Who knows why… but we find ourselves discussing toilets. We are volunteering with a schools project at a Greek refugee camp, a fellow volunteer, who just happened to be French, asked us what we call the style of toilet, where you squat over a hole in the ground. He was excited to tell us, he calls them a ‘Turkish toilet’. Both of us took great delight in being able to answer that we just happen to call this style of toilet a ‘French toilet’. The poor guy was shocked, slightly appalled and mostly confused……

Lucy often visited France as a child, staying at campsites and roadside aires which often had squat toilets. Claire therefore learnt to call this style of toilet a ‘French toilet’. The French guy was quick to tell us that French people certainly do not have this style of toilet in their homes!

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As volunteers working with refugees, many from Syria and Iraq; we had spent much time asking questions about life in a country we knew little about. Trying to gain insights into the culture, sounds, tastes and sights of the homes these people had left behind. What a culture shock Greece must be, let alone, living in a tent in a military camp, surrounded by mainly white skinned volunteers mostly from the privileged West.  Anyway, back to the important matter of toilets…we’d all noticed the signs in the camp’s portaloo’s showing cartoon images commanding users to sit on the seat and not climb up and squat over the hole. A simple way of indicating what was ‘normal’ in this culture.

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What’s normal anyway?

Well, “Normal” according to the Oxford dictionary means“Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” But at this point, for us at least, we hadn’t appreciated how much our language of ‘normal’ can have undertones of ‘better than’, or as the dictionary definition suggests a certain ‘standard’, with deviation from this perhaps being sub-standard?

Spending 5 weeks in India, and 2 months in South East Asia, was enough to help us appreciate the squat-style toilet. They are actually much easier to squat over than a Western style  toilet. And let’s face it hygiene wise, squatting can be the wisest move! Now, neither of us would exactly call ourselves expert squatters, and yes there have been some disasters, when stumbling of a bus at 3am in the morning, into a squat toilet with no light and a door that only covers your middle… But we have a new sense of appreciation that for those brought up using a squat toilet (therefore not needing to acquire this skill in later life) , this is a far more hygienic way, at least for us ladies to relieve ourselves.

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Double decker night  bus from Luang Prabang to Don Det, Laos

Often in a Malaysian shopping centre, there would be the option of both toilet styles. We both noticed ourselves asking out loud to the other one, “which one’s the normal toilet?” without even thinking about the language we were using, or the difference between ‘normal’ for us and ‘normal’ for Malaysia.

This was brought to our attention as sometimes the difference would be indicated by the sign ‘Western Style’ on the front of the door, or sometimes simply with a picture of what you were about to use.

Words are limiting, and the danger is that our brains use them to make short cuts (i.e. Normal=Better?). It’s exciting then that in this technological age we are able to use more pictures, which simply represent an object, without any connotations.

Often in this set up both styles of toilets would have a flush and be equally as clean. Yet we still found Malaysian women, helping us find the ‘normal’ toilet and ushering us into the Western style. Of course normal is just what you’ve experienced most, what’s typical or expected for you.  But the risk is that both the words ‘normal’ and ‘Western’ suggest to everyone ‘better’, its so easy to be West-centric and forget we are part of a global world with many different cultures and norms within in.

Maharaja Mac anyone?

Whilst in Cologne grabbing a 1 euro coffee from a McDonalds (#Walk the tight rope!), to sit and enjoy by the Cathedral, Lucy over heard a somewhat agitated father at the counter asking what meat was in the burgers he’d just ordered. The staff member replied ‘beef’ and went on to say, that if he had asked before ordering she would have explained this. Lucy looked over to see his two children, both with burgers they had taken one bite out of. The father told the staff member “But we are Indian, we don’t eat beef!”. I know, many of you might now be thinking  ‘well don’t go into McDonalds then’ or at least ‘ask if there is a non-beef burger before ordering’. And before spending time in India, we would have thought exactly the same.

 

But we have spent time in India, and whilst you can buy beef in India some places, sometimes, this is made a very big deal of. The fact that it is beef is shouted from the roof tops. India has one of the largest vegetarian population with 30% of the population  being vegetarian, and the majority of those eating meat not eating beef and pork. This is therefore reflected in the language, when ordering food your options often are ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’, indicating just how normal vegetarian food is.

 

So when all you’ve known is McDonalds in India which does not sell beef or pork (and where it would be clearly indicated if a restaurant did sell beef) perhaps this is not surprising that you expect this to be ‘normal’ for the rest of the world too.

Doona, gum boots, thongs?

Whilst staying with a family in New Zealand in a small, very community-minded town, Claire explained to a beautiful little 5 year old girl, that in England, we call those rubber boots you wear when it’s raining outside ‘Welly boots’. The girl was not at all phased by this and simply told Claire that “in Little River we call them Gum Boots”. This child, was totally happy to have a word she could use to explain things to the people she needed to, in her local community in Little River, whilst at the same time being totally happy that this is not the ‘normal’ word for everyone.

Other ‘normal’ words we came across for common items included doona (used in Australia – especially confusing as I was reading an article about an event taking place in England when a British homeless person gave a stranded couple his doona!) Any guesses? I had no idea, but it means duvet. And thongs, at least I knew what they were the ‘normal’ word for in Australia, before I got into any embarrassing situations. (For those not in the know.. that’s flip flops to us British!)

All of these experiences, have inspired us to #BeInterested in the world around us, question regularly what is normal and how  we can #BeKind, understanding that the language we use affects the world around us.

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A map painted on the wall of a Cambodian community English School. Notice anything different?