October 6, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson #6: Bucket Culture Etiquette

Everyone knows that the Japanese are freaky about shoes. People go to Japan expecting this, and Japanese people expect foreigners to fumble on proper shoe etiquette for the first month or so. Eventually though, foreigners learn to understand the logic that guides shoe etiquette, even becoming disgusted by how we blend the shoe-wearing, indoor-slipper-wearing, bathroom-slipper-wearing, and only-bare-feet-or-socks worlds back home.

Nobody told me about what I can only describe as “Bucket Culture” though, and no one told my housemate to expect me, and the whole foreign world that I seem to represent to her, to fumble on proper bucket etiquette during my first few weeks here.

My first introduction to bucket culture was in Thailand. Toilets there lack flushing mechanisms, and toilet patrons are instead expected to use a small bucket to pour water from a larger bucket filled with water into the toilet until the toilet bowl seems adequately flushed for the next patron.

In Ghana, big-bucket-small-buckets are found more commonly next to the sink in WCs fancy enough to have sinks, for times when the water isn’t running and people want to rinse their hands. At our house, the water usually runs for about one hour every week, usually in the middle of the night on Sunday. At the first sound of running water, I leap out of bed and proceed to fill our 3 huge 11L buckets, our 5 medium-sized buckets, our 20 water bottles, and 2 small buckets with water before the tap stops running. This is the one reality that Canadians seem unable to grasp – I don’t have running water. Not just that I can’t drink or cook with tap water, but that there isn’t any tap water. Not in the toilet, in the kitchen, in the shower, nor in the bathhouse sink.

I guess it would be considered as insulting my intelligence, like the equivalent of teaching a newcomer to Canada how to take a shower, but I actually wish someone would have taught me strategies of how to master taking a shower with a bucket. There are two dilemmas which your bucket shower technique must face: how to ensure the most surface area is covered by the water coming from your bucket; and, how to use as little water as possible, because you never really know when the taps will next run. Taking the lead from washing scenes in period films I’ve spent half my life watching, I thought to myself “How would Jane Austen do it?”

Just when I was finally gaining confidence in how to effectively use my buckets, my housemate catches me pouring water from one of the huge buckets into one of the medium-sized buckets.

-No! No! You’re not allowed.
-This bucket is for kitchen.
-But the big bucket in the shower is empty and I need to do my laundry.
-This bucket’s not used in shower. You can’t use kitchen bucket in shower.
-Because it’s the shower, and this is the kitchen bucket.
-But the shower and the toilet are separate rooms. The shower represents the clean world. It’s not like I’m cooking in the toilet.
-No. You must use this tiny bucket to fill this medium bucket, and then you must take this medium bucket to the kitchen.
-But I need to wash my clothes.

I am considered to be a very clean person. Exceptionally clean people describe me as being quite clean, clean people describe me as being very clean, and messy people describe me as being borderline compulsive obsessively clean. Yet suddenly, I am the most hideously disgusting creature my housemate has ever seen.

-No! No! You’re not allowed.
-You must not paste in the kitchen.
-I’m not brushing my teeth in the kitchen. I just brushed my teeth in the bathhouse sink. I’m only washing my cup in the kitchen.
-Oh. Sorry. Your people and African people do things very differently.
-Well, no. I do things differently than you because I haven’t been taught how to do things under these conditions. Teach me how ‘your people’ do things, and I can learn.

I proceed to explain that everything always works in my world, that a whole generation of Canadians is clueless as to how to adapt to changes such as water and power outages, that no one under the age of 50 knows how to fix anything, and that people are not born with an ability to know the best techniques for washing a sink full of dishes using only a bucket and half a cup of water. All water is the same in my world – the water in your toilet, the water in your kitchen, the water in the shower. Technically, you could drink the water in your toilet basin, before it reaches the bowl, and that in Japan the water runs through a miniature tap on top of the toilet before it runs into the toilet bowl, so that you can wash your hands in the clean water before it enters the dirty world of the toilet bowl, thus conserving water.

I should have stopped before suggesting “my people” drink toilet water. I think I lost my bucket-etiquette-aficionado-housemate forever at that suggestion.

So I must continue to develop my own bucket strategies, written-off as a student of bucket culture by my would-be instructor. As the world’s water resources dry up, bucket culture might eventually prove to be a more essential skill than shoe etiquette.