Oh look at my incessant naivetés. I love it. Cute white boy in a light blue collar holding an ugly and even bluer neck pillow departs from Smalltown USA to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. How dandy! I look like a little kid in front of the ice cream truck awkwardly gawking, standing duck footed and fully incapable to choose from the wide array of delicious decisions in front of him. At this moment, I had swung around to wave goodbye to my family at San Francisco International Airport, trying to appear semi-put together for my mother and sister. But clearly I look like I’m shitting my pants. And that’s pretty much how I was feeling too, with pinches of excitement and anticipation thrown in the mix. I was about to airdrop myself into a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t really know a soul, and realistically knew absolutely nothing about the country, other than a few cultural clichés and the fact that I once believed I could dig there as a child. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I stepped on that plane to leave everything I knew behind, there’s no way I could, but I was quickly about to find out.
Fast-forward a few weeks later as I’m venturing through the chaos amidst Asia’s finest fish and fruit markets with some buddies in China. Aside from interning at a gov organization and teaching English part-time, which kept me pretty ridiculously busy throughout the summer, we had a little free time on the weekends, and this time was always reserved for adrenaline inducing exploration into the unknown novelty of the always intoxicating culture that is China! Sprawling open roof fortresses of windy streets and mazes full of pop up shops, food, colors, music, and humans galore, bartering, laughing, and yelling; home to just about every sight and smell you can imagine in the world.
On counters throughout the market, vendors chopped the heads off fish and ripped their guts out effortlessly as children gleefully played below the tables and rode bikes through the whisking streets and alleys with the widest of smiles and cheer. Birds chirped away as shopkeepers sung out their offers to eager passerbys shuffling by. Some shops and stands sold Buddha statues and Eastern knick-knacks, others boba tea and wide assortments of foods and grains. Tourist havens that the locals also flock to always tend to be ground zero for organized chaos Costco’s, as I like to call them.
You can pretty much find anything you are looking for in places like this. If you have a foot fetish, you’re in the right place. If you want to get your mom a scarf, you’re also in the right place. Say maybe you are looking for a liger? Great, please wait a second while the shopkeeper makes a quick call to a friend around the street corner. He’ll get back to you in a second. The energy, culture, economy, and progressively rapid forward movement of China and its economy is truly uncanny and a sight I have come to be very thankful to observe, experience, and actively participate in.
After an hour or so exploring the market metropolis and devouring a lightly grilled and spiced black scorpion that turned out to actually be pretty good, duty came calling for Demetri as my stomach plummeted out of thin air and the most god-awful feeling came over me. As we were walking through a large alley full of shops, I started profusely sweating and I swirled into a dizzy haze like nothing I had ever felt before. I felt like I was going to barf, pass out, and die all at once. My friend caught me as I fell half into him on the side of the street.
Jesus, what is going on I thought?
My brain quickly scanned my surroundings and rerolled my previous actions trying to pinpoint what exactly caused the wave of spine-tingling sickness my body was experiencing. I felt like a malguided fairy sprinkled magic fever dust all over me, and besides the black scorpion I had just taste-tested, I was at a loss for what could be the cause. Then, I quickly came to as I recalled a blog I had read before just before heading over to China.
Ahh, of course! Hello food poisoning, you sly inglorious bastard! There you are finally.
Thanks to the bad call of a street meal I had downed with a few friends the evening before in Huahai, an exhilarant modern shopping extravaganza and bar street situated in Shanghai’s city center, I realized I needed to find some privacy and a bathroom fast.
After I accidentally dropped the tea I was holding and nearly fainted from the rapidly onset sickness, I gathered my scattered thoughts, pulled out my iPhone (my last Western hope for salvation), and dialed my work agent’s cell number, who was also at the market with us, in hopes that he may know where I could find a bathroom in this smorgasbord maze that quite possibly surpassed population capacity regulation by all Western standards.
Luckily my agent, Leo, was nearby and popped out of nowhere with phone in hand still talking to me, eyes wide and enthusiastic like always. Since I had briefed him about my mildly unfortunate situation moments before on the phone, he knew the dealio and handed me tissues and hand sanitizer. What a guy.He’s been around this particular block a few times before, around the world twice, and he likes to sport the most flamboyant purple jacket every Tuesday.
Grabbing me amongst the flailing sea of limbs in the streets, he began swiftly leading me through the winding crowds in a criss-cross pattern of bustling market activity to find the holy grail of the day: an unoccupied bathroom.
At this point I must have looked like an awkwardly limping along seal with downs as I tried to contain the storm brewing inside. Weaving through hordes of crowds and faces, we made a few quick left and rights, cut through a building, and took a sharp turn into your typical calm Chinese family restaurant. The setting was mellow and nicely tucked far away from the busy rumble of the streets outside. Families were quietly enjoying their meals, grandfathers and grandmothers smiled in joy, and soothing flute music was playing in the background. Abruptly, Leo points to the right and shoves me towards a door that I trustingly enter. I don’t look back. I’m on my own with this one. I scramble inside. Ahh! Once inside I located the cleanest stall, carefully hung my backpack in a religious fashion, prepared for battle, and prayed to the gods up above.
Now, when traveling throughout Asia and some version of this happens to you as you encounter the infamous Asian squat toilet, which you will, do not fret. Simply squat and assume the position of a professional Olympic ski jumper. This may very well be the best time ever in your life to be a kilt-wearing Scotsman. Take deep breaths and think happy thoughts Demetri, deep breaths and happy thoughts, deep and happy thoughts I repeated to myself.
My mind raced and a million things flew through my head about what I had gotten myself into. Why China, I thought to myself? Why didn’t I choose somewhere cute like Italy where I could sip white wine and break baguettes on a balcony in peace overlooking a Rivera? With this picture of an alternate universe painted in the foyer of my mind, I fantasized a life greener on the other side and proceeded to bulldoze the previously humane and family friendly bathroom into total oblivion.
Just as I thought the storm had passed and the sun was coming out, all of a sudden, the ground started flooding from all around me. To this day I still have no idea what happened. I had flushed a few minutes ago but it hadn’t worked and I didn’t think much of it, but I guess the pressure caused something to tweak the wrong way in the plumbing. Out of nowhere, a hurling tsunami came gushing out of the piping in my stall and within seconds I was standing drenched in inches of water that I wish I could say was cleaner than it actually was. Meanwhile, as the floor around them began to flood as well, unaware elderly Chinese men who were washing their hands in the restroom just outside my stall began frantically yelling in Mandarin, just as surprised as I was to what the fuck was going on in this poor family restaurant bathroom. One second they were enjoying a calm lunch with their granddaughter and her Disney stuffed animals, and the next they were entrenched in a brutal Jason Bourne-meets-Daddy Day Care bathroom scene.
With a group of these elderly Chinese men yelling in hysteria, confusion, and utter disgust, they started pounding on my stall door after realizing the flood’s origin location. I tried to remain quiet and pretend I wasn’t there, but from the previous 30 seconds of them hearing me curse and cry in English words they couldn’t understand, it was quite clear that I, the culprit to the madness, was indeed in the stall and still mid-squat. It was time to make a decision. I had no other option but to change locations. My shoes were drenched, my socks and jeans were off, and my dignity was rapidly depleting. But all hope was not lost. I quickly recited some Tony Robbin’s self-help quotes, envisioned what Oprah would do, listened to a Christian podcast, and read some fake news, all within 10 seconds.
I was planning for moments like this my entire life. I closed my eyes and took one final second to collect myself. Within seconds I flung open the door, ready for whatever was on the other side. I was completely naked in the lower half, and jungle gymed my way over 3 stalls in a cover-and-move fashion with my pants in hand, trying to give all the poor elderly Chinese men who were standing there in utter horror and shock the least pervasive foreign cock parade possible. I hobbled my way to an open stall, but only after they saw just about everything this young white westerner had to offer. They were traumatized. I yelled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I love you! Please, I’m sorry!”, in Mandarin, as I lunged into the sanctuary of a salvaged stall to finish my business, slamming the door shut, panting, sweating, and miserable as could be.
The group of old Chinese men, at this point 7 of them gathered together, all stood in an extremely disgruntled and confused state trying to wrap their heads around what they just saw. Meanwhile, as Mandarin phrases and tones I had never heard before filled the air in vapid spurts of disapproval and stupor, I recited prayers that my food poisoning bombardment would soon subside. Luckily, eventually after the longest minutes of my life, my prayers were finally answered.
The sun shined through the windows, and I could hear the fat lady singing. It was a Christmas miracle. With a sigh of relief, I closed up shop, thoroughly washed my hands, and limped away in a walk of shame fashion from the scene at the now not-so family friendly and peaceful restaurant. Exiting the premises, or more accurately awkwardly walk-of-shaming my way out of the establishment, I briefly stopped to take in the peaceful flute music still playing on loop and then made my way home to take a long hot shower and think hard about the man I wanted to be in life.
For those reading, this piece serves as both my confession and apology. Also, I hope you get a chuckle out of my day’s misery. To this day, I hope to find the addresses of those unfortunate elderly Chinese men who had to bear witness to the events described above in that family restaurant bathroom. And if by chance you know those elderly and now permanently traumatized Chinese men, please forward their contact information to me so that I can formally issue personal apologies, reprimands, and some form of spiritual compensation to each and every one of them. Thanks so much!
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-Cheers, Mr. International