To Pee, Or Not To Pee?

Today’s guest post comes from Chris.

By the time this is posted, my one and only child will be on a school trip to China (along with my one and only husband). But as I write this, we are just about a week away from her departure, and we’re going through a flurry of last-minute shopping, packing and planning.

It’s going to be a grand adventure for both of them, and they are both getting excited about everything they’ll be seeing and doing there. We’ve done a great deal of preparation by researching some Chinese history and culture, looking at the route they’ll be taking on the flight over, and discussing the many things that will be different there than they are here. While my daughter has been outside of the U.S. a few times before, she’s never been to a place where things are as radically different from what she’s used to as they will be on this trip.

Out of everything we’ve discussed during our preparations, one topic has been the focus of more questions and concern than any other: using China’s notorious public restrooms.

Those of you who have visited China before already know what I’m talking about. Chinese restrooms are entirely different from what we Americans are used to. Think of the worst public restroom you’ve ever seen here in the States. Think of the overflowing wastebaskets, the empty toilet paper dispenser, the lack of soap or towels at the sink, the broken locks on the stall doors, the puddles, the stink, the general “Ewwww!” factor.

Now multiply all of those things by 10, add the fact that there are no actual toilets to sit on, and you’ve got yourself a typical Chinese restroom.

You Know What To Do

For the most part, the only Western-style toilets in China are found in hotels, and in some of the bigger restaurant chains like McDonald’s. Anywhere else you go, you will be hard-pressed to find public facilities, and those you do find will be squat-style, which is really no more than a porcelain-covered hole in the floor. Chances are you will not have a private stall to yourself, since many restrooms are simply a line of holes in the floor located within a few feet of one another. The soap for washing up afterward is generally non-existent. Come to mention it, so is the sink. Toilet paper is never available – not because they’re always running out, but because it is not provided in the first place. If you want to do that fancy “wiping” stuff, you need to BYOTP. And you must remember not to flush it once you’ve used it, since Chinese plumbing can’t handle paper – which leads us to the overflowing wastebaskets, stink, and “Ewwww!” factor that I mentioned earlier.

As it happens, I ran across an article just last week regarding the state of public restrooms in Beijing. It seems officials there are trying to crack down on the general uncleanliness by instituting what is being called the “two fly” rule. As stated by city officials, there will be “no more than two flies allowed” in a restroom at any given time. This rule has already become the target of much ridicule among residents of Beijing, with commentary online and in local news publications pointing out the absurdity of such a provision, and the futility of any attempts to follow or enforce it. As ludicrous as the new restriction may be, it does illustrate the widespread nature of the sanitation issues plaguing public facilities in China’s capital city.

This problematic bathroom scenario is the one thing that has been causing my daughter anxiety as she prepares for her journey. My husband and I thought we’d finished potty training her years ago, but now we find ourselves lecturing her on how to pee all over again. She has been told to carry toilet paper, wipes and hand sanitizer with her at all times, to wear clothing that won’t touch the ground, and to make sure she wears shoes that completely cover her feet and won’t slip on wet surfaces. We’ve even practiced the basic squat maneuver, trying to see how to best balance over an imagined hole in the ground while simultaneously preventing your pants from hitting the floor and/or getting caught in the flow of things. After all of this, I have started feeling slightly less upset about the fact that it is my husband taking her on this trip, and not me. I may be missing out on seeing the Dragon Throne in the Forbidden City, but at least I’ll be able to visit the Porcelain Throne in comfort whenever I want.

What is the most difficult adjustment you’ve ever had to make while visiting a foreign country.

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165 thoughts on “To Pee, Or Not To Pee?”

  1. Good morning. From my trips as an agricultural volunteer I learn that some people don’t want charity. I tried to help out a friend I made in Bulgaria by giving him money. He didn’t want it and was offended by my offer. I know that he had very little money and he had been very generous with his resources and time. However, there are times when it is good to buy a meal or give a gift to show your appreciation for help given.

    Good story, Chris. I hope your daughter and husband have a good trip.

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    1. Thanks, Jim, I have actually heard from them a couple of times and they are doing alright. Lousy hotel, apparently, but they had seen some wonderful things in Beijing already (including a Kung Fu demonstration which my daughter thought was “awesome”). :)

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        1. They are visiting Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. She is in middle school, actually, and she will be turning 12 while she’s over there (missing her birthday…I’m a sad mommy! :( ). Just got a text from them, as they are about to turn in for the night there. They had a great day, saw Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and a few other things today. They’re off to the Great Wall tomorrow!

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      1. Xi’an will be an amazing experience for your daughter, Chris. My mother, the family archaeologist says its one of the most awe inspiring sites she’s ever visited, and she’s been everywhere. China is such an ancient mystery, you could keep peeling the layers off forever. What a lucky girl she is!

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        1. I’m sure you’re right, Robin. I am jealous that they’re on this one without me, but I am glad they have such an amazing opportunity, especially my daughter. Jeez, when I was her age the biggest trip I’d taken was to New York! :)

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        2. Mine was to Fargo
          We went to Duluth and my dad drove across that bridge to superior and turned around 1block into the city to head for Minneapolis
          We couldn’t believe it .
          Why’d you do that dad
          So you could say you’d been to Wisconsin
          That was my big trip to somewhere other than Fargo or Detroit lakes(fargos summer spot)

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  2. when i first went to china only the hotels and places like that had american toilets but today that has expanded quite a bit. some of the old outhouses at the 100 year old factories are the originals. they really know how to dig a hole over there. the language barrier has it interesting moments but being the ugly american i am i expect there to be an educated english speaking person within a stones throw every where i go in the world. when out on a walk by myself in a foreign country i often wish i knew how to ask what a particular item was or to get the history on a building of neighborhood. so many questions come up and often i have a local who can answer these things but without the translator you can feel like an outsider. its like being being in a movie with subtitles without the subtitles. my memories of stopping into a bar in germany without being aware of what it was illustrate it well. i was in germany visiting factories and the guy i was with and i stopped into a bar a block or two from the hotel, we went in and ordered zwei bier bitte . i can ask for beer in many languages. they brought the beer and i know i was looking handsome when two young ladies approached us and asked if we would buy them a drink. i said certainly and they ordered champagne. my friend was a bit concerned and i waved him off but when we went to leave two beers later the bill was for 1600 dollars because champagne in this place is real expensive. the truth was if you bought the lady champagne you could have your way with her in the corner booth but we were not aware of this at the moment. well i told them it was a cute little game that they were playing but that i was not paying it, they said to pay or they would call the police and i said i thought they should go ahead and call. my friend said the only way out way to run so we tried but as he cleared the front door they collared me and watched me closely until the police arrived, the police could tell i was completely ignorant as to the nature of the joint but had to do something to get it resolved. they asked how much the bill was in their bad english and my non existent german and i told them 1600 and the laughed and said that did seem a bit excessive, they asked about my friend who ran away and i told them he was quicker than me, the resolved it by settling it for 200 dollars or so and telling me to get more familiar with how the world works before i get into trouble or something to that effect . i found my friend in the hotel lobby and he got a kick out of the resolution. i should have known i wasn’t looking that good. even in a foreign country.

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      1. she was cute and vivacious but she had to be working it pretty hard if she was paying the bills as an employee. 1600 would have been a real good night.

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  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    There have been a few tough adjustments:

    English “cuisine”–could not even believe the English food (other cuisines served in England were excellent)
    Public/Private toilets in Florence–we found a map that really helped, but who has maps of toilets?
    Streetcars in Rome that ran on tracks–mysterious routes (subway was easy)
    Roman and Jamaican Drivers–whoa

    However, the most difficulty we ever experienced was understanding English in parts of Kentucky and Tennesse. On several occasions, Lou and I stood there struck dumb and unable to understand directions given or what the people were saying to us. Example:

    Man in restaurant responding to question, “what would you recommend we see here?”

    Man: Do you wanna see the bars?
    Us: No, we don’t really go to bars much.
    Man: I mean the BARS. You can see them in Blah Blah place.
    Us: But we don’t really like to go to bars while sightseeing.
    Man: No, No. BARS. Black, furry, eatin’ garbage. Ya know?
    Us: BEARS!

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    1. Reminds me of when I was working at the Hubb Cafe in Carbondale. The ladies working in the kitchen were all elderly black woman. I was petrified every time I had to go into the kitchen because I had a hard time understanding what they were saying. I worked the night shift, from 11 PM to 7 AM, and Monday through Thursday most of our customers were men working on the railroad. Nice and easy, no problem. On my first night on the job, one of the ladies in the kitchen kept asking me if I had any coffee out there, indicating the restaurant. Thinking that it was her responsibility to make sure we didn’t run out of coffee, I kept reassuring her that we did. This went on for a while until she came storming out into the restaurant in a huff snorting: “If you won’t bring be some coffee, I can get my own.” It wasn’t till then that I realized that her question was a request for a cup of coffee, a subtle nuance that I had failed to pick up on. I lasted 5 days.

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    2. Love this story! And have had a similar experience in the North Carolina mountains (near Ashville). We visited there with another couple and their children a while back. We were told by the fella whose cabin we’d rented that one thing we’d want to go and check out with the kids during our visit were the Steem Injuns. I had assumed they meant a Native-American tribe I’d never heard of, but what they meant was that the steam engines were running at a kiddie attraction called Tweetsie Railroad.

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      1. I’m glad to know that even Americans have trouble with some of the regional dialects. Can make for some pretty interesting conversations and misunderstandings.

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        1. I know, it’s funny that our accents here in Minnesota are closer to Canadian than other regional American dialects. Also our politics (up until the last decade). I have an embarrassing habit of unintentionally mimicking the accent of whomever I’m speaking to. I don’t actually speak many languages, but early on was sensitized to picking up different sounds and accents from living overseas. Too bad I’m not an actor, could put that to some use. :-)

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        2. Robin, why do you think of it as embarrassing that you unintentionally mimic the accents of those you speak with? I would think that it would make you a bit like a chameleon and help you blend in wherever you are. I think most of us do that to some extent, some obviously more successfully than others. I know I got ribbed a lot by friends when I returned from a visit to Ireland and had managed to acquire a bit of the brogue they speak in Drogheda, but it helped me blend in while I was there.

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        3. i am in there with you. i get an irish lilt, stiffen it up a bit in germany, i have to be reminded to slow down in china because i have to wait so long to get my ideas across that i try to shoot through it real quick and the chinese guys laugh and shake their heads and tell me to in jamaca man i goo loong voweels maan. i dont notice it but my traveling companions love to give me flack. i have an excellent knack for picking up accents and the only place i have ever been stumped was in scotland in the high country. i cant figure out what i cant figure out. ireland was the most fun. i love the french , german, swedish, hungarian, indonesian varaitions on the english pronunciation. my favorite story about that hasbeen told here before with the little south american accent who spoke like maurice chevalier. i asked if his english teacher and he said hoho yes how deed you know? i can still here it. funny hearing little mexcan looking guy speaking frenchy. but he spoke very good english much better than either my spanish or my french. i find people always want to apoligize for their poor english. i tell them i really i appreciate their efforts and assure them that their english is much better than my chinese, french german spanish and all the other languages i dont speak.

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      2. Robin, I do the exact same thing! My husband and daughter rag on me for it all the time, but living in South Florida, I’ve realized it can help people understand you a bit better. I don’t go full-on Rasta when speaking to someone from Jamaica, or totally Ricky Ricardo with my Cuban friends, but a little shift in the pronunciation is sometimes all it takes to be clearer with people who have different dialects. I used to teach in a mega-multicultural area and found this was really necessary with many of the kids who were just learning English.

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        1. When I was 13, I became pen palls with Monica Bergstrøm in Helsinki. She wrote to me in Swedish and I wrote to her I modified Danish, i.e. I substituted the Swedish word for the Danish one when I knew the two to be different; we did this until I was 21 years old when I had an opportunity to visit her. She, her parents and her younger brother came to pick me up at harbor where the ship I was on had a 12 hour lay-over. We chatted over coffee and pastries at their apartment, but it quickly became apparent to me that they could not understand my Danish very well, so I switched to Swedish. At the end of the evening as they dropped me off at the ship, Monica’s brother said to me: ” You know I’ve never been able to understand Danish, but you speak it so clearly that I had no trouble at all.” So much for my Swedish!

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    3. Oh, forgot to add something, Jacque: I do have a toilet map. It’s actually a toilet map app, for London, which we downloaded before our trip there last summer. “For when you need a loo in a hurry…” We discovered it when we were researching places to go during our stay, and our search turned up something about places to…you know…GO.:) We didn’t think we’d need it, but my daughter thought it was hilarious and downloaded it anyway. And there are different versions of this for different places as well, both in and outside the US. If you Google you can find them.

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      1. Toilet maps. What a good idea :-) Practical.

        Chris, Your daughter and husband are going to have an amazing experience! Wish you could go too, because you’d write it up so well.

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  4. most of my challenges come form being a vegetarian and having a hard time explaining it at restaurants and to street vendors. i love trying local stuff and the way they prepare things in foreign lands make them unrecognizable so you have to ask. i am often pleasantly surprised by nuts and fruts and beans i am not familiar with done in very interesting ways but i also find bits of baby chicks in hard boiled eggs, chicken in rice and pork in breakfast concoctions i had been assured were ok. biggest clue in china… never ask a question that can be answered yes. rephrase it so they have to answer with the agreed on item in their sentence. instead of is that a dollar ask how much is that. but to implement it is much more challenging than you would think.

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    1. I should think so, especially if you don’t understand the answer. What good is it if they tell you it costs $2.75 if you don’t know the numbers?

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    2. I’m a semi-meatless eater myself (I only eat fish) and it has been a challenge for me as well. Making that concept understood is not so simple if you’re not terrifically fluent in the language.

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        1. Good to know, if I ever manage to make it over there myself. My kid and hubby will have no problems on this trip, they are carnivores and have already enjoyed a Peking duck dinner.

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  5. Pardon an OT post, albeit one that deals with travel to a place without a decent bathroom. I’ll be going to my Lake Superior cabin several times this summer. I’d love to share the place with fans of this web site. This is a free vacation in a lovely place near the Apostle Islands. Anyone–singles, couples or whatever–can contact me: mnstorytelr (at) comcast.net.

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      1. I have. Both. Been to a southern Wal-Mart and despaired for humanity. It’s something I do regularly, in fact (Wal-Mart’s the only variety-store-type place in my immediate semi-rural area), and it’s a wonder I haven’t hit myself in the head with a brick by now. ;)

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      2. When our youngest daughter was in college in Wooster, Ohio, and we were getting her set up in her dormitory at the beginning of the school year, invariably we would need something vital, often a video cable or a network cable to complete the setup. It would be 11:30 PM and the shopping options in Wooster would be limited, so we’d go to the local Walmart. In the Wooster Ohio Walmart at midnight, it turns out, the store is full of Amish families buying toilet paper.

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        1. True, the entire family, kids and all, at midnight. A bit surreal, what with the outfits and all…

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        2. Now, that’s one of the few sights I have not seen in the Wal-Mart in my neck of the woods. But the sights I have seen…oh, Lordy….

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    1. Oh, Wal-Mart TOTALLY counts, Clyde. :) In fact, after I had submitted this post to Dale, I realized that I should have just made the question about things you’ve experienced while traveling, period – not just in a foreign country, because as some of y’all have already proved with your stories, you sometimes have to make big adjustments just by traveling to anyplace beyond your own home!

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        1. Y’all is impervious to the normal rules of grammar, Lisa. :) Y’all is plural, but “all y’all” comes in handy for emphasis in certain scenarios:

          Hungry pre-teen girls raiding my fridge –
          “The pizza rolls will be out of the oven in a minute, so I need all y’all to get outta my kitchen NOW!”

          Arguments with people you disagree with politically –
          “Dang, Republicans/Democrats are crazy! All y’all need to lay off the Kool-Aid!”

          Family dinners –
          “I’m heading out to the porch. I can’t digest with all y’all makin’ so much noise.”

          Intimidating your opponents when you’re about to play RockBand –
          ” I OWN Blitzkrieg Bop, so all y’all may as well go start cryin’ in the corner right now!”

          See? :)

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        2. My pleasure. When it comes to illuminating the glorious highlights of southern culture – everything from slang usage to disturbing photos of Wal-Mart shoppers – I’m your gal. ;)

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  6. I’m a pretty flexible person when traveling. I expect that things will be different, not necessarily bad or worse than what I’m used to, but different, so I generally go with the flow and try to have as much fun in the process as possible. This attitude was severely tested when visiting Jamaica on a winter vacation quite a few years ago. From the moment we got off the plane, even before we had gone through customs, we were hustled by pros working the crowd to secure taxi rides, find lodgers and whatnot. It was an unending barrage of people wanting to sells us stuff, braid my hair, show us places and generally figure out a way to rip us off. We fell for several of these ploys, on one occasion mistaking a friendly chap who sauntered along beside us on a walk for a person who was genuinely interested in talking with us. Turns out he had some friends with a lean to, way up in the hills overlooking Negril, who after we had hiked 4 or 5 miles to get there, offered luke warm beer at ridiculous prices. Our “friend” demanded $20.00 for taking us there, and was offended when we protested that this was the most expensive walk we had ever been on.

    Funny thing was, several years later, waking up in bed, husband rolled over and out of nowhere declared: ” You know, I think we would have had a better time in Jamaica if we had spoken the language.” To which I could only reply: “We did; they speak English there.” “Never mind,” he responded and went back to sleep.

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    1. I got propositioned for sex on a beach by some pretty young boy toy there. I nearly fainted on the beach then squirreled that memory away for posterity! When I got back to the condo I got to tell Lou, guess what happened to me? He also wanted to sell me Gangha.

      (I said no to both).

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    2. I agree, PJ, you expect things to be different and roll with it. Otherwise why would anyone travel? Funny thing is, somewhere some time someone else told me about a similar experience on a Caribbean island — the long walk, the extortion. I do think it’s sad though that people’s options are so limited. Consider us forewarned, but the beaches and the food are no doubt worth it!

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      1. My only Caribbean experience–a week on St. John’s Island–could not have been more pleasant. The local people were mellow, friendly and not especially interested in money. The single sentence I heard in reply to about every question was, “Don’ worry, Mon!” Rum was cheaper than soda pop, which helped us relax. Anyone interested in a cheap and pleasant Caribbean vacation can contact me for details.

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        1. Yes, Steve, I’ve heard many many more stories like yours from people visiting the islands. Island living must be idyllic in some ways, though severely limiting in others. To visit and to live are two different things, yes? And people do what they have to do to survive. I’ve never been to the Caribbean, but have heard that every island is quite unique.

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  7. The strangest bathrooms I encountered were at the Taize Monastery near Macon, France. Taize is a protestant monastery founded after the Second World War. I was on a college sponsored seminar tracing the Medieval to Modern transition in thought and art. We were housed in an unheated stable, and the toilet was just a hole in the cement, and I felt like a baseball catcher every time I had to use it. The local wine was excellent, though, as I recall.

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    1. Nothing like primitive toilets and good wine to make you ponder the intricacies of transitions in thought and art. How long were you there, Renee?

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      1. We were in Europe for about a month, but in Taize for only 3-4 days. The countryside was so beautiful.

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  8. I’ve traveled in England, Scotland and Wales without feeling seriously annoyed by little deprivations like sharing a bathroom or eating English food back when it was not fit to feed to a dog. My worst accommodations were in a dilapidated hotel in Ontario that catered to pulp mill workers, a place where friends and I were the only sober people among the hundreds there except for the stripper/hooker who was working the crowd. I’ve posted about that extremely memorable lady before.

    We used to open the trout season in WI by camping along the banks of the Namekagon River up above Hayward. We did that one time with two other couples. One of them included a high school prom queen named Pam who had never camped out before. My erstwife Kathe noticed on the second day that Pam was hopping a lot. Pam explained, “I’ve got to PEE real bad! But Butch refuses to drive me into town where I can use a bathroom. He says you and Jan just pee in the woods, but I KNOW that can’t be true!”

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      1. Butch was driving a truck in those days, and maybe Pam wasn’t friendly with stick shifts. She was a girly girl in all ways. Falling in love with a committed outdoorsman was a huge error . . . but that’s the way it goes, right?

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        1. A friend married a gal and took her to the BWCA on their honeymoon. He found out she had brought along one of those 6-pound hair dryer machines with the coiled tube and plastic hair helmet. She must have figured they would have a REALLY long extension chord when they got to those interior wilderness lakes.

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      2. Steve, I hope that honeymooner didn’t have very many long portages…that would get mighty heavy plus – unlike the food pack – it doesn’t get lighter as the trip goes on.

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  9. Growing up in ’50’s Japan meant squatting was the norm everywhere, even in our home, no problem back then, but I don’t think it would as easy now with 60+ year old knees. Even though we were accustomed to carrying our own tp, Japanese public areas and facilities were much cleaner than you’ve described their Chinese counterparts. Private homes were immaculate and we were always encouraged in school to keep our neighborhoods clean. We would turn in coins found on the street to our local police kiosk and occasionally get a coin in return as a “reward”; turn in a 1 or 5 yen coin and get 5 or 10 yen for citizenship :-) Could have been a money maker for us kids, but strangely, I don’t recall any of us ever taking advantage of that.

    What stands out in my mind as difficult was being constantly touched and handled as if I was some inanimate “thing”. People crowding around me touching and stroking and pulling my red hair everywhere we went. As a rule in Japan, people create psychic personal space even in crowded situations — to preserve their privacy. But in post war Japan, foreigners were unusual enough to be an exception. I’m sure it’s very different now.

    Not speaking the language of a place is difficult for me in that it’s frustrating. Miming and relying on a third shared language can be challenging but fun if everyone is willing to go the extra mile. We’ve met friendly people everywhere on trains, sharing compartments with families and young people and other travelers, mainly in Europe where people are multilingual. It did take us a couple of days to acclimatize our ears to Scottish accents, but love them. Re Scottish restrooms, In Killen, I encountered a woman cleaning the stalls in a tight black mini skirt with 2-inch heels.

    My family camped through Europe twice, once when I was 5 and again when I was 13. The second trip is memorable to all four of us kids as a series of public restrooms — we remember the entire trip by the facilities at each campsite along the way. That and the night we camped with the gypsies and sang around the camp fire till the wee hours.

    Now that I’m “old” I find that I like my own bed best, so that might be a challenge — getting a good night’s sleep away from home. Kinda lame, but that’s where I’m at these days. Can’t underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep.

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      1. Word Press keeps erasing my answer to your question, PJ. Are there some words that, if printed, pull an entry off automatically?

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        1. it found out you have red hair,it is very anti red hair, tel it you rwere kidding or you will never have a normal listing again.

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      2. It was in southern France near Carcassonne, summer of 1962. Camped by a sluggish brown river in scorching heat — my little family in our VW bus and the gypsies in a decrepit rusted trailer. We shared food booked over an open fire — baked beans and some kind of nameless brown stew. We traded songs all evening — Clementine, I’ve been Working on the Railroad, Erie Canal, This Land is Your Land, Japanese songs. . . One of them played a wild accordion and there was a fiddle, too. They sang in an unfamiliar language, Romany?, and the music was wild and haunting. I’d never heard anything like it before. Although they were fluent in several European languages, we only spoke English and Japanese, so music was the common language. :-)

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        1. Trying to find a way to say this without offending Word Press — I tried posting this entry at least a dozen times and finally left out one sentence referring to the gypsies showing us the numbers on their arms. This was not long after the big war in Europe so you will know what I’m referring to. If I say anything more explicit including the “t” word, the entry gets erased. Interesting. . .

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        2. Yes, definitely very interesting, Robin – both your story and your WordPress issue. Wonder what that’s all about? *scratches head*

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        3. Tattoo? I wasn’t sure what Word Press thought was so controversial about any of it, so I left out the whole sentence.

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        4. Since she mentioned ” gypsies showing us the numbers on their arms” I thought it might be a word for the process of making permanently inked numbers there.
          Here, I’ll try it – “tatoo”.

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    1. Robin – this was my issue in China (although I also experienced the “toilets” – I had forwarning, so never wore shorts and carried my own TP) – the complete lack of private space. As adopting parents, my group was an enormous curiousity to the Chinese and everywhere we went with the babies, they would crowd around us. Touching was commonplace. One little old Chinese lady even pulled back a diaper to see if the baby was a boy or a girl!

      I’ve also experienced the vegetarian issue in may places around the world and for me it isn’t a problem of language, but of understanding. Why in heavens’ name would I not eat meat. I almost always say it’s for “religious” reasons, since this is the response that most folks seem able to get their mind around!

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  10. When I was planning my trip to Korea to bring home the youngest niece, I thought that would be my opportunity for really foreign travel – not just England, but a place where I wouldn’t understand 98% of what was said around me (true) and being Asian, would really feel different. We spent the entire time in Seoul, which is a lovely, clean city and very modern – and not as “Asian” as I was hoping/expecting. Did run into one squat toilet, which I used with relative ease. What wound up feeling more foreign, at least at the outset, was traveling with my sister-in-law. When I volunteered to go, somehow I had it in my head that I’d be traveling with my big brother – and adventure, for sure, but I know how he travels and he and I are a lot alike. Sister-in-law and I are not…I’m a reader, she isn’t really, she’s traditionally feminine and a bit of a girly-girl, and those of you who have met me are not likely to describe me that way…and we had not spent a lot of time together, just the two of us. We were about to have 5 days in a foreign country (plus two long plane rides, one with an infant) together. Oy. I think we were both worried. Until S-I-L discovered I am a huge impulse shopper – especially when I travel. I had budgeted for shopping on the trip, so knew how much I could spend and boy did I spend, much to the surprise of my traveling companion. Since I’m so much like her husband, she probably figured it would be like shopping with my brother and it would be like pulling teeth to get me to go. Nope. I had yuan and a Visa card in my pocket – I was good to go. I’m sure I spent more than I could have/ needed to on a few things in the traditional markets, but judging from the level of wealth (or lack of it) that I could observe in the booth and surrounding area, I don’t feel too bad about that. I bargained more when we were in the tourist markets where I expected to be fleeced (I discovered a good way to get a silk suit cheap is to walk away from the guy trying to sell you on his tailor shop…).

    Norway, on the other hand, felt a lot like home, sounded like home (even with the non-English being spoken), and tasted like home (even if I didn’t eat the pickled herring – won’t go near it here, either). The difficulty there, since most folks spoke English fluently, was avoiding idioms – or figuring how to to translate an idiom or bit of slang to “plain” English…you don’t realize how much you use these parts of your language until you have to explain them to someone.

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    1. My brother-in-law, who is very open to foreign differences and loves cultural variety, taught college in Korea on an exchange for 6 months. He is very reluctant to admit it was simply too different in every way to be there 6 months. Bill Holm says about the same in re to his china teaching. But among my favorite travel essay books are those to China.

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      1. Keep in mind that it has been a very long time since Bill Holm taught in China. He went back to visit several times after his return to the states and found that it had changed a lot in the interim.

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      2. You are right, PJ, but it is also true that China is distinct from Japan or Korea, in part because of its history of trying to wall off the outside world. Chinese attitudes toward foreigners in inland communities are jarringly xenophobic. There are many places in the interior (ie, away from international commerce and tourism) where the only phrase for a foreigner is “foreign devil.” I recommend a fascinating book by Peter Hessler, a superb writer who taught in a college in a small town in Sichuan Province. The book is River Town; Two Years on the Yangtse.

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      3. I would suspect things are very different in Korea outside of Seoul. The interesting thing about Seoul is how new so much of it is since it has had so much rebuilt and added post-war. You will see shiny new office buildings next to gates and architecture that are hundreds of years old – in some places it’s almost like you can see where Seoul was damaged during the conflict. It’s also odd that there are entire residential neighborhoods nestled behind commercial buildings like little brownstone bunny warrens on tangled spaghetti alleyways and roads.

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  11. All of this talk about toilets reminds of this. When we were staying in a friend’s house in Mexico last year, we were asked to flush the toilet after #2, and to put the toilet paper used to wipe after #! in the wastepaper basket. I guess anyone with a cabin with a toilet is familiar with “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down,” but our friend’s house is a year round residence. Apparently the sewer system in much of Mexico can’t handle all that paper, so this is common practice all over the country.

    The alternative school where I worked for fourteen years, has an evening ESL program, mostly for Mexican and other Spanish speaking immigrants from Central America. It was the cause of much consternation among the regular school staff, especially the janitor, when on the mornings following the ESL classes the wastepaper baskets were full of toilet paper in the ladies rooms. The reason never occurred to me until after last year’s visit, and, of course, by then I had been retired for several years.

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  12. My daughter, as I have explained on here before, saved from the age of 5 to 23 to take her mother to Europe. They had a great trip highlighted by being on a bus in Rome, standing, when some people standing with them in very crowded conditions as a way to punctuate their violent argument, spit on each other, and thus on my wife and daughter, too.

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  13. My own attitude is that I can handle most adjustments when I visit another country. One thing that I can’t adjust easily to is driving. My husband was raised in Scotland and when we visit the UK, or any other nation that drives on he opposite side of the road, he has no problem making that transition. I couldn’t do it very well so I pretend I’m on a Greyhound bus and leave the driving to him when we’re there.

    And I was astounded by traffic patterns in Europe – or really, the lack of them. Technically there are things like lanes and traffic signals, but it seems they aren’t observed that often on local roads in some places. We rented a car and drove ourselves through areas of France, Monaco and Italy during one trip, and we were so frustrated by the way nothing seemed to follow a logical flow on the roads there. You’d suddenly come upon a series of one-way streets and find you could not get where you needed to go, even though it was just around the corner from you. I remember standing at the top of a bridge in Paris and taking a picture of the street below. It looked like all the cars were in completely random places, like they’d been dropped from outer space and had landed in a scattershot manner. You would never have been able to determine where lanes were or who was going in what direction from looking at that photo!

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    1. Driving on the left side of the road is a bit tricky, I agree but I’m surprised at your other observation about driving in Europe. Except for the excessive speeds on the Autobahn in Germany, I find Europe easy to navigate by car. Of course, roundabouts are not new to me. I hear a lot of complaints from Americans who are dismayed to discover them cropping up here as well.

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      1. I do have roundabouts in a few spots where I live, so those aren’t problematic. And highways were fine as well. It really seemed like there was no rhyme or reason to some of the local roads we encountered in the bigger cities, though. In a busy area where everyone knows where they’re going but you, it can be a little overwhelming!

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        1. Our sense, Chris, was that the cities were filled with drivers who knew local traffic patterns intimately and were dangerous because they didn’t expect dumb foreigners to be there signalling turns with the windshield wipers. Then when we were in the country, almost the only traffic was Brits on holiday, town dwellers who scarcely ever drove an auto, and they were far more of a menace than we were!

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        2. Good point, Steve. Living in Florida, we have way more tourists on the roads than locals during a good chunk of the year. Many of ‘em are in RV’s that they don’t normally drive either. It is scary in the extreme.

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        3. scotland is only kind of europe. glasgow and edenbourough are europe the back raods are less so. i drove in uk landing in limerick to begin. i had a little car and was hitting the busheds on the side of the road all over the place on those skinny little roads and the locals saw me know i was a newby and were quite amused. when i was completing my trip weeks later after circling ireland twith an interruption to head of to wales england and scotland, the roads were much less of a problem. i got used to it before the vacation was over. never had a problem since hong kong is a little busy, that combined with other side of the road are factored into decision making re rent a car.

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  14. Driving in London in a rental Mini was a white-knuckle experience, as was driving in the Lake Country on such tiny lanes that many cars had smashed right-hand mirrors because people drove too close to oncoming traffic and hit the right-hand mirrors of those cars or lorries. I’ve mentioned before the thrill of entering a “roundabout” at full speed, signalling my turns by turning on the windscreen wipers instead of the turn signal (which was on the wrong side, of course). My erstwife asked to drive in Devon and made a good go of it for less than three minutes before pranging a stone hedge. We expected the rental company to be irked, but they found it funny. While the fender was fixed we drank dark beer and played skittles with locals in a charming pub. I’d love to go back and do it all again. :)

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    1. If you do have to have a fender-bender of some type, Steve, then the one you had with the pub and beer included would be the type to have!

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      1. When we went to Scotland, we drove out of the airport in a rental car and had a flat just a couple of towns down the road. We were jet lagged and couldn’t see the spare tire anywhere. Went into a pub and asked for a phone and a man at the bar offered to take a look as he was a mechanic. Everyone in the bar spilled out onto the street to watch and offer advice while he managed to locate the spare and the jack and fix us up. We were rescued by the friendly locals in our first hour in Scotland which endeared the place to us all the more.

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        1. So endearing. I’d like to think that Minnesotans would do the same, at least sometimes.
          I do like the image of a town where people aren’t distracted by a zillion entertainment possibilities so that watching/helping changing a tire is a reason for a community gathering.

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    2. yep i hit a rock in the lake district that was sticking out of the side of the road and doinked my front wheel so it was headng way off to the left. found the local guy had it towed and had a couple beers waiting for the rental company to get us our new vehicle. great random stop.

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  15. This is just one guy’s opinion, but we might be having the best week on TB in the two years it has existed. Picking up Chris was a splendid bit of luck. I suspect we all worry about the future of TB from time to time, but this week it sure looks healthy . . . and that in the absence of Our Dear Leader!

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    1. Awww, thanks Steve! I consider myself lucky to have found y’all (or all y’all, as we Southerners are known to say in our grammatically incorrect manner… ;) ). I don’t always have free time to knock around on WordPress, but when I do I’m always checking in here. It’s fun around here!

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        1. I wasn’t sure it was one of those “emphasis in certain scenarios” situations. But since I’ve just learned it today, Anna suggested it and it does have a good ring:
          “Hard to keep up with all y’all!”

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    1. that was the wierdest part of being in the lake district. sleepy little aura, cozy cottages beautiful lakes, sheep in the fields, rugged hilsides to hike about in (we found the mapmakers daughter and she gave us our daily agenda to the most magnificent spots. quiet contemplative sublime and everywhere there were fighter jets flying 400 feet off the gound doing manuvers. just wierd.

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        1. I hate military show offing to win over the masses at a cost of millions to us taxpayers but there something about the blue angels I like in spite of the in your face chest pounding

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      1. That puts me in mind of the scene in the movie “Local Hero”, set in Scotland when the jets flew over…

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  16. Toileting/TP story from 1966 visit to France. On the way to a summer school in the Midi, my cousin and I stayed in a school dortoire (dormitory). Our parents must have found this place for us. We were the only ones there.
    Went to use the facilities and found an odd toilet. There was TP there (poor quality, no doubt) but I couldn’t figure out how to flush. My first exposure to a bidet.

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  17. Egypt. Even though we were on a Smithsonian package tour, my wife and I left the gated ‘compound’ of our hotel in Cairo just to walk around the block. Well, the Nile intruded our quick one block radius and we had to drift a little further away. Now, we’re used to walking around big cities in Europe with a little attention…but not like this. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the open-mouthed stares of incredulity as they drove or walked past us. Expressions whose subtext seemed to be, “Are you crazy? Something really bad is about to happen to you and I don’t want to be around when it does.” We eventually turned around and headed back the way we came. Halfway back, one of the Tourist Police started walking with us to a) make sure nothing bad happened to us and b) to try to get us to shop at some very specific shops that I’m sure would give him a kickback if he could get us in.

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    1. The “get us to shop at some very specifc shops” reminds me of a college choir tour on which I was a sort of parent chaperone. We would be taken to learn about something unique to that part of Italy (Sorrento, Amalfi coast, Capri, Pompeii) such as wood inlay. The proprietor of a store would explain the process and then surprise! we were just happened to be in a store full of examples which we were invited to buy. Very convenient.

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  18. For those of you who have encountered what we used to call “two feet and a hole”, I am curious about the signage in Chris’s original post. It appears that either the user is standing on a toboggan or in a flattened baby carriage or that there is an opera prompter’s box facing the user.
    None of these explanations seems oily loikly.
    Any idea what that curved thing could represent?

    (BTW, Fabulous post, Chris!)

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    1. I wondered too, Lisa. And while we’re on the sign, how about that squatting posture? I’d find that difficult. Actually, I’d find any squatting difficult, but that pose especially!

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    2. Thanks Lisa – I was concerned that maybe the subject matter would be a bit indelicate for some of y’all, but I’m glad to see nobody was offended!

      As for the photo, Dale actually chose that one. I’m not sure what is happening in that sign, either. But funnily enough, mu husband texted me a picture he took of a sign in one of the Beijing restrooms he visited today. I can’t post it here without Dale, so I’ve put it on my Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40244258@N05/7349337628/in/photostream

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      1. I think I can safely say that on the Trail, Baboons would only be offended by mean or nastiness, but I can’t say that conclusively, as I have never seen either here :D

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  19. I’ve barely been out of the country (Canada and around Cancun). But my biggest culture shock was when I moved (1974) in with Wasbund to his parents’ house in Great Neck, NY. This midwestern shiksa , who thought she was a bit worldly because she’d lived in San Francisco environs for 4 years, was suddenly surrounded by Brooklyn accents, Jewish holidays, and the Long Island Expressway. I remember one of the great differences between his family and mine: they could joke about farting. Hell, they could name farting. (I was 10 or 11 before I knew it had a word attached…) And they could argue, out loud!

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    1. Arguing is a big thing among my Italian family as well. Not just out loud, but out LOUD!! Unfortunately, they also had the same attitude toward farting. So I expect my relatives would’ve had a regular ball hanging out with Wasbund’s clan. :)

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    1. Nice! Thanks Holly, I enjoyed that tune! :)

      I actually wondered what song might be appropriate for this post, seeing as how the subject wasn’t terribly genteel. You were smart to focus on the “travel” part of the post, rather than the “visiting the restroom” part. But just to balance things out, here’s a companion piece to your song:

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      1. I’ve really gotta go now, if I don’t I’ll have to run to the bathroom, and we all know what happened the last time I did that. ‘Nite jahl.

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