June 12, 2003

Bathroom Breaks The World Over

As I labored shaving in the bathroom sink when I lived in my former apartment with my former roommate, he wandered in to grab his toothbrush. As he was leaving, however, he glanced up at the ceiling and blurted out "what the heck is that?!!"

My roommate was referring to a small (but growing) patch of mold that had found a home in a damp spot of sheet rock. The ceiling was kept perpetually wet by our upstairs neighbors, who either had some sort of leak or took part in daily watersports. In either case, the new strand of mold, which I dubbed "showercillin," apparently thrived in the damp environment. This new medical discovery growing on our ceiling was very disturbing to my roommate, and he put on quite a display expressing his disgust. He was even more angered by my apparent ambivalence toward the scruffy batch of showercillin.

The fact of the matter is, both overseas and in college, I've seen bathrooms that make ours look like a room at the Four Seasons. Bathrooms, I have found, vary considerably between cultures.

When I lived in Japan, for example, I was dumbfounded by the wide variety of bathrooms and bathroom appliances "overflowing" the country. The casual visitor may very well come away with the belief that the Japanese spend the better part of their lives in the bathroom.

In the apartment in which I lived, the bathroom consisted of three, yes three, different sections. There was a section for the toilet, a section for the sink, and a section for the shower and bath. It should be noted that the toilet was equipped with a special flusher that let the user dictate how big or how small of a flush to use. Just to be on the safe side, and because my mother insisted, I always opted for the largest possible flush.

The Japanese also have a rather different method of bathing. In addition to a typical shower, our apartment had a bathtub that measured about half the length of an American tub and about a foot and a half deeper. The Japanese, I learned, believe in showering first and then soaking in the cramped little tubs. The American method of simply jumping dry into a bathtub is considered unclean. Not bathing or showering for a week or more is still considered, by both cultures, to just be totally gross.

But, the Japanese fascination with toilet time doesn't end there. In many restaurants and shops, bathrooms are equipped with nothing more than a porcelain indentation in the floor. The first time I encountered one of these pseudo toilets, I thought the bathroom was under repair, until I moved in for a closer look and stepped on the flusher. I remember laughing uncontrollably as I repeatedly stepped on the magical little button. Despite the humor I derived from the device, I never used one. I think my sister-in-law summed it up best when she emerged from a Japanese restaurant bathroom and declared "I'm not going in THAT!"

But, it was my week-long visit to China for my Asian Studies class that afforded me a glimpse into the darkest bathroom culture I've seen to date. My teacher, Mr. Stern, a veteran visitor to China, wanted to take our group away from the sheltered and modern world of our deluxe hotel, and subject us to the working class reality of China. After touring Shanghai, including a visit to a Chinese elementary school, we were all deeply regretting the pitcher of tea we drank that morning.

We rounded a corner and saw a strange structure that looked like a collapsible tin shed (which it was). Standing outside of the shed was a gentlemen collecting money. Mr. Stern informed us that the structure was a Chinese outdoor bathroom and, if we had to go, this was going to be our only chance for awhile.

So, we all raced to the bizarre building and handed the gentleman a Jiao (pronounced meow with a "j"), which was the equivalent of less than one American cent. Once inside, it took every ounce of restraint not to go running out the door holding our noses and laughing for the rest of the day. The "bathroom" consisted of a three-foot deep trench about 20 feet long which accommodated a frightening number of Chinese bathroom-goers. The intense look of concentration on each face seemed to indicate that everyone felt it was their Communist duty to fill every such trench throughout China in a similar manner. As I struggled to complete my business, I could only hope that China didn't suddenly undergo another Great Leap Forward.

Emerging from the surreal world, one of my classmates joked, "Well, that was certainly worth a Jiao."

So, as I watched the thriving patch of mold form on my bathroom ceiling, I regarded it with a bit of indifference. Besides, if it got any worse, I could have always dug a trench.

Posted by Ryan at June 12, 2003 08:51 PM
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