When Nick and I arrived in Beijing, we wasted no time trying to see as many of the sites as we could. We had 3.5 days in town, and we wanted to make it count. On our first day, as per our tradition, we walked around the areas surrounding our hotel to get a good sense of the city as well as to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land. The area we stayed at is called Xicheng, and the hotel was in the heart of a hutong, old Beijing neighborhoods characterized by narrow streets and alleys lined with traditional courtyard residences. These neighborhoods are under constant threat of demolition owing to China’s insatiable appetite for new construction and modernization. Everywhere you look, massive girders and cranes dot the skyline, and the constant drone of hammering and construction is the inescapable soundtrack of the city.
Close to our neighborhood is the Shichahai district, home to many “lively” night time establishments as well as overpriced teahouses. While at Shichahai, we realized that the nearby Metro station is on Line 8, which goes directly to the Olympic Center, so we got on the subway and made our way to the famed Bird’s Nest.
When we got there, we wasted no time marveling at the audacity of the building architecture and gaping at the light show being projected on the side of the Bird’s Nest. We spent some time walking around the area taking photos, and generally just enjoying ourselves. A little while later I told Nick I needed to pee, so off we went to find the bathrooms. The closest one we found was two small buildings between the Bird’s Nest and the Cube, the Beijing National Aquatics Center. One building was for men, and the other for women. Nick and I went to our respective designated bathrooms and went on our business.
When I got inside the ladies’ room, I realized that the Chinese do things a little differently in terms of queueing. While back home, we form a single line and the person at the front of the line takes whichever the next available cubicle is, and so on and so forth. The Chinese, on the other hand, form a queue for every cubicle. This means you need to quickly assess and decide which queue you think will move the fastest. I picked one that was marked with a pictogram for Western style toilet. Try as I might, I just could never get comfortable using the squat toilets. I mean I’ll use it if I have no other choice, but if there’s a Western style toilet within half a mile, I will find it and I will use it.
I should mention that the bathroom was pretty full at this point, and all queues are equally long. I patiently waited for my turn along with the three other foreign women ahead of me. When the girl ahead of me went in, I waited until she closed the door before I stepped up. A couple of minutes later, I heard the latch click and saw the door start to open. The girl stepped out, and I made a move to go inside the stall.
As soon as I stepped inside the cubicle, I felt myself pushed in by what felt like a tsunami of bodies. Out of nowhere and without warning, a dozen or so middle aged Chinese women descended in the bathroom and were pushing their way into any open cubicle. Luckily, I caught myself before I fell face first in the toilet, which was impossibly clean by Chinese standards. It took me a couple of seconds to realize what was happening, and by the time that I did, there were three women in the stall with me, all jostling to be the first to get to the toilet. One of them had even started unbuttoning her pants. At that point my fight or flight instincts were kicking in, and I chose to fight because, A. I needed to pee real bad, like really, really bad I’m dancing already; B. it was the cleanest bathroom I’ve seen in the 3 weeks I’ve been in China; and C. it’ll be a cold day in hell before I allow myself to be pushed around. Also, there was no way I was getting out of there without a fight anyways, so I might as well hold my ground and use the damn bathroom.
Peeing for me is not a group sport, or even a spectator one, so I had to get those women out of the cubicle before I can even start my business. I slid my camera that’s hanging on my neck to the back to keep it safe and got to work. I used all the Krav Maga training I can remember to push those women out without resorting to hitting any of them. I used my body and my weight to drive them out, but since there was an entire horde just outside the door waiting to get in, it took considerable strength and restrain to get them out without violence breaking out. When I finally managed to push the last woman out, I had to drop my whole weight on the door just to be able to close it long enough to lock it shut.
Once I was alone in the stall, I had to take a few deep breaths to slow down my heart rate and be able to function normally again. I took my time peeing, and even after I was done, I did not immediately go out. I knew what was out there waiting for me. I could hear them banging on the door, I could hear them screeching. It was a scene straight out of The Walking Dead, but instead of zombies, I had middle aged Chinese tourists out for my blood. I placed my camera inside my bag, placed my bag across my body, taking special care that the actual compartment is on my back. I took a deep breath, and readied myself to fight my way out.
As soon as they heard the latch open, the pushing began, and it was even more aggressive this time. I’m not tall, I’m only 5’4, but in China, I easily tower over most women. I used my height and sizable frame to my advantage, extended my elbows out to protect my body, and pushed my way out through the crowd. I guess I’ve pissed them off by denying them group urination and by taking my time, because some women were actually trying to hit me. I had to again draw on my limited Krav Maga training to extricate myself as quickly as possible with the least damage on my person. I tucked my head down to make my neck smaller and reduce target area, and twisted my body side to side with my elbows sticking out to clear enough room for myself to get out. Once out of the main horde, I didn’t bother stopping by the sinks to wash my hand. I practically leap frogged the last few feet just to get outside of the building.
When Nick saw me, he couldn’t understand why I was flustered and out of breath and apoplectic with rage. I was swearing off China forever and was trying to call American Airlines already to get me on the first flight out of the country. When I finally got the whole story out, Nick, bless his heart, didn’t try to fix anything or justify their behavior or even try pacify me. He just asked if I was ready to go. I was. Though we still had a full week left in China, I was pretty much ready to fly home after that. I realize that that was an isolated incident, but it was terrifying and very much traumatizing. I was on the defensive the rest of the time we were still there, which was unfortunate because it is an extraordinary country.
I would still go back to China, especially Beijing. I actually like the city, and there is still a ton of stuff I want to see and do there, but I will never ever use a public bathroom ever again if I could help it.