Surviving the Squatty Potty: How Two Weeks in China Changed My Perspective on Travel
I was worried that the negative western stereotypes of the east were accurate, and while a few were, I was also happy to find that most were exaggerations, or completely false.
This past May, I spent two wonderful weeks traveling from Hong Kong to Beijing as a part of a study tour program with the University of North Texas. I was both incredibly excited and slightly terrified about traveling to China. There seems to be certain negative stereotypes surrounding travel to Asian countries from a western perspective, and while I worried that they might be true, I had to experience it for myself.
Going into the trip I essentially had five main fears/anxieties/concerns in regards to visiting China, most of which were never a major issue in reality, but here they are:
My professor had warned a few of us in the group ahead of time that we would attract attention, especially in places that do not see too many foreigners. With my blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, I knew this would be something that would affect me, but I was unsure to what extent.
In Hong Kong, my appearance was in no way an issue, and I was beginning to think my professor was exaggerating. However, as soon as we left the international city and crossed the border into southern China, I realized why she gave us fair warning. In all honesty, it was flattering and even a little bit fun when I first noticed people taking pictures of me. The attention makes you feel like a bit of a celebrity, and many people were even polite enough to ask for a picture.
The initial feeling did wear off though, and by the time a mob of Chinese tourists followed and even grabbed a few of us for pictures while we were touring a soy sauce factory, I longed for America where I blend in among the crowd. That experience, as well as an encounter with a couple who followed us around for almost 30 minutes taking pictures of our group with professional cameras while we visited a temple, frustrated me at times. When it was hot, and I was exhausted from constant professional appointments and touring, the last thing I wanted was a stranger following me around with a camera, but eventually I learned to roll with it. I did not encourage the tourist-turned-paparazzi for fear of another mob, but I learned to laugh about it, smile for selfies, and embrace the curiosity of the people I encountered.
Listen guys, I’ve been to Mexico, I know what can happen to you if you accidentally eat or drink the wrong thing, so it is safe to say I was rather anxious about the possibility of illness while visiting China (what if I forget and drink the water?! What if I get bird flu?? Etc.) Despite my fears, I never encountered any issues; I was careful about what I ate and drank, but I still tried almost every dish that was offered to me, and oh, was the food good! While the possibility of illness is a serious concern for travelers (especially Americans with our fragile digestive systems), with a bit of precaution and plenty of hand washing, you can have an illness free experience! That being said, ensuring you have medical coverage and some basic medications while traveling is always a good idea…just in case!
I cannot explain why the concept of a “squatty potty” was so terrifying to me, but in the weeks leading up to the trip, I definitely had dramatic visions of what this experience would be like (side note: PLEASE do not google this subject…the images you will find are usually much worse than the reality…usually).
All I can say on this subject is, BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper), load up on hand sanitizer, consider bringing wet wipes, and prepare for the worst (but hope for the best). While the few eastern-style toilets I actually encountered weren’t necessarily pristine by western standards, it really was not the nightmare I had imagined, and most places I visited had at least one western toilet, so in the grand scheme of things, this anxiety was pretty silly.
I had a general concern that I would arrive in a foreign country, where I did not speak the language, did not understand the culture, and find myself struggling with the unfamiliar. This right here is why I highly recommend study abroad as an introductory experience into international travel. I found that being surrounded by my peers provided an encouraging environment as we were all in the same boat experiencing and feeling many of the same things.
While study abroad isn’t the only way, and it may not be for everyone, I believe it is an excellent approach to safely get out of your comfort zone with the support of other students who empathize with what you are going through. Plus, you make new friends and get to have crazy, fun, interesting, and weird experiences together that make for great stories at the very least.
Western Preconceived Notions of the East
To put it simply, I was worried that the negative western stereotypes of the east were accurate, and while a few were, I was also happy to find that most were exaggerations, or completely false. Yes, there was pollution (luckily for me, the smog was not too bad when I was there). Yes, it was not always the cleanest place, but have you seen some of the streets of major American or European cities? And yes, while there were a lot of people, I found that the people were incredibly friendly! When we met students at one of the universities, they showed us kindness and generosity in a way that I have not seen in the States.
The fundamental reason I chose to study abroad in China is that I did not think I would travel to Asia on my own. I was always so infatuated by the grand cities and cultures of Western Europe that I never thought I would have the desire to visit places beyond that. While I still plan to travel throughout Western Europe, I now want to explore beyond my comfort zone into cultures unlike mine; I want to learn about other ways of life, and I want to continue to prove my theory that as humans, we have much more that connects us than separates us.