This Subject Was Taboo!There is a subject which has been taboo in Korea until recently when a poll was conducted among foreigners. Until then it was talked about only in hushed tones--sometimes punctuated by nervous snickers and gasps--among friends. The poll, however, disclosed the panic and agony suffered by foreigners who are unable to locate restrooms.
I submit that even if they can find them, the discomfort and often the digust about this taboo subject has always been detected in the wrinkled noses of both natives and visitors alike. The subject is women's toilets. (In polite society the word toilet is never used. Ladies prefer the terms ladies' room, restroom, bathroom, powder room or simply 'the facilities.') Why not restrooms in general, you ask? Well, as a woman, I am most familiar with gender-specific accommodations--except for some unisex experiences which I shall return to later, and a limited amount of information gleaned from interviewing male friends.
At the outset, I must acknowledge that there have been great improvements over the facilities I encountered during my first visit to Korea in the early 80s--at least on the beaten paths of tourism. On the other hand, one does not have to stray far off the beaten path to encounter some pretty awful places.
A chartered boat which took a group of us on an island sightseeing trip offered a hole in the deck with a direct view of the ocean. It was an enclosed area, but the latch on the door was broken, so as the boat pitched to and fro--I'm sure you get the picture.
Windows in a Korean restaurant kitchen had a direct view into the ladies' room. A male kitchen worker, looking down from above, bowed in greeting as our adult daughter entered. She turned and fled in a state of panic.
A coffee house manager took me outside and pointed to a flight of stairs which led to a half-sized door on the second floor. I opened the door and crouched down to enter. It was pitch dark, except for a Christmas tree bulb which dangled on a wire from the ceiling. There was no running water. A basin of brown water with a towel draped over the side sat on the floor beside the commode.
A fish restaurant on the western coast ushered me outside where I had to make a choice--either use the outhouse without a door, or the one without a window.
And then there are the unisex facilities where the females have to walk past the males lined up at the urinals to get to the stalls. I was non-plussed when the men turned my way and bowed as I entered. I made a U-turn and beat a hasty retreat. Not my idea of tolerable togetherness.
Now, lest you write me off as an overly picky individual, I have adjusted to those Korean ceramic receptacles set even with the floor, which I fondly call 'squat pots.' (The ones in the city flush; alas, many in outlying areas merely receive!)
When entertaining our daughter and son-in-law for a weekend on Cheju Island, we had a good laugh when the guide told us why the two stone slabs were positioned over the pig pen, but at our next tourist attraction when we needed to find the restroom, it was not so funny. It was a squat pot outhouse. When our son-in-law came out, holding his nose, he announced, 'I'll bet the biggest Cheju pig of all is thriving down there somewhere.'
I have come up with a theory about women's toilet facilities in general. That is, the quality of women's facilities, even in some of the best venues, is a reflection of the notion that women are inferior to men in Korean society.
Women's restrooms tend to double as the holding pens for all of the moldy mops, brooms, dustpans, rubber gloves, full garbage bags waiting to be collected, discarded plant pots, occasional broken furniture, stray coffee mugs, old toothbrushes and pails of soft soap. Not infrequently, cleaning women use the sinks to wash their laundry--uniforms, socks, towels--and then string it up to dry on makeshift lines. I had never seen old fashioned wooden washboards, outside of antique shops and museums, but I've seen them lurking in women's restrooms in Korea.
If there is a dirty cleaning job to be done, it's done in the women's restrooms. Case in point: I walked into a restroom and was confronted by two enormous garbage cans filled to the brim with the vents from every heating/air conditioning duct in the building. The floor was an obstacle course of tangled rubber hose hooked to a water faucet, and two inches of water covered the restroom floor, in which floated an assortment of grimy rags and scrub brushes. (I knew my husband wouldn't believe it, so I made him take the 'tour' so he could see for himself. He didn't believe me the day I told him I had encountered pails of kimchi in a restroom.)
On a visit to the National Assembly, a while back, I found some cleaning utensils and materials stored in the women's restroom--nothing offensive, but there they were. On the other hand, my husband spoke in glowing terms of the spotless men's room with its extravagant bouquet of fresh flowers!
And whereas rolls of toilet tissue are found on every table in small Korean restaurants--in lieu of paper napkins--there is frequently none to be found in the restrooms. When I have complained about this, cleaning ladies have told me it gets stolen as fast as they can replace it. At one outlying private college I was stunned to learn that professors buy their own supply and keep it locked away in their desk drawers!
And I can't count the times I've encountered mob scenes in expressway rest stops and every time it was my turn to use the facilities I was rudely pushed out of the way and had to reboard the tour bus without using the restroom! (I've learned to become more aggressive and stand my ground over the years, but it shouldn't have been necessary.)
For tourists, their stay in Korea can turn sour in a heartbeat if restrooms cannot be found, or if they are admittedly substandard and foul smelling. Indeed, if their experiences are repugnant enough, these may overshadow all else and become the horror stories they will tell their friends when they return home--hardly the public relations boost the tourist industry is looking for.
Pleasant, readily available restrooms for tourists--and for the rest of us who must face them on a daily basis--is not too much to ask. And nix on unisex--separate, but equal, please.
Hats off to Suwon for recently opening modern, aesthetic public facilities. They are to be commended for their concern and foresight. They should be given exclusive use of the slogan, 'As Suwon goes, so should the nation!' ------------------------------- Robin Rhee is a Staff Member at the Office of Research & Publication and Library of Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation/KPF
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