A sick bear had been in the facilities before I was. That was the only possible explanation. No human body could have survived such an evacuation intact.
I had just staggered out of a wooden building behind the Naxi Family Guesthouse, one of the several refuges for weary hikers along the Tiger Leaping Gorge high trail. The plates of vegetables and meat had been delicious and nourishing. The orange soda had boosted my low blood sugar. And the view! The eastern mountains were bolted to the sky, as fierce and immortal as forever.
But the toilet. Dear lord, the toilet.
It was a ten-foot-long, two-foot-deep tiled channel that had been cut into the side of an unforgiving mountain slope miles above anything that could be called a town. Each end of the channel sloped to a central catch over which squatted the wood wall that divided the men’s and women’s sides.
As with the sun, no sane person should look upon this catch. I hadn’t meant to. But my eyes fell there.
Oh, the horror. My soul wailed. My brain burned. I wanted to plead to some higher power, “Please, I didn’t mean to look! I’m sorry! Take it back! Take it back!”
As I recovered outside, Kay, one of the Edinburgh University college students I had hiked with for a couple of hours, neared. “Don’t use that one,” I warned her, pointed to the door on the left. “The other one must be better. It can’t be worse. Nothing could be worse. Someoneâ€”somethingâ€”was near death in there. I’ve neverâ€”I mean, Christâ€¦” I trailed off, abandoning words. Kay nodded solemnly and closed behind her the door on the right. Only then did I notice the hot-pink lips painted on the back of it. I looked at the door I had gone through. It had no icon at all, let alone a depiction of a grizzly clutching its tortured gut. I must have been in the men’s room.
In China, visitors come to know the effluence of the Chinese long before they know their hearts. Eventually it dawns that these things are connected.
First there is the spitting. At first the spitting seems tolerable; it’s not as bad as you’ve heard from other travelers, and if something gross is inside you, it makes sense to get it out, right?
But then you realize how pervasive it is. Even stylish women teetering in $400 heels will hock a loogie at your humbly shod feet without even a sideward glance.
Eventually, your eye will pinch shut at the sound of someone gearing up with that unmistakable hucchrrphgh sound, and though it is safer to find out where the load might land, you simply can’t bear to look anymore. You will start to suspect that every surface is glossed with a gelatinous layer of phlegm. And there will come one moment when it will seem that there has been a splat on the soft thing within you that tries to have compassion for the plight of suffering that is existence. And you will lose it.
“Jesus Christ, that is so fucking disgusting!”
Well, that’s what I did.
Beijing has started to fine people 50 yuan for spitting. As the official news agency Xinxua snarkily notes, 50 yuanâ€”about $6.50â€”can buy a hundred packs of paper hankies.
And then there are the toilets. Americans have a reputation for being overlyâ€”even wastefullyâ€”attentive to personal hygiene. With my tendency to linger every morning in the hot shower until pruned, I’m no different. There are good reasons to care about public sanitation. Peopleâ€”usually poor peopleâ€”get sick when it’s lacking.
Yet, if there were ever a time to be philosophical about such matters, it’s when you’re taking that step up to the squat toilet ubiquitious in China. There are holes in us, and there are holes in the ground. Everything is substance. Stuff goes in, and stuff goes out, ad infinitum. The evidence is all around you.
There is never paper, so bring your own.
Being philosophical is helpful for dealing with the shockingly intimate facts you learn about the person who visited before you, whose face you will never see. Be grateful for the small mercy of never having to look in her eyes and have her know that you know, and that both of you wish you didn’t.
The squat toilet is no more unsanitary than a public “Western-style” seated toiletâ€”which few dare to actually sit onâ€”and in the, er, end, I found myself heading for the squat variety. When clean, it’s neater and faster. When it’s notâ€”think bears. Bears with dysentery. Bears with miscarriages. Bears in shame.
There is a scene in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator that is worth recalling. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, germaphobe Howard Hughes cannot bear to handle a restaurant’s bathroom door. He plasters himself to the wall adjacent and waits, sweating and tense, for someone to open the door so he can dodge through before it closes.
It’s not a bad idea, really.
When you have the same plumbing but not the same language, you’re bound to encounter the baseness of each other first. China reminds visitors that this essential part of existence can’t be overlooked or ignored.
This fact is instructive for travelers, who have ventured off to be touched by others, and by otherness, which is far scarier. In China, it can be a hard lesson. You are jostled and shoved and elbowed. People yell in your ear and cough in your face. They cut in front of you at the supermarket and take your seat on the bus. They put their chins on your shoulder to get a better lookâ€”particularly if there is someone to be laughed atâ€”and jam their fingers into into your side.
When you are truly uncomfortable, you know you’re fitting right in.
And people will notice. It is then that people may begin to try to make you more comfortable. They may not excavate your ear canal of wax with any suitably probing objectâ€”a multigenerational grooming I witnessed everywhereâ€”but give it some time. For now, someone will probably slide over companionably, crowding you with curious attention, and grab the book out of your hand. Maybe they’ll even buy you lunch because you were brave enough to venture into the noodle shop where no foreigners dare to enter. (It happened to me four times.)
Around will be women and girlsâ€”mothers and daughters, friends, co-workers in matching suitpant uniformsâ€”holding hands or walking arm in arm. Men and boysâ€”fathers and sons, friends, co-workers in overalls or pinstripesâ€”will be companionably strolling with their arms around each other’s shoulders, or squeezing each other’s necks. There is much leaning and lounging on one another. Everybody uses everybody else as furniture.
You can’t get this fiercely affectionateâ€”or make 1.3 billion peopleâ€”without a pragmatic acceptance of all that is crotchy about life. Lesson # 1: Touching is inevitable.
Leo, my pal from Xi’an, told me a story about how how an American friend of his was deeply distressed one night when they were sharing a two-room flat. Each room had a door. The friend shut his. Leo left his open.
But the American knew Leo’s door was open. He found it impossible to handle. “Why don’t you shut your door?” he asked Leo.
Leo said, “I never shut the door. I don’t mind the door open.”
“But you’ll have privacy,” the American said.
“I like the door open,” Leo said.
“But anyone can see you,” the American insisted. “If you shut the door I won’t be able to see you.”
“I don’t mind if you see me. You can shut your door if you want to.”
“But if I open the door I’ll be able to see you,” the American complained.
Leo found this all very amusing. He and his parents had been living in just two rooms for his entire life. And he had never once shut the door.
My last day in China, I went for a massage with two people staying at my hostel in Kunming. Jaime was a Bolivian-German computer scientist working for six months at a university just outside of Hong Kong, and Bella was a Dane who had been sent to China by her boss to scout out a selection of tea for a new cafÃ© he wanted to open in Copenhagen.
It took us three hours, but eventually we did track down a massage parlor with a reasonable price. (Ninety minutes for $7.) Fully clothed, we each lay on a twin-size bed, and then a giggling teenager in a long skirt attacked each one of us. For the next 90 minutes I was bent and squeezed and rubbed and eased. It was not gentle. But it was thoroughly meant.
Not surprisingly, it was a deeply practical rubdown. Any part of her body that was suitable for a tool she used. She kneeled her way up my spine, her hair tickling my neck. Standing on the bed, she lifted my leg in the air and thrust the arch of her foot into the back of my thigh. She stood on my butt and chatted with the other masseurs.
China’s tough love makes me understand all those mincing little steps of Chinese women in classic opera and film. It’s hard to be dainty in China. It is loud and dirty and noisy here. There is no halting the assault with, “Will you stop touching me?!” Such a desire is met with uncomprehending disbelief.
The door is always open in Chinaâ€”even when the only thing to look at is the sad residue of sick bears.