Culture shock is at its most virulent when faced with an incomprehensible toilet. Little strikes fear into the heart of an otherwise intrepid traveler quite like a disgusting bathroom, or worse a toilet they have to guess how to use. Europe’s greatest contribution to world culture has been the flush toilet. Forget art, culture, and philosophy, for my money it’s the flusher. It is no wonder people of European extraction usually look askance at some of the plumbing they encounter around the world. I’m sure many of you have heard of the infamous bathrooms in China, with no stalls, where patrons can drop a deuce in convivial companionship. Perhaps the most stomach-churning illustration of how Chinese culture is more communal than Western culture. It would be an unusually indomitable—or desperate—foreigner who chose to avail himself of these facilities. Beyond this sphincter-puckering extreme, Asia offers a diaspora of toilet adventures for the traveler.
My first journey to Asia was a study-travel trip to Taiwan when I was nineteen years old. Taiwan was my first major trip, independent of my parents, and my first trip abroad. I was a naïve and excited prairie boy ready for new adventures, looking forward to trying every new or strange thing I found. All of that enthusiasm came to a stuttering halt the first time I came face-to-porcelain with a Taiwanese toilet.
On that fateful day I was wandering around Kaohsiung with the wife of our classes’ local guide. She couldn’t speak English; and, I couldn’t speak Chinese. As we poked around the city I began to feel the call of nature. I tried to communicate my predicament to Ms. Lee. I assumed it would be easy. I didn’t have verbal language, but I had body language. So, I shook her shoulder to grab her attention, and then proceeded to, in my humble opinion, clearly and distinctly mime the characteristics of a man in urinary distress. I grabbed my crotch, started moving my hips back and forth, while groaning.
Things went off the rails right from the start.
Apparently my pee-pee dance might also be interpreted as the libidinous thrashing and moaning of a horny teenager. When I perceived, from Ms. Lee’s aghast expression, that nonverbal communication had some intricacies that I needed to work on, I quickly stopped thrusting my pelvis in her general direction and unhanded my junk. I was able to reassure her and make her understand that a toilet would be a delight.
Having cleared up any miscommunication, Ms. Lee took me to a local bookstore and directed me to the washroom in the corner of the store. Giving her many thumbs-ups and happy smiles, I trotted off. But, when I opened the bathroom door my smile dropped into my socks as the downside of international travel was graphically revealed to me.
There was no toilet in the bathroom.
There was only this thing set into the tile floor. I didn’t know what it was. It was kind of a long porcelain basin with a hood at one end. My reaction was, “What the fuuuck!” I circled the offending apparatus, leaning down to examine it more closely from all possible angles. I quickly found that beneath the hood was a bowl of water with ports for flushing. That part looked rather like a toilet. Unfortunately, some unknown—and clearly sadistic—commercial designer with a weird sense of humor had decided not to attach a seat to this particular toilet.
Now remember, I was nineteen, excited to be in a foreign country, and eager to try all the new strange things that country had to offer. And this—this was strange. So I wanted to give it a shot.
Of course I had no idea what to do, but in my examination of the unit I noted that there seemed to be shoe prints on either side of the basin. So I placed my feet over those prints and looked down. There was no flash of inspiration or enlightenment. I had no idea how I might alleviate my growing intestinal crisis.
I decided to take it one step at a time. My first hurdle was deciding on the proper disposition of my pants. They were clearly in the way, and as I saw it, I had three options; I could lower them to just above knee level, pull them down to the ankles, or I could take them off—for safety. Since it wasn’t clear in my mind how my pants would escape this adventure unsullied if I kept them anywhere near my legs, I took them off and hung them on the door, along with my underwear.
The next problem was which direction to face. I wasn’t sure whether to have my anterior or posterior facing the toilet’s hooded cover. I decided that it made the most sense to have my butt facing the hood. (If you’re going to blow raspberries out your rear-end, you might need a backstop there to catch whatever is coming its way). So, I oriented myself bum-to-hood.
There I was standing naked from the waist down, in a bathroom, in a bookstore, in Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, surfing my first ever wave of culture shock. This was exciting stuff, high drama—the whole reason that I had decided to travel to Asia.
So I tried.
I grunted, groaned, strained, and squawked until my gizzard was bobbing up-and-down like a rooster swallowing a lemon. Nothing happened. Nothing came. I redoubled my efforts, really giving it everything I had, but still zilch. So I took a moment to regroup. That afternoon I learned that culture shock is not always easy to beat. I looked at the toilet and knew I was in a battle of wills; me against the porcelain beast, mano a toilet, and that no matter what happened one of us was going to leave the field of battle sullied.
I gave a final push, roared at the imaginary soldier in my bowels with a ferocity that would have made General Patton blush, and strained until the chords in my neck threatened to pop.
At the time, I didn’t know that this type of toilet was called a squat toilet, and that it behooved the user to squat over the basin. I had been trying to defecate while standing over the porcelain basin. Turns out that human’s don’t poop standing up, except of course at a kegger—a story for another time.
I thought to myself, “What a retarded toilet!”
But, not me—I’m smart. I analyzed the problem with the intellectual arrogance one would expect from a university sophomore and found a solution brilliant in its simplicity. I would sit on the toilet’s hood and aim the business end of my anatomy in the general direction of the toilet’s gaping maw. That didn’t work. It turns out that the surface of the toilet’s hood was neither comfortable, nor warm, enough to be conducive to a healthy bowel movement.
I gave up.
I bowed my head, put on my underwear, put on my pants, shuffled out of the washroom, and asked Ms. Lee to please, please find me a real toilet.
Culture shock 1: Darren 0.