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Travel Tales: Plastic Bag Toilets in China

Before you get the wrong idea from the title, it is something I witnessed, NOT something I personally did.

I was in Carrefour in Beijing, kind of soaking up the differences between a Chinese grocery store and a Canadian one, when I came across a bunch of people fighting for vegetables.

No big deal right? Except they were really elbowing each other to get the best looking greens, because it is NO JOKE when you shop with Chinese grandparents who want to feed their family and grandchildren the best that they can find and afford.

That day, they had even more elbow wars than before because there seemed to be a sale on eggs, one of the few “affordable” proteins that Chinese folk can afford, as chicken, beef and other meats are prohibitively expensive on their meager incomes, especially if they’re feeding 2 retired grandparents, 2 adult parents and one grandchild.


Before I go any farther, I want to mention that children of poorer means (which means, most of them) don’t wear diapers in China. They have pants or shorts that have a slit at the back, and they pee or poo as they need to, near a tree if they can locate one.

If a baby you hold happens to start peeing on your shirt, that’s just the way it is, as a parent, you have no choice and you have to be on alert for any kind of wetness. In this event, you scream: “AI YAH!” and you hold the kid far away from you to let him or her do their business on the sidewalk.

As it happened, one mother had a little boy about the age of 2 years that suddenly started crying — he needed to go to the bathroom badly.

She had a stricken, kind of deer-in-the-headlights look because she REALLY didn’t want to lose her spot in the line but her kid was going to lose it all over the floor (no diapers remember?) if she didn’t take him to the bathroom.. which oddly enough for a French grocery store, was free and located in the lower level of the building.

I guess it was rather ingenious, but she grabbed a plastic bag that you’d normally put corn or vegetables in nearby, and held it out for the kid to pee in the aisle.



Yes, in a grocery store that looked modern, kind of like this one.

I am witnessing this, totally, utterly grossed out as a Westerner, and then she does the bit that was the worst for me.

….. she takes the bag, and flings it across into a bin where people were shucking corn.

Now, plastic bags are not exactly the sturdiest things in the world, and if you can imagine that she TRIED to tie up those flimsy ends the best she could, and then flung it onto a vegetable heap…. I don’t have to draw the rest of the picture for you.

I was viscerally disgusted, and then immediately reminded that in parts of Africa (Uganda, Kenya), they kind of do the same thing.

I saw a documentary that dictated when they pee and poo, they do it in plastic bags (even adults), and then tie up the bags, go outside, and fling them as far away from their home and abode as possible.

They even have a name for this “flying toilets”, and if you’re walking around a village, you better watch out for these flying bags of poo or else one might whack you in the face.

This of course, contributes to a large number of health problems due to improper sewage treatment, but their mentality is as such, that they think these flying toilets don’t hurt anyone if they aren’t left on their property.

The proper thing to do of course, would be to dig a hole like a dog, do your business and then cover it up, but they seem to prefer chucking their feces.

Anyway, that was one of the more disgusting things I witnessed in China, which contributes to my not ever.. EVER wanting to go back to visit until they have some decent Westernized manners and sanitation drilled in.


  • Michelle

    I am traumatized. And we will leave it at that.

  • Kathy

    It is hard to imagine how uncivilized some people live. I don’t mean to sound superior but many animals even hate soiling their home so they pick a spot to eliminate a distance away from their den. My dogs never defecated where they slept. I once knew a guy who delivered groceries for a local store and he said that humans were the filthiest mammal he’d ever encountered. You’d think that those people would tire of such filth and do something to eliminate the problem. Perhaps the poverty is so unimaginable that they don’t even have scraps of cloth to use as diapers. All I know is there are some parts of the world I have NO desire to visit and no accusations of xenophobia will ever change that.

  • FinanceQA

    This is probably one of the grossest thing I’ve ever known to be done in public. I know that in some countries they don’t use diapers, but just throwing a bag (filled with urine or worse feces) is just utterly disturbing and unsanitary. I can’t imagine picking up vegetables where the plastic bag was thrown. I guess we should be thankful, somehow, that this act is unacceptable where we live.

  • Taylor Lee

    Oh gosh, at a *grocery store*? Eep.

  • SarahN

    When did you go to China?

    And what’s your cultural background? I remember you saying your mother at least grew up overseas.

  • Charlotte

    It is shocking! I’ll never forget my first week in China when a 7-8 year old girl went out of KFC, pulled up her dress and went right in front of the steps. And KFC has the nicest public bathroom in the whole city! Luckily it’s unusual for older kids to do that, but offputting nontheless!
    My husband is Chinese so we followed their method of potty training from birth and it generally works out really well. We’ve had some accidents, mostly before the kids were a year old, but they hardly ever wore diapers. And as you said, they’re expensive so people will keep doing this. I only see babies in them on trains (sometimes) or if the parent’s don’t have help from grandparents. Overall I’ve found it to be better for kids; they’ve never had a diaper rash or yeast infection (things my friends in the US often deal with) and they are capable of going to the toilet and cleaning up all by themselves before age two. It’s a bit of work at first (and not for everyone), but well worth it, I think.

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