Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Indians and Americans Use Toilets

I’m an American living and traveling in India.  I’ve noticed a lot of confusion and repulsion from both cultures regarding how the other uses the toilet.  I thought it’d be fun to make a little website explaining the how-to’s, what’s gross and what’s not gross about each side.  I hope to be honest about both the good and bad of both culture’s toilet habits, and I want to clear up misconceptions that each has about the other.

This website is just something I threw together this morning after spending about a week reading about these topics and asking my Indian friends about their habits.  I’ve provided several links, but mostly this information based on things I have personally seen and experienced while traveling through and living in India.  I’m eager to hear from anyone who thinks I may have gotten something wrong, but please read these two warnings first.

Warning to Everyone:

You are correct that some habits of the other culture are gross.  However, some of your habits are gross too!  We need to think about these things in their own cultural context and be more open-minded.  The truth is that pooping is just gross, no matter how we clean up afterwards!  I think it is all pretty funny, so go ahead and write about what you think is gross.  Just don’t write telling me that your way is better.

Warning to Indians:

Many middle class and wealthy Indians get defensive and judgmental when Western travelers talk about things that the majority of people in India do.  Keep in mind that most Indians are not educated urbanites with a disposable income who have the opportunity to surf the web.  Most still live in poverty in slums and villages, and though you may not interact with them very often, travelers meet them far more frequently than they meet wealthier Indians.  So please don’t write to tell me that the things I mention don’t happen in India.  When I say “India”, I mean all one billion of you- not just the very small minority of middle class / wealthy people.


Americans and Toilet Paper

It’s true!  Americans do wipe their bottoms with paper after they poop!  This probably seems really gross to Indians.  Want to hear something really disgusting?  They also frequently use their right hands to do it.  Ha! 

This is just another fascinating example of how cultures do things differently.  Since I’ve been in India, a lot of people have expressed their disgust that Americans do not clean with water afterwards to remove all the poop.  I’m going to try to explain it here.

First off, an American diet usually has more meat, and American poop is usually more solid and hard.  This is one of the reasons why Americans have more problems with hemorrhoids.  But the reason I mention it is that it is easier to clean yourself when your poop is very solid because less is left behind. 

Second, Americans wipe several times.  I don’t know if people who do not use toilet paper realize this.  The way it works is you wipe with paper, glance at the paper, throw the paper in the toilet.  If there was shit on the paper, then you wipe again.  You repeat this process several times until the paper is clean after you wipe.  That is how you know you got it all.

Third, some Americans do use water or wipes sometimes.  I wouldn’t say the majority of Americans do this, but many do.  Here is how it works.  If you wipe a few times and yet there is still shit on the toilet paper (or if you have an upset stomach or ate something that gave you runny poop), then many times Americans will put a little water on the toilet paper to finish the job.  Also, many Americans keep wet wipes on the back of their toilets in their homes so that you can wipe a few times with dry paper and then finish with a wet wipe.  Like I said, though, this is not something the majority of Americans do.

Fourth, most Americans shower after using the bathroom.  I’ve noticed that people who think it is gross to use paper usually do not think about this.  Most of the time, Americans shit in the morning at home, wipe, then have a shower.  (Sometimes you have a stomach problem or you eat something strange or you are keeping a weird schedule and you are forced to shit in a public bathroom, but this is certainly not preferred nor is it the norm.)  In the morning, Americans say they are going to do the “three s’s”: shit, shower and shave.  So it might be true that it is cleaner to wash with water, but Americans do that right after they shit anyway.  Even if you have to use the bathroom in public, you will still have a shower soon as it is the cultural norm to shower at least once a day, if not twice.  It’s not like Americans are walking around with weeks’ worth of poop between their butt cheeks!  Ha!

Fifth, toilet paper is not painful to use.  Indians frequently say that using toilet paper is the cause of hemorrhoids, but this is not true.  It might be true that this happens in India where the toilet paper is abrasive, but in the United States, the toilet paper is very soft and smooth.  Also, people wipe repeatedly but gently.  There is some discussion that using a sit-down toilet rather than a squat toilet contributes to hemorrhoids, but toilet paper has nothing to do with it.

Finally, yes sometimes there is a little poop leftover.  I’ll be honest and admit it.  It is gross, but it does happen every now and then.  Americans crack jokes about it frequently.  If you shit and wipe but don’t get it all, it can leave a little mark on your underwear.  Americans call these “skid marks” and if a family member sees that you have a skid mark on your undies, you will be ridiculed!  It’s considered very bad hygiene, but it does happen sometimes.  What can I say?  Shit happens!

Indians Use Water and The Left Hand

Indians clean themselves with water and the left hand.  This ensures that they are able to clean off every bit of poop from their butts, and in that way it is a very hygienic way to wipe.  I’d like to explain to Indians why Americans think this is gross.  I’d also like to explain to Americans why it isn’t as gross as it sounds. 

To Americans:

 I was going to explain how to use them, but this website does it much better:

How To Use An Indian Toilet

First, toilets in India might be sit-down toilets like we use, or they might be squat toilets.  The way you wipe yourself on either toilet is the same. Squat toilets look confusing to Americans.  I want to add is that once you do it a few times, it becomes very comfortable.  Also, squat toilets are better for the health of your bum and your colon!

Second, cleaning with water gives you the advantage of getting all residual poop off your but each time you shit.  Mentally, it seems gross to wipe this way, but keep in mind that Indians think it is gross to wipe with paper only as the American way sometimes leaves shit on the butt.  If you make sure to wash your hands with soap afterwards, this way of cleaning is probably more hygienic than just using tp.

Third, Indians are not walking around with wet butts.  Once you get the hang of it, your butt will not be wet afterwards either.

Fourth, washing your hands afterwards is really important.  Make sure you carry soap because most places will not have it if you are traveling away from fancy places.  

Fifth, you can also carry toilet paper, but keep in mind that many Indian toilets will clog up when you throw paper in them.  Most toilets also do not have wastepaper baskets.  So really you are left with the option of throwing your paper on the floor or stopping up public toilets.  It might be more polite, especially when you are at someone’s home, to learn how to do it the Indian way sometimes.  When in Rome…

To Indians: 

First, I’ve heard Indians say that Americans think it is gross to touch their butts.  This is not true.  Americans have no objection to touching their butts.  The objection is to touching shit.  It might be surprising to you, but most Americans try to make it through their entire lives without ever once touching shit.  Every now and then, when they change a child’s diaper or when they are wiping themselves with toilet paper, a tiny bit of shit might get on their fingers.  When this happens, Americans think it is the most disgusting thing ever!  They immediately run and wash their hands.  It will probably even make them gag.

Second, Americans do not object to using water.  Most have never thought about it because they simply do whatever they grow up doing without reflection.  However, if you were to point out that cleaning with water is more hygienic, they will probably agree with you.  What they object to is using your hand.  Americans do not understand why you don’t use wet toilet paper, wet wipes or a hose so that you don’t have to touch your shit.   In know that the hose is becoming more popular with middle class Indians, but it is not the norm for all Indians.

Third, Americans who have been to India are mostly disgusted by the lack of soap and hand washing- not with the way people wipe.  Any Westerner who has spent some time in Asia accepts that people clean themselves with water and the left hand and that this is a valid and hygienic way to do it.  The problem is that most people do not use soap to clean their hands afterwards.  I know that middle class Indians always do, but the vast majority of Indians are poor.  There is almost never soap in public places like trains, average restaurants and hotels, etc.  Many poor people in slums defecate in the street and in villages they do it in the fields.  I’ve seen them do it, and they are not carrying a bar of soap with them.  Then these same people harvest crops, sell food in markets, wash dishes, cook in restaurants, etc.  For some reason, middle class Indians get very angry when a Westerner mentions this, and they even try to say it isn’t true.  But anyone who has traveled beyond the posh urban clubs and private condos of wealthy India will see with their own eyes how the majority of people in the country live.  

Fourth, Americans use toilet paper, and yes are correct that it does not clean off the butt as well.  I wrote about that in the previous section.

Indian Men and Public Peeing

For men, they only need to use water once a day when they shit.  This is practical and very hygienic if they wash their hands with soap afterwards.  The rest of the time, men do not need to wipe and do not even need a toilet.  You can see men peeing everywhere all over India.  Yes, sometimes it smells really bad.  More educated men refrain from doing this and pee only in toilets.  I’m sure that things are getting better in India, but an American visiting the country for the first time will certainly notice how common it is to see Indian men peeing openly anytime and any place they wish.

Indian Women and Access to Toilets

Poor Indian women, especially villagers, usually wear saris without any underwear.  (They have a petticoat underneath as underwear, but no panties).  Amazingly, they can pee standing up when they have to.  What they do is walk to a discreet place like behind a tree or around a corner and they lift the sari up a little, lean forward and then urinate.  After I was told about this, I saw some women doing it several times.  It cleared up a great mystery to me about why we see men peeing in the street all the time but never women.  The women are just more careful about who sees them!  Anyway, I asked what they do about the fact that they drip after peeing, and they admit that they do not wipe themselves.  Even when they have the time and privacy to pee comfortably by lifting up their sari and squatting, they usually do not wipe themselves.  They told me that they do drip a little, but most of that is dried quickly in the weather here.  Sometimes the drips are absorbed by the sari petticoat which they wash regularly.

Sadly, millions of people in India are still forced to defecate openly, either in the streets or in the fields.  If you travel through India, you will see a lot of open defecation, but usually you see men and children doing it.  Women must also be discreet about it, so this means that they usually must wake up very early in the morning to get some privacy because it is taboo for them to expose themselves in public.  I read that many village women have to defecate before sunrise, and they risk being raped because some men wait in the dark to attack them on their way. 

Wealthier Indian Women

Middle class women have it much better.  They all have toilets in their homes, work in clean workplaces with good facilities and attend schools with toilet facilities.  Moreover, the posh clubs and shopping centers and restaurants of wealthier India have modern, clean toilet facilities everywhere.  Wealthier women in India will not be forced to pee in public anymore than a woman in the US would.

Some middle class Indian women wipe with water each time they urinate, but some do not wipe at all.  American women will wonder about dripping and feeling wet if they do not wipe or if they wipe with water.  I asked a few Indian women about this discomfort, and they did not seem to think it was any big deal.  Some didn't even know what I was talking about.  I think this is a big cultural difference that I don't really understand.  Indian women also told me that in public, they prefer squat toilets since they do not have to sit on the dirty seat.  They said that Western style public toilets are usually dirtier because women try to pee hovering over the toilet and make the seat messy.

More here:

Indian Women and Menstruation

In general, poor Indian women do not wipe at all when they pee unless they are on their periods.  Then, they wear underwear or pin cloth around themselves and put a folded up reusable towel or rag to catch their blood.  Women are starting to purchase disposable sanitary pads, but as these are expensive it is still more common for them to use towels and rags.  They clean the towels and rags themselves and hang them to dry.  As you can imagine, wearing these towels restricts women’s movement quite a bit just because it is so cumbersome.  There are all sorts of taboos associated with menstruating women- some are not allowed to cook, visit temples, touch their husbands, etc.  But the most difficult part involves toileting.  There are not enough public toilets in India (hence why people pee in the streets), and it is much more difficult to discreetly urinate when one must first lift the sari up high and remove panties and menstruation rags.  Because periods are messy, women then have the need to wipe with water each time they urinate, and this is also difficult to do in public.  For this reason, girls sometimes drop out of schools when they start menstruating and women’s activities are limited when they are on their periods.  The toilet facilities in most schools are not adequate to give girls the space to clean themselves while they are on their period, and the taboos associated with menstruation can cause a young girl a lot of embarrassment.  It’s strictly taboo to leave any evidence of menstruation such as soiled sanitary pads or bits of blood in the toilet, yet the public facilities usually do not have running water or trash bins. 

Wealthier Indian Women

For middle class women, things are a lot easier.  They have a larger range of clothing to choose from and they use disposable sanitary pads.  Moreover, they can easily clean themselves with water when they are on their periods then wash their hands with soap afterwards.  

More here:

How Indian Women Dispose of Sanitary Pads

An American woman visiting India is likely to be confused about how to dispose of sanitary pads and tampons.  It is rare to find trash cans in the bathrooms of Indian homes, and it is even less common to see them in public toilets (when you can find one).  Even if there is a trash bin, there is no toilet paper to wrap the pad or tampon up in and no toilet paper to clean yourself afterwards. 

How To Dispose of Pads At Home

I asked middle class Indian women how they deal with this.  They say that when they are at home, they wrap their soiled pads in newspaper, then take it to the main trash can in the home.  If there are people present that would make this embarrassing, they keep a plastic bag in their bedrooms where they dispose of their soiled pads until a more convenient time allows them to throw them in the main trash. 

How To Dispose of Pads At Other People's Houses

I asked what they did when they were visiting other people’s homes.  They said that they frequently carry their purse with them into the bathroom, wrap their soiled pads in newspaper, put it in a plastic bag in their purse, then disposed of them when they got back to their own homes.  If it is a good friend or relative, then they just put the soiled pad in the main trash like they would at home. They admitted that this process is very difficult sometimes when they are in a new place.

How To Dispose of Pads In Public

I asked what they did when they were in public, and most said they follow the same process with the plastic bag in the purse though some admitted that they simply throw the soiled pad on the floor of the public restroom because they felt they had no other option.  Everyone I spoke to pointed out that it is becoming more and more common to see trash cans in restrooms, and I’m sure it is much more common in India now than it used to be.  However, it is still far less common than it is in the US and the American woman traveler will struggle with this inconvenience unless she stays most in fancy places geared towards middle class and wealthy Indians.

All women said that when they are on their period, they clean with water then wash their hands afterwards.  

American Women Urination, Menstruation

Just in case some Indians are curious, American women wipe with toilet paper after each time they urinate.  They also wipe excess blood with toilet paper each time they change their pad or tampon.  American women usually wear both pads and tampons alternately depending on what they are doing and how much they are bleeding and what they are wearing. 

In most American bathrooms, both private and public, there are trash cans by the toilet.  When an American woman changes her tampon or pad, she wraps the soiled on in toilet paper and leaves it in the trash can beside the toilet.  Most people empty their private trash cans every day or every other day when they are on their periods.  This is even the practice when visiting someone else’s home. 

Some Americans will flush tampons down the toilet, but this is really bad for the plumbing and it’s a very inconsiderate practice.  In public toilets, lazy women will even leave the pad exposed in the bin or leave it on the floor.  This is disgusting, but it happens sometimes. 

Because American women are accustomed to wiping dry with toilet paper each time they urinate, American travelers frequently have difficulty wiping with water or not wiping at all.  They feel damp and uncomfortable afterwards.

Indians and Tampons

The majority of women in India are still living in poverty and can’t afford tampons.  Moreover, most villagers have taboos about menstruation that prevents them from openly experimenting with different kinds of feminine products.  Since many poor people still do not even have regular access to toilets, tampons are not a priority. 

Even middle class women, however, rarely use tampons.  It is still the norm in India for women with disposable incomes to use sanitary pads.  Most middle class women seem happy with pads, but I think it is a good idea to dispel some myths about tampons in order to give women and girls a greater range of choices.

Americans in India will find tampons in most large city grocery stores, but they are very difficult to find elsewhere.  Also, you may not find the brand you want.  For some reason, OB (without applicator) seems to be more common here.

Tampon Use and Physical Activity

In India, I notice that far fewer girls play sports than boys.  Girls also do not swim as much as boys.  I don’t think it is any accident that women who enjoy the greatest range of physical freedom live in countries where tampon use is prevalent.  A menstruating woman who is wearing a tampon has no restrictions on her movement at all.  

Advantages of using a tampon:

  • She will stay dry and clean- no blood will ever exit her body if she inserts the tampon correctly and changes it regularly.  
  • She can wear whatever clothing she chooses without fear that a pad will show.  She can wear a bathing suit or a pair of small shorts; it’s not even necessary to wear underwear while wearing a tampon.  
  • She can participate in sports, go swimming, ride bicycles, go jogging, do whatever she wants without any concern for the bulk of a pad.  
  • She can sleep at night in any position she wants without worrying about making a mess.  
  • Tampons are small and discreet, so disposal is also easy.  
  • Also, a woman can urinate without removing a tampon so it makes going to the bathroom a lot easier.

I'm including this not because I want to convince the world to use tampons, but instead because I meet a lot of Indian girls who complain about not being able to do certain things when they have their periods.  It's sad to watch a group of teenagers playing at the beach or the football field and there is a girl sitting by herself because she can't run or get wet.  I don't think women anywhere should feel like they must wear tampons, I just think they should have the option to do so.

Tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome

In the United States, almost all women use tampons.  Each year, there is a very small handful of cases of toxic shock syndrome, and not all of these cases are caused by tampon use.  Women who do not change their tampons regularly or who use tampons while they have an internal wound are at risk of developing toxic shock syndrome from tampon use, but even this risk is very low.  So calm down, ladies.  You are not going to get any diseases or infections from using tampons assuming you change it and bathe regularly.  You should just educate yourself about what toxic shock syndrome is and how to keep yourself clean.   

More here:

Tampons and Virginity

Virgins can use a tampon.  I’ve had a lot of people in India tell me that it is physically impossible for a virgin to use a tampon.  I’m not sure why they say this.  I used tampons when I was a virgin, as do millions of other Western girls.  So the people who say that virgins cannot use tampons either do not understand female anatomy or else they have a different definition of virginity.  

Using a tampon will not cause you to lose your virginity. Indian women are frequently concerned with maintaining an intact hymen so that they will bleed the first time they have sex in order to prove that they are virgins.  This is an issue that really makes me angry, but it is another topic.  For now, let me just say that not every virgin has an intact hymen in the first place, and that hymens break and tear for all sorts of reasons aside from sex.  Likewise, some people still have a hymen or part of it after sex.  Finally, not everyone bleeds the first time they have sex.  If you are a virgin and you do have a hymen, you have a little hole in your hymen. How else do you think the period blood comes out?  The hymen is stretchable.  You can almost always insert a tampon through the hole(s) in the hymen. It should not be uncomfortable if you are doing it correctly and if you are relaxed.  If you are worried about it, your body might be tense and you might want to use a little lubricant to make it slide in more easily.  A girl with an anatomical anomality in the shape of her hymen may have trouble inserting a tampon, but no one else should.

Hymens have nothing to do with virginity.  Anyway, the larger issue is that intact hymens have nothing whatsoever to do with virginity.  A virgin is someone who has not had sex.  Unfortunately, many women around the world are shunned, abused or even killed when they do not bleed the first time they have sex because it is assumed that they are not virgins if they do not have an intact hymen.  No women should perpetuate this injustice.  Girls should be allowed to participate in sports, straddle bicycles and wear tampons without any concern for their hymens whatsoever. 


Tampon Insertion

You cannot feel a tampon once it is inserted.  If you put in a tampon and you can feel it, then you have not inserted it properly.  You can read about how to insert a tampon, here.