Zia Hassan

Malaysian Toilets Cultural Orientation

I was giving a demonstration of a piece of software that reads text aloud in various languages. To show it off, I set up a text document comprised of the same sentence but written in a number of different languages. As the software read out loud, it highlighted each individual word as it said it. Eventually it got to the Arabic section.

“It reads it backward!” I shouted over the reading, to emphasize the point that the software tracked the words from right to left, instead of the usual left to right of the other languages in the document.

I immediately knew what I said was incorrect – the text was not being read backward, it was read the correct way, which just happened to be different from what I’m used to in the western world.

How many times have I thought something was weird or backward when it was merely culturally different from what I’m used to? How many things have I labeled as “weird” simply because it didn’t fit my construct?

I remember how weird it was seeing this sign in Malaysia.

It’s often featured on blog lists about the world’s strangest signs.

Weird! Why would there be a sign to not step on a toilet? Isn’t that common sense?

It becomes a bit clearer when you visit Malaysia and understand that many bathrooms don’t even have a toilet – just a hole in the ground, and a hose. Bathroom goers squat above the hole to do their thing, and flush with the hose.

Someone encountering a western style toilet for the first time after living this way would probably try to stand on it – just as I tried to “sit” on the hole in the ground at a rest stop in the Malaysian country side.

There are foot marks all over those western style toilets in Malaysia.

Because to Malaysians, the idea of sitting on a porcelain bowl is what’s weird.