About Squat Toilets… —by Jinny Batterson
The first time I remember encountering a squat toilet was in rural Europe, during an early 1970’s trip with my husband. We were taking a deferred honeymoon about a year into our marriage. To prolong our travels given limited funds, we had chosen budget-conscious transportation and lodging. I don’t recall our location, but remember that I was bicycling along a minor road in beautiful but very open countryside when I felt the need to pee. For a good while, there didn’t seem to be anywhere I could discretely relieve myself. Finally, I came upon a small roadside shack, a bit like the outhouses I’d gotten used to on some earlier American camping trips. If nothing else, I thought, I could at least duck behind this shack to get out of sight of the road. Curious, though, I at first tried the door to this single-story roofed wooden enclosure that was maybe four feet to a side. It opened easily, with an inside latch so I could close it behind me. A slatted opening high up along one wall let in enough light so that once my eyes adjusted, I could see outlines of two shoe prints painted onto a graveled floor. In between them was a dark hole. I was grateful for the privacy, if not quite sure how to assume an appropriate position. My experimental posture worked well enough so I soon emerged with lighter heart and lighter bladder, ready to pedal onward.
Most of the squat toilets I’ve encountered since then have been in Hong Kong or mainland China, starting with a 1980 tourist trip. Over time, I came to realize that average Chinese were more likely to use squat than sit toilets. Almost immediately, I realized that my leg and back muscles were not accustomed to squatting for long periods; they were especially unaccustomed to getting up unassisted from a squatting position. In subsequent travels and stays in China, I got exposed to a wide variety of squat facilities. Except in the most impoverished rural areas, squat toilets came with individual stalls, sometimes in single-person outhouse-like buildings, at other times in larger restrooms with multiple stalls.
In most apartments, schools, restaurants, and shopping areas, squat toilet stalls had tile floors, with the toilet area raised about eight to twelve inches above the base of the floor. In the middle of the raised area was a saucer-sized hole or bowl. Within easy reach to one side there was often, though not always, a toilet paper roll or dispenser. (Carrying a small packet of tissues can be useful in a variety of ways in overseas travel.) Also along one side of the enclosure was a receptacle for gently used toilet paper, so less refuse went down the toilet hole, avoiding potential clogs.
Over time, more and more facilities came with flush buttons or pedals. Where there was not a mechanized flush, a water-bearing attendant made regular rounds to ensure that facilities stayed clean. On trains, squat toilets were metal, with foot pads to either side of a bowl-shaped receptacle that also flushed. When I most recently took Chinese trains earlier in 2017, most squat facilities had a grab bar at about waist height, enhancing stability as train cars swayed back and forth, and making it easier to get back up. Still, no matter how much I try to stay flexible, some aspects of using a Chinese squat toilet remain difficult for this Westerner with aging leg muscles unaccustomed to lengthy squats.
On a recent walk on one of the less-used trails in the area of the U.S. where I now live, I was reminded of some of my Chinese adventures. Early on a sunny autumn morning, I met up with a group for one of our weekly rambles. When everyone had gathered and it was time to set out, the restrooms at the trailhead were still locked up tight. Even though I’d made sure to use the bathroom at home to pee just before I left, my morning coffee began demanding further release as we followed the path into the woods. I scanned the area for a possible side trail with a port-a-potty, or even an offshoot that might lead to a street-side set of shops not too far off the trail. No luck. After a while, I spied a thicket that could provide enough cover for a privacy stop. As the rest of the group went further ahead, I contemplated the wisdom of learning to squat.