFC, which is, in my estimation, evidence that a Chinese city has arrived. The existence of KFC in Shangri-La also goes a long way in validating the government’s claims that their city is indeed an earthly paradise. Shangri-La doesn’t feel any different from your average mid-sized city in Yunnan. Lots of hole in the wall restaurants with “C” health ratings. The Chinese FDA rates hygiene on a scale of A, B, or C. A is represented by a grinning ear-to-ear yellow smiley face. B is a green “hmmmm…” face and C is a red, grumbling frown. I have never seen an A. Never. There are hustling tuk-tuk drivers. There’s a bunch of be-dreadlocked foreigners that look lost or in the process of being found (or probably just on drugs). There’s a “Next Station” bubble tea chain, the pre-KFC indicator of imminent arrival of a city in Yunnan.

           

            The current standout aspect of Shangri-La however, is not something the government, or James Hilton, planned. This January a worker, deep in the heart of the ancient city left a blow dryer on. Due to the fact that the ancient city is/was hundreds and hundreds of years old, things escalated quickly. Today, only a few blocks remain of the old town. Walking through Shangri-La’s old city is incredibly bizarre. It feels like ancient Rome, yet the destruction took place only a few months ago. And the cause of destruction was not violent Visigoths, but a hairdryer. Centuries of history reduced to complete rubble in days. A single steel spiral staircase rises up in the middle of a field of bricks and dust.

 

            On our first night in Shangri-La, three friends and I decided we best sample the local nightlife. We headed for the new town. I’d feel cheated if a place that purports itself to be paradise didn’t know how to get down. We first went to your run-of-the-mill Indian-Nepali-Tibetan-Chinese-Chilean fusion spot located down the road from our hostel. The proprietor, a Chilean guy named Ricky, served us the house specialty; yak meat empanadas. Tibetan-chic. As far as I could tell, Ricky, who’s lived in Shangri-La for three years, was the only ex-pat living in the city. After a delectable, eclect-able mix of yak meat empanadas, chicken tikka masala, French fries, and Shangri-La beer that made me feel like I was in Babu Batt’s Dream Café, we headed for the local scene.

           

            We bought some bottles of the local version of baijiu, qingkejiu (青稞酒), at a giant supermarket. This version was made with barley instead of wheat. It was, beyond my expectations of plausibility, even worse than our local Heqing interpretation. The brand we bought came in an inauspicious bottle that looked more like it belonged in the cleaning fluids aisle than anywhere near the “things people consume” aisle. The taste confirmed our suspicions.

           

            We settled on a tiny second floor bar/club/lounge. We climbed the rickety steps and sat down at a table next to the dance floor. The dance floor stood in the center of the place. About 10 tables and couches flanked the front and left side. The bar was on the right. The spot was so smoky I couldn’t open my eyes without crying, like I was trapped in a room full of onion choppers. I lit up a cigarette.

           

            The lights were bright. On the stage were two 20-something guys in traditional Tibetan dress singing folk songs. Some people sang along halfheartedly. Generally, people just walked across the stage to and from the bar without regard. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the music cut, the (presumably) Tibetan guys vacated, and intense thumping base started emanating from all corners of the club. The strobes hit “bad news for an epileptic, and incredibly annoying for anyone” level. The first song: a bassed-out bilingual version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by what sounded like a teenage Chinese girl. Boom Boom Boom. I looked around and realized the average age was probably 18 or 19. There were definitely some older people (my age, that is), but if you’re talking simple random sample, the crowd was probably on average post-’93. I felt like I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch: surrounded by darkness, loudness, suffocating stench, (this time smoke instead of Fierce cologne) and teenagers.     

            Chinese bars/clubs are weird. Weird in the sense that I’m used to American nightlife and Chinese bars/clubs aren’t like them. When travelling outside major urban centers, you are inevitably going to see some wacky shit.

           

            A few years ago, I went with some friends to Hangzhou, a short train ride from Shanghai. After some sightseeing we went to a club (glorified bar) downtown. Upon entrance we were rushed to a table and given a bunch of free drink cards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Yunnan. I won’t say it happened a lot in Shanghai, but I won’t say it didn’t happen a lot. We were three: an Italian girl, a Saudi guy, and myself.

           

            Anyways, you get free drinks, you get drunk. I was suitably inebriated by one or two a.m. when shit started to get out of hand. The bar started playing some hyper-paced, high-pitched English songs (sung by Chinese people of course). Happy Birthday was definitely among them. The strobe lights picked up. Five or six people dressed as giant animals appeared out of nowhere (a rabbit, a cow, a dog among others). They began dancing a meticulously choreographed program and pumping their fists/paws violently to the beat. Everyone in the crowd clapped along with unbridled passion. After a few moments they dispersed throughout the club, dancing their way between tables as the beat boom boomed and creeping the living shit out of no one except me. They ran back on stage and danced for another minute. When they finished, there was raucous applause. I wondered if I’d be allowed to go back to earth at that point. Immediately after they finished, the bar turned the lights on and everyone left. I took my thumb out of my mouth and opened my eyes.

           

            The bar in Shangri-La was not quite on this level of flat-out lunacy, but it was just different. You get used to a certain type of procedure. A club or bar looks like certain things. Dancing, for one (or at least what American college students like to believe is dancing). There wasn’t much of that going on. There was one guy who would come up behind people and hug them and wiggle around a little bit. He probably would have gotten bounced in the US, but everyone kind of just brushed him off as funny. But dancing, not really. It seemed like more of a place to hang out and chain smoke than an avenue for casual encounters. And that was okay.

           

            You get used to certain things. You get programmed. You see the weird in the different but not in the everyday. Last night, a bit further up the road from Shangri-La, we stayed in a mountainside hostel called “The Feeling of Youth.” Feeling of Youth lies many thousands of meters up in the air, bounded by whitecaps as far as the eye can see. It was cold. That high-altitude, thin cold that creeps under your jacket and goes directly to the bone. I had to use the bathroom. I walked downstairs. There were three options: Two squat toilets without doors and a pristine looking commode with a door that actually locked. I went for the commode, obviously. I sat down and my body went ice cold. I got up, opened the door, and went to the neighboring squat toilet. It felt right, even comfortable.

           

            Did I receive a divine message during my time in Shangri-La? No, because Shangri-La is a fake place. Did I find the pureblood Aryans? I don’t think so, but there was a blond-haired, blue-eyed European couple staying at the hostel. However, when I made the symbolic switch from the commode to the squat, something certainly happened within me, literally and figuratively. I think I realized that I’m beginning to de-exotify my situation here. What appears abnormal and strange is starting to become my everyday, not just in action, but in thought as well. I’m not abandoning my former, American self. I don’t want to do that, not ever. I like my American self. But, what I’m talking about isn’t voluntary. It’s just happening. At first, I had to get used to chopsticks, not showering for a week, brutal baijiu sessions, and drivers that round hairpin turns over 10,000 foot cliffs while smoking a cigarette and screaming into their cell phone. Now, it’s just life, I guess. Maybe it took a freezing cold toilet seat for me to put it all together. I came, I saw, I used a squat toilet on my own free will. That was my Shangri-La.

On helplessness

There are many moments in a man’s life when he feels purely helpless: a double flat tire on the highway during a blizzard, that moment when you look at the test and realized you spent the last 24 hours studying the wrong revolution, when the bouncer hears you call him a douchebag under your breath. However, there is unequivocally no instance that embodies the word helpless as thoroughly as this (Bear with me):

You’ve made a huge mistake. You ate the hot pot. That bubbling, boiling concoction of limit-pushing spice and heat is now pushing its limits in the pit of your stomach. You’re walking the streets like you’re in some sweaty, drug induced mind haze. Everyone looks evil. You’re like a scared, deranged dog, head to the sky, twitching aimlessly. You want to ask for help, but you fear, that anyone you talk to might figure you out. Figure what out? You have nothing to hide. You’re deep within the bowels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is but a mere far flung illusion. Love and safety are figments of the weak. This moment is pure physiological anguish. It’s you against the hot pot.

You sink deeper into your despair and then you see it. A tiny shack with the handwritten “公厕” on it. Public toilet. The old woman at the entrance wants half a Yuan for admission. You only have a five. She takes precious time to make change. 10 seconds, 15 seconds. Every moment of hate you have experienced in your life projects onto her. She is all the world’s villainy anthropomorphized. She gives you the change. Onward, you inch forward to your dark, dank sanctuary, careful not to disrupt the powers that be, threatening your insides. You squat. You’ve made it. Eden. The promised land. Like a young knight on a mythological quest, you vanquished the hot pot and you conquered that 65 year old devil at the door. You’ve won. Hi, hater you murmur in her direction.

But then, you look left. You look right. You look up and down, in and out. “OH FUCK.” Your victory turns to pure and utter destitution. Paralysis. Hopelessness that not even Barack Obama can solve. You’re like Thomas Dewey holding the paper that reads, “Dewey defeats Truman,” as you watch Truman give his inaugural address. Then you think, if only you were Thomas Dewey holding that paper, any paper. All the electoral defeat and misery would be worth it to be holding that paper. Any form of parchment, even the Gutenburg Bible would do. Nothing is sacred in this moment. But you haven’t got it. There isn’t a piece of toilet paper as far as the eye can see. You’re categorically shit out of luck. You scramble. Your neurons fire at unprecedented speeds. Your knees can’t hang in their much longer. What can I do, something anything. Your latent belief in God resurfaces. You pray. Any God will do. Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster… does Pat Robertson count? The light flickers. You’re in a room with four walls, no door, and one abominable chasm beneath you.

Alas. What’s that on your feet? Yes, the most dispensable item of clothing: the sock. But you have so few. This one’s argyle. JCrew. Not even clearance. High quality. You’ll have to go foot to shoe, direct. It doesn’t matter. It’s the sock’s unlucky day. You acrobatically dislodge it without making any potentially life-threatening foot to ground contact. It’s a bittersweet farewell.

As you pass the smiling woman at the door, who no doubt is wearing two socks, your silent acrimony comes back. She hands you a small packet and says: “Hey, you forgot to take your paper.”

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.