Toilets in China
The Chinese toilet experience is one of contradictions – amusing to some, horrifying to others. For starters, the Chinese are credited with inventing toilet paper way back in 1391 CE, when the Bureau of Imperial Supplies began producing 720,000 sheets of 6.5 m X 10 m (2 ft X 3 ft) toilet paper a year for the emperor, but good luck finding a few squares in China when you need them today! And although the high-end toilet market is booming, with 5% of toilets purchased in 2010 costing between US$150 and US$6,000, you’ll still see plenty of Chinese infants relieving themselves freely on the ground through split pants designed exactly for this purpose.
So, you could say that the Chinese bathroom culture is in transition. The good news is that toilets in China’s major cities have improved dramatically in recent years, and your experience will likely be just fine. Big first- and second-tier cities are home to everything from glass-and-marble restrooms with fresh flowers and classical music playing in the background to grungy side-by-side squat toilets in public restrooms. In the countryside, don’t expect the picture to be rosy – some potty conditions can truly be appalling!
How can I locate public toilets?
Public toilets are more common in China than they are in the West, and places like airports, train stations, subway stations, hotels, shopping centers, chain restaurants like KFC or McDonalds, tourist attractions, and grocery stores are likely to have them as well. Feel free to walk confidently into these places and go right for the bathroom without having to buy something – most places are very permissive about non-customers using their facilities (there’s a bit of foreigner privilege at play, too). Wherever you are, the rooms will be marked with the Chinese characters女 (nǚ for female) or男 (nán for male). Learn to recognize these characters. If the location of the bathroom isn’t obvious, you can ask Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎli? (洗手间在哪里?) which means “Where’s the bathroom?” If you’d rather rely on English, say “toilet” instead of restroom, bathroom or washroom – it’s more likely to be understood.
Western-style toilets are becoming more and more common in public restrooms, and you’ll sometimes see just one or two in a row of squat toilets. Keep your eyes peeled for a sign or a picture on one of the stall doors with a picture of a Western toilet.
What is a squat toilet and how do I use it?
A squat toilet looks more or less like the photo on this page. Stand with your back to the wall and place your feet on the grooved areas. Squat over the hole and do your best to aim. Used toilet paper should always be placed in the small wastebasket to the side of the toilet to avoid backing up the plumbing and making an already-messy situation even worse. Squat toilets usually flush by pressing a button or by stepping on a foot pedal on the floor. That’s all there is to it, really – it can be an intimidating process at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Some public restrooms will have private stalls dividing the toilets, while others may have only waist-high dividers with no doors, or no partitions at all. Some toilets have splash guards to keep you and your pants from getting caught in the crossfire. Try to relax and take care of business as quickly as possible – eventually you’ll be as accustomed as the locals and expats, who shrug and count their blessings when they find a decently clean place to pee.
How can I survive my bathroom experience?
Want to squat with the best of them? Here are some tips for ensuring a smooth squatty potty experience.
Never go anywhere without toilet paper. The number-one tip is to always carry a small supply of toilet paper with you. A bottle of hand sanitizer can’t hurt either; you’ll hardly ever find soap in bathrooms here.
Know the rules of lining up. Unlike other Western countries, people tend to line up outside one specific stall rather than forming one big line and taking the next one that becomes available.
Hand off bags and purses to a friend before venturing in. There may not be hooks to hang a bag, and the floor might be covered in something you’d rather not carry around with you all day.
Ditto for phones and keys. It’s better to approach the squat with nothing in your pockets – at least nothing that you don’t want to fall down the black hole and never come back.
Roll up your pants. Public restrooms can be very wet. Sometimes because they’re frequently mopped, other times because they’re not.
Get in the Chinese mindset. To the Chinese, it’s Western-style toilets that are unsanitary, since everyone’s bare butt touches the same seat. Think of your squatting experience as a new trend in hygiene. Or, consider that some studies suggest that squatting to use the bathroom is healthier than sitting, because sitting constricts some of the muscles used for evacuation. It’s thought that sitting on the toilet is a factor in the higher rates of hernias, hemorrhoids, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in the West.
There’s no way I can use a squat toilet. What’s my alternative?
You can use the bathroom before you leave your hotel in the morning and try to plan the rest of your pit-stops at places where you know there’s likely to be a nice clean bathroom (think international hotels or upscale restaurants and shopping malls). If you have a tour guide, ask him or her to suggest good opportunities to use the restroom throughout the day – they’re usually very well-acquainted with the quality of the facilities in popular tourist areas.