One of the initial and biggest culture shock for someone visiting a western country from the third world is walking into a toilet cubicle and seeing a roll of toilet paper.
On the first morning of my first trip to the United States, in 2017, I texted my brother from the bathroom.
“First world question: is it safe to flush toilet paper?”
I had my reasons, too. For in many parts of the world, places that are still undeveloped after more than fifty years of developing, the toilet system can’t even handle a healthy person’s plump and fibrous roll of waste. It takes more than a few flushes to make sure everything is indeed flushed off and not as disgusting for the next person.
That’s why I was terrified of flushing a wad of toilet paper and messing up the four-star hotel’s drainage system. And so, a wave of relief swept over me as the response came in the affirmative.
Later that morning, my colleague pulled me aside to discuss, in hushed voices and rolling eyes, the great toilet paper incident and how bizarre it is to have so much bog roll but not knowing how to use it. We couldn’t figure out how first worlders could feel comfortable with a backside that potentially harboured dried waste.
Growing up in Asia, my colleague and I were both used to washing ourselves with water. As toddlers, we were potty trained, which not only helps strengthen thigh and waist muscles for later in life but also makes it so much easier to wash ourselves after we finish our business. Even to this day, countless Indian homes have potty-style bathrooms that are highly effective in preventing the spread of germs introduced by western commodes.
However, even when Asian countries adopted the modern and more convenient commode system, they still retained the washing habit by installing hand showers in the bathroom. Hand showers that required some additional plumbing, but made a lot of sense nevertheless. Resembling a sprinkler garden hose, it’s fitted into the wall next to the toilet, making it easy for the loo-goer to squish, splash, and then return it to its stand and walk away clean.
I’ve visited the US a couple times afterwards, and since migrating to Australia last year, I’ve become far more accustomed to the idea of using toilet paper multiple times every day.
All that said, when coronavirus came into the picture, just as the bushfires were settling down, we went from one unprecedented incident to another one. From donating supplies to people evacuating fire zones, we’ve gone to physically assaulting each other for a roll of toilet paper. This paper crisis and the disastrous fight for bog roll has taken over the internet with memes, devastating videos, graphic images of empty supermarket shelves, and suggestions to use yellow pages instead of toilet paper.
Amongst this incredible, insane situation, a few odd people have been brave enough to suggest the time-tested Asian washing method, only to be sneered at. It’s not unheard of, of course. Many Australians have travelled widely, and the country itself homes millions of migrants in every state. The hand shower idea isn’t as novel as the coronavirus. It’s even the more environmentally-sustainable option compared to toilet paper. Sure, recycled toilet paper is marketed as better than regular ones, but hey, nothing beats water.
Dear first world, welcome to the third world.