Every new expat experiences what I call the Dorothy Moment (so named in honour of the sweet young thing who famously suspected she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.) It’s that second of blinding clarity when it becomes apparent that they sure do things differently here.
Our first week in Singapore had been full of surprises, but nothing made us realize we were truly in Asia as much as our first encounter with the squat toilet.
As any mother of young children knows, regular bathroom visits are the key to family harmony and good (maternal) mental health. There’s nothing more annoying than having to pull over for an emergency pee break five minutes after heading out in the car, usually when you’re late for something important. So being the conscientious mother that I am, I made sure we stopped off at the public toilets before we headed home that day.
(While we’re on the subject, I have to say it took us a while to get used to calling the bathroom “the toilets” in Singapore. In Canada, the toilet is the porcelain device you sit on while eliminating body waste; it’s not the room in which such elimination takes place. In fact, in Canadian society the word “toilet” exists in that gray area of words that aren’t exactly rude, but aren’t quite proper to utter in polite company, either. I was reminded of this every summer during home leave. I’d ask a waitress or a sales person or someone else in the alleged service industry where the toilets were, and would be rewarded with a slightly scandalized look, as though I’d asked where I could find the puppy-killing rooms.)
Younger Daughter went into the first stall and immediately popped out again. She briskly checked out every stall in the row until she reached the very last one. “Finally!” she said. “I’m using the wheelchair stall.”
I came over to investigate, and found that the “wheelchair stall” wasn’t equipped for wheelchairs at all. It did, however, house the only western toilet in a long line of squats. Younger Daughter staked her claim by quickly slamming the door and sliding the bolt across with an emphatic thud.
“Hurry up!” groaned Elder Daughter, starting to do the familiar knees-crossed bounce that usually ends in urinary disaster.
“Sorrrry,” Younger Daughter sang sweetly from the safety of her fortress. “I think I’m going to be a while. You might have to use one of the floor-toilets.”
The situation was fast becoming desperate, so we peeked into the first stall for a quick assessment. It didn’t look too intimidating: it was, just like Younger Daughter said, a toilet seat fixed to the floor, with a small bucket full of water and a plastic scoop nestled beside it. Being quite close to the border, this particular neighbourhood had a substantial Malay population, and Malays prefer to clean themselves with water rather than toilet paper. The left hand is always used for this purpose, which is why it’s such a faux pas in Asia to use the left hand for eating or handing money to a cashier (something the girls got accustomed to long before I did – more scandalous looks for me!)
Even though we discovered that day that using a squat toilet wasn’t as easy as it looked, we soon became proficient. Of course, as with any new venture, there were some kinks that had to be ironed out. The toilet paper issue was easily fixed: I made sure to always have tissues in my purse. Poor aim was a bigger problem, but we got better with practice. The most puzzling question was which way to face, but if the dusty footprints on the seats of many western toilets were any guide, facing forward was a pretty safe bet.
I’d be lying if I told you I missed the squat. Mastering it was a humbling experience; not since my potty training days had the most basic human functions posed such a challenge. I always felt off-balance – figuratively, as well as literally – whenever I had to use it. But isn’t that the point of becoming an expat in the first place: to shake things up a little? Wrestling with the squat toilet was an initiation of sorts, an entrée into a world where almost everything we took for granted had to be constantly re-evaluated. Squatting, it turns out, is not just good for the thighs, but for the soul as well.