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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Squatty Potties

After spending eight days in the Middle Kingdom, what feels most foreign about this place isn’t the Mandarin, or the pigs’ feet served for dinner, or even the moral guidance signage lining the streets. Little did I expect that a task as mundane as going to the bathroom would pose the greatest challenge. The main feature of most restrooms here is the “squatting toilet,” which typically consists of a shallow channel in the floor that, due to the lack of a raised seat, requires you to squat as you relieve yourself. As simple as this task sounds, I found it awkward and embarrassing to perform, so instead I’d stand and lean forward with slightly bent knees. After several tries, this strategy developed into a source of security for managing the unfamiliarity of my surroundings.

Things took an unexpected turn on Day Two, when our group visited Xulin, a Buddhist temple nestled in the foothills of Kunming. During a break, I went to a bathroom and assumed the quarter-squat position. The next thing I knew, my precious Ray Bans, which had been hanging on the neckline of my shirt, disappeared down the toilet. They were gone for good. I started cursing but then laughed at myself, as it suddenly dawned on me that the squatting toilet itself was not the real reason I’d lost my sunglasses; it was my fear of squatting. Up to that point, I’d relied on my personal substitute for squatting that, unlike conventional squatting, involves bending over, which caused the glasses to fall. In this way, by lacking the nerve to step out of my comfort zone, I realized that I’d failed to fully engage myself in the cultural challenges that make the Bridge Year experience so unique. Although my peers found my accident hilarious (which it certainly was), deep down I also couldn’t help but feel frustrated by my inability to adapt.

A few days later, our group reached another Buddhist temple in the area, Shibaoshan, where we began including a “poop scale” into our daily health check-ins. Everyone was required to describe their bowel movements with reference to this scale, ranging from 1 to 7, with 4 being ideal. Naturally, this led to some awkward laughter during group meetings, but the scale came in handy when we had to get down to business on a squatting toilet for the first time. Several of us went on an excursion to the temple bathroom, where we made a joint effort to emotionally support each other through the process. I used my phone to play a bit of Chinese pop music, which infused the room with a warm energy as we sat in our stalls yelling out to each other: “Anyone else getting a 5.5?!” “I think I’m a four y’all!” “A four?! Great job!” Laughter echoed through the walls. Those who finished early left their stalls and high-fived each other. I was still in my stall when I realized that, to my utter surprise, my thighs were resting on the backs of my calves. This marked my first true attempt at the legendary squat position that I had resisted for so long. Unlike at the other temple, our festive group atmosphere fueled my motivation to tackle the challenge at hand while also adding a unique personal twist to my experience of local Chinese culture. By the time I return to the States, perhaps its western bathrooms will feel very foreign to me.