Pre-Korea, Erin and I had a conversation about toilets. It went something like this:
Erin: There might be toilets that are just holes in the ground.
Megan: What?? This is a civilized country. What the hell? Are you serious right now?
Erin: It’s that way in lots of Europe, dude.
Megan: Well that makes me not want to go to Korea. Or Europe.
Erin: It won’t be that bad.
Megan: Unacceptable. I don’t understand. It’s 2010. This is bullshit and I don’t want to squat like an animal to do my business.
Erin: My, aren’t you being prissy.
Megan: You can’t even say ‘poop’. Or hear someone say ‘poop’ without squirming.
Erin: I’m not worried about it.
Megan: Well I am. We’ll see. We’ll see, Fahrer.
So I was somewhat prepared for what would turn out to be a less-than-ideal bathroom situation. But I was still hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised.
*Arrive in Korea*
Day two of orientation at Jeonju University and I had yet to encounter an unfamiliar toilet apparatus. In fact, the toilet in our dorm room was downright normal and nice, like the rest of the bathroom. That night at dinner, however, we were treated to some awesome conversation that can only happen when a bunch of strangers are in a unfamiliar place and have already put themselves so far out there that they’ve got nothing to lose. One guy starts describing the predicament he found himself in the previous night. It seems this guy managed to clog the toilet on the very first night and had to go in search of a plunger. This would be a pretty embarrassing and unpleasant situation in America (he was American), but throw in some painfully shy Koreans and a major language barrier and you’ve got yourself a really shitty problem (yeah, I said it).
He managed to get the plunger and take care of issue, but this story opened the door to a lengthy discussion about shit and toilets and travelling. Among the many things we learned that evening, the most impactful was that you really ought not be flushing anything but bodily waste down the toilet here in Korea. I will let you process that.
No toilet paper and, obviously, forget tampons. Your used toilet paper is to be wrapped up nicely and placed into the wastebasket, usually found in your stall. Now, if you are like me (some might say naïve, spoiled and prissy) then this little tidbit horrifies you. I’m still not over it. Needless to say, this creates a completely new bathroom experience. Let’s start at the beginning.
First, you enter the bathroom. You hope three things:
- That there is toilet paper on the communal toilet paper roll, found next to the sink.
- That there is a real toilet. Not a porcelain hole in the ground parading as an acceptable place to pee.
- That this real toilet is not covered in pee or other.
I will elaborate.
- More often than not, there will be no toilet paper offered inside the stall where you go. Instead you must remember to grab some from the single toilet paper roll stationed near the sink or door. This will most likely be damp, as I suspect Koreans primarily use this roll for drying their hands after washing (paper towels and/or hand dryers are hard to come by here). With this system, you must be able to predict how much toilet paper you will need, pre-bathroom-going. This irritates me. Not because I actually struggle to plan properly, but because I am an anxious person and fret over feeling guilty taking too much toilet paper versus the unlikely possibility of finding myself without sufficient paper.
- As you may (now) know there are many (developed?) countries where the ‘toilet’ is no more than a hole in the ground. Evidently. In Korea, I’ve yet to encounter anything that was merely a ‘hole’. There is always a porcelain sink-urinal hybrid sort of thing that is the ‘hole’. To me, this is stupid. You’ve already installed a big porcelain thing, why not add some extra porcelain and put it at human-sitting level, not dog-squatting level? I’m sure there is a reason, but whatever it is I don’t care. It just seems half-assed to me. And really, this whole system might work just fine for Koreans (though the cleanliness of the bathrooms suggest otherwise). If you’ve been using those since you were a child, you’ve probably perfected your squat. I, on the other hand, have not. There’s the fear of splash-back or tipping over or just being that close to an always wet public bathroom floor. Who the hell knows. All I know is that I’m too old to re-learn how to pee in the potty. I passed that test 23 years ago………So (especially at school) I find the ONE stall in the bathroom that houses a full toilet. The funny part about this is that it’s not just a toilet. No, friends, this is a crazy robotic electronic bidet, complete with instructions on the door and buttons with little pictures of butts receiving various… hygienic treatments. Theoretically, Koreans don’t need paper in the stall because they are using the bidet functions on the toilet instead and perhaps that is what I ought to be doing too. However, I’ve heard horror stories regarding said bidet and the surprises that happen when you press the buttons (duh, instructions are in Korean). I’m not interested in experimenting with bidet buttons, especially in a public bathroom where I don’t have access to toilet paper should something go terribly wrong.
- If you are lucky, this toilet will probably have pee in it but not on it. Yes, my dearies, someone else’s pee in the toilet is the preferable condition you can hope to find your toilet in. I’m going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say that Koreans are trying to conserve water by never ever flushing. I suppose this isn’t the end of the world, but for an uptight American who is used to a much cleaner bathroom experience in restaurants or her place of work, it’s a bummer.
As you can see, it’s a somewhat bleak situation in the Korean commode. I lost my cool the other day because the bathroom at my school consistently smells like a portapotty. I don’t know why this is besides a combination of all the factors previously described (hello, your shitty toilet paper is just hanging out in the wastebasket). I don’t believe that elementary school bathrooms in the US smell like that. But it’s pretty depressing and it really makes you want to avoid the bathroom. This is where a major cultural difference comes into play. See, Koreans don’t drink much water. Like at all. They certainly don’t drink with meals. They do a shot of water on their way out of the cafeteria or what have you. In my office, there are liter bottles of water, which Koreans will pour shots from if they find themselves thirsty. But for the most part, they are a severely dehydrated people and it’s a wonder to me that more of them don’t look like raisins. As a foreigner, you can expect to be stared at for carrying around a water bottle of any size. It just straight up confuses them that you would want or need more than a few ounces of water per day. So this is where some light can be shed on the bathroom situation.
No water > No pee > Minimal time in bathroom > Little concern over bathroom conditions
This is the only conclusion I have come to. The bathroom situation is probably the worst thing about living here so far. There are obviously people who are far more ‘well-travelled’ than I am, and they would scoff at my squeamishness over this entire subject and tell me that I have it good. But I had no idea that this is how it was gonna be. It makes me sad that the bathroom at the bus station the other day was waaay nicer and cleaner than the bathroom where I work. Had I known that was how I would spend a year, you know, I may have thought about it a bit harder. May not have been a deal breaker, but it would have been nice to mentally prepare for.