There are few things we take for granted more than personal waste elimination. The assumptions many Americans share about bathroom habits may include things like: public toilets are a right, privacy (being in “the privy”) is an expectation, we flush pretty much all things – even when cautioned not to do so, we require at least a square or a ply – probably more, and so forth. As an American who has traveled throughout Europe and lived in Asia for 2 1/2 years, my toilet assumptions have been examined, re-examined, and in some cases flushed away. I have become multi-toilet-lingual, able to find comfort, nay relief, in a variety of toilet situations.
Flush or Trash
When I was a teenager we visited my sister’s house in Northern California. She had posted a sign over the toilet that said “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” This was sort of a conservationist attempt, but also symptomatic of faulty plumbing. The trash can was not pleasant as all paper went in it to keep the toilet from clogging. Likewise, in Asia, I found that there were some countries where the plumbing was not up to scratch, so it all had to be placed in trash cans in the cubicle. My father-in-law had a similar experience as a missionary in Mexico, where they threw the used paper directly on the floor, like peanut shells in a Texas Barbecue, only more revolting.
Another expectation that had to go was consistent access to paper. My entire time in Asia, I carried travel tissues with me at all times because you never knew when you would need them. Some countries were reliably well-stocked. Others would surprise you. Some countries had an attendant who would sell you paper along with access to the toilets, even when the toilets were seemingly in violation of the Geneva accords.
What’s In a Name?
Americans are notoriously oblique about what to call the room of requirement. We like euphemistic names such as “the restroom” or even the mysterious “powder room” where I might go to “powder my nose” (or perhaps where powder kegs are stored?). When I asked my British friends if I could use their bathroom, they were initially startled because the “bathroom” is where the bathtub is and is often separate from the water closet where the toilet is. Most Brits simply say “toilet,” which sounds too direct and crass to delicate Americans, as if someone might figure out what we intend to do in there.
Asians are generally more direct in referring to the “toilet.” This was one of the key Mandarin phrases we took with us to China: “Cesuo zai nar” or “Toilet is where?” Unfortunately, our pronunciation wasn’t great (Mandarin is a tonal language; unlike Romance languages that use tone to convey interrogation or emphasis of the sentence, words have different tones that change the meaning of the word). Fortunately, our guide figured out what we were saying before we were forced to act it out.
In Vietnamese, people are even more direct. The phrase “mah quah” literally means “I have to pee or poop.”  This is how people ask where the toilets are.
Paper or Water
In Singapore, all toilet cubicles (whether squatters or western style) include a sprayer attached to a hose. When I first saw this I thought it must be for the janitors. However, I was informed that it is the preferred personal cleansing method for Muslims, and most Malaysians are Muslim. That explained why the floor and toilet seat were often wet when I entered. In Bali, the Hindu part of Indonesia, bathrooms include a water basin with a scoop for personal cleansing. Unfortunately, many of the basins I saw near tourist attractions had dead flies floating in the water which really didn’t seem hygienic. I was also a little baffled by the scoop, although eventually my imagination worked it out. Having been in Europe, I had seen and used bidets before, and obviously they have some advantage over paper in terms of actual cleaning ability, although not so much in drying ability. Perhaps Singapore with both together has the best approach. As they say at Burger King, have it your way.
Some of the bathrooms in Singapore had a communal toilet paper dispenser, super-sized, out near the sinks. You needed to stock up before entering your private chamber. This required both forethought and powers of prophecy on some level, and I noticed that there was some social pressure to save trees.
At the Big Buddha statue in Phuket, Thailand, I encountered the most unusual paper of all: actual sheets of paper! I was concerned about the paper cut potential, so I used my trusty personal supply of tissue instead.
Touchless or Seated
The other thing that westerners notice in Asia when using western style toilets is that there are often signs posted warning people not to “squat” on the toilet seats as they may slip and injure themselves, to say nothing of the mess made. Still, on many occasions I found shoe prints and more unspeakable forensic evidence on entering a western style toilet cubicle. Habits die hard for Asians just as they do for us.
While westerners complain that it requires great thigh muscles to use the squatter-style pans that are common across Asia (I also found high heels mostly unworkable), Asians complain that sitting with your bare skin on a seat where the bare skin of others has been is not hygienic. This is one reason a contactless experience is preferred. They have a point. Many western style cubicles in Singapore include sanitizer that can be applied to the seat before using it to prevent the spread of germs or perhaps just to provide peace of mind.
We even encountered some unusual touchless toilets in Europe: a brand new chrome squatter in Croatia that looked like a big shiny shower stall, and a very odd bowl of water on the floor in a Venetian sandwich shop that reminded me of a birdbath basin. Well, I hope that second one was a toilet anyway.
Free or Pay
There are some pay toilets in the US, but there sure aren’t many. As Americans, we are used to having free access to clean well-stocked bathrooms; where the bathrooms are found wanting, we have the right to complain; there is often a sign posted asking us to inform management if the restroom is not clean. In every restaurant or store, there is a restroom available. Not so in Asia where most restrooms are shared between multiple businesses and restaurants. Even large chain restaurants like Chili’s, Outback, and Applebees do not have their own toilets in Singapore.
Likewise, there are many toilets that require payment to use, usually to a matron or attendant. In India, almost every toilet required payment which included some paper; however, many of the toilets were in disrepair (to say the least) despite paying to use them.
Our favorite pay toilet experience was on a secluded beach in Bali. We had to hike about a half hour through the jungle to get there from a remote road, so we were surprised to find a shack on the beach selling nasi goreng, mee goreng and french fries. There was also a hand-painted sign advertising a “toilet” (basically a hole dug in the beach but with some privacy): “Small pipi 20,000 rupayah. Big pipi 40,000 rupayah” (roughly 20 cents and 40 cents). As soon as our daughter saw the sign she wanted 40,000 rupayah just for the dubious bragging rights. As I pointed out, we were at the beach, so small pipi is free in the fish toilet (ocean). But she did come back and do victory laps around the table after her beach toilet adventure.
Private or Communal
While Americans expect, nay, demand privacy in our public restrooms, we aren’t actually the most private ones out there. Toilet cubicles in Spain generally have doors that go all the way to the floor and well above head height. Likewise in Singapore. You can’t check to see whose shoes are in the next stall or share a square between stalls in those countries.
Many Asian countries are quite public, though. Not only is privacy not expected, but it’s not even desired. Going to the toilet in rural Cambodia is a social activity. People go in the field, and if they see you squatting, they will come join you to share gossip, swap stories and recipes, or just make small talk. It’s a toilet-going based alternative to Pinterest (there’s no internet in these rural villages, so you take it where you can get it).
In the hutongs of Beijing (old neighborhoods with no indoor plumbing and shared courtyards), there is a community toilet building shared by the entire block. Most people who live in the hutongs never want to leave because they are so close to their neighbors, in part because of this shared experience. Inside the toilets, there are usually 4-6 squatter pan toilets and 1 western style (at least in the women’s). Each is “separated” by an incredibly low wall about 1-3 feet high. There are no doors, and no paper. I used one, and the door to enter also didn’t close, so I was literally making eye contact with pedestrians passing by on the street as I used the facility. A woman came in to use one of the squatters just after I entered, and we had a brief conversation in my very limited Mandarin (not much beyond than “Ni hao ma”). She was quite chatty.
While these community toilets sound utterly foreign to us, the Apostle Paul would have used something very similar in Ephesus (modern day Turkey). We saw a set of public “dunnies” there – approximately 12 toilet seats on a bench that were close enough together that physical contact with your neighbor seems likely. If you don’t like making eye contact at the urinal, imagine your thigh actually touching someone else’s!
On the downside, several countries posted signs that warned about male on female voyeurism in the toilets. In Thailand, a clever or simply disturbing sign showed a stick man with a camera taking a picture of a woman seated on the toilet, and the woman being surprised and dismayed. Other signs showed men peeking through holes at women.
In China, I was briefly alarmed when I walked in to the bathroom and saw a sign on one of the cubicles that said “Disabled Man Cubicle” (handicapped stall – often, there was one western style toilet for the disabled in nicer restaurants and airports). I walked back out to double check, and it was the women’s restroom. They must have just had one pre-made sign for the handicapped stalls, all written in the masculine gender.
The Lap of Luxury
At times we longed for our American toilets: the smell of bleach, the abundant paper towels, the sensor-operated air freshener that exhales fragrantly when you walk by, the inevitable loud cell phone conversation in the next stall over (OK, maybe not that one). But I can honestly say that our American toilets are not the best in the world. The French and Spanish have bidets, which are superior . Even in Indochina (urban areas of Vietnam and Cambodia) they have built in bidets in many of the toilets thanks to French influence. And to be honest, the squatters aren’t bad once you get used to them.
But the best toilets in the world, hands down, belong to Japan. These beauties truly merit the term “throne.” The Japanese may even be a little toilet-obsessed . Not only do many toilets there have a built in bidet with multiple settings, but many also have heated seats, and some even play relaxing music when you sit down. The majority of toilets I saw in businesses and hotels had more controls than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Several of the controls looked like something I might have to confess to a bishop.
Toilet assumptions are just one of the things I learned to let go in my travels. I’ll leave you with a final quote:
“In awe, I watched the waxing moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an ambered chariot towards the ebony void of infinite space wherein the tethered belts of Jupiter and Mars hang, for ever festooned in their orbital majesty. And as I looked at all this I thought . . . I must put a roof on this toilet.” Les Dawson
What’s the most unusual toilet you’ve encountered? Did it change your assumptions or were you relieved (no pun intended) to be back in familiar toilet territory afterward?
 Said with a slightly different tone it means “Too expensive!” So if you are in a store and need to poop, you might also wind up negotiating a lower price. Double win!
 I even made popcorn in one of the Spanish ones on my mission by lighting a stick of deodorant. It was excellent for containing fire, and the cleanup was a breeze.
 See the toilet restaurant if you doubt this claim.