At the beginning of each fall semester, myself or another Chinese colleague are invited to speak to our Pac-Rim Study Abroad group, to explain to students what they can expect in China, I once told them to bring toilet paper when going to any public toilet.
Honestly I would rather talk about poetry in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but I thought they should be aware of this little inconvenience, as public toilets in the United States always have toilet paper and they will no doubt take it for granted that this is true in other countries. I do not consider talking about this issue as harmful to the image of my home country. I would rather they are pleasantly surprised to find things are better than I portrayed.
As a matter of fact, mere access to a bathroom nearby can be an issue at times. Before I left China, we used to go to places such as McDonald's and KFC just to use the toilet. But nowadays, I heard some of them only let customers use their toilets.
Toilets are probably not high on the list of priorities for policymakers, but anybody who has had a toilet-related emergency knows that in such situations the need to find the nearest toilet overrides any other concern.
I have read that in Shanghai, some people have printed maps with the locations of toilets for the convenience of tourists.
Some women in Guangzhou and Beijing started a movement called "occupy men's toilets" to draw attention to the biological truth that women need more cubicles than men.
The occupation, however, was dismissed by some as nonsensical or "action art". Such people should really be denied access to a toilet until they realize that a toilet is a something we all need. Clearly something is wrong when lines form in front of women's restrooms, while men's are underutilized.
As a man, I am more than happy to give up some of our "space" for women and I am sure this is probably true of many men. Many of them will probably have been blissfully unaware that there was a problem until the "occupation" by the women in Guangzhou and Beijing brought it to their attention.
So what should cities do? Redesigning public toilets implies massive urban planning, architectural redesigns, and tons of money. But, there are less costly solutions.
In the US, you can ask for permission, mainly as a courtesy, to use the restrooms in places such as gas stations, restaurants, and shops. Most will not object to their use by the public.
Some states have even made it illegal not to in certain situations. The first Restroom Access Act was passed in Illinois in 2005 and it has since been passed in a dozen other states, with more likely to follow suit. It is more commonly known as "Ally's Law" after the girl who pushed for legislation that would allow anyone with a medical emergency access to an employee-only restroom.
Ally Bain was a 14-year-old girl suffering from Crohn's disease who pushed for legislation after she was denied access to the employees toilet when she was out shopping with her mother one day. Shortly after the manager told her no and told her to "have a good day" her "digestive system erupted" and she was left feeling "humiliated and helpless". She vowed that no one would have to suffer the same indignity.
Ally's story should inspire someone to think about this issue in China so that it can be discussed by people's deputies in various cities.
After all, next time it might be you that is inconvenienced.