The One Thing Everyone Asks About China
Some of you know we recently traveled to China. It was an amazing trip, but I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow because we’ve all lived through slide shows of Uncle Morris’s trip to Wisconsin as a kid.
But I will relate one story.
If you’re… delicate… you may want to give this one a miss. Otherwise, here goes:
Everyone, it seems, is curious about the bathroom situation in China. So yes, we saw squat toilets. Yes, we used squat toilets, yes, we remembered to bring our own TP and yes we managed just fine. I’m also pleased to report that Western “potty” toilets were available in many places. Not the smaller tourist spots, mind you, so, ahem, scheduling is important.
Ah yes, scheduling. You’ll understand me when I say that sitting in an airplane, traveling across time zones, eating different foods at different times, being sleep deprived and experiencing bathroom anxiety can all play havoc with a person’s system. Schedules get disrupted. Sometimes schedules come to a complete halt. You getting me?
Now, we’d brought with us a small arsenal of pharmaceuticals, prepared for pain, sprains, coughs, congestion, motion sickness, dry eye, crowd anxiety, what have you. We assumed the worst-case scenario would be an explosive case of food poisoning.
Wrong. In fact, after several days of progressive… sluggishness… I would have welcomed a little salmonella. I finally admitted my distress to one of our travel companions. He’s a doctor. I’ll call him Dave.
“Dave,” I said. “I have one goal today. It’s the same goal I had yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Can you help me?”
“Sure.” He handed me a packet. “Take this.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s the stuff you take before a colonoscopy. Drink it before bed. It’ll put you right.”
Those of you who’ve had colonoscopies know where this is going.
“Dave,” I said. “It’s bad enough in the privacy of your own home. But while traveling? IN THE LAND OF SQUAT TOILETS?”
“Just take a little,” he said.
Which reminded me of when I went for pregnancy ultrasounds and they were running late and I’d drunk eighteen gallons of water that morning and the nurse, upon seeing my distress, gave me a little medicine cup and said, “Pee out a few tablespoons.”
Except so very much worse.
Declining medical advice, my husband and I took to the streets of Beijing, looking for a convenience store. Surely there’d be some good old Ex-Lax out there somewhere, we thought.
Nope. We ended up in an herbal pharmacy, staffed by people who spoke zero English. We typed the word “constipation” into our English-Chinese translation app and the clerk understood immediately. She sold us a package that looked like this:
With instructions that look like this:
I was using a fabulous little app called Pleca, which works thusly: you hold your phone over the words you need translated and BOOM, you get the English version.
Decoding the translation requires a little effort, because the characters have meanings that depend upon the characters before and after them, so they could mean many things. Here’s a partial snapshot of the box, as translated by Pleca:
My favorite part is the description, in small letters that you probably can’t see:
“… for real hot product delay due to consumer lag…”
It’s a lyrical language, isn’t it?
The box contained eight packets filled with tiny red beads.
“Do I eat them?” I asked my husband. “Do I smoke them? Make tea from them?”
“I don’t care,” he said. “We have a two-hour drive to the Great Wall in the morning. This ends now.”
So, I dumped them into a glass of water, shot it back like wormy mezcal, then lay down on the floor next to the bathroom and waited for them to work.
They did not.
But two hours later, as I was imagining the Chinese herbalists enjoying my method acting, and rethinking the colonoscopy prep idea, my dear husband, who’d happened onto a fresh fruit stand, saved the day by plying me with fructose and fiber. Consumer lag ended shortly thereafter and life returned to normal.
Life isn’t a box of chocolates, my friend. It’s a very large bag of cherries.