And if you can’t squat?

Image description: overhead shot of porcelain squat toilet.

I’ve been traveling this week in China, thanking my lucky stars that my back has been well enough for me to manage the toilets.

In China, the typical toilet is a squat toilet. Not of course in the western style hotel rooms but certainly in most of the restaurants and in most of the university buildings I’ve had meetings in. In a public toilet with multiple stalls, there may be one stall with a regular toilet. Maybe. Not always. And the rest are squats.

When I faced the same in India recently it was more an “aesthetic” thing. I am accustomed to a regular toilet and squatting just isn’t my thing. I know, I know –apparently in many ways squatting is better for digestion, a more effective position.

But this time I’m aware of just how much physical agility it requires to squat to pee. You need to be able to plant your feet and lower yourself down without losing your balance. Pee. Wipe (assuming there is toilet paper or that you remembered to grab some from the communal dispenser on the wall out by the sinks or that you have your own as I always do). Then stand back up again without assistance and without losing your balance. Two weeks ago I’d have been completely unable.

For me it was temporary. I have no idea what people with knee issues or back issues or in wheel chairs or with other sorts of mobility issues do. Almost all of the squat toilet stalls have at least one step to get up to them (I don’t quite know why this is). None of the many I’ve been in this week has had a hand rail that would be useful for getting back up.

It’s a real issue. And not just aesthetic. And it makes me appreciate that at least for now I can manage because being able to use a toilet when out and about is one of the more important necessities of basic living.

I have not asked around about what people do if they have mobility issues and whether this is considered an equity issue. If it’s not, it should be, even if squatting is a more natural position for this sort of thing. It’s not available to all.

I usually end with a question but I’m not about to interrogate our readers about their squat toilet experiences!

7 thoughts on “And if you can’t squat?

  1. I have to comment on this. In 1991, when I was 25 years old, I was travelling in SE Asia and encountered no other choice but squat toilets. Even back then I had trouble squatting. My knees have always been a bit of an issue, now is way worse of course but I truly struggled. — Shameful to admit but I did actually end up sitting on the toilet – it looked clean and I lined it with tp. I just couldn’t even then. The struggle is real!

  2. I spent six summers in China, and am a big fan of Chinese squat toilets, and so of course I have views about this post. Two broad points really: (1) life-long squatting might just keep folks limber later in life, but also (2) China is in general really far behind on accessible design (or even retrofits)

    (1) Life-long squatting might just keep folks limber later in life. I haven’t read any proper scholarship on this conjecture, but back in my yoga teacher days, we yogis and yoginis were pretty anti-chair — the notion being that a lifetime of chair leads to less flexibility and to weaker core abdominal muscles. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible. In any event, I’ve spent plenty of time in bus station and train station departure lounges in China — i.e., places with very few chairs and lots of folks crammed in — and I can attest that it is very, very common to see very old people resting in a deep squat position, as they have done for decades. Like, it’s not an exception; it’s standard. When I think about typical seniors in Canada, most of them don’t have that flexibility or core strength. So, I think it is likely that a culture that supports squatting (not only for toilet purposes but also while simply biding one’s time wherever) helps to support people who are able to squat well into their senior years (and hence well into the years when arthritis, etc. are kicking in).

    That said though,
    (2) China in general is really far behind on accessible design or even retrofits. Elevators are rare outside of skyscrapers. Ramps are rare. Handrails are rare. Steps are common. Even a traditional ground level building with no porch, etc. will very often have a single wooden beam to step over in the doorway. (Compare in your mind a picture frame and a door frame. In Canada, picture frames have four sides and door frames have three sides. In main traditional Chinese buildings, door frames have four sides, and the bottom side makes doorways impassable for wheels.) When you’re out and about in China, typically the only visibly disabled people you see are beggars, who often have very prominent disability, and sometimes wheel themselves around not on wheelchairs but on little pieces of wood with wheels attached underneath. In much of China, disabled folks with families stay home and are cared for by their families and don’t much appear in public, and disabled folks without families are strongly associated with poverty and homelessness. So, very few folks who need mobility aids would even make it into the buildings that Tracy writes about in her post. (And just in case it’s not clear: that sucks.)

  3. I wonder how I’d do now with my busted knees? I agree with Shannon that other cultures are better at not sitting in lots of contexts and that;s probably good for long term joint mobility. Agree too it’s a better position for effective pooping (to use a technical term). I’ve considered buying one of these, I am used to squatting from wilderness camping but then there are trees for support getting back up. But the most important issue here is that of disability, aging, and access.

  4. I encounter a lot of squat toilets and I don’t have an issue with them either emotionally or physically *theoretically* — except that I have a high difficulty aiming my Stream of Urine very well. It’s particularly horrifying to me when I’m in someone’s home (say, in Uganda), and I find myself having to sluice the floor as well as the “bowl.”

    I do not enjoy the combination of travel constipation and squat toilets, because it’s just one too many elements in my disrupted system.

    What you’ve written about squat toilets enabling people to age with more agility/core strength is true, in my experience.

  5. I remember encountering squat toilets in Europe in the early ‘70s and not knowing how to work them. How do you not pee on your shoes? Where does your underwear go? I have since learned how to shit in the woods (shout out to Kathleen Meyer’s great little book from 1989 by Ten Speed Press) and I suppose the more we understand about how our bodies work and what to do about them, the better. That said, the more we can increase the range of what is normal to include those with disabilities, the better.

  6. For sure squatting just to rest one’s back when standing for a long time or just to do simple task at ground level, is cultural.

    Just 2 yrs. ago I was waiting for a bus (here in Alberta) and so I just squatted after standing for 45 min. It was summer, and I wanted to rest my back/position. It felt natural/good to me. It’s easier on grass and with running shoes on.

    And I don’t squat often at all.

    I did go to Asia for the first time last year…so dealt with squat toilets. It helps if they are clean /not slippery. No different than any Westerner, wondering if pee will end up on my clothing….

    I do remember my mother squatting occasionally to do certain tasks….children do model their parents in movements. My father in his late 70’s naturally sat on top of his legs…to reach for something under the bed…. it was a natural movement for him. I don’t he even realized what he was doing, movement-wise. Both of my parents didn’t do any exercise. My parents immigrated from mainland China in their early 20’s.

    I would tend to agree with one of the commenters here, that the ability to squat throughout life is helpful and does rest one’s back at time. It can keep you limber.

    China doesn’t have a good attitude about disabled folks…especially if they are young/not seniors.

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