01.31.08

Skiing and the Art of Chinese Toiletry

Posted in Culture Clash, Personal Anecdotes at 12:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

Last week I spent five days in Colorado for a good friend of mine’s bachelor party. Part of the bachelor party itinerary included a day of skiing. For those of you who have never enjoyed the sensation of downhill skiing, it is one of the most intense lower body workouts one can experience. First-time skiers often gripe that they use muscles that they never even knew they had, and a single day of skiing often leads to several days of soreness from the quads all the way down to the feet. The more one skies, the more their leg muscles gradually acclimate to the new positions and flexes that the sport demands. If one continues skiing throughout the season, the leg pains diminish to the point where they are hardly noticeable. But as soon as one takes an extended break from skiing, the pains and cramps start right back up again the next time they hit the slopes.

So for me it came as quite the pleasant surprise, when after a 4 year gap in skiing excursions, I completed my first day back on the mountain with my lower body feeling almost exactly as it had when I had woken up in the morning. To be honest, I was actually looking forward to the soreness, the feeling that my body was tired from the muscular workout, but it never happened. Usually the soreness of skiing doesn’t fully set in until the following morning, so I waited…and woke up the next morning…nothing. There was a slight soreness in my calves, but my quads (where the majority aching usually occurs) felt as if I had not even skied at all.

This was odd. Not only had I not skied in 4 years, but thanks to the Chicago winter, I had barely even exercised in the past 2 months. After pondering my lower body muscles’ sudden acclimation to extreme stress, I finally figured out the culprit…my Chinese toilet!

chinese toilet
A typical Chinese toilet…in this instance, the hole is submerged in toilet paper.

Unlike the toilets common in the Western world where a toilet’s ergonomics are designed to represent those of a chair, a traditional Chinese toilet* is designed to represent a hole in the ground. Typically, the hole is at one end of a porcelain oval. The user squats over the oval, does their business, and then pushes a button that releases a stream of water which whisks the remnants down the hole. The most difficult aspect, however, is balancing oneself over the porcelain oval, which like skiing, requires one to use muscles they never knew they had—not to mention superb balancing skills, unless there is an available guardrail nearby.

When I lived in Fuqing from March 2004 until June 2005, all I had in my apartment was a Chinese toilet. Using it effectively was one of my greatest challenges upon originally moving to China. It wasn’t that I had any cultural or sanitary aversions to popping a squat, but rather that after 3 or 4 minutes of squatting over my new throne, my legs would give out. I was forced into timing my excretions so that I would enter the bathroom just before the impending droppage moment. I also had to relinquish my preconceived idea that my time in the bathroom should be relaxing. Rather than turning the pages of a magazine, my arms had now become balancing aids, and the limitations of my leg muscles no longer afforded me the time in the bathroom to finish reading the latest sports scores.

How did the Chinese do it? Why would any people design a toilet which was so physically demanding to use? The more I thought about it, the more incredulous I became. I knew from traveling and college anthropology classes that the squatty potty had been the default toilet for the majority of the world (not just China) throughout most of human history, and that it was probably a misnomer to refer to it as a “Chinese toilet” since it was Westerners who first began molding their porcelain goddesses in the image of a chair. Therefore, it would probably be more accurate to refer to our toilets as “Western toilets” and to my little porcelain oval as simply a “toilet.”

As I traveled around China, I noticed that Chinese squatting occurred in more arenas than just that of the bathroom. I would see Chinese workers spending their breaks squatting in the streets, reading the newspaper in squatting positions, playing cards in squatting positions, and on several instances even sleeping, leaned against a wall in a squatting position. How was it that they were able to relax in this position, one that I could barely even hold for 3 minutes, merely for the sake of carrying out one of nature’s most basic functions?

As the months wore on, I began to notice my legs were no longer giving out as quickly on me in the bathroom. The pain that I once felt in my quadriceps had diminished, and I found myself able to remain squatted over my porcelain oval for increasingly longer periods of time. My balance improved as well, and one day, during my first summer in Fuqing, I undertook the bold task of attempting to read the sports page of the China Daily while in a squat position over my Chinese toilet. With a little practice, and several near catastrophes, I was finally able to balance myself well enough and long enough to actually start enjoying my time in the bathroom again. As time passed, I was able to remain in the squatting position longer and longer, and not just on my toilet. I would squat when I had to pick something off of the ground, squat when chatting with the migrant workers around my building, and on several occasions even squat while eating street food when no tables were available. After a year and a half of daily squatty potty usage, I was able to remain in the squatting position for nearly an hour before my muscles would begin to cramp up.

Now fast forward back to my ski trip. Even though I have not used a Chinese toilet since August, it seems that the muscle I built up from squatting in China is still present in my lower body. Otherwise, I can think of no other possible medical explanation for my lack of soreness from my first day of intense skiing after a 4 year layover. This wouldn’t be the only benefit of defecating Chinese style, as squat toilets are generally more sanitary as well as easier on the colon than those in which one sits. But if it truly is my Chinese toilet which has led to my apparent increased lower muscular endurance, then maybe the U.S. ski team should adopt a policy of using only Chinese toilets.

*Thesedays most newer Chinese buildings are equipped with the same sit-down toilets found in the West


 

01.25.08

Photos that Scream “China”

Posted in Culture Clash at 12:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Every so often I snap a picture which just screams “China.” Here’s one of them I found when cleaning out my camera. Feel free to write your own captions.

chinese girls umbrella

 

01.16.08

Do You QQ?

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Society at 4:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

Tencent QQ penguin

Do you have QQ? Chances are if you live in the People’s Republic of China, you have heard this sentence multiple times…in the past week. If you have never been to China, you probably have no idea what I am talking about. QQ is one of the world’s most widely used Internet chat clients, yet most people outside of China have never even heard of it.

QQ was originally known as OICQ, presumably as a ploy on ICQ. Since the name change, the letters “QQ” (a loose transliteration of 酷酷, a slang Chinese word which roughly means “cool”) have been popping up all over Chinese pop culture. Chery, a Chinese auto manufacturer now makes a low-end car called the QQ, and QQ奶茶 (QQ milk tea) has been popping up on the menus of Chinese restaurants and kiosks. Even more ubiquitous than the initials, may be the QQ penguin, who seems to appear on billboards, TV advertisements, and public events all over China.

The QQ software itself is garbage. It’s buggy, unstable, and contains a plethora of annoying flashy advertisements and bonus features which crowd the interface. From time to time, when logging in to QQ, users are greeted with a message that the server is overloaded and that they will have to login again later. To make matters even more complicated, QQ is not written with Unicode. This means that to get the Chinese version of QQ running on an English version of Windows, you have to switch the default non-Unicode program language on your computer to Chinese. (Originally I tried installing the English version, but removed it when I found it would not let me type Chinese characters, thus defeating the point of using QQ in the first place). Additionally, I have also heard numerous reports of spy ware and viruses being contracted through QQ. Yet QQ offers one distinct advantage over any other chat client, and that is everybody (I mean EVERYBODY) under the age of 30 in Mainland China has an account (if not 3). Walk into any Internet café in China, and you will likely notice that cute little penguin in the corner of the majority of the patrons’ desktops.

Because of its widespread usage in China, QQ is an integral tool for developing and maintaining a Chinese contact base. While older and more business savvy Chinese professionals are coming to prefer more “mature” chat clients such as MSN or Skype, it is still not uncommon for them to maintain QQ accounts as well, if not only for that same reason that everybody else in China seems to have one. My own personal QQ buddy list is chalked full of former students, friends, business contacts, and random folks I have met in crowded hard-seat cross-country trains, many of whom without QQ I would have lost contact with. Another advantage of QQ is that it is an excellent tool for obtaining and/or maintaining Chinese literacy. For me, I try to spend at least 15 minutes of my day on QQ, if nothing more than just for a quick Chinese character refreshment.

So it came to my dismay, but not to my surprise, that when I got my new computer I found the old version of QQ which I had been using (QQ 2006 Beta2) was not compatible with Windows Vista. I promptly went to qq.com and downloaded the new version (QQ 2007 II) which according to the website supports vista. I ran the install file, which installed halfway, then gave me an error message telling me the program I was running was not compatible with Windows Vista. Turns out, the new version of QQ is only compatible with the Chinese version of Windows Vista. I guess I should have seen that one coming.

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Update: I finally got QQ to work with Vista, but it wasn’t without the token roadblocks. I got the new English version to install properly, but as soon as I sent my first message I received an error which read “Your flash player version is too low, in order to display normally. Please click here to download the latest version.” Only when I clicked “here” it was a broken link. I updated my flash player manually, and it seems to be working properly…for now.


 

01.13.08

No Lefties in China?

Posted in Culture Clash at 10:30 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past December, I was invited to a Chinese Christmas party in Chinatown.  During the party, I was conversing with a middle-aged gentleman who had lived in the US for ten years.  When the conversation turned to culture shock I asked him what he thought was the strangest thing he saw when he first came to the US.

“Left handed people,” he replied without any hesitation.

“You don’t have left-handed people in China?” I inquired making sure I hadn’t mistranslated his words.

“Nope, I had never seen anybody write with their left hand until I came to the U.S.” he said.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “Isn’t that genetic?”

“Maybe so, but in China kids are all taught to write with their right hands.  If they pick up a pencil with their left hand, the teacher will put it in their right.  It’s really just a matter of practicality.  In the US, you have left-handed desks, left handed guitars, and all sorts of other left handed devices, but in China we have none of the sort.  It works out better that way I think, no need to manufacture 2 different kinds of something when only one is necessary.”

As he brought this up I vaguely remember my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl she had picked up objects with her left hand, and her mother would always put it in her right, so much so that she eventually became completely right-handed.  This practice however seems to have fallen mostly out of practice in the US.  Since I’m no longer in China I can’t really check whether or not this man’s story checks out, but I do not recall ever personally encountering any southpaws in the land of the Middle Kingdom.  Can anybody out their either confirm or deny the existence of left-handed Chinese?


 

01.08.08

Robbed in Chicago…Lenovo to the rescue

Posted in Personal Anecdotes at 2:46 pm by Benjamin Ross

Just wanted to write a quick note to apologize/explain the recent lack of content on the blog. I was having an excellent holiday season until my apartment was burglarized the day after New Years. Fortunately, all they took from me was my laptop, a 3 year old Gateway with a broken CD-ROM drive, a busted fan, a battery that lasts 4 minutes, and an LCD display with a broken hinge that was on the verge of falling off the body of the computer. They also took my laptop bag which was probably worth more than the computer itself. My roommate wasn’t as lucky, as he lost his 6 month-old laptop, an expensive watch given to him by his uncle, and a 46 inch LCD TV. Insurance should be covering most of the loss, but the most annoying part was being without a computer for a week. Luckily, they didn’t take my external hard drive which had all my data backed up. The KMart near my house has a free Internet cafe, but the time restrictions, and lack of access to my own software and files drastically limited my online activity.

So as of yesterday, I am now finally back online. I picked up a Lenovo Y410 Laptop, and am quite curious to see first hand how China’s most poignant encroachment into the American electronics scene shapes up. So far so good, and I can’t imagine this Lenovo laptop could be any worse than the Gateway I foolishly purchased 3 years ago. In honor of my new computer’s national heritage, I have also decided to leave the protective plastic covering on it for at least the next 6 months.

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