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Pooping in China: Monthly reflections on living, teaching, and moving bowels abroad
By Brandon Jeune
Editor's Note: Brandon Jeune is a 25-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches English to children in China. He writes "Pooping in China" and distributes it to friends and family as an email more or less every month. He has given us permission to serialize the emails here. Because we just relaunched our website, we're hurrying to catch up and post all of the emails Brandon's sent over the past few months. Read the first installments here and here and here.
Happy New Year! Yes, I know I’m in China, and should be adapting to the Lunar calendar and saving my New Year greetings for a few more weeks, but my brain’s still locked in Gregorian time, so here we are.
Actually, I’ve just made the relatively easy decision to observe the New Year twice, as it means double the holiday celebrations, and double the chances of following through on those pesky resolutions. I think the latter in particular is something from which we could all benefit. I mean, how many of us have resolved to get up early and exercise every day during the coming year, only to wake up hungover around noon on the first and somberly declare, ‘Well, fuck THAT.’ But now, that nausea and pounding headache doesn’t have to be accompanied by a sinking feeling of guilt from your own lack of determination! That was just the first New Year, and we have plenty of time until CHINESE New Year! So if you want to keep on eating ice cream at 2 a.m. and sleeping until lunchtime, you go right ahead, because January is officially responsibility-free!
That said, my resolution this year is actually a pressing concern, and I don’t need any excuses to postpone it. In fact, I retroactively started observing it some time back, when I became aware of a current, and major, problem in my life.
My resolution for 2013: To see fewer wieners than I saw in 2012.
Because Jesus Christ, I saw way too many. Generally, I consider breaching the threshold of two to designate seeing “too many,” as this means I saw one other than my own. (Please note that this criterion excludes penises composed of marble or paint, and a select quantity of those captured on film, as I’d like to fancy myself a patron of the arts.) (A second note to Lars von Trier: you get a pass on smashing poor Willem Dafoe’s penis with a piece of wood, but if you push it like that again, I’ll have to revoke the exclusion for your films. Also, I’d appreciate some compensation for my dental bills, as the amount of anxious teeth grinding I did during that scene seems to have caused permanent damage to my mouth, not to mention the lingering effects on my psyche-and now when I find myself up alone eating ice cream at 2 a.m., the sharp pain in all my molars’ nerve endings is accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of depression, which I can only assume is tied to Antichrist flashbacks, and not to the fact that I’m once again up alone eating ice cream at 2 a.m.)
It’d be one thing if I were gay, or a urologist, because at least then I’d be seeing penises somewhat voluntarily. This is not the case. Worse yet, these weren’t just any penises; these were underage penises. Needless to say, if some of these images that have unfortunately ended up in my brain had instead ended up on my computer, they’d be enough to land me in a federal prison.
It actually began way back in November 2011, while I was studying abroad in Shanghai. During an academic break, friends and I took a trip up to Qingdao, a port city in the north of China famous for it’s Tsingtao brewery. And while beer was admittedly a major focal point of the trip, I did take in some culture and natural sights, and one day found myself taking a serene, introspective walk along the pier. I watched the kids out on the rocky beach, scrambling to collect as many shells as they could, before the tide came back in. I joined a throng gathered around an old man with two deformed, fingerless hands, as he cradled a brush between his wrists and filled sheets of rice paper with some of the most beautiful calligraphy I’ve ever seen. I made my way to the end of the pier, and leaned out, watching the waves roll in endlessly, and listening to the cawing gulls and susurrous sounds of the sea. Off to the left, where a rocky outcropping jutted into the water, a man and his son sat fishing. They hunkered against the winds and cast their lines out into the waves, reeled them in, cast again. My thoughts drifted away, ruminating on the scene and these reminders of the beauty of life, and how the world came seem so big and small, all at once-GAH! I’m staring right at a penis!
If I touch a hot burner on the stove, my hand instantaneously starts screaming at my brain: HEY THIS THING IS HOT MOVE ME MOVEMEMOVEMEMOVEME!!!! And my brain obliges, and moves my hand away. If I stub my toe, the nerves under my bleeding nail immediately begin reprimanding me: HOW MANY TIMES ARE WE GOING TO GO THROUGH THIS, BRANDON!? EITHER LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, OR PUT ON SOME GODDAMN SHOES!
So I don’t know what’s going on with my eyes. They’re much closer to my brain than my hand or toes, so you’d think their response time would be even more immediate. Perhaps there’s just no internal alarm system set up that alerts me whenever a penis enters my range of vision. Perhaps, when my brain goes off on its pretentious little ramblings, my eyes, while still open, go into a sort of “sleep mode”, like my Macbook after fifteen minutes of disuse, or a late night security guard when the boss isn’t around. Or perhaps they’re just lazy (is that why they point in two different directions?), and when seeing a penis, say to themselves, “Well, I guess we could look away, or close, or something, buuuuttt….naaaah.”
Long story short, I came to and found the scene changed: the boy was now turned to face me and pissing into the sea, and his father was returning my listless gaze with an angry glare. All the Tsingtao in Qingdao wasn’t enough to erase that image away. Trust me. I tried.
If it had been an isolated episode, this would be nothing more than an amusing anecdote. As it stands, it’s indicative of a greater epidemic: public urination in China. Kids have a habit of just pissing wherever the hell they feel like it. While crossing the street, I’ve nearly stumbled over a kid as he stopped, dropped his pants, and started pissing in the median: penis #2. In October, I accepted a ride home from one of my students’ parents. On the way, she stopped to pick up her younger son from his elementary school. As he emerged from the gate, I smiled and waved, and he suddenly beamed and trotted toward the car. “Brandon Laoshi!” (Laoshi= teacher). Just as he was about to reach the door, he stopped, tossed his backpack aside, yanked down his pants, and started pissing right next to the car: penis #3. And just last week, while waiting out front of a grocery store for some friends, a garbage truck pulled to the curb. When the passenger door swung open, I was surprised to see a little boy, whom I’m assuming (hoping) was not an actual garbage collector but was merely riding along as part of a “take your child to work day.” As soon as I saw him, something inside me just impelled me to look away. As I wheeled around to face away from the truck, I heard the sound of piss hitting the sidewalk behind me. What relief! By way of some strange new intuition, I had foreseen the coming of the penis and averted my gaze. Perhaps being barraged by these penises time and time again has taken such a mental toll that it’s caused a physical change within me, and not unlike being bitten by a radioactive arachnid, I now have a Spidey sense of sorts- though one with an admittedly limited scope. A sort of penile prescience, if you will; a weiner-warner; a dick-diviner.
…Sorry, sometimes I get carried away.
Okay, just one more: foreskin foresight?
The important point is, Penis #4: Crisis averted. I’d like to think it means things may be improving for me, but one can never be too careful-hence the need for my resolution.
Thinking back, I should’ve known something was up way back in September of last year, when I first started studying at Fudan University in Shanghai. One night, just as I was about to step in a puddle outside the campus gate, my friend stopped me. “Watch out! That’s piss.”
I stopped, and looked around, at the passing crowds of students and street cart vendors all stationed around me. “Piss? Here? Who would piss here?”
He jerked a thumb toward the vendors. “Them. I mean they’re standing here all day, where do you think they piss?”
Oh, how could I have been so naïve! Silly me, of COURSE they piss here.
Apparently it had been going on awhile, but eventually someone in school management must’ve caught wind. Some weeks later, a sign appeared on the lamppost by the gate, issuing a warning that public urination was not allowed here, and would not be tolerated. And right at the sign’s base? A big ol’ puddle of piss.
So I can’t blame the kids. If the adults are pissing all over the gateway of one of China’s top universities, how is this new generation supposed to learn any different? Maybe I should’ve approached that garbage truck driver last week, and suggested a “take your child to the public toilet” day. Maybe he would’ve suddenly seen the light, and helped to stop this developing behavior. And maybe, heartened by my success, I could’ve started on a new path myself, mentoring at-risk youth and their parents, handing out pamphlets on the benefits of utilizing indoor plumbing, and relaying horror stories about mentally debilitated adults who saw one underage penis too many and just lost it. It would be my attempt to change society, one life at a time. You know, sort of like that parable about the old man who picked up the stranded starfish and tossed them back into sea, one by one, to keep them from pissing all over the beach.
It is in that same spirit of social improvement that I’d like to present my next segment: Resolutions for China, 2013.
Now even I immediately balk at this idea. The idea of an outsider offering suggestions for improvement brings to mind all those insufferably “superior” British of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India who attempted to supplant their host nation’s culture with their own, or even The Secret Garden’s Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary screaming “Natives are servants!” (This is where my fellow English majors nod along, while everyone else just kinda scoffs, “This fuckin’ guy…”) But that is not my intention. I love China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture. It’s the reason I live here. And I recognize the numerous things they do better than Americans. Allow me to gush for a moment: Most school-level children here have already read more western literature than even college-educated westerners have read of the east. Also: The staggering array of ingredients and flavors in each region’s respective cuisine makes me wonder why we Americans so revere a mere patty of beef sandwiched between two pieces of bread. And the fact that I’ve lost about ten pounds since moving here, despite eating lots of delicious food every day, speaks to the benefits of rice as a staple, and the gaining momentum of the gluten-free craze. And we musn’t forget: the history. Oh, the history. I mean we Americans have some fascinating periods to look back on- our revolution, the Wild West, the rise of the McDonalds franchise- but we’ve got nothing on China. I’ve been reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and I’d wager there are more beheadings per page in that book than there are in our entire history combined. It makes me think we should introduce the guillotine into our political system, if only for a short while. Just so our distant progeny will have something interesting to look back on. And hey, our Congress has already proven they are incapable of drafting policy unless they self-impose consequences (see: the Fiscal Cliff). Is it so much of a stretch to suggest a system where unproductive congressmen lose their heads? I, for one, would tune into C-Span a lot more often.
In fact, if anyone in government is listening (U.S. government; Chinese government, I already know you’re there) and decides to incorporate my ideas in the upcoming year, I’d like to announce right here and now my candidacy for Senate Minority Execution Leader. It would satisfy the idealogue within me on a deep level to sit over in the corner of the Senate floor with my guillotine, continuously sharpening the blade and testing it out on various items, like Cabbage Patch dolls and big hocks of ham, while Mitch McConnell shoots me nervous glances from across the room, sweating and jumping out of his chair with each thunk.
In the interest of reasserting I am a (aspiring) humorist and completely nonviolent, I want to make it clear that I do not actually want to kill Mitch McConnell. Besides, if his recent antics on the floor are any indication, I wouldn’t have to; he’d likely propose a bill to offer himself up for execution, and then filibuster it.
But, all the self-doubt and rambling and obscure political zinging aside, I do think societies can learn from one another, and so here are my resolutions for China: merely a few areas where I, however arrogantly, think America has progressed a little further. Before moving abroad, I took these things for granted, and having now gone without them for some time, I recognize their benefits all the more acutely.
1. Realizing there’s only one way out of an elevator. (This excludes all those fancy-schmancy lifts with a double-set of doors on opposing sides, of course).
Look, I get it. There’s a lot of damn people here. And when everyone’s trying to get somewhere at once, you have to be a little aggressive. So I’ve gotten used to the shoving, and hey, it’s still not my thing but I’ll give ya that one. However, it seems a vast majority of Chinese need a re-education in Pauli’s Exclusion Principle: no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Time and time again, I ride the elevator down to my lobby, and am greeted with the mother of all clusterfucks upon arrival. People are already crammed up against the doors when they open, and before I even have a chance to step forward they’re rushing in like floodwaters, leaving me and any other poor souls still trapped inside to futilely flail around as we all drown together. At times like this, I can’t help feeling like the one self-aware lemming that finds himself involuntarily swept into the middle of the stampeding mass and driven to his doom. By the time we actually make our way out, everyone is a little worse for the wear. Whether or not the physics of the situation is readily apparent, I’d wager that, deep down inside each person, some part of them has to recognize this whole ordeal would be a lot easier and more efficient if they all just gave us five seconds and moved the fuck out of the way.
2. Respect the line, dang it! Respect the line!
I said I’ve gotten used to the shoving, but that statement requires an addendum. In the insanity of entering a subway, or crossing a street, or walking through the mall, the parameters are ill defined, and without an established sense of order, a bit of rough-housing is only natural. However, it has no place within the sanctuary of the line, and I refuse to accept it there. The line is infallible; it is intuitive; it is just, it is fair. Those at the front came first, and they will be first-served, just as it should be. When approaching such a collection of people, all queued up and observing this universally recognized symbol of order, anyone who disobediently assumes any position other than last in line deserves any amount of the social wrath that will befall them.
Unfortunately, here there is no wrath to be had. Everyone cuts like it’s going out of style, and if you don’t cut back in, by the time you’ll reach the counter so is whatever you wanted to buy. I’m still too polite for my own good, though I’m learning to be a real pushy asshole real quick. But sometimes I’ll still get thrown for a loop, like I was while trying to buy some baozi (breakfast dumplings) a few mornings back. I respected the line and waited patiently, but all the while anticipated others might not do the same. So when I neared the counter, I spread my legs, planted my feet firmly and locked into my newly developed wide-elbow stance, an ingenious position that increases both my defensive and offensive capabilities tenfold. So I thought I had this one on lock. And I did, for a time. A middle aged woman pushed her way up and tried to make her way around me, but I wasn’t having it. Swoop, sorry bitch, you just got a taste of tha ‘bows, and I can tell you didn’t like it enough to take another bite. So she retreated, and I celebrated my victory. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. A moment later I heard her behind me, whispering what sounded like instructions, and next thing I knew, a kid was crawling right through the opening between my legs, popping up in front of me, and usurping my rightful place at the counter. Blast it, wide-elbow stance, you had me convinced you were airtight, but I should’ve known you’d reveal your own weaknesses in turn!
Honestly though, if that’s isn’t just the shittiest shit I’ve ever had shat upon me. Pfft, sending a child to do a grown woman’s bidding. You’re gonna need that baozi to comfort-eat yourself out of your well of shame, I’d reckon. And how was I to respond? I can’t shove a child out of line. So I stood there and watched on helplessly as he bought up the last three baozi of the batch, and the only thing missing from the scene was one of Vince Guaraldi’s sad Charlie Brown piano tracks to accompany my hungry walk to work. But I can’t help shouldering some of the blame. I should’ve known better than to come to the ring expecting a fair fight. And this lady didn’t just hit below the belt; she brought in a circular saw, took my leg off at the knee, and kicked me in the dick with my own severed foot.
3. Realizing you’re holding a cell phone. And also that you’re in public.
The way many of the people around here scream into their phones (WEI!? WEI!?!?!? WEI!!!!!!!) I sometimes wonder whether they realize they’re holding a communication device, or merely attempting to yell loudly enough for their friends to hear them from across town without it.
4. I’ve got the black lung, pop *koff koff*
There was one evening recently when the cold reached that threshold of where our language begins to fail us, wherein we find the gross inadequacy of a statement like “man, it’s fucking cold,” and in its stead a collection of utterances along the lines of “brrrmmannnnshh fucking clllllddddduuuuhhhnnnngghh” becomes the only feasible method of expressing the temperature. I’m still holding on to my stupid self-challenge of going all winter without heat, and have just gotten used to seeing my breath at all times, although whenever I start to feel any pride at that, I remember that I live in the south. And also that my grandfather fought in Korea, and during the winter had to cut his nylon parachute into strips and wrap them around his feet to keep his frostbitten toes from falling off.
I sort of lost track of my point there I guess. I’d scrap that whole aimless paragraph if it didn’t end with a shout-out to my grandpa. For that alone I’ll let it stay. You’re the man, grandpa. You’re the man.
I guess my point is it’s cold, but maybe not that cold, if a namby pamby like myself is able to whether it without a space heater. And it’d have to be much, much, much colder to justify the Greenwell school’s recent solution to the problem of warmth: a coal stove.
An unventilated coal stove.
Imagine my surprise when I stepped into a hallway saturated in the thick, chalky haze of smoke. Alarm bells went off in my brain- FIRE! I burst into the office, all flustered, and looked around at my calm coworkers.
“Smoke! There’s smoke!! Is something on fire!?!?”
What patronizing smiles. Oh, you crazy little American man. It’s just the coal stove, silly. You know, the one in the middle of a school full of children that’s burning big black hunks of fossil fuel without being hooked up to any ventilation system to funnel the noxious fumes out of the building. That coal stove.
I sat down at my desk and tried to get some work done, but all the while my lungs were buckling, and my mind was wandering away from my papers: Is this the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen? Well, in ninth grade my friend Brian tried to sled down a hill inside a porta-potty…Is this the second stupidest thing I’ve ever seen? How much cancer am I contracting right now? Should I say something?
I did, eventually, though it was more a subtle allusion to the fact that the air quality seems rather poor at the moment, than the more blatant “wow, this is a really dumb fucking idea” I was holding back. But my incredulous disgust must’ve shown on my face, because everyone seemed to get the gist of my disapproval. Thankfully, I haven’t seen the stove used since.
I guess I did end up tossing a few starfish around after all. Maybe the water’s a little cold, and they aren’t happy about being moved, but I stand by my decision. Because if I leave you guys on the beach, YOU WILL DIE.
Which brings me to the end of my resolutions, and the end of my last entry of 2012. And yes, I just lied to you, because as of writing it’s actually January 2nd, meaning I’m already twelve hours past my deadline for this month’s update. Woops. I’d offer an excuse on why I’m behind, but it’s an article in itself, so I guess… look for it in a month. Here’s a hint at what’s to come: I suffered a great public humiliation, went to a wedding, and ate steak, among other things. Was I humiliated at a wedding? Was I humiliated at a steakhouse? Did I eat a steak at a wedding? Did I poop my pants for the second time this semester?
The anticipation is killing you, I know.
But for now, your own imagination will have to suffice. Happy (Belated) New Year!
P.S. I’ll consider making ‘Meet all deadlines’ my resolution for Chinese New Year, but no promises. I’m still waiting to see how this whole no penis thing pans out.