Thursday, June 01, 2006

It’s funny how one can discover so much about a place just by observing the simplest things. I have only been here for three days, but I can say this for certain: the state of Mississippi has the worst bathrooms of any place I have ever been. The folks up at CBGB in New York City would be proud (though, if I recall correctly, I think that the famous punk-rock club was closed last year). The dormitory bathrooms at Ole Miss are awful, but I suppose that I expected that. I am not sure if they are unclean and poorly designed because this is the state of Mississippi or if it is because they are part of a public university, but I would expect the answer relies on a bit of both factors. What has surprised me is that every restaurant bathroom I enter, regardless of the quality of that restaurant, is completely disgusting. I suppose that I should spare my readers the details, though I am sure even the most vivid imagination would be surprised by what I have found, but let me say this: because of the heat down here, each day I find myself covered with a thin layer of sweat when I sit down to dinner. As a result, I have reverted to the laws of my youth and now thoroughly wash my hands and face before every meal. Despite careful precautions taken during this minor bathing process, I can assure all of you that I feel dirtier when I leave the bathroom then when I arrive. This lack of cleanliness and proper facilities stays consistent, regardless of the quality of restaurant I frequent.
Also fascinating about the public bathrooms is the sign that hangs next to the sink in each in every one. Although I cannot recall exactly what it says, the sign reads something like this:

The Department of Health of the State of Mississippi asks that you…
after you have:
1. Used the restroom
2. Been outside
3. Been in contact with any public facilities
4. Handled raw meat or poultry

The sign goes on to briefly espouse the benefits of washing one’s hands and cleanliness in general, but I really cannot remember what the State Board of Health lists as the specific advantages of general cleanliness. Though I laugh every time I see it, I am also saddened that such a sign has to exist. What does the hanging of such a sign say about the public health knowledge of the general population? Do they know about general health issues such as proper nutrition, basic first aid, and other cleanliness concerns (like the washing of clothes and the home)? Perhaps most importantly, will my students be familiar with birth control and STD prevention?
The graffiti on the walls of Ole Miss’ bathrooms is also troubling. The first thing I saw upon entering the bathroom down the hall from my room was the following joke:

Q: What time does a Chinaman go to the dentist?

A: Tooth-Hurty

Yes, before you ask, I did chuckle. But then I thought about what would happen if such graffiti appeared on a bathroom wall at Brown. There were some pretty disgusting things written in the stalls of the Rockefeller Library, but nothing that could have ever been termed as racist or ethno-centric. Would Brown students organize a protest against the joke’s nameless author and the culture of racist machismo that would allow such a joke to be written publicly? Would there be seminars and speeches about the problems of growing up Chinese in America? What I can say for certain is that the graffiti would have been erased or painted over immediately; not by Brown University janitors but rather by Brown University students. That the black ink in which the above joke was written was faded makes me wonder about the degree to which the citizens of this state continue to accept racial and ethnic stereotypes as well as the (in)ability of that citizenry to actively oppose such backward mindsets. Though I would like to say that I will be a part of helping to alter that way of thinking, I both know and fear that the issues I will have to confront in my classroom will be much more immediate, much more pressing, and much more important to the survival of my students.


Blogger Sinister Mr. A said...

I agree with your observations. Nasty bathrooms, especially here at Brown (Hall, not U.)! We should protest for less piss everywhere, forget about the graffiti! But the Third World has sanitary conditions far more appalling. In Mozambique, I once got off a long-distance bus where the whole busload was peeing on a concrete floor, because the had-been toilet was stopped up way beyond overflowing. And probably there is worse than what I saw.

Anyway, probably Brown U. is not a realistic reference for comparison. Few environments will measure up to the idealism demonstrated at elitist liberal institutions of higher education. By the way, my Peace Corps ex-gf went to Brown, did I mention that?

The state-mandated notice for hand-washing in restaurants seems to be common in a lot of states nowadays. I agree that the implications feel a little unsettling, but realistically you gotta know that a lot of people really are not washing their hands, even after using the restroom. I try my best not to touch doorknobs, etc., when leaving any public restroom.

7:36 PM  

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