The scat award goes to: the public toilets of China

In Arts & Life, Editorial /

By Philippe Devos

I’ve pinched a loaf in Luxembourg. I’ve laid cable in Hong Kong and I’ve delivered an anal baby in Bankok. When backpack travellers talk of forays off the beaten path, the conversation always turns scatalogical. I’ve taken a shit in every province of Canada and in more than 15 other countries on three continents. I know toilets. I can trace my six-month trek through East Asia by the toilets I used and my cote for the simultaneously filthiest, most hygienic and most intimate toilets in the world goes to public toilets in China.

Public toilets, when they exist in China, are most often semi-sheltered concrete bunkers with a row for men and row for women. Each side is completely undistinguishable from the other except for the Chinese character for man and woman denoting each. There are no urinals on the men’s side, just a long row of slits with footprints on either side and metre high concrete wall separating each. There’s no door and no paper provided. Once in a while a farmer comes to clean out the deposits to fertilize his field, in theory at least. In reality, every toilet I ever used over five weeks of backpacking through rural southwestern China assaulted the senses with evidence the farmer was overdue for his collection. In one, a rate was floating belly up in the overflowing pile. Another toilet bunker was so overladen that patrons would no longer dare to enter and just shit near the building, creating a fading circle of feces.

As disgusting as this sounds, toilets in China are always more hygienic than toilets here because you don’t have to touch a thing. There’s no piss-splattered seat to sit on, no germ-encrusted handle to touch and no toilet-paper-of-suspect-cleanliness to wad into a ball. To use a Chinese toilet simply tug your pants to your knees, squat deftly and push. When you’re done, pull the toilet paper from your backpack to finish the job. But once you master the mechanics of the Chinese toilet, you have to get used to the intimacy of it.

The good toilets have twenty or more slots where anonymity comes form being lost in a crowd when you squat in full view of 20 or more strangers. The bad toilets have two stalls, where you squat right next to a total stranger, knees only inches apart. As a result, I know several Chinese men more intimately than I know my own girlfriend. A six-foot-plus tall, pale blond guy squatting in a line of dark haired Chinese men attracts more attention than usual. People would sometimes gather to watch the Canadian. A newspaper helped provide some coverage but there always comes a point where you need one hand free.

To get over the fear of literally shitting in public, I recommend a good bout of dysentery. I had dysentery-induced diarrhea three times on my trip and nothing helps you get over the fear of shitting in public like the fear you might shit your pants. So, to anyone planning to visit China on a budget, I recommend strong calf muscles, a big newspaper and the firm resolve to boldly go like you’ve never gone before.

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