Chinese bathroom

I grew up with public bathrooms. The first one I frequented stood on a hill, far away from our compound. Every door was missing, the floor littered with yellow toilet paper, half-vaporized urine and dried turds. It was still my favorite because most bathrooms had just an open ditch where people squatted face to face or ass to ass. At dusk, the bathroom, with its red walls and curved eaves shadowed by pine trees, looked mysterious from a distance. I loved going there at night. Since housework was done, and my parents were sound asleep, I could squat there as long as I wanted, watching the moon and stars in the ink-blue sky, trees trembling with dew. There were no flies or people, only the howling wind or the chirping crickets in tall grass.

In bathrooms, I read many forbidden books: the Brothers Grimm, Journey to the West, Dreams of the Red Chamber, as well as the hottest pornos circulating in handwritten copies. I was guaranteed that they would poison my mind. But I felt nothing. Perhaps my reading environment wasn’t romantic enough. Perhaps I’d already been poisoned by the stories from the Ming Qing dynasties. People had real adventures. Women wore men’s clothing and became scholars, officials, generals. Men bound their feet, masquerading as women, to live with virgins for orgies. How passionately women loved and made love with their cousins, sometimes strangers they encountered in gardens, through bathroom wall cracks! When forced to marry someone else, they’d elope, or cut their noses, or hang themselves. Many jumped into latrine pits. What a terrible place to die, I thought!

Water taps were often built near bathrooms for recycling. Grandma always cursed as she carried buckets of laundry water uphill, limping in her bound feet. Everyone complained, but they all did it because nobody wanted a bathroom flooded in excrement. I liked working at the tap, though in winter the icy water hurt my frostbitten hands. I was away from mother’s nagging. I could daydream, listen to my neighbors gossip or watch other children play.

Every afternoon, my sister gathered a crowd on the slope outside the bathroom. Nine years old, she was a natural born leader. Even boys took her orders willingly. They rolled glass marbles from hole to hole, flipped cigarette wrappers folded in octagons. Everything involved gambling. The prizes were the things they played with, or books and candies. I watched from my sink, rubbing laundry in soapy water. Compared to my sister, I was a natural born loser. Occasionally, I was called to do cartwheels, the only sport I was good at. Once I did 15 in a row and won the game for my sister. She pulled me into the bathroom and handed me a piece of toilet paper. "Hold it," she said, digging out some cigarette butts from her pocket. She tore them apart, poured the tobacco onto the paper and rolled it into a cigarette. "Want a smoke?" she handed it to me after she took a puff. I wanted to ask her how, but was afraid of spoiling her grand prize. I took the roll and blew it as hard as I could. It died instantly. My sister gave me a pitiful look. "First time, eh?"

Everyone used cuspidors for the night. My mother had one specially ordered from Shanghai. It had a cover with a blooming peony. Every morning, I stacked my family cuspidors together and carried them out, my face turned to the side. The peony kept jumping into my side vision as if pleading to get away from the shit. Neighbors passed by, mostly mothers, holding cuspidors in their hands. "Early, Little Ping, have you had your breakfast?" they greeted. I tried to return their friendliness while keeping my nose away from the toilets. I wished people would stop saying "Have you eaten?" when they carried their piss in their hands. There should be some difference between food and excrement.

I headed to the garden. My grandma had wanted me to use fermented manure from the pit as fertilizer. "Safer and cleaner," she said, tying a bamboo stick to the ladle. When a boy drowned there, she changed her mind. "Just thin it with water and pour a foot away from the vegetables so they won’t get burnt. If there’s something other than piss, throw it away." She gave me a look which made me shiver in disgust. I followed her instructions until one day mother yanked a handful of hair off my scalp because I broke her teacup. The next morning, I found a turd in her cuspidor. I buried it near a cauliflower. Later mother broke a mop handle beating my sister for talking back. I cut the cauliflower and sautéed it with sliced pork. She gobbled everything down without suspicion, even gave me a friendly pat on the head. I winced, my triumph suddenly drowned by shame.

Many curses come from excrement: shit, dog shit, shit eater, fart ... Pig-headed people are called "rocks in a latrine pit – hard and stinky." For new officials who feign integrity, we say, "a new chamber pot with only three days of fragrance." The most vicious curse for women is "May you bear sons without assholes." Once my sister called mother "dog fart." She was slapped so hard that her eardrum cracked. Since then, she farted uncontrollably whenever she encountered mother.

My maternal grandma loved chamber pots. She placed hers next to the bed in her one-bedroom apartment. Whenever someone used it, I’d hold my breath. I couldn’t understand how my aunts could continue their chatting with the person sprinkling and splashing into the pot behind the curtain. Seeing my face turn blue from constipation, grandma told me how her father sold some land to get her a cedar chamber pot carved with golden dragons for her dowry. It shined next to the bed the bridegroom’s family provided, a bed that looked like a house, with steps in the middle. Women guests stuck their heads in the pot, inhaling its fragrance. "Too bad your grandpa paid his debt with our bed and my pot. Might as well. If he hadn’t gambled his wealth away, we would have been ranked as capitalists after the liberation, and would have been exiled to the countryside," she shuddered. My grandma considered Shanghai as the center of civilization and everywhere else barbarous.

I got my own bathroom when I lived in the countryside. Peasants placed tall buckets in pigsties as toilets. Once a week they emptied them in the community pit. Each family could save two buckets a month for their family garden. Apparently it wasn’t enough because many were caught stealing manure from the commune pit. Since I had no pigs to raise, villagers built me a shed, placing a new pine bucket and rice straw inside. The straw was for wiping. I used it to cover worms and prevent splashes. I didn’t mind the bucket, since I didn’t have to share it with others. Grandma often said, "Other people’s shit stinks you to death; your own shit smells like perfume." Perhaps I got used to it from spreading manure in the fields with my hands. The smell seeped into the pores and nothing could wash it off. Sometimes as I sat in the fields eating lunch with my dirty hands, I’d think of my fuss about the chamber pots and cuspidors. All seemed so trivial. Three months after I became a peasant, the only trace of my city upbringing was the toilet paper I stacked neatly in a basket. Whenever my friend helped me carry out the bucket, she’d ask why I wasted money on filthy paper made of straw. She said it was like "taking off one’s pants to fart."

Villagers collected excrement like treasure. Even children knew to pick up droppings on the road and bring them home. Feuds could erupt between villages over the right to collect manure from city bathrooms. Meanwhile, they feared it as they feared blood. Women used to give birth in pigsties. The stench could prevent jealous gods from harming babies, especially boys, and prevent the birth blood from bringing bad luck to the house. Nowadays, peasants give birth at hospitals, but they still believe a pregnant woman’s touch can cure a stiff neck, her urine can revive a person from convulsion.

When I got my American visa, my first thought was I’d have a clean bathroom. It took me a while to get used to a sitting toilet, which reminded me of chamber pots. And my toilet wasn’t that clean, shared by three Chinese men who wouldn’t bother lifting the seat. Appalled by all the good water flushed down toilets and other waste in America, I vowed to keep my Chinese tradition. But soon, I began flushing the toilet several times during my bowel movement, and couldn’t sleep without a hot bath. To ease my conscience, I put rocks in the toilet tank to save water and reduced my bath to five times a week. But whenever I stepped into the water steaming with Aveeno moisturizer, I felt shame for the weakness of my flesh. I thought about how everything was recycled in China until it couldn’t be used, and what would happen now that everybody was imitating America. Even my pot-loving grandma was installing a flush toilet because she was too old to carry the chamber pot. I offered to pay for a helper. She said maids nowadays wouldn’t clean chamber pots. Besides, peasants had stopped collecting city manure since they used American fertilizers. Cheaper and cleaner. Lying in the bath, I imagined the pit under my grandma’s building overflowing with shit. The bathroom I grew up with would fare no better if local peasants also stopped coming. Had modern toilets spread everywhere? If so, China would have to import American techniques to pump more water from underground and increase water pressure so toilets would flush.

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