I’ve squatted many times in and around Zion National Park. In fact, I’ve squatted my way all across the upper portion of the Colorado Basin, which encompasses most of southern Utah. Typically there was a tent in the distance or a backpack next to me. But on my next trip to Zion, I will apparently have the option of squatting in style. This is a watershed moment, a historical shift in the global order has occurred. There are squat toilets in Utah’s National Parks!
It was actually during a weekend trip to Yellowstone last summer that my daughter first noticed squat toilets in the parks (“Mom! There are squatty potties here!”) Coincidentally, the parking lot outside that privy was also teeming with Chinese tourists. It was an eye opening moment. While much of the world uses squat toilets, American squeamishness about bodily functions does not typically abide them. The Chinese really are going to change the world, I thought. Anyone who frequents our national parks knows that Chinese tourists love them—so much, in fact, they are planning to create their own national park system. Unfortunately the Chinese are loving our park bathrooms to death—breaking the toilets by standing on them to squat.
Americans in China are familiar with this problem. When you do find a western-style toilet in China, in airports, restaurants, and hotels, it’s accompanied either by undecipherable instructions or the international prohibition sign—that hilarious stick-man picture demonstrating how not to use the toilet (sit on it, dammit don’t stand on it). In the States, OSHA-approved Do Not Stand on the Toilet Seat signs are now available with the image at the top of this post.
In China it’s common to find footprints on toilet seats, and laugh as we may, if you’re Chinese, resting your naked butt on the same spot where many other naked butts have rested is grosser than snot. I think they have a point.
But the U.S. National Park System shouldn’t get too comfortable with squatties since China is currently undergoing what the government calls, literally, a “toilet revolution”. China recognizes what we all know: the toilet is the single most powerful symbol of social inequality in the world. You doubt it? Just compare the automated Toto in a club level hotel room in Hangzhou to an average squatting restroom.
Xi Jinping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has spawned a Herculean effort to modernize China’s facilities. Nearly $300 million has been allocated to upgrade bathrooms, including the installation of western-style toilets. Whether the revolution includes an exhortation for Chinese men to actually use public restrooms rather than street corners is unclear.
Thanks to the revolution, it’s now possible to find toilet paper in many public facilities (with signs telling you to cherish it), but it’s unclear if the revolution includes improvements to the plumbing lines, which cannot currently accept the manifested tissue. Et tu toilet paper? What does your future hold? The communist impulse to control the allocation of resources applies even to you. Facial recognition technology in the Temple of Heaven restrooms, for example, ensures that no one gets too many squares.
There’s a lot of noise in the infosphere from purported experts who say that squatting is, well, the more advantageous position. That topic was the gist of my conversation on a recent day trip with a group of women I barely knew— yes, this is a photo of us squatting in the rain while discussing the benefits to our digestive track and taking measure of our vestigial hamstring flexibility.
In a proper Asian squat the butt is almost to the ground and the heels should be flat. It’s a common position of relaxation throughout the developing world, and I was pretty pleased with myself, squatting there in the middle of the Longmen Ancient Village parking lot. I exuded confidence. Look at my Asian squat—I’m flexible at 51! My heels are down, and it really is a relaxing pose. But the next day my Achilles tendons were so sore I found myself hobbling around the apartment like Quasimodo.
Here’s the thing. Western-style bathrooms will win the East/West battle, and not just because so many excellent TV and film scenes have occurred there. Toilets were invented for a reason, and it’s thrilling that I can report (for posterity) why the developed world needed upright toilets. I came to this realization the hard way, which is the only real way to learn anything.
If you’ve ever been extremely sick, and I mean acutely, dangerously ill, let’s say from a combination of food poisoning and high altitude, in a rural area (a very rural area), a place where squatting prevails, a place where toilet or john or loo are too genteel to describe the situation in front of you, or rather, below you—if you’ve ever experienced that, then you will understand the appeal of the western style toilet. Simply put, the western upright allows one to gracefully and perhaps more importantly, safely navigate certain irrepressible bodily functions that can occur simultaneously. As a bonus, fending off the urge to faint is much easier when you aren’t also trying to steady yourself above a lethal abyss. I’ve done the research. The next time you have an urge to lie down on a bathroom floor, direct supplication skyward in praise of the upright toilet.
Back in my post Biggest, Tallest, Fastest, Highest, I argued that China is not likely to take over the world because China cannot export, for lack of a better phrase, cultural appeal. This includes its squat toilets. Even if Xi Jinping manages to eradicate every pit toilet in the country and then create a unifying national narrative, it still won’t be one that China can outsource to other countries, like, for example: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. China will never plagiarize that phrase. It’s an authoritarian country, and freedom, no matter how flawed, is more alluring to human beings than totalitarianism. The future can not belong to a country that cloisters its citizens from truth at home and follows them across the globe like a maniacal helicopter parent. (Most of the time, I believe that).
In Yellowstone I used the phrase change the world to describe China, but in retrospect that would require cultural allure. China will impact the world. It is already impacting the world with its pollution and its plastic waste, its travel and luxury demands, and its desire for the status of a western education. For now, it’s also impacting the world with its squat toilets.
Postscript: There is literature for almost every occasion. Here is a corporeal poem about the body to elevate the low topic of my post.
By Theodore Roethke
Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, —
The flying fabric stitched to bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil log violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood’s obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.