Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 6:18 PM
This essay is by a university student named Eric Mu who spent last summer in the capital working at a book store.
The illustration is by the Beijing-based graphic designer Su Wei—click on the image to see the whole instruction manual for using a squat toilet in Beijing.
All rights reserved by both creators.
So this is Beijing, where the shiny futuristic-looking skyscrapers are many while the public toilets are few and far between.
Maybe you've had one glimpse or two of a real Beijing WC, somewhere down in a deep hutong: brick concrete structure, men one side, ladies the other, decorated with big or small Chinese characters indicating something political, or vulgar, sometimes both. There are also the posters on the wall giving you medical advice to treat certain kinds of diseases that you do not want others to know about; and the phone numbers of people who promise you counterfeited anything, from a college degree to residence permit. Most importantly, these Beijing WC are—as far as I know, with no exception—forbiddingly and intimidatingly smelly and disgusting.
The nearest one to the place I stayed this last summer was a typical Beijing WC. It was five minutes’ walk away from my place. Every morning, following my natural instinct, I went there. Even before my arrival, I knew it would be already occupied by some even earlier birds so I would have to wait outside for another few minutes to get my turn to release the pressure my eating of yesterday had caused me. Once I got a place, I tried my best to finish the work as soon as possible to avoid being suffocated by the strong smell.
I am afraid I cannot find the right words to describe the scientific design of the Beijing traditional WCs: When you are doing the business, you are squatting over a huge pit. Never look down, because if you do, you'll get dizzy as if you were looking down from a high cliff down to the sea, only the sea down there is not beautiful blue. From the sea level to where you are, the vertical distance can be as high as two metres.
More scary is when you come to the realization that nothing is going to protect you if you have a sudden loss of consciousness, say a stroke, at the critical moment. Even for a fit and healthy man, there is a chance of a slight careless move which may end up with a life-or-death struggle against being drowned in the ocean of human excrement below. One time when I was there, trembling in fear, agonized by toxic gas, I came up with questions that would not normally occur to me under any circumstance but this:
How many people have actually died in this way? Are there any statistics or records?
Apparently, I am not the only one sheltering this kind of unfavourable feeling towards the WC. One night, I was woken up by a suspicious sound of water coming out of a window near mine, the kind of sound which you readily associate with certain body functions. The sound explained the weird smells that came up to me every time I opened the window.
I am not sure if I am just over-sensitive, or if everyone else also went through an internal struggle before this uncivilised behaviour of pissing out of windows became an accepted norm. But when I did it, even though I knew almost everyone else did the same, there was a feeling that I became less human and more animal.
To make me feel less guilty, I did try to rationalize my motives: it is not me who does not want to go to a toilet like a civilized and educated Chinese citizen, it is just the toilet was so intolerably smelly and far away.
In the place where I worked, the bookstore, there was a small and clean toilet near the door. But there was also the warning that the facility had some malfunction, so the solid kind of human waste was not welcome. I doubted if there was really a problem, but I never asked. Don’t embarrass people even though you know it is a lie.
My boss always, a little boastfully, proudly preached to us that everyone should be treated equally, and in this book store, even “peasant workers” were welcome to sit down and read a book if they like. But I think maybe sometimes, they need a clean and well-lighted toilet more than, say a book written by Yu Dan or even written by Confucius himself. I doubt if books, especially the kind of books in this store (philosophy, sociology, history, stories written by someone who hated school and dropped out and made tons of money, anecdotes of some woman who was beautiful but died 50 years ago, etc.) will bring this group of people any substantial change. More than once, peasant workers came to the book store with anxious looks on their faces. After reading the warning, they were enormously disappointed, they vanished quickly.
At this point, I felt I should thank the KFC here for not only providing people with clean food but also clean WC. Despite the fact that I had never tried their food (sorry, no hard feelings, only a little bit too expensive for my humble income), I did enjoy their impeccably clean sanitation several times. Maybe they are not so generous to give you a free lunch, but even the free toilet is a great gesture, isn’t it?
* * *
Now it is months away from my Beijing days, I can reflect on my experience in a dispassionate way, and it is also my belief that whatever your experience is, good or bad, it can always be enriching in some way. So what did the Beijing experience teach me?
I guess it is the tolerance if not sympathy for the people living under harsher conditions.
* * *
Once, I came by a new type of movable toilet, bright green, on the side of a street. I was told that it was high tech and environmentally friendly new generation WC and it was part of the bid for 2008 Olympic Games and probably take over the old ones very soon. So let's hope for the best. As for the Olympic Games, if it can bring China higher sanitary standards, then at least it is good for one thing.
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