The not-so-universal language of toilets: South Korea

Toilets say a lot about any culture. In Africa, they’re a luxury in many places, taken for granted in others. In America, ridiculous and unscientific concerns about hygiene and rampant germaphobia combine with a weird tendency to discuss every single anal squirt publicly, and even during meals. In the UK people don’t talk about it til you wind up walking funny. In France and Spain men all pee on the seats and for space reasons, it’s all unisex, and the same chef who fusses over one coulis couldn’t care. In German holiday homes there’s no door… because zat’s romance or something?

And in South Korea?

Well, it’s a really healthy toilet culture, for the most part. Most cheap restaurants have one. It’s usually clean, even if not fancy. The fancy ones have gargle dispensers! There’s always soap and towels. And the culture also takes care of the environment. You’re expected to put your toilet paper not in the bowl, but in a bucket next to the toilet. Sounds gross, right? Wrong: You get used to it – as I did before in seaside areas of Mozambique and Madagascar that use septic tanks. This practice reduces the strain on the sewerage system. Environmentally, a great success. And not smelly because the bucket is regularly emptied.

Never figured out what this was. By the time I remembered to ask, I was on my way out of Seoul, so I resorted to youtube. It’s not really a bell. What it does is make a loooooong flushing sound so you can go without being overheard. Typical of Korean courtesy and consideration in culture in general. This sounds like a “people are so friendly there” cliche, but the shock of the rudeness of people at LAX on my return was amplified by how nice people were on a day to day basis in South Korea.

That means “women’s toilet” in Korean. Now you know! Taken in a Beer and Chicken place.

Most signs are in English (or universal picture language) as well as Korean, even though there are very few English-speaking visitors. As a white person in Busan, you’re an oddity, particularly in the spas where you scrub down extensively before entering the various open heated pools. I’ve never had so many people staring at my cha-cha as I did that day. They couldn’t help it. I get it. I didn’t even mind much, except for wishing I were thinner, and hairier. But it was still pretty strange.

Good thing to know about Busan Toilets: Toilet paper is not provided in the booths, but outside them. So you better plan your trip and take what you need before you lock yourself away. Exceptions: The airport, the pricey malls. This roll was conveniently located on our Dongseo University Bus, which is useful when you ever arrive somewhere without it. You’ll also find TP hung above restaurant tables for use instead of napkins.

Yeah… no idea. One the back of a door somewhere. It’s probably a sign asking people nicely not to put their paper in the bowl. Love the flowers!

The only places I encountered genuinely dirty toilets in Busan? At one far-flung beach, where they only really had a squatting porter potty type thing, and at a Karaoke place we went to. It was flooded, stank… I chickened out and went home rather than face it. But aside from that, public facilities were great at parks and tourist attractions alike.

For westerners, it may be comforting to know that “asian” toilets (the kind where you have to balance while squatting above it) are actually fairly rare. You’ll find them at airports, which makes me think they’re there mostly to serve visitors from elsewhere in Asia. I’m not a fan thanks to one scary experience on an island in Madagascar after a bit too much local beer (I will spare you the details). But they’re manageable sober provided you’re not overweight and your stomach and leg muscles are strong.

My next post will be about banking or something!

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3 Responses to “The not-so-universal language of toilets: South Korea”

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  2. Bob Beecroft Says:

    Google Translate turns your lovely toilet paper and flowers sign into Please / toilet paper / in the trash. Now you know.

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