Toilet sign

Signs like this one from Yellowstone National Park will soon be posted at all of Grand Teton National Park’s 42 vault toilets to discourage foreign visitors with different customs from squatting on lids and breaking them in the process.

There were plenty of examples from the past year of Asian tourists in Jackson Hole finding trouble as a result of cross-cultural misunderstandings.

A lack of true wildlife in heavily populated Asian countries led to some visitors getting too close the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s not-always-so-docile megafauna.

There were tales of foreign visitors who didn’t know English filling their gasoline-powered rental cars with diesel fuel.

The scornful looks line-cutting Chinese tourists sometimes drew undoubtedly were a result of Westerners not understanding how things work when crowds gather a hemisphere away.

But perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the lingual and cultural barriers for Chinese and other Asian visitors who flocked to northwest Wyoming this year played out in the pit toilets around Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

“Our maintenance staff was seeing basically broken toilet seats, especially in the vault toilets,” Teton park spokesman Andrew White said.

In all, about a dozen of the 42 vault toilets in Grand Teton park wound up broken this summer, he said.

What was happening, park officials discovered, is that tourists from Asian countries were squatting, with their feet on the lids, and the shuffling of legs bearing a body’s full weight was causing toilets to snap where the hinges connect the lid to the bowl.

While it may sound bizarre, it’s how they poop in public places back in their home countries, White said.

“They’re used to squatting on the toilets,” the spokesman said. “That’s a cultural expectation in China for a public restroom, which is obviously very different from our expectations.”

The park worked with a Chinese student this summer, and the foreign visitor helped the park crack the toilet mystery. The broken seats were typically being found in high-use places where tour buses unload, such as Schwabachers Landing, White said.

Visitation from Asia is anticipated to keep climbing, and estimates were that around a half million Chinese and other Asians came through this year.

To plan ahead, Grand Teton’s sign shop will make signs this winter that will illustrate proper use of a lidded, elevated toilet. They will be installed at all 42 vault toilets, White said.

“Obviously this is not the only things we’re doing to make the parks more welcoming to international visitors,” White said.

One Jackson Hole resident who has worked to smooth over the visits of Chinese to the valley wasn’t surprised to learn of their propensity to squat while doing their business.

“Have you ever seen the public toilets in China?” real estate agent Bruce Simon said. “They’re on the floor and you squat. And the Chinese and other Asians grew up using them, so they’re comfortable.”

With proper signage — and with a willingness to use Mandarin in park newsletters and food menus — Simon was confident that misunderstandings due to cultural divides could be reduced.

“The Chinese are really smart,” Simon said. “They are well educated, they’re eager to learn and they’re really good on their mobile devices.

“It’s just a matter of education,” he said.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or environmental@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(1) comment

Marion Dickinson

It seems like it may be time for the National Parks, especially the popular ones to start limiting foreign visitors. Twenty years ago there was talk of shutting the gates when a certain number of visitors had gone in at some parks. It is costing the American taxpayer more and more to maintain them and we should have priority.

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