SHANGHAI, China- I love my wife but I don’t want to watch her take a crap. This, apparently, is not a shared sentiment in China. My family and I walked into a hotel room in the outskirts of Shanghai to discover that the bathroom walls were completely constructed transparent glass. The shower, sink, and, yes, toilet were simply encased in a glass partition in a corner of the room — in a showcase for the entertainment of everyone else in the room.
This previously forgotten fact about Chinese culture and customs came flooding back to me: using the toilet here is not as private of a practice as it is in the West. I welcomed my wife to the Middle Kingdom, and we tried to work out an appropriate bathroom usage strategy. “At first I thought it was sexy, as you could watch your partner shower,” my wife began, “but then you had to mention the toilet and now I think it’s just gross.”
The privacy level inherent to doing your toilet is a major cultural difference between Asia and the West, but I feel as if it is very deeply routed in two separate survival strategies. When you’re going to the bathroom you’re vulnerable — you’re off your guard, occupied with another process, and can easily be eaten by an animal or attacked by another human. In the West we use the “hide in absolute privacy” method, in the East they use the “safety in numbers” method.
It has always been amazing to me how much of a social practice defecating is in Asia. It is common in China for bathroom stalls to not have any doors and only a waist high divider (if that). The people use these stalls in plain view — they read the newspaper, talk on cellphones, and even have conversations with each other while doing their daily deed. In India, I’ve always been amazed at watching virtually entire communities of men pooping side by side next to the railroad tracks — hanging out, shooting the shit if you will.
It’s an interesting experience using the toilet and being able to hang out with your family at the same time. Across the hall from my hotel room, a 20 something Chinese guy and his mother were checking in. I peered in and saw the same glass walled bathroom. How was that going to work? I imagined how awfully awkward I would feel using the toilet within a glass case in front of my mother — or mother in law, or anybody for that matter.
“Turn around and stay turned around until I say to look again,” my wife ordered as she entered the glass case.
Of all the qualities that Chinese culture possesses, modesty is not one of them.