Sunday, October 23, 2011


To sit with your darling little girl eating sandwiches by a tree-lined canal as you hear two bigger girls laughing nearby is just lovely.
To sit eating sandwiches and then realise that those two bigger girls are laughing and defecating is … not all that lovely, really.
This was the scene my youngest and I were forced to digest recently. It was a horrendous day – on many levels, it eventuated. Beijing’s pollution was ugly thick, the heat and humidity uncomfortably sticky. With our eldest in school, I tried to make something of our youngest’s last day of holidays.
So I thought of the zoo, but with the great outdoors clearly a health risk, I chose its impressive aquarium. Before entering we chanced 15 minutes in the zoo’s quite nice gardens to partake of our homemade lunch.
When public toilets look like this you wonder
why some still prefer the great outdoors.
Before we get going, China has led the world in several things throughout its five millennia of civilisation, and I’m not just saying the coming charges of cultural insensitivity. Gunpowder’s great. You can blow up a lot of stuff with gunpowder. Paper? Wish I’d thought of it. Printing? What a great way to use paper. And the compass? Where we’d be without it would actually be impossible to tell.
Chopsticks, sweet and sour pork, a vast navy before anyone else had one, the list goes on. Great race, great achievements. And can they build a wall?
Bafflingly there were some days during those formative millennia when China skipped class. They were there for the lesson on washing hands. They’re obsessive-compulsive about that. If a child drops an item of food it is scornfully kicked and hissed away as if it were a tongue of flame from Satan.
You can’t walk into the house with shoes on. No bare feet touch a floor. So contemptuously are floors regarded that in my gym locker room, sports bags often take up every seat. I’m left to ask their owners that unless they plan on going home and licking the bottom of their bag, could I sit the heck down please?
Seeing men put their trousers on in the locker room is like watching brain surgery. So carefully, they perch on one foot, remove the other slipper and pull their pant leg up before again bringing the uncovered foot down to successfully dock with its slipper again. This was, apparently, how tai chi started. It also explains why qi gong masters like levitating.

* * *
Given this neurotic attention to cleanliness, is it not then reasonable to ask that people here might have a little bit of an issue with the big grandaddy of all things offputting, the go-to guy of gross substances - good old fashioned human faeces? As dumbfounding as it sounds, they don’t really.
Children in particular are allowed to back out their waste virtually anywhere, the prevailing view being that it’s only child-poo. But sometimes it’s clear an adult has not been bothered to go searching for a proper depository either. Sometimes when a public toilet – festy, steaming, sob-inducing things that they often are - has become too rancid for even the hardened locals, the all-too apparent option taken is to go round the back. As for number ones, there seem to be two major rules governing men and children urinating: 1. Anywhere. 2. Anytime.
Writer David Sedaris caught some backlash for spotlighting the public poop phenomenon after his first visit to China. But he wasn’t exaggerating. For I hear tell -- and this is no urban myth -- that if you took all the poos lying around in China, put them end to end, and then threw them into the air and let them hit the ground, it would cause a tsunami that would swamp North America. Fact.
Looking for rationalisation or coping mechanisms, you could say this is one of the things you have to live with to enjoy the more delightful things the Chinese culture has to offer. Even Jennifer Lopez would have morning breath. And every culture has bad bits. Australians gamble too much, and I say that as an Australian who loves gambling.
But why does this wart of China’s have to be so … icky?
Anyone will tell you the Chinese love spitting. I can live with that, so long as my daughters are nimble-footed. I can dodge white balls of goop in the pool. At least they’re white. I can shrug off the sound of a 55-year-old lady “hhwhhaaaarcking” up phlegm to spit into the poolside spill-over grate. The other night a man started spitting right beside where I was sitting. That might not have been so bad, except we were in the sauna at the time. I went to the showers and was met by the sight of another man enjoying - how shall we delicately say? -  a spot of self-pleasure, a menage-a-un, a one-in-a-shower sex romp.
All this I can contend with, along with other bits like people spitting their prawn shells onto a restaurant table or floor, clearing their nose onto the footpath like a footballer – block one nostril and blow. (The Chinese, by the way, think westerners are simply off for blowing into a handkerchief and putting it back into our pocket.)
But ah, gee, hard as I try, this poo issue is one I just can’t get my head around. I do find it hard to gloss over. As a wise man once said, you can’t polish a turd.
However you break it down it’s not just visually offputting, it’s unhygienic, potentially injurious to the health of the people you have to live amongst. A medical belief system based more on yin and yang than bacteria won’t spell that out.
And when you're used to public toilets
like this, privacy stops being an issue.
In my first stint in Beijing in the 1990s I remember, all too vividly, taking a walk through an authentic local neighborhood and seeing an authentic local grandmother taking an authentic dump on the footpath. That line from Ezekiel about the end of the world came back to me: “And people will start pooing in the streets”.
Still, in that place and time, people could make the excuse of a shortage of toilets. But not in 2011. For “my” 1990s Chinese President Jiang Zemin made increasing public toilets one of the key planks of his term in office. I’m not sure what nickname he got at APEC meetings, but in my eyes he’s a hero.
Nowadays, there are plenty of public toilets. At Beijing Zoo, there are many.

* * *

I should say that during this stint in Beijing I have not seen adults engaging outdoor defecation, although I have seen the results of their work.
Still, even if it were restricted to children that would make it no less disconcerting. I’m not the doctor in our family, but I know small humans still lay human, unsterilised cables. There was one in a small potted hedge once, as it happens right next to my head as I sat sipping coffee. The plant pot was sufficiently high that it was clear a mother or nanny had simply held up the child to poop in the Starbucks hedge. Hell, why not?
Similarly, as daughter and I ate our lunch at the zoo, two mothers instructed their girls, aged about eight, to remove their clothes, squat on a patch of dry earth, and dump. And that they did, to spare you the details, in no uncertain terms. Let’s just say if it were an Olympic sport, these two could poop for China. And it wasn’t quick. They were there so long - naked, let’s remember – that the whole bizarre exercise seemed to showcase productivity and constipation all at once.
Even my four-year-old was taken aback. We looked away, but each time I looked up these two were still going at it. I tried to remember my training for when people are dumping right next to you. I fixed my eyes on something on the horizon. Still, the knowledge of what was going on five metres behind my back was enough to play merry hell with my appetite. So we moved, about 30 metres away.
Finally, those girls finished up. Then a young boy walked in front of me and threw up.
It was quite a day. At least I couldn’t blame him. Perhaps he’d caught sight of the turds, which would have remained there all day like big brazen turdy sentries, defying anyone to question their right to be there. It’s funny, a lot of Chinese dog owners are mindful of taking a plastic bag with them to clean up after their pets. But not parents. Even cats dig a little hole. They know.
I at least took the opportunity to turn our churning guts into a little lesson for my daughter not to poop outdoors. She looked at me like I was an idiot.


  1. Trev - sounds like you need to find a new gym - ;-) Ngaire

  2. Hilarious...and sadly, so true!!! You've captured the sights, sounds, and odors of the censored side of this astounding country. Please keep writing! I enjoy a good laugh and China provides great fodder! Keep it up Tiger Father! I'll be tunneling under the Great Firewall to view your posts.

  3. oh god! Chinese public toilets, my bete noire. It reminds me off the time someone took a dump on my roof in HK. For some reason I rang the police but it all got very farcical. We never got to the bottom of it.

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