When Your Field School Goes Into the Toilet

Close to two years ago, I attended my best friend’s wedding. I made the cake. When I got married a year earlier, she was my best man. Last Sunday, a bunch of people were going on and on about my cakes (I make about one every two years but they are very famous and frightfully expensive) and this reminded me of her and the amazing times we’ve had and toilets in Japan.

Let me explain.

At the wedding, a lot of people got up and spoke about the happy couple, generally about one or the other, but mostly about my friend’s groom. The difference in treatment of the two has to do with a couple of things, one of which being the culture of the associated families and friends. The groom is from California, with many family and friend connections in Latin America and elsewhere, while my friend is a Minnesotan, mainly with Minnesotan connections. Minnesotans just don’t do what his friends and family were doing: talking about each other. At length. In front of other people.

At first I felt a little bad for her, even considered telling a story or two, but then I realized that the last thing she wanted anyone to do was to stand up and say stuff about her on her behalf, tell stories and so on. So although I was being encouraged to get up and spin a yarn, I chose not to.

The other factor, at least for me, is that our relationship is very private. Not secret or covert. Just private. I’m sure that many things have passed between us in conversation that would never be spoken by either of us to anyone else. It is just the nature of our personalities and how we happen to interact. In contrast, many of her new husband’s stories (the stories told by his extensive network of family and friends) were clearly extensions of long-running, widespread, somewhat loud and always entertaining conversations that have been going on and developing forever. For instance, he has several nicknames, and each nickname comes with an amusing story. In contrast, my friend does not really have any nicknames (nor have I ever had one for that matter).

Were I to have stood up for her, I would have to have told a couple of stories that are actually pretty funny to her and me, but that probably no one else would get or care about.

Until now.

I’ve just come across a web post on an interesting linguistically oriented blog called Rosetta Rants, located, on your local internet, here. Don’t go look yet, you may ruin my story.

So here is the story. My best friend and I were traveling with a few others in South Africa, doing research. One of the members of our party, whom I will call Suzie, was not really, it turns out, a person very much oriented towards travel in such far away lands or accustomed to experiencing such harsh conditions. She was a trooper in some ways, but her going on this trip was a bad decision. She left her boyfriend only days after he proposed (left in the sense of going on this trip, to return later…and by the way, they are happily married now with children and everything). She had not traveled before, except once, and it was a bad, homesick experience. We were, after all, in a place where 1 out of 3 (according to my own fairly extensive experience in this area) young, Midwestern, suburban white girls believe, well, that they will die or something.

Okay, now we have to hold that thought and go back in time. Some months earlier, I had been traveling in Japan on a lecture tour. While there, I found out that the Japanese have the coolest ever appliances. They have refrigerators and washing machines that make so much more sense than the American styles that it is just unbelievable. For example, their refrigerators may have four doors instead of two. Instead of a freezer on top and a fridge on the bottom, they have a freezer on the bottom, a cool but not too cold chamber on top, and the two in-between layers, each with their own door, are increasingly cold as you go down towards the freezer. Efficient and effective. In Osaka, which has suffered significant killer storms in the past, windows sometimes have shutters that resemble the metal curtains that are lowered on storefronts in urban zones, but these are to protect the windows from hurricane-force winds. And so on.

Then, they have an amazing array of toilets. Some of the toilets have a lot of buttons and stuff that you can press to get various…results.

I had been telling my friend about these appliances, and in particular the toilets. I had explained that you did not have to know Japanese to use the toilets. There were symbols on each button, and they were generally absolutely hysterical. Imagine, what symbols would you use for functions built into a do-everything electronic toilet?

Take a moment and think about that. When you’re done, return to reading this post.

Okay, so I drew a couple of the symbols for my friend to see what I was talking about, and we had a great laugh about that. There might have been some wine drinking going on as well. The wine in South Africa is so good and so cheap, how could there not have been? Anyway, we had a big laugh about these symbols.

So anyway, one day, we were out in the bush somewhere, and Suzie had been sinking more and more deeply into a funk about being where she was. She had started to get paranoid that some of the others on the expedition were having fun at her expense, which, honestly, we were not doing…or at least trying really hard to not do. But you know how it is. Somebody gets into a bad state and repeats the same behaviors over and over again, and it gets a little absurd. One gets alarmed at this. Then one gets a little frustrated. Then mad. Then finds it funny. Somewhere along the line one does something about it…has a talk with the girl…and believe me, I did that a number of times, with no effect. Anyway, right or wrong, and mostly wrong, Suzie got into a funk where she got a little paranoid about the rest of us.

So one day my friend and I were returning to camp, on foot, after being out looking at some rocks or something, and Suzie came running up to us in a panic. “The phone company called,” she said. (We had a cell phone.) “They said they were going to shut off service unless you call this number.” The phone company would do this whenever our minutes got low, in the hopes that we would buy more minutes, then I would enter a secret number and fix it–routine–but Suzie did not know about this. She just knew that we were out in the middle of nowhere and all communication with civilization was about to be cut off forever and we were gonna die.

So Suzie came running over to the two of us, expressing these concerns, red-faced, in tears.

“What are we going to do when the phone is shut off!?!!??” she said.

Suzie told us that she had taken down the number left by the phone company, and indeed, she was waving around a piece of paper with stuff written on it. I took the paper, and my friend and I could see a phone number written on it.

But next to the phone number was something else. See, this piece of scrap paper…the one Suzie had written the phone number on…was the same piece of paper that had one of the Japanese toilet symbols on it.

Now, my friend and me, we had forgotten about the toilets. But this symbol, shown here:

reminded us of it.

I’m absolutely certain that Suzie did not even see this symbol. It was kind of off in the corner of the paper, non-central, nondescript, almost non-visible. But my friend and I, well, that’s all we saw. We already knew the phone number was not important. It was already obvious that Suzie was panicking over nothing. If Suzie had been paying attention instead of hiding in her tent all the time, she would know about the phone. And the fact that she spent hours of time and hundreds of dollars (not all her own money) on the phone had kind of dulled us to her concerns. And so on.

And there was this symbol. A heinie with something spraying on it.

hei·nie (hn)
n. Slang
The buttocks.

We tried. We tried to hold in that which could not be held in. Had we been drinking something, it would have been Danny Thomas Spit Take time. You know, where the guy spits out a mouth full of coffee. A great wave of hysterical, uncontrollable, can’t-hold-it-in laughter overcame both of us. My best friend and I were on the ground in stitches. Suzie ran away and was not seen for several hours.

Here’s a blow-up of the toilet:

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12 Responses to “When Your Field School Goes Into the Toilet”

  1. May 27th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    Wow. One of those buttons lifts you into the air on a plume of red dots. I assume paint, because it turns you red too.

    I ought to send this to my sister, she’s a real nipponophile.

  2. May 27th, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    And I wonder what all the data on that display is for..

  3. May 28th, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Natalie says:

    Some of the data/settings must be for regulating the temperature of the bidet water, probably some for the water pressure… Does… does the toilet also *dry* your bum? Is that what the orange wave icon is about? Wow… I think I like the simplicity of our single-function toilet…

  4. May 28th, 2009 at 12:45 am

    Natalie says:

    Wait… it plays music?! Wow… and purifies the air… etc etc. Okay, I could see how it could be useful. No more Oust sprays giving everyone an asthma attack!

  5. May 28th, 2009 at 5:41 am

    Foie Gras Connoisseur says:

    Just dont press the wrong button when going out of the toilet,
    it does not help during a date, coming out of the restaurant restroom completely soaked.
    ( dont press the “cleaning-ass-water-jet” button instead of the “just flush” button ).

    Toilet and massage chair, two great japanese inventions.

  6. May 28th, 2009 at 6:39 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I guess I’m a little worried about the big orange button.

  7. May 28th, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I was talking with a friend who now lives in South Korea, and he said that many of the Korean toilets can be controlled from your cell phone. Sounds great for parties and practical jokes, but other than that I had trouble seeing the point.

    The first time I ever ran into a bidet was in, of all places, a Ramada Inn in Lawton, Oklahoma. Who needs toilet paper?

  8. May 29th, 2009 at 6:47 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Does the one on the right tie your bow tie?

  9. May 29th, 2009 at 9:06 am

    DuWayne says:

    Toilet paper is barbaric, as is actually using it…

    I so very want a Japanese toilet, have for years now. Especially since I got looking at them online (lets just say that actually buying one isn’t that bad, but getting it here would require refinancing one’s house) and found some that come with remotes – also noted that some could be controlled by cell phone…Oh the laughs we could have.

    But yeah, I am mostly interested in the bidet. That and the ass massager – as a prolific bathroom reader, I could totally use something that keeps my legs and ass from going to sleep. Throw in arms and an ottoman, I may never leave the bathroom…

  10. June 9th, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    That is a really funny story. Incidentally, I saw another analysis of the Japanese toilets recently that is worth reading: http://noriceforyou.blogspot.com/2009/02/tmi-post-toilets-in-china-and-japan.html

  11. May 12th, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Hank Fox says:

    When the warm-air blower overheats, that really chaps my ass.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    I guess I’d like to try one of these things, but something bothers me about a device that sprays liquid up from inside a … well, a toilet.

  12. May 12th, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Hank Fox says:

    Good story, by the way.

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