Living in Shanghai | Chinese Toilets, Tainted Water, and Other Colorful Details

6 Apr
hanging food in Hangzhou

Rooftop meat in Hangzhou, China

This morning I woke up, slipped my feet into a tacky pair of red and white, foam-filled slippers, and then promptly walked straight through our apartment and out the door. I crossed the dirty, dim hall space and ascended the narrow staircase beside a weird, pointless little sink mounted outside our door. I entered a tiny room at the top of the stairs that’s both essential to my daily life and baffling by American standards: a combination kitchen, laundry, shower, toilet room that’s altogether about the size of large closet. It’s a wonderful arrangement for anyone who’s into shaving their legs, frying an egg, washing the sheets, and going pee simultaneously.

The separation of the main apartment from the bath/kitchen room is a result of the original French-made design of the building, which is common to this area of Shanghai and features communal kitchens and bathrooms (ours is private, but some Shanghai residents still share). Adjusting to a permanent bathroom across the hall is just one of many shifts that I’ve made to my routine during the last half year.

In what way does your life change when you move across the globe? I suppose there are a lot of large differences, such as language, food, safety, familiarity, community. But there are also a lot of subtle shifts or exchanges that one takes in stride during days that seem otherwise familiar. Some habits look the same here as they did in Minneapolis, while others are strikingly different.

A different set of risks
In Minnesota, the risks I faced were chiefly political and economic. I struggled to find good employment, an apartment within my budget, pay for outrageously priced groceries and health insurance, and other challenges that result from living in a country that seems to be on the lookout for opportunities to attack the working class and women’s rights. In Shanghai, most of the immediate risks seem to be sanitation-related.

I take a shower with some of the most questionable tap water in the world, featuring toxic heavy metals, chlorine, bacteria, viruses and more. I greatly doubt the safety standards of most restaurants. I can’t trust news sources to reveal potentially harmful food and health risks in my own neighborhood, city, or country. I come into contact with millions of people directly and indirectly all day long, many of whom have very different hygiene practices and standards—people wash vegetables in the river (which recently featured about 16,000 dead mystery pigs), use toilet bowls to wet their mops, intermittently handle raw meat and vegetable with their bare hands all day long, and much more. Oh, and did I mention a new bird flu has arrived in Shanghai and the surrounding area? All of these things are just part of the daily smorgasbord that is living in China.

And then there are the things that seem the same, but slightly off. For instance, I’m currently using face wash made by a familiar brand (POND’S) that claims to “whiten” your skin. I bought it because it was pretty much the only cleanser available without a trip to some inconvenient ‘expat’ store, and I’m happy to report that it’s maintaining the status quo of my complexion effortlessly. I also shower every day under a set of four extremely powerful, built-in heat lamps, which provide a strange contrast to the general lack of insulation, central heating, and properly installed windows in China. In addition, I have to manually turn a water heater on and off to take a shower and remember to adhere to a strict no-flushing rule for toilet paper and everything else.

To squat or not to squat—that is the question
I must admit that the move from Hangzhou to Shanghai has made things easier—especially in respect to the dreaded Chinese-style toilet. Sometimes referred to as a squatting toilet, the Chinese-style toilet is ubiquitous in Hangzhou. To make a long story short, it always smells at least 50X worse than a western-style toilet and it took me about 4 months to realize that I was consistently facing the wrong way when I used it—or was I?

I assumed that Chinese people would welcome the western-style toilet, but a rather bizarre experience last winter revealed otherwise. I’ll never forget my shock at accidentally walking into an occupied bathroom stall in Hangzhou where I witnessed something wholly unbelievable. A woman had propped herself into perfect squatting-toilet position atop a Western toilet, her shoes pressing flatly into the top of the toilet seat with her whole body hovering 3 feet in the air. My thoughts were as follows: Oh, crap—excuse me! Sorry! Wait, what? Huh? That can’t be sanitary for the rest of us/isn’t that a little dangerous? and why, exactly? WHY?

From then on out I began to notice the sole prints on the seats and started hovering religiously. Apparently, standing atop toilets to squat into them is widely popular, even in Shanghai (notice below the sign posted in a Starbucks bathroom near our house). But I really don’t get it. New toilet, new technique, right? It’s not as if I EVER considered sitting my butt down on the designated foot spots of a squatting toilet!

Starbucks Bathroom Sign: Please No Squatting on the Toilet

Lucky for me and my bathroom challenges, toilets in Shanghai are generally much better than Hangzhou—i.e. they are almost always western-style and accompanied by: 1) an ample supply of toilet paper and 2) working sinks with SOAP (I can’t emphasize the importance of these two things enough, I really can’t. There is nothing like entering an extremely cramped, nose-curdling please god do not let me touch anything space without being able to properly wash your hands after).

Two positives in a whirlwind of change
Despite the terror, confusion, and smells, I’m confident that moving to China offers two major benefits: Firstly, with any luck (and assuming that I’m a halfway flexible, thoughtful person) it is helping to shape me into a more appreciative, tolerant person. Secondly, it exposes me to the finite nature of my own authority in life. A safe, controlled, risk-free world—whether in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Paris or Shanghai—is to a great extent an illusion. I am simply in the position of observing and deciphering the messages, choices, and unfamiliar toilets placed before me.

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