Sunday, September 19, 2004

Pretty Paper
One of the nice differences between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is that in Hong Kong you can pretty much count on a public restroom to have:
1. a sit-down toilet
2. toilet paper.
One of my Shenzhen Chinese pals has noted that I "think about toilets too much" but a recent cross-border experience as well as some recent news and propaganda items I've seen have convinced me that I am either not thinking of them enough or that some of the mainland has its priorities turned around.
In its attempts to ape Hong Kong and to be a "striving civilized, international modern cultural city of tomorrow" Shenzhen's priority at the moment seems to be, not basics like toilets or toilet paper, but an ultimately doomed campaign urging citizens to speak English fluently. Booklets with 100 handy English phrases have been distributed and while there I also saw a short TV skit on an English language "news" segment involving a cab driver. It was like no taxi driving exchange I'd ever encountered there, but I'll let the skit speak for itself.
Foreign barbarian businessman/tourist: "I would like to hire your taxi, please!"
Typical civilized Shenzhen cab driver (smiling broadly): "Welcome to my taxi. Please enjoy my clean uniform."
Barbarian (now also smiling broadly): "Yes. It is very clean. Thank you. I would like to go to the airport."
Civilized cabbie (positively beaming): "Yes. Welcome to my taxi! Please sit down!"
"Please sit down..." Sound advice in any car, I suppose. Though I was yearning for a more true-to-life rewrite of that script in which the cab driver says "Please allow me to drive you 20 kilometers out of your way after feigning ignorance of your destination midway through the journey in my clean uniform."
But if Shenzhen's mayor truly wants to bring civilization to his city, he'd be better off starting the restooms, as they appear to be doing in Beijing. I recently noted a story about a contemporary Beijing-based play simply called Toilet that addresses changes in modern Chinese society as seen through the eyes of a washroom attendant and the john's ever-changing cast of users. Another news item also caught my eye about Beijing's attempts to bring the city up to "international" standards for the 2008 Olympics by building a series of plush "super public toilets" and an announcement of a new policy specifying that toilets in Beijing hotels, restaurants and other such facilities should be open to the public, to ensure that you can find a toilet within 8 minutes walk of any place in the city.
Neither item mentioned toilet paper, however.
Which brings me back to Shenzhen this weekend where after a lunch of spicy steamed crabs the creatures began to exact their revenge from beyond the grave while I was downtown with a Chinese friend. A McDonald's was spotted, usually a safe bet for paper and a sit-down experience. But a quick check revealed that - despite a bilingual sign warning against such experimentation - while there was paper, the Western style seat had been used in a traditional Chinese squatting manner with unfortunate results.
The friend, who used to work at a nearby furniture outlet, swore he knew of a restroom there. "Is it sit-down? Do they have paper?" I asked frantically.
"Of course not!" he replied. "Where do you think you are?"
Neither of us had any small plastic tissue packs routinely distributed at 1 or 2 yuan apiece in restaurants instead of napkins so I was left in the humilating situation of tailing him and trying to appear nonchalent as my midsection screamed and he hit up various furniture store clerks for spare toilet paper.
I didn't even want to guess what the conversations would have been translated as, but one clerk snickered loudly and I did comprehend the Chinese phrase for "no way in hell" and "foreigner" as my friend gestured at me. He swore he had packed his own TP while working there, it appeared that his example had not been followed since his departure. That is until we found a lone woman who smiled sympathetically, produced a roll from beneath her desk and then asked for 5 yuan - about 60 cents.
The smallest bills my pal and I had was some 20s, no coins and predictably she had no change. I briefly considered using a couple of the 20s instead, but the clerk finally relented and relief was found.
Now if they could just convince the cabbies to distribute complimentary toilet paper, it might be progress.
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