When I was younger I spent several summers with my parents travelling around Europe. As we drove from country to country in our bright orange Volkswagen camper van I was introduced to what we called the ‘continental’ toilet. This referred to an uninviting hole in the ground that was found at a few of the campsites at which we stayed. A couple of times I tried to make use of one of these utilities. I remember my despair at struggling to balance, hanging over the opening as I aligned my bottom with the target area. As I hovered over the hole, flashes of me falling and being covered with the mess down below made me pull up my shorts and hold in what I had come to release
Fast forward fifteen years or so and my squatting prowess has not improved, as I have had little need for it. If anything time has made me less capable. Getting up and down and generally adopting the appropriate position emits a strange sound somewhat like a whimpering groan.
But for many Koreans, the squat or the ‘Kimchi squat’ (as coined by expats) is part of their daily lives. You become used to seeing people of all ages squatting in the streets whilst waiting for a bus, smoking a cigarette or just reading the paper.
Imagine my surprise when here in Korea I find those toilets I dreaded years before! Granted there are also the western-style lavatories that one has become accustomed to rest one’s rump upon. However, certainly in the more public places such as bus or train stations you may have to fight or wait for one of these more comfortable sanitary installations – due to their popularity and rarity.
As a man I have the ease of using a trough but there have been occasions where it would certainly not be socially acceptable to do so. It’s then that I wait poised for that one western toilet to open its doors to me. Still I wait, but the door remains closed. Seemingly with the occupant half-way down page three of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A door near by me creaks open and I spy a porcelain bowl on the floor of the vacant cubicle. I ponder. Then enter. My old adversary looks even less inviting as I close the door into claustrophobia. I look around at the amenities. A hole and a bin. The four walls surrounding me are bare. Urine-soaked tiles circle the toilet.
Well, trousers down for a start. Awkwardly I stand over the gaping cavity with legs spread as I begin to lower myself down. Really there should be a rope or handrails for this action. Finally, I am suspended – my bottom almost horizontal with my ankles. This all feels like it could go horribly wrong. But it doesn’t, I don’t fall over, I don’t fall in. I came here to use the toilet and that’s exactly what I accomplished. Just a case of cleaning up. But of course – no toilet paper!
This humble item, considered as absolutely vital in most toilets you are likely to encounter, is actually found at the entrance to the lavatories in a vending machine. Which doesn’t do me much good, considering that I’m squatting and swaying from side to side with my trousers wrapped around my ankles. There has to be something I can use? Rummaging in my pockets I find only my keys, lint and my empty wallet. But wait – the bin. Stretching forward and pulling it close to me I peer inside. Toilet paper! Used toilet paper. With faecal matter attached. Someone has kindly left this dreadful detritus in a bin rather than flush it down the toilet. Can I bring myself to tear around the messed pieces from this unsavoury heap….?
I learn later that putting paper soiled with human waste in a bin is common throughout Korea. This is done regardless of the place or the status of the establishment. It is believed that rather than add a strain to the sewage system used tissues should be put in a bin and collected by some hapless cleaners.
Feeling my legs beginning to go numb I reluctantly stand myself up, pull up my trousers, flush the contents of the hole and walk out of the door. As I wash my hands I realise that there are some culture shocks that will stay with you forever.
© John Brownlie 2010