I was desperate and almost out of time. In my rush to get to work I had completely forgotten about the spicy dinner I had at my local dduk galbi joint and my stomach was in knots because of it. The bus was packed with morning commuters and the driver was cutting corners like a champion, which was fine on any other day, but today my tummy was cringing with each rough turn the driver took.
I knew that I wasn't going to be able to wait until I got to work. My destination was still a good 20 minutes away and the Korean summer heat, along with my own anxiety, had caused a light dew to build-up on my upper lip. I needed to find a bathroom somehow and soon, but in Korea your options are limited and often less than desirable.
After weighing my options I reached for the closest red button on the bus and push it harder than it was designed for. The buzz rang through the bus like a cell phone in a pack cinema and a group of grandmothers stop their conversation briefly to turn and look at me. I smiled at them, trying hard to hide my stomach pains from them as I offered them a curt nod in response. I didn't mind the looks though, living in Korea for fours years made sure of that, and when the bus came to an abrupt halt I bolted off it.
I knew roughly where I was, I was after all on the route I always took to work, but I had never before randomly jumped out before my stop. As the bus puttered off to its next stop I cursed the driver under my breath for suddenly deciding to improve his driving skills on the following corner. I squinted left and then right along the busy spite-stained streets and tried not to think of what might happen if I wasn't able to find restroom.
Nothing, I saw absolutely nothing. No public bathroom or anything close to it was in sight. With bated breath I strode into the nearest convenient store knowing that there must be a lavatory of sorts close by. The Asian statue behind the warped wooden counter came to life and greeted me. The woman was in her late forties (although I still find it extremely hard to judge Koreans and their age) and she had an interesting and crooked scar running under the left side of her chin. Her eyes bulged as they fell upon me and she must have heard the panic in my broken Korea because she jumped off her plastic crate, handed me the keys to the bathroom out back, and pointed urgently in its general direction. I thanked her but the accompanying bow was more of pathetic nod due to my current abdominal condition.
The key she gave me was nothing special, except for perhaps the giant wooden tag that was attached to it via a fraying piece of string that looked like it might have been dropped in the toilet once or twice itself. I held it with two fingers and made my way out back where found a cramped alley and ventured in. In front of me were three doors. The first of which was open and I peered in optimistically. I still cringe at the prospect of squatting on one of Korea's open floor urinals. I know that it's mostly because I am not used to the position and I'm more than aware of the scientific research that suggests that striking such a pose is somehow the more conducive to us human's digestive dumping. Still this particularly toilet appeared to have been recently ravished and I wanted nothing to do with it (the used toilet paper in the wastebasket next to the fallen urinal was just too off-putting). I knew that I wouldn't be able to hold my breath long enough to walk out of there with my lungs and nasal passages in tact, so I clinched my stomach muscles and mustered up the courage and energy to try door number two.
The key didn't fit. After clumsily fumbling with the door handle and keys, I looked up to see a faded sign informing me that I was, in fact, trying to enter the female's bathroom. I wished I was a female at this point because the state of bathroom number three strongly suggested that a concerning number male occupants had frequented there, possibly at the same time. I briefly considered going back to door number one (and to be honest busting through the woman's bathroom) but the lack of a lock on that door was enough for me to realise that number three it was going to have to be.
I took another short and flustered breath before I closed the stubborn door behind me. The small room felt like a country outhouse once the door was close, and when it was shut only a small slither of light was aloud to penetrate its surprisingly thick wooden panels. "Fantastic", I muttered to myself as I realised that the chance of a whiff of 'fresh' Korean air to refuel my lungs was most definitely out of the question. There was no time for such thoughts though, as I was sure that if I took too long the old woman would be knocking on the door demanding her crappy keys back.
After placing my backpack in the furthest corner from the business end of the stall I look around and saw no toilet paper. I mutter the only Korean curses I knew and debated going back outside to find some paper, but that was a fools errand and my stomach vetoed that brief moment of delirium almost as quickly as the thought crossed my mind, quicker even.
The sun then burnt my eyes and caused me to drop the keys on the dry and dirty slab of concrete. If I had dropped the keys on my way in I would have perhaps moved my swearing back to English, or worse German. However I was feeling a stone lighter and without the fear of getting an uncountable amount of germs of my fingers (knowing what I had just been through) I picked them up with confidence. I didn't bother looking for a basin to wash my hands in, that would have to wait until I got to work I knew. Until then I would be forced to keep myself uncomfortable conscious of the fact that my hands were probably soiled and least hygienically, quite unimpressive.
The immense sense of satisfaction I felt, having now achieved my mission, must have be visible on my red and flustered face as the woman smiled at me strangely when I handed her the keys. Perhaps that smile was because she knew that there was no toilet paper in the box she gave me keys to. An annoying sense of irony hit me as I now noticed that just behind this cruel woman and her grins was a shelf full of single ply toilet paper and a few small bottles of waterless hand sanitizers. She followed my gaze and gawking, turned, and placed one small bottle of the cleanser in front on the table between us. I smiled and was happy to pay her inflated fee for it. I left her and her single ply feeling fresher than the sweltering heat should've allowed me to feel. I jumped on the next bus, which was empty and driven by perhaps the happiness little old man I have ever seen, and sat in back of bus alone but satisfied. The fresh menthol of the hand sanitizer burned my nostrils as the bus slowed to a stop. I thanked the adorable little man behind the wheel and promised myself I would never talk about that trip again.
Ask any foreigner who has visited Korea about what they think of the country's bathroom facilities and habits and you just might be in for a shock. While not all bathrooms in Korea require you to have mastered the squat, there will be a time were nature forces your hand. I have entered too many bathrooms in Korea and wondered why I kept on seeing used tissues in the bin (apparently Korea's sewage system cannot handle paper being flushed). It's a sight that unsettles most foreigners and traumatises the rest. Even used paper in wastebasket isn't so bad compared to that heart-stopping moment where you realised that you will not be enjoy the luxury of toilet paper (of any ply), or even the pleasure of washing your hands with soap (if you're lucky enough and even then it's often found attached to a stick above the basin, as if someone, probably a foreign, might steal it for themselves) and water-let alone drying them on a towel or automatic air blower.
Despite this nation's obsession with poop jokes and bum poking (ask a teacher about that) their facilities aren't always up to what I would consider par for a modern restroom. And even when I am, on occasion, impressed with a place's facilities (Yongsan Station for example) I am shocked by the number of men (and I obviously can't speak to the woman) who bypass the sinks or, rather upsettingly, use them simply for a spit and quick adjustment to their hair-with what can only be a dirty mitts. My advice is simple: Carry your own toilet paper while out-and-about (if you remember of course), some waterless hand cleaner (which is sold almost everywhere in Korea), and if it's at all possible your own porta-potty.
- C.J Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
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