Or: Caught Short in Shanghai

The momentum of the stopping subway train sent the urine puddle streaming up the carriage. There was no time to rescue my backpack. It served as a tidebreaker, blotting the flow, my worldly possessions thirstily soaking it up.  

Upstream, the boy’s trousers are pulled up, and he looks at me blankly, like I should have known better than to ever exist.

You’re not supposed to talk about Chinese toilets. Their reticence in keeping up with the country’s rapid industrialisation is a source of national embarrassment, many toilets little more than holes in the ground, macabre pits of puzzling stains and dizzying odours.

In many areas, including capital city Beijing, it’s not uncommon to see people, especially children, using the street as their toilet. Some even have convenient flaps sewn into their trousers.

It’s less of a problem in Shanghai, the most westernised city of mainland China. It even has a Marks & Spencer. I had a spent a few days there, wandering about, marvelling at the futuristic landscape across the Bund and the streets furnished with wealthy, beautiful people.

Shanghai old and new

The Shanghai subway was so clean, efficient, and easily navigable that I had been largely forgiving of its idiosyncrasies: the free-for-all boarding and the resulting elbows in the ribs, the undisguised staring, the distinctly-English tutting as I set my oversized backpack on the floor to settle in for the long journey to the airport.

A few stops later a family boarded, a complete set, toddler through to grandparents, and spread themselves around the carriage.

The commotion started as we cleared the city. First the mother began to shout, and the grandfather lunged across the carriage, waving a paper restaurant menu. The toddler had abandoned his seat, and was being hastily stripped of his trousers.

The Englishman in me insisted I not stare, but this was China; staring is the national sport.

The grandfather pushed the menu under the boy’s legs. It caught the solid deposit, but did little to stem the accompanying tide, which pooled quickly across the carriage floor.

Passengers scrambled to clear their possessions: suitcases, laptops, a large box of live crabs. Positioned further along the carriage, I believed myself safe. Until we approached a stop and the train began to brake.

The urine surged for me like fire along a gunpowder trail. My backpack could not be saved. As the train stopped and the doors opened, I hoisted my bag from its new yellow moat and hit the family with my fiercest pointed stare.

After righting the boy’s trousers, they didn’t even acknowledge me. They gathered their things and fled, leaving behind nothing but the restaurant menu and its pungent cargo. As the doors closed us inside, a teenager at the other end of the carriage guffawed at my misfortune.

Until the train moved off, its acceleration sending the urine hurtling in his direction.