front doors in North Vietnam. But unlike a normal gate’s purpose of keeping
people from coming in or going out, it’s only slightly closed at night, to show
people that the two shops at the house’s entrance are closed. The gate is never
locked, in case a family member has to enter or exit. There’s an unspoken
understanding that if you don’t live there, then you shouldn’t come in when the
gates are visible.
At the front of the house is a mini snack shop that
sells things like chewing gum, chips, and cigarettes. The items are either set
up on a low table or hung from a nail on the wall. The shopkeepers rent the
spaces for their businesses. At the end of the day, they pack up their
commodities and go home. Behind the mini snack shop is a glass counter filled
with medicine, which is run by other renters. To call it a pharmacy is an
overstatement because you don’t need a prescription to buy anything. Whatever it
is, it must be legal because it’s been in business for as long as my dad can
Only a wall separates these shops from the rest of the house,
but it doesn’t stop people from wandering in farther than they’re welcome.
People regularly pop in to watch TV in the space that is considered the living
The gate, the shops, and the lack of privacy could appear
bewildering to a Việt Kiều, or Vietnamese person living outside the
motherland, like me.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to process the front
half of the house, the back of the house was even more confusing.
Besides the absence of bedroom doors and windows throughout the house, it lacked a
modern bathroom, a bathtub, sink, and flush toilet. There was an open space
towards the back of the house, with a cement floor intended for bathing. After
undressing, you used your dominant hand to scoop cold water from a well with a
pot, and your other hand to clean yourself as efficiently and quickly as
possible, before the waterfall you created ran out. If you were serious about
your hygiene like me, you’d force yourself to ask somebody to pour water on you
while you washed your exposed body with both hands.
There was a roofless section of the house with a drain and hose for hand washing clothes and
hanging them up to dry, and for urinating. Since there was no toilet paper or
trash bin around, it was clear you had to wash yourself with the hose when you
The only room with a door was what could only be called The
Poop Room. I was relieved when I first saw this door because I thought I’d
finally see something else familiar, something I assumed to be a worldwide
commonality: a flush toilet. The door was a bonus, since privacy seemed to be
such a rarity in Vietnam. I even got the good kind of chills just thinking about
how I planned on relieving myself here in privacy for the entire month we were
staying. But when I pulled open the wooden door, the chills turned into
Where was the light switch? And more importantly, where was the
toilet? The cement stairs leading up to the wooden door were a little
suspicious, but I didn’t expect to see what I saw. Behind the door was a dark
space, no bigger than two by three feet. In the middle of this cement-surrounded
space was a hole that you had to carefully position yourself over, to fill with
whatever you can manage to get out of your system while balancing yourself,
holding your breath, and trying not to get your underwear and pants
The Poop Room smelled like a combination of dank cement walls,
excrement rising from below, and the smell of your own repulsion. It sounded
like a mixture of hollow sounds produced from the closed-in space and the
orchestra conducted by your very own bowels, and sometimes the sound of yourself
gagging. As for the other two senses, taste and touch, it’s best to just forget
about those altogether.
It’s a good thing my siblings and I speak English to each other out of habit because if our family knew what we were saying, they would’ve shunned our parents for raising such ignorant children.
Our cousins were shocked to see our reaction as we stood outside The Poop Room.
In hopes of hiding our disgust and shock, we asked them questions, like, “How
deep is the hole? How do we flush? What are some strategies? What happens if the
hole is filled? Who cleans it out? Why isn’t there light?” These questions came
as a surprise to them because these were questions they’d never heard,
explanations they’d never given.
When we were done pompously interrogating them and they were done proudly answering us, they turned the
tables and asked, “How do YOU shit?”
I explained to them in my best
Vietnamese, “We sit on a white chair with a hole filled with water in the middle
that sucks in your pee and poop when you’re finished.” My response created
hilarity. They laughed at us. In our own way, we laughed at them, too.
The language barrier and intimidation made it difficult for us to bond with our
cousins. We only spoke Vietnamese to adults, so it was both uncomfortable and
unusual for us to stray from our tendencies. But the adults demanded us to
fraternize. When we began to speak the language with our cousins, we found out
they’d made a lot of funny assumptions about America, based on movies and TV
shows they’d seen. They thought Americans were wasteful because they supposedly
threw bowls and utensils away after each meal instead of washing and reusing
them. I’m not sure where they’d seen this, but it was as untrue as my assumption
that everyone in Vietnam rode in bike taxis and wore bamboo hats. They also
couldn’t understand why people left their cars outside for people to steal, not
knowing that American cars are alarmed, locked, and weigh 4,000 pounds. Of
course they had more stereotypes about America than we had of Vietnam, because
we don’t see modern day Vietnam in movies or TV shows as often as they see
A few weeks after we settled into our new living environment,
we took some family members to a beach with us for a weekend. We rented a van,
which gave everyone motion sickness, since motorcycles and bicycles are the main
forms of transportation in Vietnam. When we got to our hotel room, everyone
needed to vomit, except for us Việt Kiềus, who decided the people who
needed to pee should use the bathroom first. Since everyone was unaccustomed to
locking doors and doors in general, my cousin left the bathroom door unlocked,
which made me assume it was vacant.
Before my cousin opened the bathroom door, he probably had an image of what would be inside. There would be
a glorious hole where he could dump his nausea.
Before I opened the door, I expected to see a slightly cleaner version of the hole like the one in
The Poop Room. Instead, I was greeted by the vision of my cousin, squatting,
with a foot on each side of the flush toilet that was unfamiliar to him. He was
holding his nose as if it were the same smelly hole he’d been using all his
life. My siblings and I had an even greater laugh than my cousins had weeks
Either he’d forgotten my response to his “How do YOU shit?” or
he was too accustomed to his own way and preferred his regimen. Either way, his
position on the toilet proved that it wasn’t because the area where he lived was
poor and they couldn't afford a modern bathroom. It was because they were
accustomed to their own ways, just as we were accustomed to ours. We simply
found each other strange, and ourselves normal.
Regardless of how differently everyone poops, we’re all full of shit and we all need to get rid of
it in one way or another.
Amy Leu is a recent English major graduate from Emmanuel College in Boston.
Her works of creative nonfiction are the love children of her two desires: to
relive and share her collection of stories, which others may typically call
"life." When she is not balancing school with her non-career-related jobs, she
is exploring and inventing new laying positions in order to comfortably read
both panels of books on Oprah's Book Club List.