1. Someone always be poopin’!
Pooping in a public bathroom for US women is pretty taboo. It’s not that often that you walk into a bathroom where someone is taking $h*t, but here, it’s like every time you enter a bathroom. They are courtesy flushing and polite… but never in my life have I been in a place where I walk into a public bathroom with someone pooping every dang day! They do eat more fiber than we do… but on the other hand they are just more comfortable in the bathroom… see below.
2: 1130-1300 is teeth brushin’ time
If you have ever been in an office building (mall, restaurant, university, subway/train station) around lunchtime, you already know! Koreans feverishly brush their teeth after lunch. I have asked and only gotten, ‘because we do’ answers. Like, ‘what do you mean? Why wouldn’t we?’ But I speculate that oral hygiene is important, because dental care is expensive, and only became generally accessible during the last two generations since Korea has been a war-ridden, poor country for hundreds of years prior to their current booming, k-pop economy. Additionally, if you think about what Koreans eat, Kimchi, for instance, it is stinky and full of flakes of chilis. Plus, they love dried seaweed. Arguably, this stuff is hard to get out of your teeth, without brushing, so they have good reasons.
3: No privacy
Talk, talk, talk. Koreans love to hang out in the bathroom and talk! I never know what about because I can’t understand them, but either way, I hate it. In my world, a bathroom is a private place. Get in, get out, don’t make eye contact. I used to have ‘stage fright’ when it came to ‘going’ with someone else in the bathroom. But if I still prescribed to that, I would never go. Since each Korean encounter in the bathroom lasts 3 times as long as an American, I would be in there all day waiting for the perfect time to pee.
I work in an office building with very few private offices, so sometimes I think it is because it is the only place they can speak freely without everyone hearing… but again.. they do a lot more in a there. A bathroom is a filthy place to me. I don’t want too clean dishes, brush my teeth, or hang out and talk. like I said, in and out.
Speaking of lack of privacy…no shower curtains, see more on #6.
4: Guttural spitting by the men
In Asian countries, people spit all the time. I was warned by my Korean staff when I went to Beijing to beware of the gross Chinese spitting… but the Koreans do it too. Arguably, they keep it in the bathrooms rather than all over the streets. I asked them why the men are always spitting in the bathrooms at work and one employee said, “They are the smokers,” and the other employee shrugged and said, “The pollution?”
Sometimes I am walking passed the men’s bathroom at work and I hear this snorting and gathering of snot from the very-very inner cavities of the body, and “cha-cha-katush-splat.” Spit into the urinal or sink, I don’t actually know where they are spitting since I don’t frequent the male bathrooms. It is the most disgusting noise! I swear! Ewwwww!!
5: Squatty potties still exist here
When I initially arrived here in Korea, I was warned about this, and prep myself for the possibility. I actually have seen very few here. Once at a tiny rest stop, and once at a Buddhist temple. In China, however, they are everywhere. According to the Korea Herald, it was because “The government replaced as many squat toilets with flush toilets as possible in 1988, because they didn’t want to give a bad impression to visitors during the [Olymic] games,” said Baek, who oversees public bathroom policies at the ministry.
I actually like the squatty potty, they are not as hard to use as you have built up in your head. You don’t pee all over yourself or your clothes. It’s pretty easy to use, actually, and many of them flush like a regular toilet. I go into more detail about my experience in China, Here. Consider that using this kind of toilet is more anatomically correct too, the path of least resistance- so to speak.
Speaking of potties, about 45 mins North West of USAG Humphreys, there is a Toilet History Museum called Mr. Toilet House. In unique-Korean style, the building is in the shape of a toilet!!! I am not joking. Click here for the TripAdvisor info on Mr. Toilet House.
Along the lines of privacy, Koreans don’t do shower curtains. This really threw me off initially, but now I like it. When I asked the realtor what the deal was with this he gave a pretty practical answer, shower curtains are prime real estate for mold… make sense. Especially because mold is such an issue in this humid environment. It is like I am showing in the hole bathroom and not just one section. So if I forget my face wash on the counter, no problem, I just grab it. The hot water steams up the whole bathroom, so you don’t get as cold as you would think. The bathrooms are as airtight as can be, so every shower can be a steam shower! Yay.
When you clean the bathroom, you just take out all of the stuff that you don’t want soaking-wet, and you pull off the showerhead and just spray everything. In many public bathrooms, specifically ones without showers, there are tiny little sprayers that are attached to the toilet. I asked the realtor if it was for spraying the privates, and he laughed and said, “No, that is for cleaning your bathroom.”
Since most of this post is about public bathrooms, let’s talk about the public showers. I had heard about these spa facilities where they are segregated by women and men, but everyone is completely, bush-naked. My first experience with this was just after I got a massage. I wanted to go into the sauna, so I left my robe on and went. Everyone else around me, children, women, and Ajimas (older women) were all completely naked, and not one looked at each other and no one looked at me. As I walked to the sauna in my robe, I noticed rows of open showers, no curtains, no privacy. After I got out of the sauna I thought, ‘Screw It,’ when in Rome. I dropped my robe and used the amazing shampoo, conditioner and, body wash. No one looked at me, and I didn’t bother with them. I am feeling a bit empowered to visit a real Korean Spa… I am in my 30s now, I should feel confident and comfortable enough to just go for it. I will let you guys know how it goes.
7. Soap is gross and phallic
It has been a long time since bar soap was an acceptable hand-cleaning method in the States. In Korea, you are lucky to get soap in a bathroom at all, and when you do, it is frequently bar soap. Sometimes that bar soap is attached to a pole and you have to rub it back and forth in a very sexual way, blushing while typing this. Sorry… but this is legit how it is!
8. 1 TP roll for all!
In some public bathrooms, there is a central toilet paper (TP) roll. You have to remember to grab your TP before you got into the stall. This really isn’t all that common, but if you are traveling and are going to be stopping at smaller rest stops, or in smaller/older villages. Korea has some gangster rest stops… usually with nice bathrooms. But the smaller ones, or if you find yourself in a small older town, you may find this, along with the squatty potties.
9. Fancy toilet seats that clean your Hoo-ha, is standard.
You can buy these toilet seats just about anywhere, and they are cheap ($20-30). So you find them just about everywhere too! To Americans, this seems like a luxury item for the rich and fabulous, here it is common. What I find super weird is that they are in malls, public bathrooms, hotels, etc. It seems like you wouldn’t want a public faucet spraying your private parts… but I don’t know why. Then again, I don’t use water fountains either. Many times they also have a noise button, so that you can get some ambient sounds to get your self started. Genius, if you ask me, especially for those of us that suffer from stage fright in this country that hangs in the bathroom.
Last but not least, you usually have to look for a sign or a notice that tells you whether you should toss your TP or flush it. More often than not the signs say that you should flush it. There are many neighboring countries where you more often do not flush… so it makes sense that this would need to be made clear, in almost every bathroom. The toilet paper here, at any restroom, even in nice hotels is like the thinnest tissue paper ever! It begins to degrade the second it hits the water. I think this TP tossing is a fear brought over from days of yore. “According to our research findings, most clogging cases in public bathrooms occur because people flush random objects down the toilet, including food garbage,” said Pyo, who represents the Citizens’ Coalition for Restroom Culture. “Toilet paper manufactured nowadays rarely makes toilets clog because it dissolves in water in about 30 seconds” (Source).
TMI, I know, but I gotta say it. Korean women don’t use tampons. You cant find them in the stores. So good news for the plumbing systems here… they are not getting flushed, sans the small faction of expats here that prefer their tamps. Further, more than 80% of Korean houses and businesses use septic tanks, where the US only about 25% use them. This contributes to the nasty smells in Korean bathrooms.
There you have it, folks! Korean bathroom culture is totally different than ours! Have you had any weird or interesting bathroom experiences while living in Asia?
Here is some pretty hilarious standup about squatty potties in Beijing: https://youtu.be/VpQulMHnjxs