Having just returned from Korea where Rory and I were very busy preparing for the wedding in May, I was quickly reminded of how different the toilet culture is in Korea. There is nothing that can prepare you for it if you are from the Western Hemisphere. The incident came in the restroom at Outback Steakhouse. The stall was outfitted with a very sophisticated toilet that was operated by some sort of control panel. Unfortunately the controls were not in English and I pushed one that caused a small spout to appear from beneath the seat and sprayed me with a very precise jet of toilet water. This leads me to my first point about toilets in Korea:
1. Toilets are often more than just toilets. Seriously, one of the buttons had an icon that looked as though it could also function as a hair dryer.
My second realization came when I was in the toilet at an upscale department store. There, I sat down to do my business only to realize that from where I was sitting, I had a full view of the office building across the street as well as the pedestrians below. I could see them and, they could see me. Similarly, at another restaurant, I went to a urinal that was directly in front of a large open window that looked out into a courtyard. Therefore:
2. Toilets are not always private.
Being in Korea in December, it was averaging -10 degrees Celsius when we were there. Many times, the toilets at restaurants or stores were outside the main heated section of the building and in a hallway towards the back. These places are seldom heated and so going to the bathroom was sometimes a chilling experience. Lesson 3:
3. Your pee may freeze.
Koreans love toilets. I don’t know why but they seem to be very proud of them. So much so they even design houses like toilets. This is why, even in some of the grungiest back alleys of Seoul, public toilets are often spotlessly clean beacons of ceramic comfort. In Canada I would never go into one of these. There would be no paper, no light, bugs, dirty seats, no running water and graffitti advertising the shady services of guys named ‘Long John’.
4. If you really gotta go in Korea, don’t worry, there are clean toilets everywhere.
Now that said, it isn’t always true. Some toilets are really old. And even some of the new ones are not the sit down style toilets we Westerners are used to. They require a certain amount of flexibility and dexterity. That’s right…
5. You might have to squat!
In North America, the bathroom is an important component of the entire home. In addition to the bath/shower, toilet and sink operations it is also part library, part powder room and part walk-in closet. When describing homes, we even specify whether it is whole or half bathrooms. “3 and 1/2 baths” (whatever that means!). But in Korea, the bathroom is a functional, compact effective use of a small space. Firstly, they are usually all ceramic, tiled from the floor to the ceiling with nay a bathmat to be found. For this reason, there are no shower curtains either. This means you can splash and spray all over and everything just runs down into a drain. I’ve been in bathrooms where I was showering sitting on the toilet in a space the size of a refrigerator box. This also makes them self cleaning in a way. Very smart.
6. Korean bathrooms are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
Oh and Korean toilets also tend to share facilities between the genders. That’s right, often you might find that women are walking past you at the urinal to get to their stall or you both share the same sink area. It doesn’t bother me as much as some people but I still recognize that it is a bit strange.
7. Everybody poops! But in Korea they don’t hide it so much.
Korea has a toilet super hero, his name is Sim Jae-Duck (Jack), 68 and he is the man who brought about the ‘restroom revolution’. According to him bathrooms are an important “cultural space”, and a “beautiful place to rest and meditate.” *update* According to the Sanitation Updates blog, Mr Toilet died earlier this year. He was the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO). *update again* I’m now not sure if there are two toilet superheroes with the name Sim. There is a Jack Sim and Sim Jae-Duck, who built the toilet house. Either way…
8. Koreans love toilets so much they make international organizations, build colleges and lead revolutions for improving them.
Wow, I didn’t even realise I had so much to say about toilets. I’ll leave you with this then. I found this joke at one of my favorite Korean blogs, Ask a Korean.
Two guys were sitting in the public bathroom stalls, when the first guy talks to the second guy:
A: Er, excuse me. Do you have any toilet paper?
B: I’m sorry, I do, but just enough for myself.
A: Oh come on, can you please help me out?
B: No way man, I’m sorry.
A: Look, I’ll pay you $10 for that toilet paper.
B: I’m sorry, I really need this.
$10 bill is slipped into B’s stall from A’s stall.
A: Alright then, do you have ten $1 bills?