A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

Privacy is such a Western notion, or privilege maybe…

In the Western world, we take privacy for granted: a respectful space between the counter in the bank and the line of waiting customers; a discreet gap and hushed voices when talking to the receptionist in  the doctors’ surgery.  And of course closed bathroom doors..  it goes without saying.  Bodily functions belong in the realm of secrecy: we may not be able to suppress every tinkling and other unfortunate sound accompanying bathroom exploits, but at least there are no eye witnesses…  At least not in the ladies’…

In China, bathroom doors are clearly a recent addition.  Luckily,  living in the affluent Eastern city of Hangzhou, civilisation as I know it, is not too far behind.   Shopping malls and metro stations have cottoned on to the need for privacy and cubicles are neatly partitioned with doors.   Toilets are still mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and no handbag is complete without a generous stash of tissues, but a smattering of facilities now provide huge reels of toilet paper near the washbasins…  Sometimes there is even a soap dispenser!

However, the availability of doors does not mean that they are used and often women just  leave doors ajar or open and get on with their business in full view as if it is everyone else’s business.   Apparently, it is to do with cleanliness: opening and closing doors requires touching handles that may have been touched by hundreds of other people before you; sitting on a toilet seat involves a close encounter with a seat that has been sat upon by possibly hundreds of other people..  you get the drift.  Whereas the Western idea of cleanliness focuses on not spreading the germs we carry with us by cleansing us and all surfaces of those germs we incidentally pick up and leave behind,  the Chinese idea of cleanliness focuses on not touching anything that may be covered with germs in the first place, which is basically everything…

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During my travels to far flung Chinese destinations where Western practices and habits have not yet fully penetrated, toilet facilities have been much more primitive.  Of course, doors are completely missing and instead of individual squat or floor toilet pans, a mere gully divided by waist high walls provides opportunities for relieving oneself..  Sometimes even the little walls are missing,.   And flushing toilets??  Building the gully with a slant takes care of that problem…

I have been lucky in my school as the toilet block used by the teachers is pretty reasonable:  three individual toilets of the squat variety, complete with doors.  Not that I ever had a great need of using them, only turning up at school to deliver my lessons and then disappearing back to my flat.  But after my surgery, walking backwards and forwards between flat and school was going to be more problematic and longer days at school would necessitate making use of the bathroom facilities…  Not being able to bend my knee was going to add an interesting dimension to using a squat toilet…

Early inquiries about the existence of a Western toilet at the school, had been greeted with doubtful looks: no Western toilet that anyone was aware of.  But during my week’s absence, a disabled toilet had been discovered, tucked away on the ground floor near the Middle school.  Hooray… surely a disabled toilet would be a Western-style toilet; they certainly  were in the shopping malls.   And indeed, when I wobbled there on my crutches and found it, it was…

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but no way was I going to use it…

It would have been bad enough for a Chinese student to have to use it in full view, but can you imagine the stares I would have had as a foreign teacher…     One thing I could be sure of: cleanliness Chinese-style would be fully guaranteed.  This was one toilet seat that had not been touched by hundreds of others beforehand, and as it was not even linked to the plumbing system, had probably never been touched at all…

With a little bit of willpower, some ingenuity and the help of my crutches, I managed the squat toilets and just reduced the number of coffees I had..

5 thoughts on “A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

    1. lievelee Post author

      There is no way to accurately describe the utter disbelief when you first walk into that toilet block to find the disabled toilet… The only way you can get a measure of what I experienced was using a camera…

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  1. Iris Lee

    a somewhat indelicate subject handled with delicacy and humour. And I hope you are not drinking too much coffee!
    By the way how do you get on with tea grown in China? I thought it was awful and much preferred Ceylonese (? possibly expensive where you are).
    Iris

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    1. lievelee Post author

      Thank you… and yes, I don’t drink too much coffee when I am at school… i make up for it when I am in my apartment!

      As far as Chinese teas is concerned, I am a fan of Jasmine tea, so I do drink a lot of that. Plus I have a good selection of Indian teas which I bought a while ago. In the summer, I flew from the UK to Bangkok via Delhi so I managed to stock up on expensive, but delicious, Darjeeling tea…

      The problem with all this travelling is that you develop a liking for ‘exotic’ things… It will be a challenge to find all these items once I return to the UK for good…in a few (or more) years time…

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