Wednesday, February 26, 2014

If you're coming to Korea soon: Toilet edition #awkward #TMI

I have several people planning on visiting this spring and most of them have never been to Korea before, so they have been asking me all sorts of good questions about the basics of life over here. I figured it'd be a good idea to revisit my "If you're coming to Korea soon" series and add a few things for travelers and new expats alike!

First things first, you should know the basics of the bathrooms. I'm a girl, so I've only got ladies' room experience, but I'm pretty sure men's rooms have urinals that function like normal urinals all over the world. Proceed with the lesson.

This is a typical bathroom at the university where I work. Ta da!

1. Toilet Paper

Many many bathrooms in Korea don't have toilet paper in the stalls. You are expected to get an appropriate amount ready before you enter the stall. Sometimes that is... awkward... to say the least. I find that it's better to over-prepare, if you know what I mean, cause it's better to be safe than sorry! #realtalk #awkward #TMI?

Sometimes you forget to look, and you find yourself all situated in the stall, only to realize there is no TP in the stall and you should have paid attention before you entered, just in case. OH DEAR. Or maybe the communal TP dispenser was out of paper. You might get lucky and find the end of the last roll hiding somewhere in the stall, but probably not. In these cases, it's a really good idea to carry a packet of tissues or napkins! Most women carry handbags, so this is easy, but for men, I guess if you carry a satchel or backpack, throw in some tissue! YOU JUST NEVER KNOW.

2. Commodes and bidets 

Ok so now that you're in the stall and you have a nice handful of TP, let's look at the situation. Some commodes come with a bidet function. (FYI: when I say commode, I mean the porcelain thing you're actually sitting on.) I won't go into all the details of how to use a bidet, but basically it's a toilet accessory that will spray water on your nether-regions from a couple different directions and with different pressures. There are pictures to help you decide which button to push, if you are so brave. It took me several months to work up the courage to push a button but maybe you're braver than I am! They are pretty much fantastic. SO FRESH AND SO CLEAN! #awkward #TMIforsure 

As you can see from the next picture, not all commodes have the fancy bidet buttons. 

3. Throw your toilet paper in the bin (or not) 

All toilets in Korea will have a bin for your TP when you are finished. You are expected to use the bin instead of flushing your dirty paper. I'd say most foreigners ignore this cultural difference... I know I do. I think it's REALLY REALLY unsanitary and unnecessary, plus it makes all bathrooms in Korea smell nasty. NASTY. Ugh. 

Most large cities have good plumbing by now, so I refuse to throw anything in the bin because GROSS. Small towns and older buildings, unfortunately, do not always have great plumbing so you should probably throw your paper in the bin in those situations. Use discretion. A lot of stalls will post a sign asking that you don't flush *anything* not even toilet paper, but if you forget and do it anyway, don't panic. Life will go on, you just might clog a toilet along the way. 

Fun fact: some trash bins are so large that they block the stall door from opening all the way. Oh Korea. 

4. Wash your hands

Ok so by now you've finished your primary objective and you want to wash your hands. Some bathrooms will have liquid soap and paper towels - if you find these bathrooms ENJOY THEM! They're rare. A lot of bathrooms have this soap on a stick contraption, shown in the picture below. I know, right?? Picture using the soap and, go on, let your inner 12 year old boy giggle away. We've all been there. #awkward. Soap on a stick is mostly sanitary enough, though sometimes it looks germy and gross. Sometimes you'll just see a bar of soap sitting in slimy water... ew... so I usually carry around wet wipes (물티슈 or "mool tissue" in Korean) and/or hand sanitizer. 

You might not be able to reach the soap on a stick because someone's standing at the first sink doing their makeup or something, blocking it. You have some options here: you can either push them out of the way or stand awkwardly close until they get the idea that you need soap. This will also happen to you if you block the soap. Or... people just don't wash their hands. Yuck, how do people think this is a good idea? THE GERMS, people, the GERRRRRMS!


5. Dry your hands (or not) 
Oftentimes, there isn't a way to dry your hands, so prepare to shake them off and use your jeans to dry your hands. Sometimes there is a cloth towel hanging on a bar, but who knows the last time it was washed? Sometimes they look fine, but germs are invisible and evil, so I hesitate to use them. Sometimes, though, they even look dirty and then I just opt out of drying my hands. Drip dry, people. Drip dry.

6. Squatty potties

They probably deserve their own blog post sometime, but for now just know that they're out there and you might encounter them. They still exist all over Korea, even in modern buildings. Some people actually prefer them; I am not one of those.  Most (not all) places that have squatty potties will also have a western toilet or two, with a sign indicating which is which on the door, so just look before you go in.

And there you have it! A tour of a typical, nice bathroom in Korea. Be prepared for anything, you'll probably see it all. 

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