The Quirks of Life in Korea: Third EditionPosted: July 22, 2010
When I sat down to start working on the third edition of my Quirks of Life in Korea series, I had originally intended to talk about the social aspects of dining culture here in Korea, touch down briefly on the ajuma phenomenon (which I will definitely come back to at a later time), and discuss how oppressive the Korean school system is. I first began writing, however, about the squatter toilet. That got me thinking about Korean bathrooms in general, and before I knew it I had an entire post worth of Korean bathroom quirkiness, and I hadn’t even gotten around to any of the things I had set out to talk about in the first place! Needless to say, the fourth edition of Quirks is almost primed and ready to go, so look for that sometime after I get home from Thailand in mid-August. In the meantime, I present to you.. The Quirks of Life in Korea: Third Edition – Bathroom Culture.
Squatter Toilets - Let’s paint a picture here. You’re out for a night on the town with a group of close friends after a long hard day at the office. You have a few drinks and get caught up in a great conversation. Your friends get up to grab the next round of drinks, and while you’re waiting, you feel that familiar urge. Nature calls. It’s time to break the seal. You dash for the closest bathroom, but what you find leaves you shocked and distressed: there is no toilet. There’s just a hole in the floor, and a button on the wall to flush it down.
Welcome to the wonderful world of squatter toilets. Ladies, I feel especially bad for you. To be quite honest, however primal I considered the idea of squatter toilets to be, it wasn’t even much of an inconvenience for me. For girls, on the other hand, I feel genuinely sorry. I’ve heard more than one story of girls avoiding certain bars because they don’t have Western-style flush facilities installed. Can’t say I blame them. But if you think that Korean bathrooms couldn’t be any weirder, guess again. There’s nothing quite as bad as…
Toilet Paper Guesswork - For reasons unknown, Korean bathroom stalls typically don’t have toilet paper dispensers installed. No one had told me about this little gem of Korean bathroom culture, so the first time I had to use a toilet in public – in a subway station nonetheless – I was baffled when I realized that every stall in the bathroom was lacking a toilet paper dispenser. All that was available was a toilet paper dispenser near the sinks, where there should have been a hand dryer or paper towel machine. So I grabbed what I thought would be an appropriate amount and head for the stalls. This happened again a week or so later. Same deal – I grabbed a healthy amount and head to the stalls. After the third time this happened, I realized that most public bathrooms were set up in this manner. Why?! WHY?!?! It’s not as though you’re saving yourself any money on toilet paper, or being green-friendly or anything like that. If people have to go, they have to go. Not having toilet paper in each stall IS NOT going to change that! If you haven’t been turned off of Korean public bathrooms yet, just wait until you see the…
Toilet Paper Trash – According to popular belief, the pipes in Korea are not properly equipped to handle paper constantly being flushed down the toilet. Is this true? Who knows. Maybe due to the sheer number of people in this country, constantly flushing their waste down the toilet, the public works department finally said “enough is enough!” In many bathrooms in Korea, there are signs saying that there is to be NO paper flushed down the toilet. In fact, on a school field trip that we went on a few weeks ago, I noticed a sign that was taped indiscreetly to the middle of the mirror by the sinks saying “NO FLUSHING PAPER! THERE IS NO MAINTENANCE MAN ON THE PREMISES!” I didn’t want to test my luck, so I just waited until I got home. I know that some children are even raised this way, forbidden from ever putting toilet paper in the toilet. Instead, there is usually a small can next to the toilet, and people toss their business in here. I feel sorry for the guy who’s job it is to empty these cans throughout the day, but I guess someone has to do it.
Shower Bathrooms - I’ll finish this post off with another little oddity of Korean bathrooms. This one isn’t unique to Korea, and is actually quite popular in many parts of Asia. In North America we are used to having large shower stalls with curtains or sliding doors. In many Asian countries, there is no shower stall at all. Instead, there is a shower head connected to the sink, and a drain in the bottom of the bathroom floor. Your whole bathroom becomes your shower stall! Now you can do your business, brush your teeth, and shower all at the same time, if that’s what makes you happy! I’m fortunate enough to have an actual shower stall in my apartment, but most people I know here aren’t so lucky. Every time I use a bathroom that has a shower head attached to the sink, I turn on the water verrrrrry slowly, for fear that I’ll unknowingly be blasted by water from the shower head above. I’ve seen it happen to people, but so far I’ve avoided that unpleasant experience (knock on wood!)
Well folks, that does it for this edition of the Quirks of Life in Korea. I’ll be taking off in 10 days for my summer vacation in Thailand. I may or may not get one more post done before I leave, but if not, keep an eye open for photos and stories when I get back.