This month cluture teller gives us an expat story for the ages…One he will never forget
One of the best things about traveling in other countries is the stories that you collect. In fact, I’ve found that fairly consistently, the difference between those who enjoy living in other cultures, and the ones who can’t wait to get home, is their attitude towards unexpected problems. The latter group complain, and talk constantly about how “that wouldn’t happen back home”, while the former group thinks, “This will make a great story!”
My favorite story comes from my first summer in China, back in 1994. I’d been in China almost a year, but hadn’t traveled much. I was teaching English in university, and one of my students came from a tiny village in Sichuan province. His father was a local government leader, and my student invited me to visit them for one week. This was an amazing opportunity, the chance to see the ‘real China’, away from the big cities.
My arrival there was quite a momentous one. This was a village that had only had electricity for two years, and still had no running water in the houses. The people commented that I was probably the first white man to ever set foot in their village in the entire history of the world. My student was not only the son of a government official, but the first person from their village to be admitted to a top-tier university. So we were quite the celebrities.
The plumbing, however, proved to be a problem. The toilets, predictably, were outdoor squat toilets. But the summers in Sichuan are hot, so the walls were only about a meter high, entirely uncovered. When you squatted to do your business, your head popped up above the barrier, so you could see everyone else, and everyone else could see you. For them, it was normal. But when I, the waiguoren, went to take my first squat and empty my bowels, not only were there people watching and commenting, but they were calling their friends to come and watch the show! Talk about performance anxiety … try taking a dump when there’s a whole crowd of people apparently grading you on style, performance, and execution.
I decided that I would have to be more strategic, and aimed to only use the toilet when there weren’t a lot of people around. So the next morning, I waited until around 9:00am, when most of the people were out working in the fields. I went to perform my duties and, such joy, this time I only had a mere five people watching me. I was feeling rather proud of myself and my performance. Suddenly, I felt a gigantic shove from underneath me, which propelled me off the toilet and into the street, pants around my ankles, my shiny white butt sticking up in the air.
Turns out, the toilets were built on top of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill, they had a gate that let the pigs go and wallow around under the toilets during the day, to keep them cool. One of them was a gigantic old sow that everyone in the village knew hated being defecated upon (which is perhaps a legitimate feeling). The idea was that when you used the toilet, you always checked first to make sure that she wasn’t in there. I had failed to do so, and she had demonstrated her displeasure by standing up against the interior wall, and shoving me off with her enormous snout.
And there you have it, some day when I write my book about China, it will, no doubt, be titled “Watch Out For Pigs In The Toilet!” But it was also an important milestone. Before that happened, the people had treated me like a virtual demigod, with a very obvious invisible barrier that prevented building relationships. But when they saw that I was so stupid that I didn’t even know to look for the pigs before using the toilet, it brought me to a level equal with them. At dinner that night, while drinking copious amounts of baijiu we all had a great laugh about it … and I gained some truly amazing friends.