The squat toilet
The biggest culture shock of my two years in Peace Corps came upon my arrival in Malaya – the Asian toilet! We had been trained for 10 weeks at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois – which should have been plenty of time to warn us about these enemies of westerners; however, I don’t recall hearing about them at all, so when I went to the bathroom for my first pee, what did I behold? A hole in the floor – complete with footpads on either side. I called them “Buddha pads.” How to use it? This real test came later for the males but the females had to face the problem immediately. After discussions between both sexes, the unanimous decision was that we had to squat!
Asians were accustomed to squatting, a pose that they had learned from childhood. Even when they were on the streets talking to their neighbors, which they did most every evening, they were always in a comfortable squat. For me, it took a lot of practicing. I realized that should I live 200 years, I would always be grateful for the western toilet – germs be damned. I forgot to say that the proper squat had to be flat footed – not on the balls of your feet.
My friend, Lyn, reports that in 1998, when she returned to Malaysia with her husband, and they were in the office of United Airlines, which was located in a fancy high rise building, the toilets were Asian!
The reader should know that I don’t really have a toilet fixation but it will be the subject of several stories.
The first week at the University of Malaya Library was a momentous one during which several interesting things happened, chief of which was solving a problem that had arisen between Che Som binti Embong and Che Rubiah binti Jais.
Among my many duties was the supervision of these cleaning ladies. I had barely met them when Che Som stormed into my office with smoke coming out her ears. She proceeded to tell me the problem, in Malay, which was the only language that she knew. My Malay was not sufficient to understand all that she was saying, especially when spoken at the speed of machine gun bullets.
Out of the long story, I was able to understand two important words – “potong” and “kaki” – which meant cut feet. It sounded serious enough to me to ask a Malay/English speaker to come and translate. First, I should tell the reader that there were two sets of bathrooms in the library – one was a western one and the other Asian. It seems that the western bathroom that Che Som was responsible for cleaning, had been used by Che Rubiah, who didn’t know how a western toilet was to be used. Che Rubiah had squatted on the western seat and had made a mess. Che Som allowed as how, that before she cleaned it, she was going to cut off her feet. I never ascertained whose feet were in danger, but here was a serious problem that I had never encountered before. Quickly, I called upon the wisdom of Solomon (something new for me) and switched the bathrooms for which they were responsible. Now Che Rubiah would have to clean up her own mess.
I didn’t make this up you know. I’m not that inventive.
My Flat or Apartment
My flat was a 3rd floor walk up in a 6-apartment building. In my bathroom, the toilet hole in the floor was at the end of the room on a platform 4 or 5 inches higher than the main floor. The flush was overhead. In the lower area there was a large reservoir containing water. There was a faucet to be used for replacing the water, as needed, from the main water tower on the roof. There was also a drain in the floor. Oh yes, there was a large dipper. Everything worked perfectly for dumping water over your head and body, soaping up, and then dumping again for the rinse. Sounds simple and foolproof, except –
On my first morning in my new flat, I readied to take a shower. I put a finger into the water reservoir and wow, it was cold. I thought that one should expect tropical weather to keep the water warm. But this water wasn’t even tepid, it was cold! I don’t believe that I had ever before taken a cold bath or shower and I didn’t look forward to it. Well, I thought, I better turn that dipper over fast and perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. I turned the dipper over fast, jumped out of the way to miss the water, and ended up with one foot in the toilet! Ignominious beyond belief – but no one was watching.
I solved this problem by taking my shower in the evening, using the faucet to get the water from the roof that had been in the hot sun all day.