Sunday, 10 March 2013

Caught Short in Shanghai

The subway carriage begins to stop, the momentum sending the puddle of yellow liquid streaming up the carriage. I jump out of the way but there isn’t time to reach my bag. The urine breaks around it, halting the flow so it soaks into the bottom. After a number of close encounters with bodily fluid in China, I suppose such an incident was inevitable.

It’s a faux-pas in travel writing to draw attention to Chinese toilets, those macabre pits of curious stains and dizzying odours. This great nation’s rapid industrialisation has yet to effect a change in public facilities. In many areas, including the capital Beijing, the street is good enough. Nappies are expensive, so Mother’s let their children resolve their business where they stand.

Not so in Shanghai, easily the most westernised city of mainland China. There’s even a Marks & Spencer. I had spent a few days here, and had all but forgotten the Chinese propensity to think of street as sewer. Crowding onto the subway I was quite prepared to forgive their idiosyncrasies, the elbows in the ribs as you board, the staring, the disapproving tuts as I set my oversized backpack on the floor and took position opposite the sliding doors for the long journey across the city.

The Shanghai subway is a marvel; clean, efficient, and navigable by tourists with minimum hair-pulling.

One or two stops later a family boarded, ranging in age from a toddler to grandparents, and spread themselves around the carriage. One passenger’s boxes of crab were shifted to give the child and his mother a seat.

The commotion began as we cleared the city. The mother started shouting, and the grandfather lunged across the carriage to thrust a restaurant menu into her hands. The toddler had left his seat and was having his trousers hastily removed. The Englishman in me insisted that I not stare, but this was China; staring is the national sport.

The restaurant menu was deposited beneath the boy’s posterior. It caught the primary transaction, but nothing could be done about the accompanying stream that puddled on the carriage floor.

Passengers scurried to clear their possessions; suitcases, laptops, boxes of crab. Positioned by the doors I thought myself safe. Until the train began to brake.

The urine surged for me like fire along a trail of gunpowder. My backpack could not be saved, the urine pooling around it like a yellow moat. As the train stopped and the doors opened to let in some welcome fresh air, I picked up my bag and stared pointedly at the family as their child’s effluence dripped from it.

They didn’t even look at me. They hurriedly gathered their things, and, leaving behind the pungent contents of the restaurant menu, ran for the doors. A teenager at the other end of the carriage let out a guffaw at my expense. And then the train moved off, the acceleration sending the urine hurtling in his direction.

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