When you visit China, you’ll find yourself dealing with a lot of new things.
Even if you’re going for a short trip, you might be shocked by some of the different Chinese customs and foods, not to mention the language barrier.
But one of the challenges you might not think about is having to use the squat toilets in China.
Chinese toilets are very different to the toilets you use back home and so are the rules and expectations surrounding them.
So, if you’re going to survive the squatty potty, there are some things you need to know.
1. Be ready for squat toilets in China
Whether you’re a man or a woman, you need to prepare yourself for Chinese squat toilets.
Even in the major cities like Beijing, you’ll find more squat toilets than traditional Western toilets.
But if you find yourself in a small city, or even a large one that doesn’t see many tourists, you’re going to encounter squat toilets wherever you go.
And, despite recent efforts to clean them up, you’re bound to come across some really dirty ones. These are usually the public toilets.
Your hotel room will have a Western-style throne though.
So, why do Chinese people use squat toilets?
They’re supposed to be good for your digestive system because they put you into a more natural position.
But when you’ve grown up in a Western country like I have, they can be very difficult to use and may end up being your nemesis.
The first time I used a squat toilet was when I went to a Chinese hospital for my health exam (when I taught English in China).
They gave me a cup and told me to give a sample.
I was in a tiny, cramped, wet stall for 15 minutes, holding onto the door with one hand so I could balance and trying to get the sample with the other.
It was one of the most stressful 15 minutes of my life! I was pathetically proud when I managed to hand over my sample.
My point is, just be prepared for Chinese toilets. They’re probably not going to meet your expectations in terms of sanitation or ease of use.
2. Always carry tissues
Toilets in China usually don’t have tissues and there’s a good reason for this.
The plumbing system in China isn’t set up to deal with tissues, so if you flush one you’ll probably block the system. And you definitely don’t want to be around a Chinese toilet when it’s flooding!
Locals in China carry tissues with them and put them in the trash can next to the toilet when they’re done.
The bin sits there all day, filled with dirty tissues and usually overflowing onto the floor. This creates a smell that you will never forget.
You can probably avoid this if you only use the toilets in Western-style restaurants or hotels (more on this below).
Also, I don’t know if you’re picky like I am, but regular Chinese toilet paper is a lot thinner than the quality I’m used to back home.
You’ll find the cheap and nasty stuff available everywhere in China, but if you want a better quality you’ll need to look a bit harder.
The good thing is, Chinese toilet paper is dirt cheap.
3. Always carry sanitizer
This Chinese toilet tip goes hand-in-hand with the one above.
Every time you leave your hotel (and I can’t stress ‘every time’ enough), make sure you’ve packed sanitizer, as well as toilet paper, in your bag.
It’s not uncommon to find a Chinese toilet, particularly a public one, that doesn’t have any hand soap let alone hot water.
At best, it will have liquid soap that’s been watered down so much it offers no protection from germs.
And don’t expect any paper towel either.
4. Avoid the puddles
There are almost always puddles in toilets in China.
Depending on where you are in the country, some toilets have a hose attached to the wall.
Using this when your pants are around your ankles is not the most comfortable or easiest thing to do. And even when you do it well it almost always results in puddles.
There’s also the problem of the hose because you only have two hands and one of them is usually occupied keeping you stable. As a result, if you’re really uncoordinated (like me) the hose can get away from you.
This is when you pull up your pants and step out whistling, pretending that your pants are dry and that you had nothing to do with the mess in the stall behind you!
Another problem with the puddles is that you’ll step in them no matter how carefully you walk.
And if you’re really unlucky, your pants will drop into one while you’re using the toilet. Having wet pants when you walk out of a Chinese toilet is never a good look.
Just try not to think about the combination of fluids that probably made up that puddle.
5. Watch your shoes
Not to be indelicate, but Western women aren’t used to squat toilets in China. They aren’t as easy to use as you might think.
It sometimes helps if you think of it as a game and count how many times you miss your shoes. And how many times you don’t.
Unfortunately, this is a game that takes a lot of practice. And if you’re out having a few drinks, it just complicates the whole situation and brings your win total way down.
In all seriousness though, clean your shoes in your hotel each night or at least when you get back home.
6. Don’t look sideways
When you walk into a bathroom in China, make sure you avoid looking sideways as you head for your stall.
The idea of privacy is very different in China. This is understandable given the lack of space and the large number of people who live together in small apartments.
But it isn’t unusual to walk into a bathroom in China and find that people have left the door open while they use the toilet.
There seems to be an unspoken kind of courtesy about moments like these. You’ll see the locals walking past the doors in front of you, never looking right or left.
They won’t even seem to notice the open doors. But Westerners, who don’t know this unspoken rule, usually look.
The expression on the face of the woman squatting over the toilet usually clearly expresses her indignation at your breach of this rule.
Also, if a door is almost closed but not latched, don’t push on it thinking that it’s empty. This can give the person in the stall a smack on the head they’ll probably never forget.
This rule actually applies outside of mainland China as well.
I made the mistake of pushing on a partially open door on a plane heading from mainland China to Hong Kong. This made the lady inside, who had a toddler on her lap, very angry.
7. Stick to the tourist areas
If you really don’t want to use a squat toilet in China, stick to the tourist areas.
I know that’s not always possible, or maybe it’s something you don’t want to do if you’re an adventurous traveler.
But from my experience, you’ve got a better chance of finding a Western-style toilet in the places that attract hordes of foreign tourists.
Also, you can casually waltz into any big hotel and use their loo, which is almost always on the ground floor and really clean.
It’s unlikely that anyone will approach you and tell you to leave.
This is due to the Chinese concept of face, i.e. they might be embarrassed speaking English to you in case they say something wrong (besides, you could also be a hotel guest!).
And when it comes to using the bathroom – a sensitive subject for many – they’re probably not going to want to engage in a conversation about this.
8. Don’t let airport toilets fool you
China has some pretty impressive airports.
Whether you fly into Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or even Chengdu, you’ll be amazed at how impeccably clean the airports are.
And the airport toilets are no exception. You could probably eat your lunch off the floor (okay, maybe not that clean).
There’s also usually a choice of toilets – squat or Western.
But don’t be fooled by the cleanliness or choice. While it’s a great ‘Welcome to China’ moment, it is absolutely not what to expect when you’re traveling around the country.
9. Look out for the signs
Sometimes, you’re just dying to go. We’ve all been there.
But if you’re in China and Mother Nature calls quickly, you could be in for a world of hurt if you can’t recognize the Chinese characters for ‘toilet’, let alone ladies vs gents.
You could always reach for your phone and look up Google Translate, but sometimes you just won’t have the time.
(Check out this article for all the best apps to use in China.)
Luckily, in many cases you’ll see the universal signs for men’s and women’s toilets, but some older facilities will just have the Chinese characters.
So, try to imprint the above photos into your brain! Or, learn some characters before you go.
How do you say toilet in Chinese?
Like English, there are numerous ways to say ‘toilet’ in Mandarin:
- 厕所 (cèsuǒ) is toilet
- 卫生间 (wèishēngjiān) is restroom or bathroom
- 公共卫生间 (gōnggòng wèishēngjiān) is public toilet
- 洗手间 (xǐshǒujiān) is also restroom; it literally means “washing hands room”.
These terms are used interchangeably throughout the country.
Funnily enough, some locals will understand you if you ask for the ‘WC’ in English. In case you don’t know, this stands for ‘water closet’ – a British term meaning a room that contains a flush toilet.
10. Use your tour guide
Many people who visit China choose to go on a packaged tour, where everything is planned for them.
If this is you, make sure you utilize your tour guide. So, when you’re out and about and you need to go to the bathroom, get your tour guide’s recommendation.
It may be as simple as “Wait 10 minutes until we get to the restaurant” but it could make all the difference between an uncomfortable experience and a pleasant one.
One last travel tip
This tip is unrelated to Chinese squat toilets but equally as harrowing.
When using Wi-Fi in China, you won’t be able to access major websites and apps like Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
This is due to the country’s strict censorship laws.
You can only access these sites if you download a virtual private network (VPN) app on your phone before you touch down on Chinese soil.
To help you, here’s a simple review of some VPNs that work in China.
More weird and wonderful China!
If you’re interested in squat toilets, you may also like the following articles I wrote:
Have a great time in China, and good luck surviving the squat!
Main photo credit: Supplied by Gayle Aggiss.