Tag Archives: asia

The Precarious Art of Squatting

squat toilets

Squat toilets (Kamakura, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan)

Every December, as the year comes to a close, I find myself contemplating various aspects of the miracle that is life. This month, I’ve retreated into the mind of an eight-year-old to ponder the following: Everybody pees, everybody poops.

As far as I know, there’s really no way to do either elegantly. Certainly not when you’re squatting over a hole. And definitely not when that hole is on a moving train.

I had the great misfortune of learning this the hard way at the age of three or four. It was during one of my first visits to Taipei, Taiwan, back in the days of martial law and a good 20 years before the realization of its streamlined Mass Rapid Transit system. My grandmother and I were riding the train. At one point I needed to pee.

When she slid open the door, we were deafened by the roar of the tracks rushing past beneath us. The toilet was essentially a small, closet-like space with a portion of the train floor cut away. Unlike long-distance Greyhound buses, this didn’t require a Hazmat suit to enter, but a safety harness would’ve been nice.

I like to imagine that, in addition to evading the train’s lurching attempts to fling us into its gaping maw and beneath its steel wheels, we had to battle a tornado of our own hair whipping into our eyes. However, I was too distracted by my short life flashing before my eyes when my grandma hoisted me over the hole to recall if that really happened. I somehow managed to answer nature’s call, but not before the experience scarred me with a lifelong aversion to walking over street grates, sewer grates, and covered manholes—a connection I only recently made as a result of writing this post.

When I returned to Taipei in the early 1990s, I was stunned and dismayed to encounter squat toilets in several posh department stores. Sure, they were made of gleaming porcelain and some had grooved foot rests, but I recoiled from them and the eye-watering odor that emanated from trashcans brimming with used toilet paper. I was flabbergasted that well-dressed women in high heels actually waited to use the squattie over the Western sittie.

As it turns out, squat toilets are purported to prevent a number of health problems (e.g., Crohn’s disease, colon cancer, hemorrhoids) and are still quite common in 21st-century Asia, even in “technologically advanced” countries such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Most women continue to choose squatties over sitties unless they’re older or disabled. Hong Kong, the world’s most expensive place to live, also has squatties sprinkled among its architecturally elaborate public restrooms (but some people make do by peeing into plastic baggies—see photo below). The squat toilet’s popularity may explain why, in certain authentic Chinese restaurants in the States, you’re likely to come across toilet seats soiled with muddy footprints as well as trashcans reeking of urine.


High-end mall restroom, Hong Kong | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/30, f4, ISO 500

Pee Break

Pee break, Hong Kong metro station | photo by Canderson

jiufen squat toilet

Squat toilet, Jiufen, Taiwan | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/10, f4, ISO 1000

“They’re cleaner,” I’ve been told. “You don’t touch anything.”

This isn’t entirely true, of course. You still have to touch the handle or string of the flusher (if you have a flusher; sometimes a bucket of water and ladle are all that are provided to rinse away your deposit) and the doorknob (if there is indeed a door). When you consider that public restrooms in Asia often don’t provide soap and most people think that moistening their fingers with water for a few seconds counts as adequate hand washing, physically engaging with a visually clean toilet seat is no less hygienic than using a squat toilet. Plus there’s the added indignity of splashing on your shoes and/or standing in a puddle of someone else’s failure to aim properly. At least when you squat over a seated toilet, your shoes and ankles are more or less safe, and you don’t have to worry too much about losing your belongings in the bowl.

Yet when you’re in Asia (or parts of Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East) for more than a week, there’s no point in complaining or holding out for a toilet with a seat. Just make sure you always have a packet of tissue paper with you (many businesses hand out tissue packs wrapped in their ads) and take your time. Not peeing down your leg or soaking your shoes takes some practice, as does not falling/slipping once you’re mid-stream.

The recommended position for using a squat toilet is to face the wall (as opposed to the door), straddle the hole, and then squat down fully until your torso can more or less rest on your thighs. If you’ve ever seen a toddler squat down to investigate something on the ground, this is that position. Plenty of people (usually men) in Asia assume this position when taking a smoke break, talking on the phone, or reading the paper.

Of course, certain factors will affect your ability to squat all the way down, thereby altering the efficacy and dryness of your squat toilet experience. Tight pants and limited range of motion in the hips/knees/ankles, for instance, will reduce the angle of your squat and the distance between your feet. In that scenario, it takes a bit more trial and error, and perhaps a firm grip on whatever stable object (bar, wall, exposed pipe) is available. You might even find that taking off your pants completely is the key to your success. (This is something I’ve never felt the need to do, but I’m intrigued by those who have. Assuming there’s no hook in the stall, as there often isn’t, do they tie the pant legs around their neck? And what if they’re wearing skinny jeans? There’s no way they can take those off without first removing their shoes. And what about all the stuff in their pockets?)

I personally prefer a higher squat, almost as if I were hovering over a Western toilet. Sure, my quadriceps have to work harder and I have to be more vigilant about my aim, but it keeps my rear end out of the backsplash zone and my nose farther away from the pungent trashcan. I also like rolling up my pant legs (they may accidentally soak up what’s already on the floor if you’re not careful) and making sure the contents of my bags/pockets are safely tucked away.

At one point during a recent trip to Hong Kong, I actually found myself welcoming the sight of a squattie. Was this a sign that I had finally arrived? Was I treating these bathroom sessions like mini-P90X workouts and therefore appreciating the challenge? Or was I simply tired of trying to turn around in cramped toilet stalls with my bag in tow? Hard to say, although I’ll admit this was only when urination was on the agenda. Taking a crap in a squat toilet can be pretty gnarly, especially if you’re in a hot, humid, unventilated cubicle. Sure, squatting might present the most efficient angle to evacuate your bowels, but good god—the smell! So intense! A bowlful of water apparently plays a much bigger role than facilitating flushing.

For those of you who’ve been to China or heard horror stories about Chinese toilets, you might like to know that squat toilets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tokyo—even in public park restrooms—are rarely squalid splatterfests. There’s often an attendant who frequently hoses down the facilities until they’re spotless. The downside is that a moist, humid environment is perfect for breeding mosquitoes, a real drag in general but especially for any exposed rump.

In stark contrast to the spare design of the squat toilet is the high-tech, multifunction unit commonly seen in Japan (one of my hosts in Korea had one in their home!). The popular Toto Washlet boasts a control panel with a host of buttons. Depending on the model, you might mask the sounds of your bodily functions with a prerecorded jingle or the sound of someone else peeing, spray your nether regions with warm water, blow them dry, or create a bidet. I highly recommend experimenting with all the buttons, except perhaps the one that has you dunking your behind in water. Why anyone would want to do this in a public toilet is beyond my comprehension.

fancy japanese toilets

High-tech toilet, Tokyo; multifunction toilet control panel

fancy japanese toilet panel

Multifunction toilet control panel

Incidentally, Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, was a real tease when it came to the porcelain commode. C and I pulled into the train station and were greeted by a party of Western toilets bearing a variety of flora. Was Taichung swimming in such a glut of toilets that they could afford to pay lavish tribute to Marcel Duchamp? I couldn’t help but be flushed with anticipation.

Well, as it turned out, art didn’t imitate life. The women’s restroom looked like it hadn’t changed much since it was built in the early 20th century (we visited in late 2011, mind you), but I couldn’t be too upset. I’m a big fan of historical preservation, and there was running water. Plus I hadn’t quite perfected my squatting technique yet. There were worse things than returning home with quads of steel.

taichung toilet art

Toilet art installation, Taichung train station | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/200, f6.3, ISO 200

taichung toilet art

Toilet art installation, Taichung train station | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/320, f9, ISO 800


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Five on Friday: Thinking of Japan

Enoshima island and Sagami Bay | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 17mm, 1/320 f5.6, ISO 100

Even before today’s devastating earthquake/tsunami, Japan and its people, places, and food have been on my mind a lot lately. Watching footage of the tsunami bulldozing its way across the island has been, for lack of a better description, truly humbling. Sending positive energy to Japan with a double dose of some of my favorite moments there.

Tokyo viewed from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak Tri-X 400

Shibuya street crossing | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak Tri-X 400

Outdoor food stall | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak 400 VC

Ramen | Canon 5D, 29mm, 1/80 f4, ISO 800

Three-person eatery in Golden Gai, Shinjuku | Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/40 f4, ISO 800

Woman heals herself with incense smoke, Senso-ji temple, Asakusa | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 40mm, 1/320 f6.3, ISO 100

Ashtray cleaner, Shibuya station | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 40mm, 1/250 f8, ISO 100

Wedding portrait at Meiji Jingu Shrine | Canon 5D, 27mm, 1/400 f5, ISO 400

Little Elvis Ryuta and the SRP, Red Cloth, Shinjuku | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 17mm, 1/25 f5.6, ISO 400

Digital Rebel XT

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Five on Friday: Taiwan Street Food

Candied tomatoes and plums | Canon 5D, 84mm, 1/60 f4.5, ISO 100

When traveling to Taiwan, it’s a good idea to pack a bottomless stomach—the volume of cheap, tempting street food you’ll encounter will require it. Essentially, any comestible that can be purchased and consumed without setting foot into a brick-and-mortar building can be called “street food.” Hot dogs, pretzels, tacos, and ice cream, for instance, reign in large parts of the U.S.; the selection of portable foodstuffs increases dramatically when you go to a county fair or carnival, although at this point said foodstuffs are now termed “fair food.”

Carts and open-air food stalls are everywhere in Taiwan, hawking steamed buns, pillowy filled cakes, shaved ice, bowls of slippery noodles, and grilled or deep-fried goodies that you eat from a stick or out of a waxed paper bag. No need to decipher a menu or exchange words with the vendor—you can see and smell exactly what’s being offered. Just point at what you want and indicate how many.

Japanese food stall, Taipei | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/50 f5.6, ISO 250

Of course, just because you can see the food doesn’t mean you’ll know what it is. The vast array of Taiwanese street food can be overwhelming, especially if you didn’t grow up eating the stuff, don’t know the language, or haven’t dissected a fetal pig in years (internal organs are everywhere). This is when an adventurous palate comes in handy.

Fresh kidneys and liver (for soup) | Canon 5D, 73mm, 1/80 f5.6, ISO 400

Night-market kebabs: cuttlefish, pigeon, tofu, gizzards, hearts, livers | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 400

Night markets offer the most street foods in one place. Stinky tofu is perennially popular, and lines snake around particularly pungent stalls. Other staples include runny oyster pancakes, pig’s blood cake (known in Western cultures as blood sausage) dusted with peanut powder, crispy scallion pancakes, fried duck tongues, sweet tofu pudding, grass jelly, and—my favorite—taro dough balls. The latter are squishy and chewy like tapioca balls, but denser. The Taiwanese have a word for this specific texture that I don’t believe exists in Mandarin: “cue cue.” These “cue cue” dough balls also come in yam, sweet potato, and black sesame varieties—they’re a real party in your mouth.

Now, if only some place in the Bay Area could fulfill my Taiwanese street food cravings….

Taro, yam, and sesame balls over shaved ice | Canon 5D, 60mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 800


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Subways, street markets, and stinky tofu: Taipei revisited

Festival of Lights (Year of the Ox) with Taipei 101 in the background | Canon 5D, 50mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 400

Two years ago today, C & I landed in Taipei, Taiwan. It was C’s second time out of the country and first time to Asia. I, on the other hand, had spent two miserable summers there as a teenager (you can read my journal entries from that tumultuous period here) and accumulated a handful of traumatic moments as a kid, but I’d soon discover that it was like I’d never been there before.

My last trip 15 years earlier was fraught with overprotective relatives, sexist uncles, and ravenous mosquitoes hellbent on turning me into the largest human welt ever. (The typhoon, earthquake, and power outages seemed mild in comparison.) The internet was still breastfeeding, and I had no idea travel guides existed (although I’ll hazard a guess that none about Taiwan existed at the time).

Basically, I was plopped into a foreign land with the speaking and comprehension skills of an eight-year-old, and my relatives treated me like one. I had no lifeline back to the States, except for occasional calls from my mom and letters from friends who were clever enough to xerox multiple copies of my address so that they didn’t have to try to recreate the squiggles and boxes themselves.

Nowadays, the idea of my parents footing the bill for a two-month trip abroad sounds awesome, but back then, I hated it. I was convinced that my parents were punishing me for being too independent and “Westernized.” I wanted nothing more than to spend the summer hanging out with my friends, going to shows, and not worrying about my belongings falling into the gaping maw of a squat toilet. If photography had been my friend back then, my sentence would’ve no doubt passed by more quickly. And perhaps I would’ve appreciated the whole situation from another level.

Unfortunately, I had few pleasant memories of Taiwan, and I was a little nervous about returning after all these years. As it turned out, all my trepidation evaporated the moment we checked into the Yomi Hotel and were not accosted by mosquitoes, flying cockroaches, or crass uncles sucking on unfiltered cigarettes. Instead, we were greeted by a comfy king-sized bed, a flat-screen TV, copious snacks, and a large, brightly lit bathroom with a Western toilet. Ahhh…freedom!

Although I had been completely disconnected from the city, I could tell that Taipei had changed a lot since 1994. The air quality, for one, had improved dramatically since the establishment of the MRT (metro/subway) in 1996. The MRT itself was clean and sleek, and featured signs in Chinese and English, making intracity travel a breeze. In fact, I was amazed by how tiny the city felt–at least compared to the sprawl that existed in my wholly unreliable memory.

Taipei MRT, reducing smog and traffic congestion since 1996 | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/30 f4.5, ISO 400

Other signs of modernization included quirky themed restaurants (such as Modern Toilet), recycling stations, tattoo/piercing parlors (in trendy Ximending), and Taipei 101 (erected in 2004 and the world’s tallest building until 2010). Even the teenagers, who were on the chaste, geeky side when I last visited, had updated their look, taking their cues from Toyko and Lady Gaga (the profusion of false eyelashes was particularly disturbing). They were, however, speaking the Taiwanese language again, unlike 15 years ago, when doing so was considered uncouth by anyone under the age of 35.

modern toilet

Modern Toilet restaurant (left), Ximending neighborhood | Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/40 f4, ISO 400

Recycling station | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/50 f8, ISO 200

Happily (if this is indeed the right adverb), some elements–such as the smell–were still the same. One thing that has stuck with me from an early age is Taipei’s smell, a swampy, putrid bouquet that brings to mind dead rats, sweaty socks, or garbage (some might say it’s a combination of the three). In fact, anytime, anywhere I pass by an aromatic sewer, I think of Taipei; I often even make an exclamation to that effect. In Taipei, you can encounter this smell anywhere, regardless of your proximity to a sewer or a garbage can. It’s especially pronounced at any of Taipei’s many night markets because they’re the setting for the country’s favorite snack: stinky tofu. This fermented delicacy and the aforementioned odor have one thing in common–can you guess what it is? We were too scarred by a bad batch of stinky tofu in the States to dare indulge in it again. Maybe next time.

Urban art and excess, Dihua Street | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/250 f8, ISO 100

Songshan Ci You Temple, near Raohe Street Night Market | Canon 5D, 67mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 500

Our week-long trip took in temples big and small, street markets galore, two vegetarian restaurants, several museums (historical and art), and a few natural areas. The National Palace Museum was much smaller than I remembered, but the tiny ships (complete with passengers) intricately carved from peach pits were no less amazing. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial sat on one edge of vast Liberty Square, which I didn’t recall at all but was the site of art installations, wushu training, carp ponds, reflexology gardens, and other delights. I took about 750 photos, while C took over 1,000. Here’s a brief post about the street food.

Oh, and we spent time with my some of my relatives. Aside from one uncle, they were a nice, hospitable bunch. It’s said that you can never go home again, but sometimes that’s a very good thing.

Open-air pedicure | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/200 f10, ISO 400

Open-air meat stall (with a ginormous tongue on the right) | Canon 5D, 32mm, 1/50 f6.3, ISO 200

National Palace Museum | Canon 5D, 28mm, 1/320 f8, ISO 100

Liberty Square at night | Canon 5D, 24mm, 13sec f10, ISO 100

Learning to pray. By Canderson

Dirty, nose-licking pomeranian. By Canderson


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Five on Friday: Meat-Free Hong Kong Dim Sum

Steamed vegetarian buns, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

Whenever I think of Hong Kong, I immediately start salivating like a Labrador that has spotted a clumsy toddler clutching a handful of Goldfish crackers. C & I only spent three days there in February 2009, but we managed to stuff ourselves with an exquisite selection of vegetarian dim sum, which is a rarity everywhere but in NYC and–oddly–Sydney, Australia.

It’s astounding to me that the Bay Area, with its healthy and demanding population of vegetarians and vegans, doesn’t have a single restaurant dedicated to meat-free dim sum. Certainly, places like Yank Sing (SF), Big Lantern (SF), and May Flower (2156 University Avenue, Berkeley–sticky rice with veggie chicken wrapped in lotus leaf!) have a good number of vegetarian items on their dim sum menu, but you either have to hunt for them among traditional dishes like chicken’s feet and beef tripe, double-check that they aren’t peppered with pork or dried shrimp “for flavor,” or hope that they retained their delicate texture after a stint in the freezer. Hey, if the Bay Area can support vegetarian restaurants specializing in Filipino cuisine, Southern comfort food, and sushi (Cha-Ya: 1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 762 Valencia Street, SF), there’s no reason it can’t have just one vegetarian dim sum parlor. Any enterprising restaurateurs or dim sum masters out there willing to take on this no-brainer?

Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (7th floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) was our first introduction to what Hong Kong has to offer. Located on the seventh floor of a building overlooking Victoria Harbour and its famous (albeit fog-enveloped) skyline, it featured several dozen freshly made dishes, among them pan-fried spinach and porcini mushroom buns; rice rolls filled with your choice of golden mushrooms and pumpkin or vegetarian abalone and shredded chicken; BBQ “pork” buns; eight treasure sweet rice pudding. Dishes made with egg white were obviously marked. We ordered eight dishes and hoovered up every last crumb, yet were able to waddle out of there with clear heads and invigorated bodies–look, ma! No dim sum hangover and no need to sprawl out under the table for a nap! Since we couldn’t bear the thought of not trying everything on the menu, we came back on our last day. It was a wonderful (but sad) end to our first Hong Kong visit.

Vegetable wontons in supreme soup, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

I can’t tell you much about dim sum culture, but I do know that the Cantonese term dim sum (or dian xin in Mandarin) literally means “little hearts,” referring to the bite-sized morsels served at dim sum. I’ve also heard the term yum cha (Cantonese for “eat tea”) bandied about in conjunction with dim sum. So we headed to Lock Cha Tea House in surreal Hong Kong Park (think Sea World sans dolphins, penguins, and orcas) to “eat tea.” The tea house doubles as a tea shop, or vice versa, and you select tea from a boggling menu. The tea is then prepared at your table with a multistep ceremony featuring several tea pots, cups, and bowls and a dextrous server. C got organic black tea; I got yellow tea. I wish I could tell you more, but the notes I took at the time were embarrassingly spare, no doubt because I’m not a tea connoisseur.

Tea ceremony, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

I can tell you that we ordered an array of dim sum that was tasty but less-refined than that of Kung Tak Lam, perhaps because they were mostly on the heavy, fried side. By the end of the meal, we were barely able to finish everything, but we soldiered on and did. The highlight was glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste in a heady jasmine tea broth. I loved them so much I tried recreating them at home on multiple occasions–but failed each time. This just means I’ll have to go back. I suppose there are worse things in life to do.

Vegan dim sum, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

Glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste in jasmine tea broth, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

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