The Toilet: Always Room for Inter-Cultural Misinterpretation
September 11, 2007
The toilet. Everywhere in the world there are toilets of some kind. But the designs of which often differ slightly, and in these slight variations I have found that there is a lot of room for cultural misinterpretation.
As part of the acculturation process of nearly everyone on the planet, we are taught how to dispose of our personal waste. Whether we dump it in a “sit down” style western toilet, a “squatter” style Asian toilet, or in those bushes over there, we all learn a set ritual of defecation that is difficult to alter or change.
Typical toilet in Morocco.
Henceforth, I come to the Muslim toilet, which is a “squatter” style that has a very similar design to toilets in the far east. The idea is simple: you place your feet on the platform, squat down, and let ‘er rip. This seems very straight forward until you realize that there is neither toilet paper nor a basket to dispose of it. What do you do now? I just asked myself this question a couple of minutes ago.
Well, there are two options:
First, you can hold true to your western values, carry paper in with you, and wipe away in complete disregard for the fact that there is no place in the bathroom to dispose of the soiled paper. To drop it down the toilet hole would be completely blasphemous, as the plumbing systems of most countries in the world cannot handle paper waste- and nobody, I am sure, would want to return to find their hotel room flooded with backed up human excrement. So what do you do? Well, the only option that seems to be available would be to wipe, stand up, buttoned up, and then walk around with a handful of poopy paper until you happen to come upon a wastepaper basket. Sound appealing?
Second, you can suck it up and delve deep into the local culture and use the knee-high spigot that sticks out of the wall near the toilet as the water supply necessary to wipe with your bare hand. For obvious reasons, a westerner may find this option to be a little disturbing, but that is just the way that it is done in many corners of the world.
So take your pick. You have two options: walk around with a handful/ pocketful/bagful of used toilet paper or wipe your arse with your own bare hand.
But despair not, my western friends, as the North Africans and those as far east as China seem to have an equally complicated time with our western “sit-down” style toilet. Yes, from the evidence left upon the rear of toilet seats across Africa, Asia Minor, India, and the East, it seems as if many people utilize the western “sit-down” toilet as if it were a “squatter.” Perhaps those who were acculturated with the “squatter” toilet simply find it revolting to sit down with their naked rear ends making physical contact with the toilet? Whatever the case, from the evidence that is left behind it is apparent that, rather than sitting down, they stand upon the seat, squat down, and, often times, completely miss the big hole and defile the entire back area of the toilet. What else could be done? It is probably pretty scary hovering precariously over such a big, open, cess-pool.
I remember riding in a plane from India to London, that was predominantly full of Indians. As the flight went on I used the bathroom intermittently and was amused by what I observed. I noticed foot prints on the western style toilet seat and that the floors of the stalls were continuously becoming more and more flooded with water as the flight went on. By the time we arrived in London the bathrooms were overflowing with water. In point, it was obvious that the Indians on the plane either did not understand how, or, more likely, did not want to use a western toilet in accordance with its designed use. They were standing and squatting on the seat and then washing off with the water from the sink, and thereby splashing water onto a floor that had no drain.
By the end of the flight the bathroom water was seeping down the aisles of the plane, and I had to laugh as a group of Cockney London cleaners walked off their jobs because they refused to clean up the mess. “These people [the Indians] are fuckin‘ animals,” they yelled.
But I wonder how they would fare using the facilities in India? Would they not also degrade themselves to the station of ‘animals’ because of their unfamiliarity with the Indian bathroom procedure?
Cultural differences, confusions, and misinterpretations are for everybody. Fellow travellers, old habits die hard regardless of your culture. My only advice is to not be afraid or intimidated about the bathroom habits that are different from your own- just do what is comfortable for you. If you feel better carting around a supply of soiled paper, then, by all means, go for it. If you want to go with the flow and do things as the locals, then reach for the spigot and scrub your undercarriage like a champ. Being shocked, disturbed, and confused is all part of the travelling experience- so enjoy it.
What ever option you choose, just be sure to wash your hands afterwards . . . but this is a whole other story.