Welcome to Culture Shock! The new series that named itself. Join us as we learn, grow and share all about new found social/cultural behaviours and expectations through our world exploration. These are our thoughts, observations and lessons on respecting and behaving in a foreign culture that may just leave you laughing and crying at the same time.
For those of you who have not yet experienced the shear adventure brought to you by ‘the squat toilet,’ allow me to paint the picture for you.
I entered a restroom stall outside a temple in Lukang, Taiwan and in that moment, much to my horror, I was slapped with a very dark reality. Western style toilets were a thing of the past with my homeland, Canada, now at the other end of the world. While I had managed to avoid encounters with a ‘squat toilet’ throughout my first week in Asia, mainly Hong Kong, it was now time to accept the unavoidable truth. Long gone were the days I had sat comfortably in the middle of the night after staggering all clumsy and groggy to my porcelain throne. Going forward I would be expected to bend my knees and hover over a hole in the ground.
Where Are Squat Toilets Found In The World?
Those of us from Central and Northern Europe, North America and Australia would not see one of these systems back home. Squat toilets are commonly found in the Middle East, Asia and Africa with occasional appearances in Romania, Southern France and Latin America (although I never once encountered one of these in the 6 months I spent in Guatemala). They can be made of stainless steel, fiberglass, ceramic but in developing countries you can find them made of plastic, concrete and paint or linoleum treated wood.
Don’t forget to ALWAYS have your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer on hand when travelling in developing countries. I can’t stress this enough. Bathroom challenges can also be made worse while your digestive system adjusts to eating foreign foods and this will likely increase the amount of toilet paper you will require on a given day. Many of the restrooms you will encounter will not provide paper or a handwashing station. Even if there is running water to rinse your hands it is unlikely they will have soap.
Acquiring The Right Technique
To say they take some getting used to is a bit of an understatement. As a woman I think this system is particularly challenging being that we are often carrying purses so the question becomes, how to I hold my belongings while strategically hovering my butt over the ground. For those of us with strong quads and effective problem solving skills we overcome these challenges with relative ease. Although I will say that mastering this feat while wearing not one but TWO enormously heavy backpacks should earn all backpackers like myself a prestigious award (we will accept preferably plaques or medals made of 14 karat gold.) Thanks to my squat toilet training I am now able to kick with the strength of a Clydesdale.
In developing countries the quality of plumbing is very low so you will be unable to flush toilet paper down the toilet. You must instead dispose of the paper in a waste basket that will be located next to the toilet.
The Comforts Of Home
Throughout our time in Asia we have found that larger cities like Taipei in Taiwan or regions with a heavy western influence like Hong Kong for example, one will occasionally encounter a restroom with a sit-down toilet. Rest assured that on this day the clouds will part, the sky will burst with sunshine and double, possibly even triple rainbows will appear out of nowhere. These moments remind you how it is the little things in life that matter, like having the ability to comfortably read a magazine while you do your business. Nothing and I mean NOTHING feels more rewarding that walking into a hostel in Asia to learn that you will have access to a clean, sit-down toilet. Suddenly it is Christmas morning and you just unwrapped the present that you begged Santa to bring you. As a world nomad, there is no greater gift than the comforts of home.
When I first arrived in Asia my reaction was to pity the unlucky individuals who had yet to encounter the more ‘superior’ western sit-down toilet technology. “If only these poor squatters had the opportunity to sit down!” I thought to myself. I have since grown a little wiser in my travels having learned a valuable lesson from a train station toilet seat.
When I first encountered restrooms in China that provided users access to BOTH style toilets I naturally gravitated toward my preference (the sit-down model), while noticing that most women preferred the stalls with squat toilets. Then, upon entering my own stall, I was quite shocked to discover the presence of very distinct shoe-prints on toilet seat from the previous user who must have REALLY hated the idea of sitting while going to the bathroom. I immediately thought back to all the times I sat on a toilet seat that may or may not have been previously mounted by a squat toilet fan. Yikes!
A valuable lesson learned: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. No, I am not suggesting you stand on a toilet seat! But when you are travelling you must recognize that many regular elements of daily life within the new culture will not be as they were back home. Keep in mind that the new system you are faced with is in place for good reason, even if you don’t understand that reason. So, make sure you adapt your way of thinking and a word to the wise, if you are currently planning a trip through Asia you should start working on strengthening your quads ASAP!
~ An Extraordinary Story by April Beresford ~
Check out the first articles in the Culture Shock! series: