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.
“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.
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.