IN XI’AN, CHINA, I HAD the runs. It had gone on for two days, and I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t stop going. In the middle of the night, I’d dash to our apartment’s American-style toilet bowl where it would pour out like a Biblical flood. On a stifling bus—one sardine among many—the urge would strike, and I’d pray to the ancient gods of porcelain that I could hold until finding a bowl with a seat. Toddlers pee-peed and poo-pooed on the sidewalks and street curbs, or against walls and trees, throughout the city of ten million, and the neighborhood disabled man would drop his drawers and fry a deuce on hot concrete, an aromatic bouquet for the public to indulge in. But crapping outside wasn’t for me. For hours I’d stay at home, resist and pray; alas, I’m a mammal who can’t stay trapped indoors all day, so I had to get outside, no matter the risks involved.
Overcrowded Xi’an’s sweltering summer inched on, and my wife, my daughter, and I were cooling off at a fancy new shopping mall, the kind popping up all over urban China. Every week urban consumers were created by the thousands on the mainland, and many could afford to drop hundreds of RMB a day. We were wandering around and admiring the overpriced Dunkin’ Donuts, Haagen Dazs, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Burger King as well as expensive Chinese shops selling high-end Western fashion. We were wondering who and how many could afford such clothes and accessories, when suddenly, in this window-shopping peace not meant to be, I had to go. And fast.
First, we split up. With delight, my daughter sped to the sandbox of a toy-store play area, while my wife and I would first locate spots for doing our business before returning to hard plastic chairs of the adult sitting area. In the first men’s room I stumbled upon, I got lucky when I found a stall with a bowl next to three with squat toilets. The problem was that the bowl’s stall was an extremely tight fit, and I’d made the mistake of bringing my oversized book bag. There was no hook upon which to hang the bag, and the filthy floor had no room to spare. The bowl was too close to the door and from a standing position, it was hard to imagine any but the tiniest Chinese, only a few of the shrinking grandpa set, being able to sit and poop in stoic comfort without bruising their knees against the door.
I prayed I’d be able to hold it and went back to the toy store and waited. As soon as my wife returned, I explained my situation. She smiled, but graciously suppressed laughter. Leaving my overstuffed bag with her, I then scooted back to the can. This time, without pushing the door and testing the lock, I could see that the second-floor stall with the American toilet seat was occupied. That’s what red means in every culture. Thinking fast, I decided against an available squat toilet and took the escalator to the third floor where we’d previously noted an identical bathroom directly above the second-floor conveniences.
On the third floor, the entire bathroom was empty. The American-seat stall was open, but even without my book bag, the narrow stall was confining. What’s worse is that the seat was sauced in piss with a few brown splotches for good measure. There was so much yellow that I was inclined to believe the sloppy leakage drizzled from the dong of more than one Zhou or Li. A line of Wangs had decorated the seat. What could I do? I felt like giving up—sinking down to the floor, pooping my pants, and crying myself to sleep.
I regained my composure when I remembered I had the tissues that my wife had provided. These packets were indispensable in B.Y.O.T. China, and natives knew to have them handy. At once, I used several to wipe down the seat. But it was gross to sit without a thorough scrubbing with suds and hot water, so I determined to prevent my butt cheeks or any other part of my anatomy from pressing against the dirty bowl. (In fact, it was white plastic, not porcelain; another time, I will tell you how my two hundred pounds of American flab once broke a toilet seat while evacuating abroad.) I managed to succumb to an awkward bent position, with my legs wide and my shorts and underwear stretched to their limit and stuck around my knees.
It was time to surrender to my novice aim or fate, however you prefer to see it. I prayed and shat—kerplop!—and turned around to see I’d left ninety percent of my rather dark and gelatinous dump on the upper right side of the seat. Wide and tall, but also lopsided and leaning toward the floor, it hovered there and smiled back at me. My enemy, my friend; my dearly departed brother, so to speak. But what should I do? Although my wife had been generous with her supply of tissue, I’d waste it all if I tried to clean up that mess. Besides, the tissues were small, and it was hard to manage any effort that didn’t result in brown crumbs on the tips of my fingers and wedged under each nail.
Not knowing what else to do, I popped out of my stall and began pacing in the open area between the stalls and the urinals. I stuck my ass out as far as I could in fear that there could be drops falling from my anal area, and I didn’t want them to land on my shorts or underpants. My shorts and underwear remained at my knees, so my pacing was an awkward waddle with my legs far apart.
Before I could cry in dismay or further evaluate my predicament and propose a solution, I heard steps in the corridor and feared the worse. A man was coming to discover what an egregious sin a foreigner had committed in Xi’an’s luxury shopping mall!
I dashed into a squatty and determined to master the art. There was more room for maneuvering, and it felt like the one large blob had been the sum of my shit for the moment. Nevertheless, I kept my shorts down and my ass out. As best I could, I fought my sore lower back and tight hamstrings, and bent into the poorest imitation of a squat, even by novice standards.
Hovering over the hole, I waited. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel that bad. I felt shame and remorse for what lay in wait for the next fellow seeking the third floor’s traditional seat, but that was all. Shame and remorse were soon overruled by that wonderful feeling of being finished—this shit session was at its end!
I removed the package of tissues I’d kept secured in my left arm pit, noted that they had gone unscathed throughout the skirmish, and proceeded to wipe and secure all areas with care. My sense of personal pride returned. I was leaving a large lump of gelatinous brown on the other seat, My Leaning Tower of Poopza, but it had been so sauced and rotten before I arrived that I had a feeling I wasn’t the first man to crap and run.
Of course, when I went to the sinks, cold water drizzled on my fingers, and there was no hand soap. Despite this, I washed as thoroughly as I could, and then used my hand sanitizer when I returned to my book bag.
I hinted to my wife, who’d been patiently waiting, that my bathroom experience had been a disaster, and she gave me opportunity to “tell all,” but I hesitated and refrained from supplying the details. Our daughter shrieked with glee in the play area sandbox, and I was happy she’d escaped any knowledge of this scene.
A day later in an immaculate new bookstore, I saw smiling at me our American war heroes, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. Their ugly mugs were framed with bold Chinese characters over their foreheads and chins. Here were our heroes of fire and pain. Our glorious leaders who ordered bucketloads of bombs to rain upon innocent civilians in foreign lands. American kings of collateral damage and air supremacy.
I knew then that I was just another American bombing from above and fleeing my crime. Perhaps escaping a befouled seat was not morally equivalent to our various leaders ordering planes to murder “terrorists” from above while ignoring civilian suffering below. Perhaps, what I left was only ostentatious and oversized, odoriferous and gross, and I was also a victim of my sore lower back, bad knees, and learning pains.
The clash of cultures, my cultural ignorance of Chinese custom, was paramount too. From years of practice, men in Xi’an squatted with ease, and then left their stalls without washing their hands. I had been raised on “rinse, lather, and repeat” American marketing con games encouraging us to consume and wash, wash and consume, until there weren’t any ounces left in a bottle of shampoo or bar of soap. Destroying the ocean with suds and plastic was all I knew.
Should I have hunted down a toilet attendant or maintenance man and explained the scene of my crime with hand gestures and pantomime? I could drag him to the stall to assess the damage, point at myself, and assume a squatting position while shooting myself in the head with an imaginary gun—pointer finger as barrel, thumb as trigger—so he would know that the white man was the culprit and highly aware of it. After that, I would bring my wrists close together in front of my waist, and plead at once, “On with the handcuffs!” Rust-free preferably, but we make do with what we have.
Alas, I didn’t do all that. I told no one although I hinted to my wife of comical calamities, and so far, no authorities have come to drag me away in the middle of the night—American disappeared for pooping poorly on Chinese seat! Tit-For-Tat against American spyware or excrescent vandal—you decide!
No, there was no jailing or fine. I remained free to shit and run in Xi’an, China, and the most familiar faces were our most famously militant Secretaries of State and Defense. My criminals, my countrymen. Crowned for mass casualties, they grinned without shame on the covers of their books—autobiographies or biographies I’d never know because I couldn’t read the Chinese characters that would tell me as much. But presumably, the Chinese were buying their books because I saw them prominently displayed on a table near the entrance to the store. And I, poor marksman, in my own sad way felt implicated; in a sense, I had joined their ranks. I was guilty of their crimes.
Six years later, I was back in China, my sixth or seventh visit after the Xi’an-ese runs. I was living in Suzhou’s university area and teaching college literature and writing to American study-abroad students, Chinese nationals, and an assortment of others from around the world. I noted Western toilet seats all over town. Okay, I’ll admit they were mainly in affluent areas catering to foreigners and China’s nouveau riche. If I shopped and ate where they sold multinational name brands—Nike, Timberland, Levi’s, Calvin Klein—everything was three times the price of a regular neighborhood, and I was invited to poop with a seat. Even a comfortable one. Squatting was the reserve of students and the poor.
I was doing okay, teaching for seven weeks. I missed my daughter, yes, but I appreciated the time alone. Occasionally, it got to me. Solitary living in a country whose language I could not freely converse in meant I had no one to talk to. I distracted myself as best I could by reading, writing, walking, and observing Chinese lead their daily lives. Teaching kept me busy enough four to five days a week, and I endured.
It had been cold and rainy for several weeks, with rare snow that would be washed away by afternoon temperatures rising above freezing. One night, I was returning home from a fancy shopping area full of underground food courts, supermarkets, and Western bowls. I walked as quickly as possible without slipping and falling on my ass. Under steady drizzle, I was almost at my bus stop’s glass shelter when an accident occurred. I was past the fountain with a silvery fish statue when I heard it. A loud thud and a human scream.
When I turned, what I saw scared me. A young woman on a scooter had hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk. A young man. They were ten yards away from me. She had wiped out and lay motionless in the lane for bicycles and mopeds. From my view, one leg appeared to be pinned under the bike. The young man groaned in pain, but was able to sit upright. The cold light rain pelted down on them both.
No one did anything. I stood there and waited for Chinese pedestrians to take initiative. For someone to come to the aid of two fallen comrades. But people strode past in the dark, and I wasn’t certain they saw the man seated in the crosswalk or the woman sprawled by her motor scooter. Motionless casualties on the ground. Perhaps they had not seen the accident, and a man seated in a crosswalk near a corner curb did not seem so unusual in urban China?
I had a feeling the accident was the scooter driver’s fault, but who cared about that? I too stood there frozen. Waiting for someone else to help. Why wasn’t I helping? Why was I staring and judging others? What was wrong with me? I wanted to continue to my bus stop. Go home. Get out of the cold and rain. But I didn’t do that either. Was I too old, indifferent, or far from home to help accident victims? Was I afraid?
A few minutes passed before two young women took in the situation. At last. They saw a girl on paved road under her bike. I can’t remember the sequence of events now, but I believe that I got involved only after these two and several others had gathered around the accident victims. I instigated and initiated nothing.
But after I saw the two young women, I sprang into action. I told a man holding his phone to call the police. Wouldn’t that have already been whom he was calling if he had his phone to his ear?
I waived at the traffic stopped at the red light. I screamed at a bus driver through his glass. A man of official capacity, he was almost a police officer, no? The girl was motionless. Her leg was pinned. From his dry perch, the bus driver stared at me, expressionless, as I waved my arms. Thankfully, the freezing drizzle had slowed to a steady mist.
I gave up on the bus driver and approached the girl on the ground. At this point, the people standing around her were conversing. They spoke to her, and she murmured in Mandarin. She wasn’t dead. I understood nothing, but I could see that her leg under the bicycle was not pinned. Why wasn’t she moving? Shock? Fear? Or she couldn’t move?
And then I lost it. I demanded that people get the bike away from her. I barked directions. A more rational I had seen on both television and sidewalk that we no longer move an injured player or person—that we wait for an ambulance, and perhaps we pray. But this was not me now. I ordered people to move her off the asphalt. I called the Chinese stupid. “Idiots!” I cursed and cried into the night air as if that was a sign of my intelligence. Perhaps my isolation was the cause of this tantrum? Or my impotence was the cause of my anger and disgust? I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was telling the Chinese what they should be doing.
The moronic American screaming in rage. I was worse than Kissinger and Rumsfeld. I was likely worse than the current blowhard in power. That monstrosity. The Donald. The dipshit. Twitler. So I berated the gathering, told them what to do, and then I gave up. Exasperated. Scared, alone, and afraid. Under cold rain, a lost loser screaming at others in a language they couldn’t understand. It was a sad parody of a scene drawn in an essay by a famous novelist. In it, she depicted New Yorkers as a busy-on-the-go people who could help a woman fallen at the curb, execute good judgment, recognize then dismiss the need for an ambulance, and then go their separate ways confident in their decency.
In my actions, I was opposite this sentient cadre of uber-citizens successfully navigating a fast-paced American city. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and so on. No, I was a crazed lunatic, a fringe adjunct who’d flown halfway around the world to scold others in foul weather. Do something! My God! Thank goodness I had the decency to leave that scene. I’m certain that the young woman was alive. I pray that she recovered. Hopefully, there was no permanent paralysis.
Kissinger and Rumsfeld bomb from above while at ground level while I, Harold Arschloch, crap out of control as irrational tyrant. The archetypal white male expat hetero-colonizer laying waste to the developing world. Shitting all over the yellow man’s mainland, I was the cis-het shit, par excellence. I knew not to call it “the Orient,” but that is certainly how I acted whenever I was here!
Of course, no one said anything to me. Most likely, not a word of my shouting was understood. In the end, I strode to my sheltered bus stop, waited ten minutes, boarded, arrived at home, and escaped myself by turning on English-language satellite TV.
Alex Kudera‘s award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, he published Auggie’s Revenge with Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day with Hard Ball Press. The e-singles “Frade Killed Ellen” (Dutch Kills Press), “Turquoise Truck” (Mendicant Bookworks), and “The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity” (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. His published short stories include “Awash in Barach and Bolano” (The Agonist), “My Father’s Great Recession” (Heavy Feather Review), and “Over Fifty Billion Kafkas Served” (Eclectica Magazine).