Too much perfection for one bathroom


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E-mail Christie Blatchford | Read Bio | Latest Columns
August 25, 2008

BEIJING — It has been a grand couple of weeks.

There is no denying that what International Olympic Committee boss Jacques Rogge told the proud residents of this city at the closing ceremonies yesterday – “These were truly exceptional Games” – is absolutely true.

The people of Beijing, particularly the half-million volunteers from all over China, turned themselves inside-out to welcome the world, including 20,000 members of the world’s demanding, irritable press, to their city.

These were my 13th Olympics.

I’ve never stayed in quarters as pretty as the Green Homeland Media Village.

I’ve never seen buses that ran so on time and yet were rendered charming by the volunteers, many of them students.

“I am the volunteer for this bus,” one young woman announced to a full house one morning. “Welcome to my bus.” I’ve never before seen volunteers who didn’t tire of me and my fellow bitchy, sweaty colleagues of the fourth estate.

I’ve never before filled out the ‘We Value Your Opinion” questionnaire at a media village. I did at the Green Homeland.

I checked Excellent in every box. I did it earnestly.

I gave serious consideration to buying the staff of my building, D3, a present, but realized it would mean buying presents for 100 people, minimum: the uniformed door persons; the legion of attractive young women behind the front desk; the cleaning crews; the greeters; the maintenance staff.

And if I bought the D3 gang gifts, then surely I would have to buy something for the staff of the little bathroom nearest the corner of the cavernous main press room where I worked.

It is the world’s most perfect small bathroom.

On one side are two stalls for women; on the other, two urinals and a stall for men. Between the two areas is a common washing-up area, with two sinks, a paper towel dispenser and a hand dryer.

This bathroom, maybe 25-by-15 feet, is my symbol of China.

It is a metaphor for why this country is great and why it is oppressive even when it doesn’t mean to be, why no other nation on Earth is capable of competing with China, and not just at the Olympics, and why maybe some wouldn’t want to do so.

In more than two weeks, as early as 4 a.m. and as late as midnight and at all hours in between, I never saw fewer than two uniformed attendants working the bathroom.

Usually, they were cleaning some part of the place: emptying the tiny trash bins; spraying the air with freshener; scrubbing the toilet bowls; wiping and disinfecting the sinks; washing the floor.

Sometimes, waiting for customers either to finish or exit, the staff simply hovered patiently, sponges and spray bottles in hand. Very occasionally, late at night, they stepped out for some fresh air, or, even rarer, grabbed a few winks on a hard chair in the adjacent storeroom, but they snapped to at the sound of approaching footsteps.

Always there were at least the two of them, but more often three or four or five or six, at least some of whom were tasked with directing the minimal traffic.

Everyone would nod or smile.

One would say, or motion with an arm as if to say, “Here is the toilet, please enter.” One would be waiting when you emerged from the stall and would wave, “Here is the sink area, please enter,” while someone else raced into the stall to immediately clean, disinfect and sanctify it for the next customer. At the sinks, one attendant would motion to the tap, “Here is the washing up area, please enter.”

One night last week, there were 13 attendants, the regular numbers swelled by the twice-a-day crews who come to do the major cleanup.

I fought my way through the sea of waving arms and bobbing heads, but where usually I was simply embarrassed to engage in a crass bodily function in so pristine a place, this time I was incapable of doing anything, even washing my hands.

With 13 sets of pricked up ears within two feet, I had performance anxiety.

Thirteen people: I even went back and counted, in case I was being melodramatic, but no. There were 13.

As the sign in another bathroom, this at the lovely old Nine Dragons Amusement Park where the triathlon course was located, reads: “Cherish Public Facilities.”

Well, I did. I sure cherished my small perfect bathroom.

It reminded me of a funny column I read in a British paper a few days after arriving.

The writer had noticed there were people trimming the grass with scissors outside her Beijing hotel. Her initial reaction was to snicker. Then she got used to the sight. Then she got used to how great the perfectly trimmed grass looked and to the notion that grass-trimming-with-scissors was perfectly fine work for someone, if not her.

Then, she worried in this column, “Who is going to do this back home?”

No one, of course.

No one will trim her grass with scissors in London and no one will spray and polish a toilet in Toronto, even one at the finest hotel, immediately before and after I use it, least of all nod approvingly at the magnificence of whatever I have done there. No mother potty-training the most recalcitrant toddler could be more delighted than the attendants at my special toilet were with me.

No dressed-to-the-nines, be-sashed doorperson will hold open every door and greet me with a big smile, as they did at the Green Homeland.

No one will do my laundry, least of all iron all my underwear and socks and carefully tuck them into individual cellophane envelopes.

Not at the best restaurant in Canada will I be greeted as I was at the Beijing Intercontinental’s main dining room one night when I went with a colleague for a rare dinner out.

We were met at the door of the cavernous and completely empty room by a pair of elegant hostesses in traditional Chinese garb. We were shown to a table, where we were immediately subsumed by a flock of other hostesses, one pulling out our chairs, another presenting the menus, another unrolling the white napkins, another delicately bobbing and weaving.

The menu was 15 pages long, vast, complicated and daunting. The hostesses were all delicately floating within a foot of the table, lest we need something, anything. All I wanted was a glass of a big fat red and big fat steak, and to be left alone. I suddenly couldn’t bear another minute of fawning attention and I didn’t care any more about hurting anyone’s feelings. We left and grabbed a sandwich in the lobby bar.

And that’s the thing about China: As I loved my little jewel of a bathroom, so do I love this country. But the sense of public order which created the bathroom (and everything else), the care required by so many to maintain it, the minute divisions of labour, the uniforms, the disposable gloves – and the obedience somehow engendered by all of it – makes me crazed and uneasy.

I have had all the odes I can bear to jasmine flowers, the flame of love and ears of grain, waiting, as the official program of the closing ceremony read, “to be reaped – twice.” Give me Jimmy Page with his ponytail and his guitar and Leona Lewis belting out Whole Lotta Love and the hip-hop dancers of London’s ZooNation.

And give me the loo at the corner bar near my house: messy; unsterile; its walls covered in graffiti; the floor sticky.


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