But isn't that a quirky Australian film, probably seen by few people overseas?
Indeed it is, but the topic of the film is relevant - toilets, portaloos, poo, human waste. It’s a topic we all have experience of, but which is rarely discussed in polite circles – until you’re travelling!
If you haven't seen the film, try to find it, if you can't find it, there are some good clips here. It's a delightful mockumentary, full of Aussie slang and home grown philosophy. (More here)
When you're away from home, toilets, the lack of them, the cost, their state of cleanliness, the pong factor, whether you could find one "in time", whether you need to take your own paper or not, often seems to steer the conversation. In a sense, it's a bit of a bonding experience, something we have in common. Tall tales are told, some real, some embellished - though often there's no need for wild embellishments!
Squatties are common throughout much of the world, but sometimes it seems as if people from the west are affronted by anything other than a white porcelain structure, sanitised to within an inch of its life which has preferably never been used by another person. Not a positive note to begin a working trip to a lesser known school, in a city in China, well off the tourist beat!
But first Shanghai, where I was confronted with a loo where complexity ruled, and which needed skill and understanding way beyond what I've acquired.
One thing which hadn't been mentioned in our introductory classes preparing us for teaching in China, was the fact that communal toilets are apparently all the go in Chinese schools. Extremely basic, half swing doors, like in an old western cowboy movie, provided some semblance of privacy between the "business area" and the outer corridor.
I was taken aback on the first day of teaching to have teacher-students come up to me during the lesson, show me a wad of paper or tissues, and in one case a sanitary napkin, and ask if they could be excused. After a couple of instances of this and me thinking "whoa guys, waaaaaay too much information!!" I gently, and politely but firmly, reminded them that we're adults here, and if you need to go, just discretely get up and leave the room; if you want, make eye contact with me, but there's no need to ask! The same with phone calls - if you need to take or make a call, just get up and go outside - no problems! Really, it's fine!
But back to the communal nature of the toilets. Staff and students don't have separate toilet areas - on its own I can't see the possibility of sharing the area with students gaining traction in Australia. My teachers were genuinely surprised that we don't share and I wondered how many foreign students have innocently made their way into staff toilet areas to be greeted with icy stares or rude comments. That's something we definitely need to let international students know in their Intro to Aussie Customs lectures!
The other aspect is that communal also equates to no doors. There were small dividing walls and .... oh hang it all, it's too hard to describe - I'll show you a picture.
Then the naughty part in me kicks in and thinks it'd be good for the pretentious, arrogant, self important, condescending, sneering, smugly entitled Aussie pollies and the people who pull their strings, to have the daily experience of this kind of communality. It'd be a healthy reality check for them, and a reminder that they're no different to everyone else; the poor, the unemployed, youth, disadvantaged, asylum seekers or others they vilify and treat with contempt.
Someone said to me "Why do they use squat toilets?" and apart from a vague - "That's just the way it is here and it's probably better for us", I really had no good answer. I've read a bit since I got home and they are accepted as being much healthier for us (there's lots of information here) and it'd be crazy to change what works ... except for the actual sewerage system which struggles and gets pretty pongy at times.
Some useful information: BYO paper, and never, never, never put the paper in the system, whether it's a basic squat toilet, one with auto flush or a sit one in a hotel. There's a bin there and it's for the paper. Yes, the used paper. Maybe in posh international hotels and slick businesses in the major cities it's ok, but elsewhere don't, just don't. There's nothing quite like needing to call housekeeping and tell them you need someone to come and unclog the toilet, and then getting a kind, but firm lecture from the janitor explaining (completely in Chinese, but you magically understand every word) exactly what to do with the paper, and that it doesn't ever, (have you got this?) not ever go in the toilet. It's like they're explaining to an extremely thick, dreadfully slow child - or just a dim-witted foreigner. As they say, When in Rome ...
Old habits die hard though, and it's difficult to remember ... What's the number of housekeeping again?
Slippery tiles, freshly mopped and damp, are one of the other challenges. Shiny wet tiles are scarily slick and treacherous - an accident waiting to happen. It's definitely the time for careful steps, and extreme caution no matter how desperate you are!
And how do you know you're home again? When you go to the toilets at Tulla (aka Melbourne Airport) and see this:
You don't stand on the seat to squat and the paper goes in the toilet! Hooray! I'm home!
My previous posts about Teaching in China were our Arrival, Banquets, Culture and Comfort foods, Driving, Exercise, Fabulous Food and History, Illness, and From Jerilderie to Jiangsu! The next one will be - The problem with Lists!