June 16th, 1991 was Father’s Day. It was also the day I got my period for the first time, and it occurred right in the middle of a family vacation to China — a 3-week self-guided journey with my parents and my mom’s 70-year old friend Betty.
I was mortified. To make things worse, the hotel we were in didn’t have sanitary supplies, and in China at the time it was difficult to find a store opened to foreigners at all, let alone one with Western toiletries. Had we been in America, the next step would have been for us to go to a drug store together where I, too embarrassed to pick out sanitary products myself, would inspect the toothbrush display as my mother yelled questions from the next row over like “Scented or non-scented?” and “Do you want wings?” Instead, my mother convinced me to allow her to tell Betty; the two conferred in hushed tones and, when back in my room, Betty rummaged through her toiletry bag and presented me with a Depends.
Wearing an adult diaper as a twelve year-old added insult to the injury of menstruation, and our itinerary only made things worse. Presumably if we’d been sticking around at our hotel, we would have been able to find maxi-pads somewhere in the city before Betty’s supplies ran out. However, my parents, eager for an authentic, self-guided China experience, had arranged for us to get on a train to a city twenty-three hours away. No sooner had we left for the station than my body, unsatisfied with the humor of me simply menstruating on a Chinese train, broke out in hives. My mother gave me two extra strength Benadryl, I stumbled to the train platform with my parents and woke up three hours later on an upper bunk in a moving train, in a car with vomit stains on the carpet and circles at the end of each bed where people’s heads had wiped away the dirt. My parents and Betty were giggling on the bunks below me as they played bridge and drank tea they’d brewed from water and Johnny Walker Black. I needed to use the bathroom.
I slid off the top bunk and unlatched the door to our cabin to find the toilet but my mother stopped me before I could leave.
“It’s clogged,” she said. “Betty and I tried to use it and it smells so bad, we almost threw up.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Do what we did,” said my mother, which was greeted by tipsy laughter from Betty and my father. “Pee in this.”
My mother then handed me a zip-loc bag.
What bothered me about this was not so much the fact that my mother was telling me to urinate into a freezer bag, but rather, how I could do so with my father in the room. Holding the empty bag, I glared at my mother, glanced at my father, and then glared at her again until she realized what I was trying to communicate.
“Richard, go out in the hall. Catherine needs some privacy.”
With my mother and Betty playing cards in front of me, I squatted down, pulled down my pants, pushed aside my diaper, and peed into the bag, trying my best to keep my balance on my heels as the train rocked back and forth.
“I don’t want it,” my mother said when I tried to hand it to her. “Give it to your father.” I slid the door open and found him standing in the hallway watching rice paddies out the window. A childhood polyps operation gone awry left him with no sense of smell, so he took the bag when I offered it and carried it down the hall to the bathroom. He stuffed the bag down the toilet with a hanger, it burst upon the tracks, and he returned to our cabin to finish his tea.
When we arrived at our hotel in Beijing the next day, my family’s first destination was the Summer Palace. My first destination was the bathroom, a squat building a short, urine-scented walk away from the park entrance. Inside, a long row of waist-high, doorless stalls subdivided a porcelain trough pitched slightly toward one end of the room, over which women squatted on their heels, bottoms bared to the world. Some read magazines; most held tissues clamped to their noses to keep out the stench. Driven by the pressure of my bladder and the presence of my Depends, I ignored the smell and forged ahead toward the end of the room, picking the last stall so that I would be exposed to the fewest number of people possible. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching and yanked my pants to my knees, realizing only when I looked down that my stall was downstream from the other seven.
The second thing I noticed was that my period had stopped—apparently it had decided that two and a half days was sufficient for a first-time visit. This filled me with joy until I realized that, now that I had begun to ovulate, it would return once a month for the rest of my child-bearing years. When I looked up to the ceiling in a “Why, God?” moment, my eyes were stopped half-way by a third realization: despite my attempts at seclusion, the other women in the room had seen me enter. Curious about what a Caucasian twelve-year old would look like while urinating, several had walked up to where I was squatting and were standing next to my stall, giggling behind their tissues as they stared at my naked backside. I felt self-conscious enough simply being an American in China but being watched in a bathroom while wearing a diaper was as embarrassing as going bra shopping with my father. I pulled my pants up and they scattered back to their places in line as I pushed past them, ashamed. If this was what it meant to be a woman, I wanted to go home.
Post script: I returned to China in the summer of 2002 and am happy to report that train travel has remarkably improved. Unfortunately, however, my bottom is still considered a tourist attraction — when my friend and I visited a public squat toilet, we looked up to find a group of women taking photographs.