Squat Virtue

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I’ll start this one off by saying that I hope no one minds a little frank discussion of bathrooms and their function. I am only writing this because in my own transition to Chinese plumbing, a little frankness might have saved me some trouble, and taboos aside, it is interesting contrasting two solutions to this most basic of human problems.

Many people in the US and elsewhere have probably never even seen a plumbing fixture like the squat toilet that is the standard in China. It is essentially a porcelain hole in the floor, rigged to flush (hopefully). I think most westerners, when they first come to China, are a little shocked by this and try to avoid using one as much as possible. Admittedly, China’s sub-par standards for plumbing installation further aggravate the issue, because the squat toilet room is frequently badly built and quickly becomes filthy as a result. But I believe that many if not all of us eventually come to accept the squat toilet for its virtues, and may even prefer them to western seat toilets. As the saying goes, “You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are your own.”

Learning to use Chinese toilets is further complicated by social taboo. When we are children, adults teach us to use the facilities provided. When the available facilities change, however,  a little instruction would be valuable. But as adults the subject is not easily broached. I know I could have used the following hints: First, bring your own toilet paper with you, everywhere. In the West, if you need tissue, you can count on finding something in a public restroom. In China, only the fanciest hotels provide this service, and you don’t want to get caught out. Second, gathering your garments around your ankles gets in the way; gather your garments around your knees. Third, if a toilet brush is visible nearby, it is very good manners to clean up after yourself a bit, especially if you are someone’s guest (squat toilet design is a little inefficient in the flushing department).

As for the virtues of squatting, there are several, of which here are two. For one thing, regardless of the hygienic standards of the bathroom you are using, squatting means you won’t really be touching anything objectionable. You may find yourself in a closet that is a far cry from an interior designer’s dream of an airy, sunlit commode, but you are not actually risking infection if you squat.

Second, the daily repetition of the act of squatting is fantastic for the health, flexibility, and strength of the ankles, knees, and hips. The squatted sitting position is iconic of China; you can see people relaxing in this position on door steps, on the street, and in the park– just about anywhere. Think about the West, however. When if ever do we support our weight with our hips below the level of our knees? This kind of strength is crucial for standing up from sitting or lying on the ground, say, after falling down. But in our culture of chairs, we never exercise our legs past the range of motion defined by 90° angles at the knees and hips. So we reach, say, age 40, and getting up from the ground has become an exhausting 12 step process, prohibitively difficult. We chalk it up to getting old, but that’s just not right. Elderly people here get up and down pretty easily. And I think it all starts with reps in the bathroom.

Tacos in Wudang

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The rare Wudang Taco little resembles it's Southwestern cousin, except in spirit

As I am settling back into the rhythm of life in Wudangshan, I thought I would write down one of my biggest impressions from my winter at home.

There’s truly no place like home. As much fun and excitement as maneuvering intercultural waters can be, the smallest tasks become significant undertakings. Example: yesterday I made tacos for my brother, Gao, who likes my cooking and missed it while I was gone. At home, I could complete a taco dinner, from conceiving the idea to plates hitting the table, in a few hours. There are grocery stores, organized in a way I understand. Ingredients are fairly consistently available, and I can ask questions comfortably and trust that the context in which I mean them will be understood.The conveniences of modern kitchens are not to be underrated.

Here, I shop at an outdoor market 20 minutes walk from our school. Crowded stalls separate my shopping into dry goods, fresh vegetables, and meat, tripling the amount of haggling to be done while I  dodge the piles of rotting refuse that the shopkeepers throw into the center aisle. Yesterday, I had to search high and low at three different markets to find cilantro, which normally would be easily available at any of the shops (I eventually found a rather wilted handful that worked well enough, though I think it was the last cilantro in all of Wudang). The meat is sold hanging on a hook in an outdoor stall. Logically, the seller does not take it out in the heat of the day, so if I want to buy meat I have to schedule my shopping for early morning or late afternoon. When I went to buy the bread I use to substitute for a tortilla, the vendor tried to tell me I couldn’t have the ones I wanted. I started to walk away, and his wife grabbed me and tried to direct my attention to some other, very nice, un-tortilla like bread. I said no thank you, and started to walk away again, and they thrust the tortilla bread at me, at which point I realized the price had gone up while I was away by 50%. Then I got home and realized why they had not wanted to sell it to me in the first place — stale, very stale. Then I had to use the kitchen. I tried to use one wok, and realized the wood fire beneath it from earlier had already died. I then switched to a coal brick burner, which cooked the food very nicely although I was choking on the coal fumes the whole while. Not bad tacos though, if I do say 🙂

I suspect that a Chinese person would feel as perplexed trying to prepare familiar foods in my local supermarket as I feel trying to cook here in China. It reminds me that no matter how widely I travel, no place will ever put me so at ease as the good old U.S.A.