Wednesday, September 4, 2013

That Famous Story: “Everybody Poops” (And Hopefully Showers Too)

First off, let me excuse the bad picture quality for some of these pictures: public bathrooms just don’t have the greatest lighting here and these pictures were taken with my iPod which I just happened to have on me; so, sorry, no professional bathroom photos.  But there are still photos.

So, for my curious American family/friends (you know who you are), here is a post dedicated to the toilets, sinks, and showers I have encountered in Korea.  And honestly, this can be summed up pretty quickly.

First, you have the typical toilets you would expect: Western, throne-style, no major bells or whistles.  You would find these in public places like airports, schools, department stores, rest stops, your EPIK orientation venue, etc.   If wherever you are is cool, you might even have a button you can press to supposedly protect you from germs like the toilet I encountered at the Seoul-Incheon International Airport.

Second, you have the “squatty potty”.  You will probably encounter these in public places like rest stops, schools (like the university we stayed at for orientation), and buildings in more rural or older areas (at least it seems that way so far).  Watch out: you’ll enter bathrooms where one side is Western and the other has these, so choose carefully.  Now when you use these toilets, you’re supposed to be facing towards the rounded part that protrudes from the ground.  They work best with skirts for obvious reasons.  When you flush, you’re probably also supposed to push the bar with your hand, but I’m pretty sure every Westerner uses their foot… and that is totally legitimate. 

The most awkward part about these toilets is wondering what exactly is the wet spot it on either side where you need to put your feet.  Did they just clean recently?  Oh, maybe it’s just wash water!  Or is it something else?  Something far more nefarious?  Can you stand in such a way that your feet will just miss it?

Third, you have the fancy electric toilets.  These appear more often in residential homes/apartments.  They may have all sorts of bells and whistles like adjustable heated seats (which I have been assured I will appreciate in the winter), extra water to clean the toilet, and water spray to clean… you.  I cannot begin to describe the fear that comes when you accidentally hit a button and then you hear something start to move beneath you in the toilet.  If you come from the West, you will probably never move faster again in your entire life.

Learning how to change and shut off any of the settings without a picture is impossible.  Trust your co-teacher.  Love your co-teacher.  Shower your co-teacher with gratitude when they look over the picture you send them through Kakao talk and call you back to let you know what buttons you need to hit so you can turn it off instead of just unplugging it (and isn’t that a novel idea, unplugging a toilet?).

Other toilet survival facts:

Your toilet may not have a push-down handle bar like you’re used to.  That’s okay.  You push it in instead.  I’m sure you could have figured that out on your own, but if you’re like me it still gives you pause.

Don’t flush your toilet paper.  The pipes in Korea are smaller in diameter than in the West.  If you want to eventually have to call a plumber for your pipes (according to others), go ahead, but otherwise used toilet paper is thrown in the infamous little blue trash can in the stall and later taken out to the curb.  It is for that reason that occasionally when you are walking down a street, you get a whiff of something rather unpleasant (this has happened to me several times already).  On the other hand, toilet paper here is very pretty (lightly colored floral designs usually) and is also perfumed.  It also costs a ton.  My recommendation is if you really want to flush it use no more than three squares, and/or get a trash can in your bathroom that comes with a lid and a foot pedal (my apartment already had one).  I just hope I can make it through a year with the one pack of toilet paper I bought, but two weeks in and I’m closing in on the end of a roll… it’s not looking good.

Expect to see a mirror on the back of the door in your public restroom.  If you have a squatty potty, don’t worry, it’s placed even lower so it’s still at your eye level.  You know, just in case you need to freshen up while you’re trying to do what you need to do without touching those wet spots on the floor.

Learn the words.  Bathroom signs come with all sorts of logos (the girl v. boy symbol is pretty universal even if they are made fancier), but some do not.   화장실 or ‘hwa-jang-sil’ means restroom.  여자, ‘yeo-ja’, is woman and 남자, ‘nam-ja’, is man so look out for the and 남 prefixes.  “화장실 어디있어요?” or ‘Hwa-jang-sil eo-di i-sseo-yo?’ will hopefully get you a hand gesture in the right direction should you need it.

Check for toilet paper before you enter the stall.  Or better yet, just carry a little pack of tissues with you everywhere you go.  It’s so much safer that way.

Finally, forgive yourself when auto-pilot results in you flushing the toilet paper despite your best intentions.  Make a conscious effort to do better next time.

Now onto other hygiene-related topics.

First, hand soap dispensers seem common in most public restrooms, but do not be shocked if you see something like the following:

Yes, it’s literally a bar of soap stuck on a stick.  You have to get your hand wet first.  It’s awkward.  We can all giggle and admit it.  Moving on.

Showers in Korea are interesting: you may have a separated stall area with an actual door/curtain like I did at orientation.  In an apartment or house, you’re probably more likely to have a shower or bath-shower combo with nothing separating the shower spray from the rest of the room.  Hide your clothes, hide your children, hide your wife!

But seriously, it’s actually okay because the bathroom floor is a step down from the floor level of the rest of the house so you don’t have to worry about water seeping out under your door and onto your beautiful fake laminated wood floors.   I know it would be a tragedy, but you’re safe!  The bathroom floors have drains in them!  How lucky (required) is that?

Also note that there will probably be a mirror in/near your shower too...

I’ve also noticed that personal restrooms always seem to have the light and fan switch immediately outside of the bathroom door.  Not quite sure why, but there you have it in a nutshell.

Questions anyone?

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