When you move to China to teach you’ll find yourself dealing with a lot of new things.
You’ll have to try to learn a few Mandarin words and work to overcome problems caused by not knowing the language.
You’ll be faced with all the little details that come along with learning to live and thrive in a foreign country, with very different customs and foods.
But one of the challenges you might not think about is having to use the toilets in China.
Chinese toilets are very different to the toilets you use back home and so are the rules and expectations surrounding them.
So if you’re going to survive them, there are a few things you need to know.
1. Be ready for squat toilets
Whether you’re a man or a woman, you need to prepare yourself for squat toilets in China.
Even in the major cities you’ll find more squat toilets than traditional Western toilets.
But if you find yourself in a small city, or even a large one that doesn’t see many tourists, you’re going to encounter squat toilets wherever you go.
Squat toilets are supposed to be good for your digestive system because they put you into a more natural position.
But when you’ve grown up in a Western country, they can be very difficult to use and may end up being your nemesis, just like they were for me.
A squat toilet in China.
The first time I used a squat toilet was when I went to the hospital in China for my health exam. They gave me a cup and told me to give a sample.
I was in a tiny, cramped, wet stall for 15 minutes, holding onto the door with one hand so I could balance and trying to get the sample with the other.
It was one of the most stressful 15 minutes of my life! I was pathetically proud when I managed to hand over my sample.
Men have it a little easier when it comes to the toilets in China and won’t have to worry about it most of the time.
But wherever they go in China, women will have to watch their fluid intake if they want to avoid a potentially nasty bathroom experience.
2. Avoid the puddles
There are almost always puddles in toilets in China.
Toilet paper is usually for drying, not for cleaning. Instead the locals seem to use a hose that’s attached to the wall.
Using this when your pants are around your ankles is not the most comfortable or easiest thing to do. And even when you do it well it almost always results in puddles.
There’s also the problem of the hose because you only have two hands and one of them is usually occupied keeping you stable. As a result, if you’re really uncoordinated the hose can get away from you.
This is when you pull up your pants and step out whistling, pretending that your pants are dry and that you had nothing to do with the mess in the stall behind you.
Another problem with the puddles is that you’ll step in them no matter how carefully you walk.
And if you’re really unlucky, your pants will drop into one while you’re using the toilet. Having wet pants when you walk out of a Chinese toilet is never a good look.
Just try not to think about the combination of fluids that probably made up that puddle.
3. Always carry tissues
Toilets in China don’t always have tissues and there’s a good reason for this.
The plumbing system in China isn’t set up to deal with tissues, so if you flush one you’ll probably block the system. And you definitely don’t want to be in a toilet in China while it’s flooding!
Locals in China carry tissues with them and put them in the bin next to the toilet when they’re done.
Old public squat toilets in China.
The bin sits there all day, filled with dirty tissues and usually overflowing onto the floor. This creates a smell that you will never forget.
You can probably avoid this if you only use the toilets in expensive Western-style bars or hotels, but that’s an expensive way to have a social life just to avoid a squat toilet.
4. Watch your shoes
Not to be indelicate, but Western women aren’t used to squat toilets in China. They aren’t as easy to use as you might think.
It sometimes helps if you think of it as a game and count how many times you miss your shoes. And how many times you don’t.
Unfortunately, this is a game that takes a lot of practice. And if you’re out having a few drinks with friends it just complicates the whole situation and brings your win total way down.
5. Don’t look sideways
When you walk into a bathroom in China, make sure you avoid looking sideways as you head for your stall.
The idea of privacy is very different in China. This is understandable given the lack of space and the large number of people who life together in small houses or apartments.
But it isn’t unusual to walk into a bathroom in China and find that people have left the door open while they use the toilet.
There seems to be an unspoken kind of courtesy about moments like these. You’ll see the locals walking past the doors in front of you, never looking right or left.
They won’t even seem to notice the open doors. But Westerners, who don’t know this unspoken rule, usually look.
The expression on the face of the woman squatting over the toilet usually clearly expresses her indignation at your breach of this rule.
Also, if a door is almost closed but not latched, don’t push on it thinking that it’s empty. This can give the person in the stall a smack on the head they’ll probably never forget.
This rule actually applies outside of China as well.
I made the mistake of pushing on a partially open door on a plane heading from China to Hong Kong. This made the lady inside, who had a toddler on her lap, very angry.
If you’re really lucky, by the time you leave China - after lots of practise - you’ll be the winner of the toilet game.
That’s the one thing that I didn’t achieve.
One last travel tip
This tip is unrelated to Chinese squat toilets but equally as harrowing.
If you're heading to China on a holiday or an extended stay (like teaching), you won't be able to access major websites and apps like Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. This is due to the country's strict censorship laws.
You can only access these sites if you download a virtual private network (VPN) app on your phone before you arrive.
To help you, here's a simple review of five VPNs that work in China.
Have a great time!