I’ve never before worried about the food I’ve eaten in China. Raw meat, dubious looking street food, insects, grubs and my fair share of rocket fuel (rice wine) have passed through my lips without even the hint of illness. My luck was bound to run out before I left China and it came as no surprise it did in a place I’ve spent more time in over the past few weeks than any other: a train station. Tunxi train station to be exact.
With rotten egg burps and a bubbling digestive track, I was hoping I’d last long enough to lose my dignity on the train in the privacy of a locked toilet. Like with a tempestuous, volatile volcano, my stomach could not be contained and I found myself shuffling towards the grimy, smoke-filled restrooms as quickly as my clenched gluteus maximus would allow.
The cleanliness of the train station restroom wasn’t the deterring factor in choosing my location to offload. It was the lack of a door on the open squat toilets that allowed every passing person to see one human’s most secretive acts. Facing sideways in the open cubicle, hoping to hide at least some of my
modesty, I focused on the job at hand, staring straight ahead at the white-tiled dividing wall.
Out of the corner of my left eye, I noticed a smartly dressed man stop dead in his tracks. Putting his hands into his pockets he let out a surprised groan. Was that really a white derriere he was seeing before him? He must have been unsure. He called over another suited individual, who obviously wasn’t aware a check shirt - novelty Christmas tie combination would be deemed a fashion faux pas by many. He had yet to do up his trousers and belt, fumbling about to finally confirm his friend’s original thoughts. There really was a white man defecating before him.
They continued to stare at me. I continued to stare ahead, hoping they would lose interest and I wouldn’t lose my squatting balance. Their interest in me remained. Turning to my side and meeting their line of sight, they waved and grinned. I returned the acknowledgement with a simple nod of the head, something the two men took as a sign they could approach my squat stall and start a conversation.
With my bowel movements in full swing, the
two men stood in the open doorway and excitedly began to ask questions; “Where are you from? What are you doing here? What is your job? Where do you work? Did you see Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain)? Where are you going today? Are you married? How much money do you earn in China? How much money did you earn in England? Do you like China? Do you eat Chinese food?” To the last question, I wanted to answer, “yes, unfortunately the cheap, unhygienic kind, which is why I find myself in this current predicament,” but decided it was best respond politely, trying my best to hide my grimace. The questions came faster than a speeding bullet, only giving me enough time to squeeze out an answer before the next one was voiced.
The two men, Mr. Yang and Mr. Wang were business associates from Guangzhou. They both drank copious amounts of green tea, raved about the Avatar movie and were planning holidays to Thailand later in the year. We actually had a fair bit in common. It amazed me how much you can learn from a stranger while in the middle of a shit.
If ever there was
the perfect example to confirm the different perceptions of privacy and personal space between China and the West, this was it. They weren’t being rude. They weren’t being vile, disgusting or perverted. They were just two decent, likeable men, interested in the views and thoughts of a Westerner. Making small talk in the middle of such private moments is perfectly acceptable and this was not the first time I‘d witnessed it. When using a public toilet in a Beijing hutong, I watched two men, squatting side by side, discuss their shared newspaper’s top stories as they ‘dropped the kids off at the pool.’
Running out of questions, the conversation dried up, but Mr. Yang and Mr. Wang still hovered. Moving on to the wiping process of my job at hand, the silence and continued stares became awkward and uncomfortable. As other men entered and exited the toilet, the two business associates would inform them everything they knew about me. “This man is from England. He teaches English in north east China. He’s travelling to Longyan with his wife. She’s in the waiting room. They don’t have children. He likes Chinese food” Some men would acknowledge their comments. Others came
over to say hello. I squatted, wiped and remained courteous.
Just when I thought Mr. Yang and Mr. Wang would stay with me long enough to help me pull up my trousers and wash my hands, they abruptly left, realising their train was about to depart. Thrusting a business card into my right hand, almost knocking me off balance, they urged me to call them if I ever made it to Guangzhou. I would have done too, if I hadn’t dropped it into the abyss below me a few seconds later.
I was lucky. My sudden illness quickly evaporated and there would be no further moments for toilet talk. My next destination was the city of Longyan in Fujian province. It wasn’t Longyan that I was interested in. It was the surrounding countryside, famous for its tulou roundhouses. These circular earthen structures, home to the Hakka tribe, can be large enough to accommodate up to five-hundred families. So intriguing they are, sprouting up in the countryside like alien spacecrafts, when the US government first saw satellite photos of them, they thought they were rocket launchers. It’s hard to visualize this thought process from ground level.
journeyed south from Tunxi, the remnants of snow and winter soon disappeared. With dawn breaking a new landscape emerged from my train window, the stereotypical scenery you envisage about China; gently rolling green hills, rice paddies, fishermen on bamboo rafts, quaint rural villages.
Considerably delayed, by the time I reached Longyan it was too late to catch a public bus into the countryside. Instead I searched for a hotel near the bus station in order to depart first thing the following morning. It was now as darkness fell, I learnt getting stuck in a city rarely frequented by foreigners has its downsides. In the area surrounding the bus station no accommodation had the government approval and license needed to allow foreigners to stay there. Instead, carrying over twenty kilos of baggage on my shoulders I was forced to walk three miles across the city, to a hotel with the necessary paperwork. Unfortunately it was also one of the most expensive hotels in the city.
Costing 278RMB (approximately £28) a night, still cheap by Western standards, it was easily double the cost of anywhere I’d stayed in China before. Like a redneck who’d just won the lottery, I wasn’t
use to such luxuries. Sitting on the quilted king sized bed in my hotel dressing gown and slippers, and covered in free talcum powder and lotion, I watched English cable TV and shared the contents of the welcome basket with my wife. I soon fell into a satisfied, luxurious sleep.
The following morning, suitably pampered, I demolished the free breakfast, took the complimentary sowing kit, matches and wooden comb and left Longyan for the Fujian countryside. As soon as greenery replaced the monotonous urban landscape, tulous appeared at regular intervals in every direction. Most of the crumbling structures, up to five storeys in height, are still inhabited today. Their size really is immense. Ground floor rooms are used as family kitchens. Above them three generations of a family live in a single room. Looking over the balcony, the inner courtyard is a beehive of activity; children trying to poke each others eyes out with sticks, elderly inhabitants worshipping in the resident shrine, while others carry out the menial tasks of washing, cooking and badgering tourists to buy their postcards.
Some tulou inhabitants offer their rooms as tourist accommodation, a place to remember past lifestyles and wake up to
the sound of a crowing cock. I was tempted by this opportunity, but upon realising the main doors to the tulou are normally locked at 8pm and there are no toilets located inside, I doubted my walnut bladder and dodgy bowels would last until the morning. Instead I chose ‘Tulou Guesthouse.’ This is what I believe the English name should have read after reading the Chinese (tulou renjia). Obviously using an electronic dictionary to translate, the English name plastered across the door instead read, ‘Circular Earthen Dwelling Strangers Welcome Sleep.’ Given my recent experiences with strangers, I decided to go for the en-suite option.
After visiting some of the most famous tulous in the area, including Tianluokeng, Yuchang Lou and Chengqi Lou, they soon became repetitive. Like chomping through a plate of ice cream too fast and getting brain-freeze, so many tulous in a single day started to make my head hurt. Leaving my last one, Chengqi Lou, a group of students approached my wife and I and informed us they’d been sent out by their tutor on an assignment. Enquiring what the assignment was, they explained it was to make the perfect birthday video message for their tutor
and asked if we would be willing to say something into their camcorder. With cheesy grins and robotic voices we repeated in unison, “happy birthday Mr. Xie, have a nice day!” Clapping gaily they seemed happy with our contribution, confident the message would help better their grades in future weeks.
Returning to Longyan, we waited for our onward train to Guangzhou. Luckily my stomach held out this time.
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