I walked into the bathroom and I was confused. The signs on the walls confounded me.
Male. Female. Male and Female.
I just wanted to take a shower after another day of sweltering heat and humidity in Taiwan, but now I was faced with this conundrum.
What should I do? Should I leave, should I stay? Should I ask for help or an explanation? My Mandarin is scratchy at best and I was midway through disrobing. I couldn’t ask for help. I would have to figure this out myself. The gender specific / gender fluid signage on the walls was not making it easy.
Naturally I should use the male. But why present the female option in exactly the same place, and confuse the matter even more by offering a combined male and female option?
Were guests to shower together? Was it a water saving method? I’m all for environmental sustainability, but I was alone. Is a single person identifying as a single definitive gender allowed to bathe in this space?
I stood dumbfounded with soap at the ready and a desperate need to be clean. Then I ventured even further down the rabbit hole…
Is gender neutrality common in Taiwan?
Is gender fluidity or non-binary self identification accepted in this country? It might be in Taipei, the cosmopolitan capital, but what about here in Fenglin? Smaller regional centres tend to be more conservative, so it stands to reason that this would be true in little Fenglin. Then again, how would I know? I’d only arrived here today after a lengthy train trip and a long sweaty walk through the streets with my heavy pack slung on my back.
I shouldn’t make assumptions about a city that I’d barely met.
So, which one do I use?
Then I had an idea. A good idea. No, a brilliant idea. I knew who to ask. I crept toward the bathroom door with my towel around my waist. I peered outside. I looked right, I looked left. Clear. I made a mad dash for my room, quickly turned the key in the door and entered.
I sought out the wise one. The one who could surely answer my question. There is no wiser. I asked Elmo.
Elmo didn’t have the answer. Elmo didn’t have any answer. He said nothing. It was all to much for him as well. I retraced my cautious steps to the bathroom to face the challenge alone.
I scanned the signs again.
Is there such a thing as male bath gel? I’d never heard of it. I usually just bought the soap that was cheapest and most environmentally friendly (if available) and I didn’t even realise soap could be gender specific.
Does male soap contain different properties? A different scent would be plausible. Maybe I should sample the soap before using it. Dab a little on my wrist and sniff lightly – perhaps dab a little behind the ear and see if I take to it.
And female soap. Is it softer, more delicate on the skin. Oops, there I go, projecting again, perpetuating age-old gender stereotypes. I wonder how the good folk of Fenglin would react if I wandered the streets emitting an aroma of female bath gel. I wonder if they would even detect it under the omnipotent pungent sweat.
Male and female.
This is too much.
One soap is designated male, another soap is designated female and supposedly ne’er the twain shall meet, but the hair conditioner is gender neutral. This didn’t make any sense to me. Surely the most salient difference between male and female grooming trends is the length and style of one’s hair.
The conditioner must be gender neutral. But not non-binary, because non-binary folk don’t identify as any specific gender. And if the label denotes male and female this proposes that the conditioner can be used by both genders, and perhaps used together.
How do they make male and female conditioner; do they just mix the male soap with the female soap?
At some point I had to make a decision. I was standing in the middle of the bathroom all sweaty and smelly and silly and I just wanted a shower. I had to take the plunge.
I could always try a little of all three. I could embrace my feminine side as well as reinforcing my masculinity, and if I applied too much of either I could restore the natural balance with a dollop of the male and female product.
Right. That’s it. That’s what I’ll do.
Then I realised I had another problem. What to do with all these taps?
Is there a male and female tap?
Male is right – female is left.
That’s what I was taught in army cadets when affixing my belt for parade. The male part always went on the right hand side of the webbing. The same rule could apply here. That said, they drive on the other side of the road in Taiwan so maybe tap selection demands this role reversal as well.
Should I touch the female tap?
Is male hot and female cold, or is that assumption sexist? Are men hot blooded and women more tempered? Can a woman be hot? Yes, but if I call a woman hot am I objectifying that woman? If I call a man hot am I gay? Is there anything wrong with being gay, or am I just being homophobic?
Is anyone a man or a woman?
Now we’re back at the soap dispensers?
Maybe I should have a warm shower. That would be safer. Less likely to complicate the discussion or offend anyone. But there’s no one else in the bathroom, certainly no one else in the shower. No one to offend.
Actually, what I really wanted was a cold shower after enduring the tropical heat all day. I kept hoping, praying for the mass of angry black clouds to burst and release a downpour of gloriously refreshing rain on the small town.
I wanted to dance joyously in the soothing rain and rid myself of the layers of sweat clinging to my skin. But bathing in public was sure to offend someone, even if gender assumptions did not.
Cold water. Mixed soap. No major side effects. I was clean.
After all that excitement I was exhausted. I needed to sit down. I needed to find a beautiful, relaxing chair on which to rest my tired self and contemplate one of the most complicated showers I had ever taken.
Where would I find such a chair?
In the elevator of course.