I am going to start a writing a series called “Daily Korean Life”. I’d like to explore the small differences I’ve noticed while living my usual life here in Korea that one might not usually come across when reading about cultural difference. I’ll first cover the most ordinary part of the day: bathrooms.
In the ultra city of Seoul, you’ll most likely encounter modern, clean bathrooms, nothing different from what Americans are used to. Elsewhere in the country, however, there are some noteworthy differences.
The most obvious difference that a westerner might encounter is the dreaded squat toilet. When I first stumbled upon one in Thailand, I looked at the hole in the floor with disgust. How barbarian! However, I have since come a long way and accepted the use of squatty potties. In Korea, my schools almost exclusively have them (and the teachers share the bathrooms with the students). There is little to be afraid of. The modern toilet we are used to is a luxury for comfort. Squatting is the natural way to do your business. There’s actually an argument that using squat toilets forces your body to form a position that is natural for bowel movements. I guess I’ll leave you this link and you can see for yourself. Another plus about it is that your butt doesn’t touch anything that other people’s butt touched. Now that is disgusting! Once you’re done, you step on the lever to flush. Hands free!
It’s a good thing that squat toilets are hands free because soap does not seem to be required in public bathrooms. I try not to think about how my students touch and feed me Pepero sticks and chips with their unwashed hands. If there is soap in a public bathroom, it is probably a big blue bar of soap on a stick. It looks silly as it is, but squeezing the soap and rubbing up and down to lather up also promotes giggling.
Not only is soap hard to find, toilet paper is elusive. I am now conditioned to keep tissues with me at all times in Korea. If there is toilet paper, it may be placed in a big roll outside of the stalls for you to grab what you need and take it in the stall.
If you are in Lotte Department Store or some other swanky establishment, you might stumble upon a bidet. During the cold winter months, the heating feature is usually to turn those buns to toast. I never used a bidet before, but there are many buttons so customize the kind of squirting power you prefer to clean your arse. Alas, they are all in Korean.
Let’s face it: Koreans are vain. Taking dozens of self photos in public and staring at yourself with hand held mirrors for an entire bus ride is completely acceptable. Mirrors. Mirrors are everywhere. Every classroom is equipped with one. It is hard to go an hour walking around Korea without passing by your reflection. Of course, like anywhere else, there are mirrors in public bathrooms. However, it is also common to find mirrors in the actual stalls. They are placed in perfect alignment with your face as you are on the toilet. It is even funnier when the mirrors are positioned toward the ground when there is a squat toilet. So just in case you ever wanted to stare at your face while you go to the bathroom, come to Korea. If there aren’t mirrors, then there are advertisements that are shoved in your face. Sometimes they are promoting the KTA, or Korean Toilet Association (Yes, it actually exists), and sometimes they are promoting dieting products. In Gwangju’s bus terminal bathroom, there are larger-than-life sized photos of insanely thin women plastered on the bathroom stalls. It is sad, actually.
It seems that most Korean men smoke, especially during an alcohol drenched night. Girls smoke, too, but it isn’t quite socially acceptable. So, when the ladies excuse themselves from the table and make a group trek to the bathroom, they are not only gossiping and fixing their makeup, some are lighting up in the bathroom stalls. I’ve noticed ashtrays in bar bathrooms littered with crushed cigarettes. Now that there is a ban on indoor smoking, these will eventually disappear.
Because of the squat toilets, the doors in Korean bathrooms are low, leaving less than an inch space on the ground. We were all caught in a stall when someone urgently knocks on the door. In a meek voice, you might say “Someone’s in here!” I really hate that. Korea has a better system. If somebody knocks, all you have to do is knock back. Simple as that.
Another thing that many Korean bathrooms are equipped with is sound cancelers called the Etiquette Bell. If you feel embarrassed about your body’s natural processes, you can hide the sprinkling and plopping noises with a push of a button. It will make a noise loud enough to conceal the sounds. I don’t quite understand the purpose though. The only reason someone would push to the button is to hide the fact that they’re pooping, but wouldn’t the covering noise be evidence of your bowel movement? Anyway, that’s Korea for you.
Co-ed bathrooms. I have only seen them in bars, but it is quite awkward having to walk by men using urinals to reach the lady’s stall. For a supposedly conservative country, the presence of these is surprising.
The last thing I’ll mention is the showers in most apartments. Since there is limited livable space in Korea, things tend to be cramped. I don’t know anybody who has the pleasure of having a bathtub. Instead, we have a showerhead that connects with the sink faucet and a hole in the floor to drain the water. While I do miss the ability to take a piping hot bath after a stressful day, at least my floor gets somewhat clean every time I take a shower. The worst part is forgetting to change the setting on the sink after a shower so when going to wash your hands later, the showerhead sprays water all over you. You learn to condition yourself after the first few mistakes.
I never thought I’d think so in depth about bathrooms before.