Squat toilets. Most travelers in China have had to face them, and most expats have had to get used to them. Squat toilets are everywhere in China, and for most Chinese, are preferred to Western-style toilets. In highway rest stops and malls – the two most likely places in China to find a combination of squat and sitting toilets – I’ve seen, time and again, Chinese women fidgeting impatiently as they wait for a squat toilet. When it comes right down to it, most Chinese still prefer squatting to sitting on the toilet, to avoid contact with germs on the toilet seat. (Hence the need for signs in bathrooms requesting that people refrain from squatting on the seats of sitting toilets.) For many people, the sitting toilet is as odd and unfamiliar – and as disgusting – as the squat toilet is to most Westerners.
Navigating the squat toilet can be a daunting experience for even the most courageous of newbies (there are plenty of horror stories) and raises embarrassing questions even for long-time users. Whether it’s a public hutong bathroom, where stalls – and privacy – rarely exist, or a bathroom in a Chinese friend’s home, the proper usage of a squat toilet can cause mild to acute consternation. It’s said that some Westerners are physically incapable of doing the so-called “Asian Squat,” which allows one to squat with their heels on the ground, rather than balancing on their tip-toes. And then there are more immediate questions – how do you avoid splashback? How to keep from peeing on your pants? And the question that can flummox even the experienced squat-pee-er: which way are you supposed to face?
Fortunately, there is little that’s too embarrassing to be asked on the Internet. Information on the squat is available for anyone traveling abroad, for those satisfying their scatological curiosity or for those considering the squat toilet for its health benefits. (As one of two defecation postures available to us, squatting is considered the most natural position for normal biological functioning. Its health benefits include easier and faster defecation, as well as prevention and relief of colon, prostate, bladder, and bowel disorders.) Squat toilets – known also by its less candid name, the “natural-position” toilet – can be found in most parts of Asia and many parts of the Middle East, as well as parts of the Mediterranean.
Directions and techniques range from the pragmatic and unnecessarily procedural (see WikiHow’s “Using the Squat Toilet”) to the irreverent (“How to Use Japanese Style Toilet”). Some sites suggest practicing the squatting motion before you travel to avoid a nasty fall, and all advise bringing your own toilet paper. Feet placement is obvious: you don’t step inside the trough. Many modern porcelain or metal squat toilet have foot treads to either side of the trough, to provide better traction in case the floor area is wet. Beyond that, the direction you face seems to be a matter of personal preference. If you prefer to leave it at that, then perhaps you should read no further.
Unlike the Japanese toilet, which comes with a dome (a “lip”) at the flushing end, most Chinese toilets are simple porcelain (sometimes metal) pans embedded in the floor. The “lip,” an ingenious design feature that helps minimize splatter, also tacitly points the squatter in the right direction. In this case, you face the wall, with your back to the door. In Chinese squatters, however, there is no ‘lip,’ and no implicit direction. When asked the question, “Which way do you face?” most Westerners’ responses are fairly similar: outward, back against the wall; can’t let anyone get the drop on you. Besides, you sit facing the door on a western toilet, don’t you? Another option is just to copy whatever the locals are doing. This is possible because many public bathrooms in China lack doors, and sometimes even stalls, and most locals observed in action face the other direction: back towards the wall. Privacy is something you have to get over quickly.
When probed further, however, the direction becomes less self-evident. In most squatters, one end of the trough is shallower, and the pan slopes downward into the hole, or the flushing end. This end is closest to the wall, so when you face away from the wall, you’re shooting into the shallow end, which can result in some major splash-age. For those concerned with precision aim (i.e. not leaving the bathroom with urine-soaked socks) the direction you face can make a big difference.
Another consideration is plumbing and water pressure. Most Chinese toilets can barely flush toilet paper, let alone what you’ve dropped in the trough. As crass as it seems, the direction you face depends on whether you’re doing big business or small business. While you may hesitate to risk splashing your bum (facing the door), an equally unpleasant possibility is that of leaving an unflushable gift for the next person in line.
So next time you find yourself on a squat toilet, take a moment to contemplate the way you position yourself. Better yet, let us know now by answering the following survey:
And if you can’t get enough of toilets (your weirdo) then why not visit a toilet-themed restaurant?