Illustration: Peter C. Espina
For many foreigners, bathroom etiquette remains a peculiar aspect of Chinese culture. We generally view a trip to the toilet as a private affair and reserve small bathroom talk only to close friends. Males silently face the wall behind the urinals and one may even hold his gases while peeing to prevent discomfort to the gentleman at his side. It's almost like we are convinced that being caught performing these bodily functions is somehow abnormal and frowned upon. We even engage in a practice known as "bathroom stalling," when one waits in the stall for the public restroom to clear to avoid revealing that he was the source of those alien noises and smells.
Apparently, things are different in Beijing on pretty much every level of society. I used to believe that creating a lively toilet atmosphere was the prerogative of hutong
dwellers. I've always been amazed at how social public toilets are in traditional Beijing neighborhoods. Two guys squatting next to each other wouldn't just limit their exchange to brief expressions of politeness. For all I know, they could be discussing sports, foreign politics or the benefits of genetically modified crops. Meanwhile, members of the younger generation squat with their smartphones and seem to be learning about the fancy features of each other's devices or simply enjoying music videos.
Yet, the communal nature of disposing bodily substances is not contained to the narrow alleys of old Beijing. It took me time to get used to male students following me into the bathroom during breaks. They would ask course-related questions or just make chit-chat while I was in front of the urinal. Although I'm never thrilled about lecturing with my fly unzipped, I used to attribute this to poor manners and didn't think twice about it.
I recently discovered that the tendency of toilet socializing does not constitute poor upbringing. Rather, it is an essential part of Beijingers' lives. I once went for a smoke in the toilet during the break of a humanities department faculty meeting at my university. As I walked in, I faced a colorful orchestra of human voices, urination, flatulence and expectoration. The department's deputy dean was chatting with the director of the post-graduate school. They both stood in front of urinals on opposite ends of the bathroom, apparently debating the exact date of some event. One thought it was Friday, while the other believed it was Thursday.
Suddenly, another thunderous sound rumbled from behind the door of one of the stalls. It was accompanied by a myriad of tiny splashes. This noise left nothing to imagination about the state of the stool belonging to the person inside. Had I'd been in that stall, I would have probably stayed there until the evening, too embarrassed to look anybody in the eyes. Surprisingly, a strong voice resembling that of the English department dean's came out from the stall. Based on the reactions of the deputy dean and the director, it looked like the voice clarified the disagreement between the two.
I didn't stick around to confirm the identity of the omniscient pooper. It was obvious that I had a long way to go before I could fit in properly to any level of Beijing society.