Anyone who complains about the cleanliness of an American public bathroom needs to spend a bit of time hanging out in China. I’m not saying that the facilities back at home are clean, I’m just pointing out that there are many shades of gray when it comes to filth. So many people abhor the general lack of cleanliness; they cannot handle the smells, the piles of misplaced garbage and the distance that Chinese place between themselves and responsibility for keeping public spaces clean. There is something about this grime that I find particularly attractive, a level of character that you don’t often see in the United States. The overall cleanliness within a society has such a direct tie to the experience that you have while traveling. This is especially true among westerners making their way through developing and recently developed nations. It is an ever-present sensation, the knowledge that the places you travel are (for the most part) anything but sanitary. If you value your self preservation, you will disregard the five second rule while eating in public places.
But back to the bathroom. I have a very sensitive stomach on a good day, and it seems that I have been living one extended bit of discomfort since I arrived nearly a month ago. I don’t believe that there has been a single day where I have not found myself doing an expedited search for a bathroom at least once. Go ahead, sit there in front of your computer screen and chuckle a little bit. I think everyone, on some level, can relate to that feeling, the knowledge that you really really need a bathroom and can’t find one. In China, public bathrooms are far more common a sight than in New York, but are almost always guaranteed to be a frightening experience. In some cases, I would go as far as saying mind-altering. I put much blame on the lighting. Florescent lights can make any room look dirtier.
I found myself in a bathroom this afternoon, shortly after drinking an espresso. This particular stall was at the end of a subway platform, and these tend to be some of the worst and most abused locations. Two thirds of the wall had been excrementified at some point in time, and the other third was still covered in hard evidence. Toilets in China do not seem to do a good job at flushing toilet paper, and many places provide a basket to toss the stuff once it is used. This tends to become a veritable pile in the corner, only adding to the atmosphere. Strangely enough, I almost never find anything that I could compare to graffiti. No crude remarks, no numbers that say ‘For a good time’. At most I see the occasional scribble, almost all of which are related to housing and searches for room-mates, a strange sort of bathroom classifieds. They are inevitably written at (squatting) eye level, indicative of multitasking. I’m always tempted to call one up. ‘Hey, I saw your add while I was on the toilet, is the room still available?’. Then again, perhaps it is a joke that I have yet to recognize.
And yet it does not seem to phase anyone. The filth is the anticipated norm, and, as such, it is not an issue. While there are any number of travelers who detest the Asian style squatting toilet, there are benefits to not touching a seat, the greatest of which being that you are not exposing yourself to the massive number of awesome bacteria that eagerly await your arrival. In fact, don’t touch anything. Not the walls, not the door handle, and certainly not the floor. Don’t even wash you hands in the bathroom, find some sanitizer and tote it along during trips. Believe me, it’s for your own good.