So have I mentioned my fear of public restrooms? Well, it runs deep – very, very deep. Probably stemming from those early childhood memories where I am standing - no taller than the toilet, my mother by my side, plastering the entire piece of cold white porcelain with prodigious amounts of scratchy toilet paper. “Don't touch the seat! Don't let your legs touch the sides! Don't hold on to any part of the toilet!” Leaving one small child precariously balanced with arms and legs outstretched and trembling upon the edge of what I was convinced was a giant germ ridden throne of death. Enough to give anyone a deep and abiding complex complete with nightmares. I actually still have recurring dreams about white tiled public restrooms, complete with loathsome crud and an urgent need to relieve myself with nowhere else to go. Horrible.
In China, "western" toilets are not common. A western toilet is the kind where there is somewhere to sit, and though I don't like for myself or especially my children to sit on a public toilet - and like my mother, attempt to plaster it in paper - nothing compares to the experience of an Asian toilet, which is basically a porcelain, flushable (sometimes), hole in the floor. To use it you must squat over the toilet, balancing precariously and concentrate on several things at once; things like hitting the right spot, NOT hitting the wrong spot, like your shoes for instance. It would be immensely helpful if there were a handle of some sort to hold on to, but there were not. And most restrooms don't have toilet paper; you must carry around your own. If there IS toilet paper to be had, it is in a giant role on the wall when you come into the restroom, and you have to remember to get some before going in or you're stuck empty handed. Not good. Sometimes there are stalls with doors, sometimes stalls without doors, sometimes no stalls at all, just a big room with the toilets, and sometimes there is just a trough (yeah, you read that right, a trench with water running through it.) And just in case you think that all of this is totally barbaric and disgusting, the Chinese think that western toilets are revolting and filthy and will avoid them and wait in line to use the kind that they are used to. They think that western toilets are awful because your bum comes in contact with the surface, which is understandably presumed to be grungy and germ ridden. I admit that they have a point, with the Asian toilets someone comes in and just mops right over it and you (hope) you never make bodily contact with it in any case.
So back to us in China… there we were in the facilities at a Buddhist temple, and too late did it occur to me that Lily, my eight year old, might need instruction in the proper way to use a Chinese toilet. We were at the Lama Temple in Beijing, and we were told by our guide that this would be a better place to use the restroom before we went to lunch, it being relatively cleaner than a restaurant lavatory. (Um, the bathrooms are disgusting at the restaurant we are about to eat at? Not sure I like what that implies. However…)
So into the stalls we went; the silly Mama not giving any instruction, nor grabbing any toilet paper. And while I was busy and unable to do anything about it I hear Lily tell me she “is sitting on the ‘floor’ to go potty, isn't that cool?”
“You're what?! Seriously? You're sitting on the floor?!”
Small unsure voice from the next stall, “Uh...no?”
“Lily, tell me the truth, did you sit on the floor to go potty?”
“Yes....I'm sorry! I didn't know!”
“Okay, don't do anything else! Have you pulled up your pants yet?”
“Hold it! Stop! Do nothing else!” I shout.
I finish doing what I need to do as quickly as possible and rush to my child. She has indeed already gotten her clothes back up, which horrifies me further because now it probably won't make a bit of difference whether I attempt a cleanup with baby wipes or not. Then I spot her backpack on the floor, oy! Why it wasn’t soaked I will never know, but I’m grateful. I try my best to wash her down while she straddles the toilet, because there are now two of us in the small stall and nowhere else for her to go. Once she is as clean as is possible under the circumstances, and put back together, I point to the foot petal that is used to flush the toilet and Lily, for some unknown reason, thinks I am pointing to the toilet itself and puts her foot right down in the center of the thing. Arrrrgggg! NO NO NO! This isn't happening! She has now stepped in the worse possible spot imaginable for someone as germ phobic as I am. Fortunately, I had invested in waterproof hiking shoes for both of us before traveling and soon had her hopping to the bathroom sinks. So there we were, at a temple, me lifting my child to run her entire foot - shoe and all - under the tap. I certainly hope that this gave the laughing Buddha something to laugh about, because it certainly gave the other women in the restroom a giggle.
After taking a deep breath, the humor in the situation hit me, and when we met up with our guide Thomas outside, I told him what had happened. I didn’t expect him to be as horrified and uncomfortable as he obviously was, you could tell he didn’t want to hear about it. And was even more appalled that I thought it was funny.
So any moms planning travel to an Asian country should best consider some training. Practice your deep knee bends and squats, you'll need to get those muscles in shape, believe me! And instruct those young ones, this could happen to any of you! Be vigilant. Be prepared. Mothers have enough to worry about when it comes to their children without having to add the fear of tumbling into an Asian toilet to the list.