I didn’t mean to cause an international incident. And unlike Humpty Dumpty, I wasn’t actually ON the wall before I took the dive that I’m blaming on the plumbing in China. (I know I sound like an Ugly American here – but bear with me.)
Everything started out so innocently: a beautiful drive with my friends and our guide through the Chinese countryside to spend the day climbing the Great Wall. When Mr. Lee, our driver, deposited us in front of the entry gates, we posed for the obligatory photos and went inside. To reach the ski lift that would carry us up to the parapets, we climbed up a lane lined with vendors hawking their wares. Our guide explained that the shop owners lived right there in the neighborhood and, when not busy bartering, they caught up on neighborhood gossip and news – both traditionally, via conversations in front of their shops and on their smartphones.
According to our guide, Facebook and other external social media sites are blocked in China but an app called WeChat is terrifically popular – and apparently allowed in-country. As I was soon to find out, it was also very, very efficient at ensuring that news traveled at the speed of light.
When we finally came down from the Wall – this via an alpine slide concourse that was just rip-snorting fun – I was starting to regret all the water I had consumed during our climb. We had a long drive back to Beijing ahead of us and, while I dreaded the prospect, I knew I needed to use the public restroom.
Public toilets in China don’t conform to our Western idea of hygiene. The toilet “bowl” is flush (pun definitely intended) with the floor. Rather than sitting regally on a “potty”, a “squatty” requires a wide stance (there’s another pun here but I’ll let you figure it out) in order to relieve oneself.
Chinese public toilets for the most part don’t provide toilet paper, either. No square to spare. You walk in with your own little packet of tissue or you’re SOL. And no hand soap either. Or paper towels. (I exited my first experience with Chinese plumbing flapping my wet, non-sanitized hands in the breeze, feeling as if I had just engaged in a pissing match – with myself.)
The facilities we found at the base of the Great Wall were very clean – but very Chinese. Stall door after stall door sported an icon of a squatting human. And then I spotted it. A single door at the far end of the row with the word “potty” written in English underneath a picture of a human figure sitting on a toilet. Practically giddy with excitement, I flew down the aisle and grabbed the stall door, driven by nature’s urgent call.
Except I didn’t step into the stall. I stepped squarely into a 6-inch tiled threshold that I hadn’t noticed, propelling myself, in a perfectly executed horizontal trajectory, into the stall with a 180-degree turn of my body. But that’s not all. Still clutching the handle of the stall door in an attempt to avoid a fall that I instinctively knew was going to be painful, I tore the door off its hinges and dragged it down with me – landing on my back and cracking my head resoundingly against the tiled wall.
The next thing I knew, two very excited Chinese attendants were trying to lift the door off of me as I lay spread-eagled and stunned, afraid that the door wasn’t the only thing broken. While I couldn’t understand a word the women were saying, their shocked expressions told me everything I needed to know – they’d never seen anything like this.
By the time I got to my feet, a small crowd had formed that politely followed me outside, men and women speaking quietly but urgently to each other. My head felt like it was full of mush. My ankle throbbed where it had been pinned between the stall door and its frame. My tailbone was starting to scream. But what I saw when I looked down the hill made me burst out laughing so hard I started crying.
Every shopkeeper from the stalls we had passed on our way up the mountain was gathered in a knot, staring up at me. WeChat had once again triumphed. Someone inside the toilet had WeChatted the news about the red-headed foreigner exhibiting super-human strength and klutziness in a public toilet.
I never did get to relieve myself.