Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thoughts on the Chinese Revo-loo-tion

It's been a good long while since I've written a post that focused more on general travel in China and less on street food or my writing progress, but an article I read recently has encouraged me to break that fast. Here's the article. If you don't feel like clicking over, I can give you the short version: Li Jinzao, the head of China's National Tourist Administration, has announced that China is going to begin a massive overhaul of their toilet infrastructure, with a focus on tourist locations. That may very well be good news for China and for tourists, but I have to admit that I'm of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, as I've written before, Chinese public bathrooms can be somewhat dismal affairs. Every traveler has a couple of stories about ridiculous bathroom situations in China. Generally you'll have your pick from a row of squat toilets, possibly with dividers between them. If you're lucky, you may run across a bathroom with doors on the stalls. If you're less lucky, you may find yourself in a bathroom with a single long trough and no privacy at all. Toilet paper and soap are almost never provided. So, needless to say, it can take a little getting used to, and perhaps there is some room for improvement. On the other hand, getting back to my two minds on the subject, I am a pretty strong believer in the traveler ethos that encourages adaptation to the local culture. If these toilets are what the locals are happily using, then doggone it, that's what I'm going to use. It's not my place to adopt a snooty sense of cultural superiority based on something as silly as different standards for privacy and odors.

Now, it's possible that there is a great amount of support for this toilet-updating venture coming from the Chinese hoi polloi. If that's the case, then I'm all for it. If anybody has the right to demand a change in the way people are being treated at some of their most vulnerable moments, it's the people themselves. Somehow, though, I fear that the main reason behind the change are the big tourist dollars. This paragraph in the article certainly seems to point that way:

"Following complaints from visitors, Beijing last week announced the start of a revolution (or "revo-loo-tion") that should see the number of toilets at tourist sights rise, along with their quality." [All emphasis mine.]

Or this one from another article:

"Li admitted that the current state of public toilets in the country leaves much to be desired and should be improved to meet with international tourism standards." [Once again, emphasis mine.]

I am reminded in all of this of a singularly strange meeting I attended when I lived in Jiujiang, Jiangxi, in 2006 - 2007. Jiujiang is not a big draw for tourists (although it's a good starting point for visiting Lushan), particularly for Western tourists. That's part of what I love about the city. And yet one night my wife and I, along with three or four others from the city's very small expat population, were invited as guests of honor to a panel discussion with local government officials about how to make the city more appealing to Western tourists. We cringed as some of our fellow laowai complained about the lack of English menus at restaurants or how loud some of the streets were (not at night...on Saturday afternoons...). We were put on the spot to say something to these officials, so we stumbled through some silly thoughts about public benches in pretty areas or something, and left it at that. Everybody went home, the government officials (rightfully) ignored all of the ideas that were suggested that night, and Jiujiang stayed just the way it was.

The point is, a city shouldn't have to change who it is just to attract tourist money, and neither should a country. I understand the economic realities of the situation, of course. Sometimes your local economy relies on tourists, and if you can get a few extra RMB by updating the toilets, then I certainly can't blame you for making the change. But I think it's kind of sad. We tell kids all the time to be true to themselves and not worry about what others think of you, but even nations can fall victim to that sort of peer pressure.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying I think China should stay in some sort of dark age of toilets just so that travelers can have what they consider an "authentic" experience. That sort of thinking seems to me equally as patronizing as it is to insist China change to meet your standards. All I'm saying is that the desire to change should come from within. Perhaps that's happening here, in which case everybody wins (hooray!). But if not, then it seems like China is losing a little bit of itself.

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