Squatting for Truth: Discovering China, One Toilet at a Time

By Kate Jonuska

The first time, there was a choice.

Two rows of stalls with squat toilets lined the walls of the airport bathroom, the doors labeled with the icon of a basin shape bracketed by shoe prints. Way at the far end, though, stood a lone stall displaying the icon of a “real” toilet. I should specify: a picture of a chair-shaped, tank-and-seat waste-disposal unit that is the Western toilet.

It’s a necessary distinction, because I was not in the West but the East. The airport was Beijing’s, the starting point of a journey to attend the marriage of an old friend to his Chinese fiancée.

I knew what a squat toilet was from the visitor guides I’d devoured prepping for the trip, which would take us far from Beijing and other common tourist cities into Western China and the bride’s home province of Xinjiang. We would be modern pilgrims in the land of the old Silk Road.

The concept of the Asian toilet is this: You squat above the bowl, which is set into the ground. This is thought of as cleaner, as your body never touches a surface, unlike the huge expanse of germy seat we Westerners prefer. The airport squats were shiny porcelain with a foot-operated flush pedal, very nonthreatening.

But my plane-aching knees and jetlagged brain rebelled. I sheepishly walked past them to the Western stall, feeling I was violating my goal to always deeply experience new countries — an entire new continent, in this case.

“I’ll try it while I’m here, at least once,” I thought as I sat, not caring about all those supposed germs on my tired bum. A lovely little thought of fragile naiveté, coming as it was surrounded by stocked toilet paper, warm-water sinks and high-powered, high-tech hand dryers on a cushy Western throne.

Once. Right.

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The Xinjiang region of China sits at its extreme northwest, sharing borders with eight countries: Russia, Mongolia, India, and the five “stans” of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajiki, Afghani and Paki.

We arrived first in Urumqi, the bride’s hometown and province capitol, which “has only 3 million people,” said our Urumqi guide. He did not mean the “only” ironically. The forces of geography and history blended many ethnic and religious groups in the area, and minority groups make up slightly more than 50 percent of the population.

Those minorities are mainly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, both Muslim, who have limited autonomous status in religion and government. Think Native-American-reservation autonomy — and the oft-related poverty.

In the days before the wedding, we began a tour of Xinjiang by flying to the city of Kashgar. The Kashgar province all together has “only 4 million people,” according to our Kashgar guide, a Uyghur himself.

Our long tour bus magically maneuvered tight turns as we climbed into the mountains, stopping for military checkpoints due to the proximity to the Pakistani border. We stopped at an Uygher village outdoor market with a footprint larger than our biggest Wal-Marts that was nonetheless stuck in time. This “store” sold its cheap electronics and kids’ shoes next to a man sharpening knives by turning a whetstone with a bike frame and pedals. The women carried empty jugs to fill with cooking oil from metal drums.

At 12,000 feet in elevation nestled misty and glass-smooth Karakuri Lake. We ate a meal of a dozen dishes at a restaurant on the lake’s rocky edge — a dozen freshly cooked dishes, when we hadn’t seen more than a few homes for hours.

One mountain-dwelling Uyghur family near the lake agreed to let this crazy group of foreigners into their home. Three generations lived in two rooms. In one of those rooms, they simultaneously cooked on a smoky stove and watched movies on a top-of-the-line portable DVD player. The old so comfortably rubbing shoulders with the new.

Outside, mountains hemmed in a vast meadow for grazing livestock. In the distance, two slender white buildings: the bathrooms. They were the family’s only bathrooms, also offered to travelers, and no one expected there to be a place to sit inside, where gusts of alpine wind blew through the wood-plank walls.

“Wait, which one is the men’s?” a friend whispered as we strode out into the field. He didn’t want to embarrass himself.

“The Chinese character that has two legs. Like pants,” I said. A lot of this guidebook bathroom advice proved more essential than I could ever have expected.

Obviously, my original choice became necessity. All Chinese have Western toilets at home, as do hotels, but public potties are for squatting. Therefore, the only choice in bathroom matters became: Can you hold it? Or not?

We were on a perfectly straight, obviously government-built highway on another side trip along our Silk Road tour, this time to Turpan, a smaller province with a population of “only about 250,000,” said the guide.

For miles, we’d driven through a field the size of a small country filled with towering wind turbines. They stretched from horizon to horizon, slowly spinning their massive, elegant blades. In their shadow stood a newly built visitors’ center with a bathroom, the first we’d seen in hours.

I made sure I had my Ziploc bag of toilet paper and bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse. That was a tip from my guidebook I’d thankfully followed, which turned out to be more of a staple than mere emergency insurance.

The bathroom, though, might have looked familiar to a centuries-past Silk Road trader, aside from the factory-perfect concrete block walls. There were no basins, but instead basin-shaped holes in the floor looking onto a very visible, disturbingly close pile of excrement. There were no doors and only half walls; you could see the heads of the squatting women above, and their toes and knees to the side. Obviously, there were no sinks or running water.

A friend from our group strode up casually, took the first “stall” and even chatted as she used it. “I’m from Korea, remember,” she explained. This friend was even five months pregnant, her feet starting to turn out slightly with the weight of belly. She squatted with her knees at the level of shoulders.

I took the next stall, showing America, too, could represent.

Many of the other ladies partook of my sanitizer that day, sending their praise to the guidebook gods.

Two of the ideas, at least those I was told, behind lack of sinks in bathrooms are the required plumbing and assumed inevitable misuse of water. If there is running water, there’s no soap, again due to assumed inevitable theft. And in almost all cases, there is no supplied toilet paper. What would stop the people from taking it?

I imagine stuffing my purse full of toilet paper, the idea so foreign to me. But of course, I’ve never experienced shortages. My bathroom cabinet at home held dozens of rolls of bulk-bought toilet paper. Here, I peed while holding the bag carrying my made-in-China iPad over my head,  a flag of privilege.

While I may have giggled at times about the toilets, but tried hard not to complain. The women as a group (for obvious biological reasons) depended more upon public facilities and together we created an informal rating system of toilets, sending in one person to scout its suitability to the others.

Odor, but relatively clean. Or: Warning, there are flies. Or: It’s full up, and not of people, if you know what I mean. One bathroom inexplicably had two motorcycles parked between rows of stalls. Some had small children as attendants demanding fees. Others were surgically clean. And then there are those that would have been completely unexceptional were it not for the lack of privacy.

As a rarely seen blonde woman in Xinjiang, I attracted stares everywhere. Where we traveled, we often didn’t see another foreigner for days on end. Random strangers wanted to take my picture on the street, and one waiter told me I was beautiful like a movie star. In toilet lines, young Chinese would try out their English out on me, while I mangled the phrase, “I am from America” in Chinese.

When the stalls were in open view, I was not just highly visible but often openly watched with curiosity. They stared as they squatted like pros, their heels stretched comfortably to the floor, while my tight calves kept me balancing on tiptoe. They watched boldly, meeting my eyes with smiles instead of shame.

The queuing Chinese women sometimes seemed disappointed that I peed just like everyone else, and in a tiny way, I felt I was disappointing them with my normalcy.

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In the city of Xining, a bustling metropolis of “only 2.2 million people,” I was shopping with two other women. Xining is metropolitan to the max with its own Apple Store and digital advertising billboards on every outdoor surface, and yet contained my most primitive experience.

“Just breathe through your mouth,” I was told by one friend, a 60-plus-old family friend of the groom. We stood in a long line inside a department-store bathroom, where we’d gone to see if clothes made in China were cheaper in China. (Nope.) “Don’t use your nose.”

In this expensive luxury department store, the air was positively thick with smell. Yet, a young woman in a smart suit and heels lingered by the foggy mirror, applying lipstick. Several doors were broken, their occupants clearly visible. A middle-aged woman at that moment squatting made eye contact with me. She was talking on a cell phone with her left hand, and without breaking eye contact or her conversation, she took a shit. I saw it fall.

For another friend on the journey, her worst experience was in a restaurant near the highway, a place built specifically for travelers. She emerged from the toilet irate, red-faced, demanding to see management — a most un-Chinese gesture.

I saw the bride’s shoulders rise. A bird of a woman with bones as lithe and delicate as her waist-long hair, she was nonetheless a person who knew and was proud of who she was and where she came from. She took complaints about her country like punches to her gut: very personally. I felt a similar punch as an outsider, watching the ugly stereotype of the loud, demanding foreigner perform center stage.

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Three weeks, eight in-country flights, thousands of kilometers by bus, five tour guides and a wedding later, the whirlwind tour ended in Tibet, and squat toilets were not even close to being among my most memorable experiences.

I rode a camel, haggled in Chinese at outdoor markets, covered my head to tour famous mosques, walked through ruins that witnessed the history of a 1,000 years past, and had protection against the evil eye lifted from my soul via a smudge of ash by a Tibetan monk. I saw a friend marry his true love. All these are soulful, rich and beautiful memories.

But still, my mind goes back to the bathroom. Through the lens of the squat toilet, it’s possible to witness small evidences of the larger truths and contradictions that compose the character of China: the friction between the ways of the past and the speed- and tech-fueled future; simultaneous disdain and fascination with that which is foreign; the crush of crowds of strangers and the open nature of one-on-one communication.

Granted, sometimes you have no choice but to be open-minded and brave, as I sometimes didn’t have the choice to sit rather than squat. But the women with whom I rubbed shoulders — young and old, rural and cosmopolitan — were not given a choice, either. What for me was an adventure is to millions of people — in a country where millions are negligible — everyday life.

Squeamishness, then, is nothing more than judgment painted on an entire people as if from on high. Whereas I believe that the best and deepest travel experiences begin when you squat down, get dirty and are willing to give a shit.