Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog May 14th, 2011

The WC And Me

My very first ESL teaching job in Bangkok took me to a technical college where all the students were eager . . . and all the bathrooms were squatters.

A Thai squatter, in case you are unfamiliar with this type of commode, is simply an oblong porcelain bowl, slightly raised, over which you squat to do your business. Next to this is always a small water barrel with a dipper. When you are finished, you spill a dipper or two of water down the squatter, and all over the tile floor as well, and away you go – usually followed by a cloud of flies and mosquitoes. These ubiquitous squatters have always been a mortifying challenge to me.

But first of all, let me give you the back story . . .

A child of the American Midwest, I grew up in a society that venerated clean, comfortable bathrooms. That is because my parents, and their parents before them, had grown up with nothing but a wooden outhouse in the backyard. Indoor plumbing was not available to many in the Midwest until just before World War Two. It is daunting, not to say dangerous, to suddenly awaken in the middle of a cold January night, with wind chill at 30-below zero, and have to navigate your way outside through the snow to a flimsy wooden shanty to relieve yourself. My dad relished telling of the time he became imprisoned in the outhouse on their farm in South Dakota when his rear end became frozen to the . . . well, I won’t give you the details as he liked to embellish them. Suffice it to say that when at last indoor plumbing became standard, the Midwestern homeowner threw caution to the winds when it came to making the indoor bathroom not just a convenience, but a shrine to hygiene and comfort. My mother had some serious issues with my father over their many years of marriage, but she only walked out on him once – and that was when he thoughtlessly threw his cigarette butt in the toilet one morning. Her screams of outrage could be heard as far away as the Canadian border. I still recall with awe my Aunt Cecilia’s bathroom. There were pink chiffon curtains on the window. A scented candle burned eternally on the towel cabinet. The walls were antiseptic white, retiled and regrouted every year by my weary Uncle Jim. The guest towels were so thick and fluffy you could suffocate in one while drying your face. The floor was carpeted with a rich pile shag that was ruthlessly shampooed and vacuumed by Aunt Cecilia. Several cans of Lysol stood strategically placed around the room. A microbe didn’t stand a chance in there. In a nod to nostalgia, the toilet seat was wood – a smooth coffee brown teakwood that was kept so polished you could slide off of it if you were not careful – as happened to my Uncle Jim one afternoon after having his fill of hamburgers and beer at a family barbeque. As a child I was actually afraid to go in there to pee – it didn’t seem right to profane the sacred sanitation of that room. In that room cleanliness was not just next to godliness, it was the Godhead!

I became accustomed to such formidable cleanliness when I needed to relieve myself.

You can imagine, then, that Thai squatters came as something of a shock to me. Even worse, here in Thailand all bathrooms, everywhere, are cleaned by women, never by men. It’s not uncommon to be nonchalantly taking a whiz in a public restroom and suddenly find yourself in close quarters with a Thai cleaning lady. The first few times this happened to me I nearly did myself a mischief while hastily zipping up.

To cap things off, I have bad knees. Squatting is not an option for me. When attempted, I topple over like an upset Toby jug.

I could manage to pass water into a squatter while standing up, but I decided early on at that first teaching job that I would just have to never, ever unload a loaf at school. But inevitably that proved to be unrealistic when I was stricken with an attack of the runs. There is no dignity left to a man who must urgently run down the hall while unbuckling his belt, and then has to sit his tuchas directly onto a cold, unfeeling squatter. Of course my trousers got wet as well from contact with the tile floor.

But necessity is the mother of invention. After that first unspeakable episode I began casting about for some way to simulate an elevated Western toilet seat for the next unavoidable emergency. It occurred to me that an adult potty chair would do nicely, so I went down to Chatachuck Market one weekend and picked up a cane-bottomed chair for a song. It was the work of but a moment to cut a capacious hole in the seat.

I brought the chair to school with me, and kept it in the classroom. The students, I’m sure, were dying to know the purpose of the chair, since I never included it in my lessons. And I’m sure my colleagues were intrigued to see me occasionally scuttling down the hallway, carrying a defective cane-bottomed chair. But they never asked, and I never told.