The number-one (or number-two) topic everyone will want to ask you about
Just getting to Asia causes enough restroom anxiety - airplane toilets are cramped little boxes requiring acrobatic contortions to use - when you finally make it to the front of the line - if there isn’t sudden turbulence.
Then there are the concerns about how you’ll react to the food, if you’ll catch a tropical disease, if you can find a toilet if you’re in trouble, and how you’ll keep your clothes from hitting a filthy floor without falling down into the toilet or tipping over.
In short, it’s the fear of public embarrassment in a very private moment. And everyone you’ll talk to before your trip will eventually get around to asking about it - which won’t make you any less anxious.
The good news is, you’ll probably never find yourself in a worst-case situation. And even if you’re stuck with a toilet that looks nothing like what you’re used to, keeping calm and using common sense will get you through. (Then you’ll have a great story to tell back home!)
Certainly the cleanest toilet with the most privacy you’ll encounter during the day is in your own hotel room, so train yourself to always take care of business before heading out.
Are you in a major city in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, or Hong Kong? Are you in a newly-built area of a Chinese city? You'll be fine.
As your travels take you around town, be watching for the Western fast-food chains and brand-name hotels. These, and newly-built shopping centers, are going to be your best bets for finding clean restrooms in good working order with toilet paper and a place to wash your hands.
The important older tourist attractions (such as the Great Wall) have also been upgrading their facilities in recent years. Ask other travelers coming out of restrooms about the quality, just to be sure. If you're in a rural area - even in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan - you may still be encountering older-style fixtures.
On Chinese signage, the characters to look for are:
廁所 cèsuǒ (TSUH-swoh)
The universal “men” and “women” icons are also commonly used, and in the cities, generally there will be signs in English as well to direct you.
The Mandarin phrase, “where is the restroom?” is
cesuo zai nar? (TSUH-swoh zai nahr?)
Sitty vs. Squatty
The Western flush toilet is viewed as modern and sophisticated, and most new commercial and residential buildings in China include them as standard equipment.
However, there are two drawbacks to the flush toilet: one, it uses a lot of water - and China (along with most of the planet) has had a hard time managing water distribution and quality. Two, to the Chinese point of view, the user has to touch far too many things with far too many parts of the body when using a Western toilet. “If you don’t touch something, no matter how dirty it is, it can’t hurt you” goes the reasoning.
The pit toilet and the more evolved ceramic squat toilet does use significantly less water, to be certain. It’s almost “green” in that regard. Without the water to carry solids away, the smell can make you feel green as well...
Sit-down toilets aren’t without problems. In particular, some users who are so concerned about catching a disease from sitting on the toilet seat will instead stand on it and use the squat position. Yes, leaving whatever gunk and germs from the soles of their shoes deposited on the toilet seat.
As a result, you’ll notice that in public restrooms the cleaning staff is very aggressive with the disinfectants and bleach, and come through much more frequently than you’d expect in the West. (Asia’s still-fresh memories of SARS and bird flu drive a lot of this behavior, too.) In a recent trip to Hong Kong, my daughter got a rash on her hips after sitting on a toilet seat that had just been disinfected.)
Then there are Western toilets that became way too complicated
While most of the Western-style toilets we’ve encountered - and that other bloggers have talked about - are the generic tank-and-bowl variety, the Japanese manufacturer Toto has been aggressively marketing their high-tech products as a status symbol. You may see these at better restaurants and hotels, especially in places that have been recently renovated.
Unless you already know how to use a bidet, the only button you want to push on the controller is “stop”.
How to use the squatty potty
If you don’t have any other option, remember that there are over a billion other humans who squat, get it over with, and move on. You can do it too.
As a parent traveling with children, you already know that preparation is crucial. And preparation is key when venturing into an unknown restroom:
Practice the “heel-sit” position ahead of time, as shown in the photo above. You’ll see people using this pose all the time while waiting for the bus, talking on the phone, or resting at the park.
The Buddy System: you’ll need a fellow traveler of the same sex to hold your bags and other stuff while you go inside, since you won’t want to set your things down on the floor next to you. This person may also need to guard your doorway to enforce a little privacy. (The “someone’s in there” gestures are universally understood.)
Have some small change ready. There may be a fee (pay toilet) or an attendant to tip.
Go in with a supply of your own toilet paper or tissues; quite often this is not provided.
Roll up your pant legs, since the waistband or belt won’t be doing its job for a while.
There are often treads on either side of the bowl to show you where your feet go.
Which way to face? Usually, you want to be lined up over the drain. Sometimes there is a porcelain splash guard on one end and if so you want to be facing that. If there’s a toilet paper dispenser (and that’s a big if) - it makes sense you’d be facing that direction.
There’s usually a wastebin for toilet paper & such - the sewer systems can’t handle paper products.
Cleaning up - wash your hands if you can; use sanitizer gel
There are many blog posts complaining about the thin yet rough paper being used in China, and while it’s true that the quality is nothing special, neither is it noticeably worse than the cheap commercial-grade stuff in the restroom at your office, school, shopping mall or airport.
The problem is when there isn’t any toilet paper in the stall, and that’s why travel writers advise you to toss a roll of your favorite brand in your suitcase, and tear off a couple feet each time you head out for the day.
As far as flushing toilet paper, with Western toilets, go right ahead (unless otherwise noted), but with the squatties, there will almost always be a trash bin to put that in.
Always something to talk about
Instead of being a source of embarrassment, sharing experiences of using strange toilets can be a great way to break the ice with fellow travelers and enthrall friends and family back home.
Once you’ve faced down the anxiety - even if it is unpleasant - you’ll always be a stronger and savvier traveler.