Guest Post: Keith Ng - aspiring scatologist, Wellington

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Much A-Poo About Nothing

The comparison is a little icky, but bear with me: why is it that chopsticks - a traditional, Eastern way of eating - are okay, exotic, and becoming part of "high-culture" in Western society, while squat toilets - a traditional, Eastern way of taking a dump - are seen as backwards, filthy and an object of "cultural cringe"?

I still remember the first time I visited Japan. It was for a stopover, so I had a room in a rather nice hotel, with an incredible contraption of a toilet (of the sitting variety). It had so many built-in gadgets, in fact, it needed a control panel to work them all.

So, you know, I was just sitting there, minding my business, and I started to... (I'm struggling to find a description that won't be misinterpreted by href="http://www.salient.org.nz/blog.php?p=186&c=1" target="_blank">some people. Damn, I can't.) toy with the control panel.

One made the seat warm up, another made more toilet paper come out, and when I pressed the third, I looked down and saw... there's no easy way of saying this... a robotic arm "magically extend about six inches, and then start spraying!"

In the ignorance of my youth, I didn't know what a bidet was, what it did, or how it was spelt. But after that dreadful night, I couldn't forget if I tried. It's spelt B-I-D-E-T, and it's what backwards European people, who have not yet discovered toilet paper, use to spray water up their bums. Disgusting.

I leapt from my seat, feeling very, very confused.

It's bizarre that people would eat raw fish wrapped in seaweed with wooden sticks, listen to Hindi-pop that they don't understand a word of, even pretend to respect deities whose name they can't pronounce - but react with such apprehension to the idea that one can poo in a different manner.

The difference is that some domains are recognised as "cultural" (such as food, music, language, religion), while others we take for granted as objective and universal.

A little-known fact about Asiatics is that we do dishes in a different way, too. We rinse the dish, apply detergent using a sponge and scrub, then rinse again. Crazy!

My mother, who lived in New Zealand for a decade, still refuses to do dishes the Kiwi way. She can't stand the idea that dishes get washed in the same water that other dirty dishes have been washed in, or the idea that the detergent and dirty water doesn't get rinsed again.

Similarly, I've had flatmates demand that I "do the dishes properly", in a sink of hot water.

The connection between all this is that cleanliness is one amongst many culturally-specific ideas that aren't recognise as such. One man's "clean" can be another man's "oh-my-god-why-did-it-just-squirt-me-down-there?".

As much as we like to conceive of hygiene in scientific terms, with cartoon boogey-germs hanging off our toilet seat, most of our ideas surrounding hygiene and cleanliness are cultural artifacts, sometimes even really dubious cultural artifacts.

None of the people who got interviewed were willing to just come out and say it, but the reason why some would prefer squat toilets is that they don't like the idea of placing their bums where strangers' bums have been.

Yes, it's a strange cultural quirk, and one that's pretty unsustainable in a Western country. But this is the thick end of multiculturalism, it's every bit as "cultural" as choice of cuisine, or music, or deities. Besides, Western culture has just as many of these irrational quirks.

There are arguments to be made in support of assimilation and monoculturalism, but for the self-proclaimed multiculturalists, I humbly suggest that you put your money where your arse is.