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, [...]
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.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
April 16, 2012, 3:04 pm
Now this is high quality travel journalism 🙂
Hope you guys are well!
April 24, 2012, 1:47 am
Ha Ha ha! Great Post. I never get experience that type of bathroom. I want to do.
September 23, 2012, 9:12 pm
What doe see through bathroom walls a “Chinese” thing? The majority of hotels in China don’t have this novelty.
“It is common in China for bathroom stalls to not have any doors and only a waist high divider (if that)”
Really? I’ve been in China for 10 years and been to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th tier cities. It is very rare to find these said bathroom stalls in 1st and 2nd tier cities. And they exist in really poor areas of 3rd and 4th tier as well as places that are in boonies. Its true that the majority of “China” IS 3rd and 4th tier cities, but they are improving and renovating from things of old. If this article was written in 2002 and about 4th tier outskirts, I can understand, but in 2012?
As for the bathroom glass walls. I refer you to an article by the NY times headlined “Bathrooms That Are Part of the View.”
The article also mentioned the Sanderson Hotel in London designed by Philip Stark that left “nothing to the imagination.” Now if I read that article, should I assume that the people of Great Britain also like to shit for public view?
So how is open bathroom a China thing?
- September 23, 2012, 9:12 pm
September 24, 2012, 2:01 am
(After a flurry of typing, I read over what I wrote and realized I have went off tangent from the spirit of your article and do apologize from the rant below, I’m pretty sure you did not mean any negativity at China and your article was forwarded to me by an Chinese colleague irritated by the generalization.)
Now to what I wrote:
This article is a generalization of Chinese having no problem taking a dump with an audience. You also mentioned the mother and child scene and left it to infer it was ok for the Chinese mother/son to take a dump in view of each other (the Asian culture) and not so for you (the Western culture). How does that work you ask? They are probably as irked by it as you were and find ways to cover the glass walls. The glass wall bathroom is as much a novelty in China as it is in these upscale hotels in the article I mentioned. But you make it as if its normal. I’ve had my share of travelling to many different areas of China, the spectrum range from Wulumuqi to Hong Kong and have stayed in a fair share of hotels. Some good, some just.. terrible. I’ve encountered more “regular” walled bathrooms than glass wall ones. And the ones I’ve been to have blinds or curtains, inside the bathroom as well as outside. I’ve never seen one without any covers.
I did not say I have never seen the half partition squat style toilets in China. When I first came here and went into the “lao jiu fang” (Old house) community’s public bathroom, I was kind of.. shocked.. But I don’t see them that often anymore. It is not common and are being replaced (if budget in that community allows). (I still go use a public bathroom in a lao jiu fang community as I go learn taichi there. Nope.. no waist level divider).
I will note that I don’t travel to far off places often and my main place of residence is Shanghai (sometimes Beijing), and the people I socialize are mainly in those cities, I don’t see these toilets much in these cities and despite the number of people (and bathrooms) in these cities they are just a sampling of China as a whole.
I’m sure you can point out all those waist-level divider bathrooms, and I can point out the “modern” bathrooms outnumber the ones you are talking about. But your articles makes it as if that is the norm and some (or many) of your readers who never been to China won’t know the difference.
Same goes with the cultural difference of taking a dump. The majority of 35-40 year olds (my generation) and younger will find that type of bathroom you described quite disgusting (from my colleague, “We like to shit the same way Americans do, privately”). I can’t speak of the older generation as I don’t socialize with them as much. I know b/c I was shocked when I saw those first hand I asked my local colleague and friends about it. Yes… I was one of those snooty foreigners that would often make comparison between US and China’s way of life when I first came here. Again, my information are from the people I work with and the people I’ve interacted with so sampling may have some bias. Your article says of the social practice of defecating in China (and the examples and theories your provided) represents All Chinese.
My point is not to argue about the specs of a bathroom, but rather the generalization you make to a country’s mindset as a whole in a country where its mindset, despite progressing like molasses in many many areas, are making strides in others, especially considering the condition they began from the Communist regime. I do agree that, despite the face time that big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guanzhou gets, most of China still has long ways to go. And sometimes for your readers, these generalization are all they go by. Kind of like basing the history of Pearl Harbor from Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsdale.
“Come on… chill,.. it is just an amusing piece about toilets… really, why so serious?”
Perhaps I’m just a bit sensitive given the recent reaction in the Muslim world about the video or the anti-Japan sentiments in China, but it’s these over-generalized article that builds up resentment from the subject matter’s locals that read it and get agitated by it. By no means is this article in any league with that of the Muslim video, as this article gets more of a chuckle and a “head shake” by me and my Chinese colleague. But I’ve had the same colleague asking me “why you Americans always make general assumptions about us. Like your movies always portray us as farmers in rice patties.” In my mind, I’m like “you guys do it too.” But putting finger pointing aside, I’m an expat that is based here and what we write about overseas affects the people that live in said overseas. It creates resentment, which adds up, and its the expat here that gets the brunt of it.
Take the recent lashing out of all things Japan in China in the past two weeks. China is not a good place for a Japanese to be (nor are Japanese cars and shops) right now. Our company had three of our Japanese-made cars keyed with the words “Chinese Traitors”. I talk among the locals here and I made a comment that what the Chinese do to the Japanese here in China affect the Chinese living in Japan and same goes with however you treat foreigners (Americans for example) here in China is the same way the Chinese Americans are going to be treated in the States.
Again, some may say… “why so serious?” But usually they are the ones in their safe environment. Tell that to any American living in Pakistan or Libya or a Japanese (specifically my colleague) living in Shandong Linyi. They are not exactly parading with national pride right now.
I apologize as this was the place where I ranted and I sincerely doubt the writer had any negative intention and treated this piece as just a fun fun piece. ( I have not seen other articles written by the writer).
April 7, 2015, 1:17 am
My bathroom in Nanjing had transparent glass walls. My bathroom in Hangzhou had wooden walls but a curtain for a door so whoever you’re with can hear EVERYTHING. In my bathroom in Shanghai, the shower and toilet were behind a wall, but there was no door separating the little alcove…It drives me CRAZY. I have to ask people to stand in the hallway to use the toilet or think of excuses to go to the lobby and use the public restroom there.
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