If by the title of this post you are expecting me to have written about something “cultured” as in high-brow or sophisticated, you probably want to stop reading now. There will be nothing high-brow or sophisticated in this post. Instead, my family and I (more specifically my daughters and I) had a cultural experience today of the slightly baser sort.
This weekend our family went on our first road trip. We have been in Taiwan now for almost four months and we probably should have ventured out of the city before now. But frankly, the city has a lot to offer and we have spent the days we have had off exploring Taipei.
So our first road trip was to the city of Hualien. Taiwan, for those of you geographically inept, like myself (a year ago I didn’t know this either) is about the size of Indiana. It is shaped roughly like a football. Taipei, the capital, is on the northern tip of the island and we live in the northern section of Taipei which puts our home on the tippy-top of the football. The city of Hualien is about half-way down the island on the east side. We had a great time in Hualien and at Taroko Gorge, but I won’t go into our travel itinerary here because the cultural experience occurred on our way home.
Much of the drive home from Hualien took place on a Pacific coast highway which was high up on winding cliffs. Every so often we would descend the cliffs into a small city and then ascend the cliffs again as we continued northward. At one point, as we were driving along the cliffs, Elizabeth said she needed to go to the bathroom (I warned you that this wasn’t going to be high-brow). So the next time we descended the cliffs, we stopped at the first place we came to, to look for a bathroom.
I wish I could tell you the name of the place where we stopped, but none of the six Chinese characters that I’m able to recognize were on the sign out front. However, it looked like a sort of very large convenience store. The place was big and new and as we pulled up I thought to myself, Surely there is something in there that I cannot live one more day without owning! I wasn’t sure what that object was going to be, but I knew it was going to be good.
Unfortunately, after perusing the store for a couple of minutes, I realized that it was full of nothing but garbage!!! There were rows and rows of bottles of every pickled meat and vegetable you could imagine. There was one section that I will call “Some Fourth Grader’s Science Fair Experiment in Dehydration.” Just imagine everything that you would NOT want to see dehydrated and there you have it.
Then there was the mochi section. This particular part of Taiwan is famous for a delicacy called mochi. How can I describe mochi? Well, let’s see … for lack of a better description: A few years ago, my brother-in-law gave me a pair of silicone breast implants for my birthday. No … I did not have them surgically implanted, but apparently he thought I might need them someday – or maybe he was just giving me a hint. So, I am now the proud owner of my own set of breast implants that are tucked away in a drawer and are therefore, NOT fulfilling the measure of their creation.
Again, for lack of a better description, mochi have the texture of silicone breast implants. And the flavors include (among others) red bean, wasabi and salt. Now, I know that I don’t speak for all westerners here, and this is probably a huge generalization, but I really don’t see mochi as ever becoming a big hit in the US.
Then there was a big section of super cheap toys (think All-A-Dollar cheap).
So after realizing that, sadly, there was nothing in the store that I needed or wanted, I walked with my two daughters to the back of the store to the restrooms.
Now, for a short explanation. Most Taiwanese public restrooms include a number of squatty-potties. There was a variation of these in Italy back in the day, which missionaries fondly called “whizzarias.” (Again, if you are looking for a high-brow cultural experience here, you probably want to look elsewhere.) Squatty-potties are exactly what they sound like – a potty that you squat over. Apparently Asians consider them more hygienic than traditional toilets because no body parts actually come in contact with the toilet itself. However, you must have pretty good balance and thigh muscle control to use them effectively.
As my daughters and I entered the bathroom, we were immediately confronted with the absolute worst bathroom stench I have ever encountered and that includes port-a-potties and campground bathrooms. (Maybe that’s what happens when you eat wasabi mochi and pickled meat together. Just sayin’.) We all held our breath. Then as I looked down the line of bathrooms stalls, I realized that there were only two traditional toilets, and the rest were squatties. (My daughters had yet to ever use squatties. As for me, well let’s just say, I am a user, and my thigh muscles have benefited as a result.) Upon this realization, my older daughter opted for one of the two traditional toilets. She walked into the stall and immediately walked out again, white as a ghost and exclaimed, “There is a fish in that toilet!” No, that was not a typo; there really was a fish in the toilet, undoubtedly contributing to the bathroom odor. She could see that the other traditional toilet was occupied, so she made a mad dash for a squatty, and in so doing, had an important cultural experience, which she refuses to talk about. It’s probably just as well.
I then turned to my six-year-old daughter.
Folded armed, determined face, shaking of the head back and forth.
A minutes or so later a woman exited the fishless traditional toilet stall. Now, normally, when you see a person exit a public toilet stall, is it not safe to assume that the stall is now free for the next person to enter? Apparently not, because when I opened the stall door, there was still a little old lady inside using the toilet! Riddle me that! What kind of clown toilet stall was this?!
I then sheepishly exited the bathroom into the store, with Elizabeth in tow and looked in vain for anything chocolate; although I did find pork balls on-a-stick. And a few minutes later Elizabeth and I returned to the bathroom, held our breath, and found the fishless traditional toilet stall free of old ladies. Elizabeth refused to enter the stall alone, so we entered together, completed the business at hand and exited the bathroom and the convenience store having had a great cultural experience.
I have never appreciated 7Eleven more!