toilet is one of the few western-perfected inventions that work just
fine. It's reasonably hygienic, clean, environmentally conscious,
convenient, comfortable and reclusive. For most westerners the
prevailing etiquette of using a bathroom is deeply ingrained as
being necessarily private - any departure from the ritual is
considered appalling and unthinkable.
In the 1974 movie The Phantom of Liberty Luis Buñuel crafted what has become one of the most
famous scenes in the history of Cinema: an invited social evening
during which a company of bourgeois friends sit on and use toilet
bowls placed around a large table, while casually discussing the
effect of 12 million tons of human excrement a day on the world
environment. In the midst of the dignified conversation a guest
rises from his toilet and politely asks for the way to the dining
room. Once there, he locks the door and hastily eats in solitude
before hurrying back to the party.
reversal of rites can be experienced in south-west China by a mere
act of going to a public toilet. There is plenty of such
establishments in most major towns. A typical design consists of a
long concrete pad with a narrow trench down the middle. When there
are no divisions, you have a choice of squatting en face or
towards the back of one of the companions crouching next to you. In the morning
rush hours the facilities become quite popular, invoking the feeling
of camaraderie with your neigbours and with the queue in front
of your designated station. It's a great place to chat, listen to phone
conversations or share a cigarette...
But all is not lost for
the Middle Kingdom yet. Beijing hosted the 4th annual World Toilet Summit
in 2004 and there is a high-profile, multi-million dollar toilet
reconstruction project spearheaded by the Chinese Olympic Committee.
Since these initiatives are largely restricted to the rich China's
East Coast, chances are that the surrealism of using a bathroom will
not be lost in the poor South-west for time to come.