Almost four years ago now, on a velvety Friday night, my husband, Mike, and I had a hot date. We’d been married a year and a half by that stage, and living in our new home-town of Luang Prabang, Laos, for three whole weeks. We decided to go somewhere special to celebrate. That somewhere was a tiny restaurant called Tamarind.
Tamarind is tucked opposite a gold-glazed temple and serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried the brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.
Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. At least initially, however, the food at Tamarind did not return my affection in equal measure. Although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner, I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.
There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.
Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse immediately. After we got there, I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.
“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”
“What about poo?” Mike asked.
“Its existence,” I said.
“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo?”
“Yes,” I said.
Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.
“Did you really just say,” he started, when he was once again able to speak, “that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational out-workings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born?”
“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”
Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.
“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”
“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”
Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.
“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.
“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”
“Did you…?” he asked.
“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”
“How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked me.
We lay on the bed for a while that night, staring at the ceiling, and pondering this question. We didn’t come up with a great answer four years ago, and I’m still not sure I have one now. I have, however, done some more thinking about shame and guilt since those days, and next month I’ll revisit this topic of shame, guilt, vulnerability and living overseas in some more depth.
In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Help me think through how to take this further in next month’s post by picking one or more of the following questions and leaving a comment.
1. Has living overseas “cured” you of any shame?
2. Has living overseas “created” any shame(s)?
3. Do you differentiate between shame and guilt? If so, how?
4. What is the most scenic/unusual toilet you’ve ever used?
(P.S. With regards to question 4… For me, it’s probably the three-sided shack overlooking the rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines. There was no door on the side overlooking the valley, but when this is your “while you pee” view, who really wants a door?)