Toilet Talk: 3 Cheers for Potty Patrol!It may be more than just a coincidence that some of the classic ghost stories made in Korea are set in public toilets. Of course, the most popular story concerns the bloody hands reaching out from the bottom of the toilet and teasing the frightened user by asking whether he wants red tissue papers or blue.
The story may sound more comical than scary to many non-Korean readers, but this popular myth reflects the degree of apprehension and contempt many Koreans feel about nighttime trips to the toilet, which are often located far from bedrooms because of the smell.
Lavatories in Korea are notoriously unsanitary. And their bad reputation has gone international ever since the government started actively promoting tourism without satisfying some of the basic demands expected by foreign tourists, one of those being sanitary restrooms. According to research compiled by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the top three complaints registered by foreign visitors to Seoul are problems concerning language, traffic and unfavorable conditions in public restrooms.
The biggest complaint about public toilets is the difficulty of simply finding one. Not only are there a limited number of public restrooms near Seoul's tourist attractions, but visitors also often gripe that there are no clearly recognizable toilet signs marking the facility, which would help locate restrooms with greater ease. Even if a visitor does succeed in finding a toilet, the stalls are often locked either for "security reasons" or because they are out of order. Other common complaints concern poor ventilation, a lack of toilet paper and a limited number of stalls.
In response to these complaints, the Seoul Metropolitan Government organized "Clean Toilet, Clean Seoul," a campaign that has been ongoing since 1999. The city invested 5.5 billion won ($4.2 million) for renovation or construction of new public restrooms throughout the city. The campaign comes as a relief, particularly to Insa-dong visitors, who experienced the frustration of asking six different antique shop owners where the sole public restroom in the district was located. The campaign encourages shop owners in downtown Seoul and around tourist attractions to open their toilets for public use, and pledges city government revenue for the maintenance costs necessary for its upkeep.
"You should at least be able to look in the mirror and fix your hair in a public restroom without feeling uncomfortable," said Kim Hwang-rae, the deputy director of the Seoul Metropolitan Government's Toilet Standard Rising Team. The group was established two years ago when toilet problems became a chief concern of the citizens of Seoul. "It wasn't too long ago that men literally soaked the bottom of their trousers whenever they visited pubic restrooms, because the floor was so wet and hadn't been dried properly," Mr. Kim recalled, while explaining about the new cleaning regulations imposed by the government in their attempt to turn public restrooms into "a cultural space."
Perhaps the growing concern over public bathroom conditions has opened up a whole new market. The toilet industry introduces stylish new designs and accessories such as auto soap dispensers and "etiquette bells," a sound device that is used to overpower unpleasant noises in the lavatory and is now widely used in Korea. There are more extreme examples of restroom artistry and innovation, such as the "Firefly Restroom," recently built around Kwangkyo Mountain in Suwon. Designed to overlook a reservoir, this restroom allows lavatory users to take in the view though a tinted window while relieving themselves. The facility was recently added as a stop on the Suwon city tour.
The Toilet Standard Rising Team constructed 25 "pilot toilets," which are considered ideal restrooms, fully equipped with high-tech facilities and inventive toilet products. These facilities are the hallmark of modern restroom construction.
Despite various attempts by the city to improve restroom facilities, some citizens believe that the "Clean Toilet, Clean Seoul" campaign is only a temporary fix, part of the formal preparations for the Korea-Japan World Cup 2002. Many would agree that the city needs to focus on sanitary maintenance of existing restrooms rather than trying to create new restrooms that double as works of art. Perhaps it is just as well since ultimately, people are not going to regard public restrooms as a hangout spot, regardless of how inviting and pleasant the facilities become.
Etiquette Tips for Public Toilet Users
(Provided by the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Toilet Standard Rising Team)
1. Never throw used toilet paper in the wastebasket. Always flush it down the toilet.
2. Do not spit or throw used chewing gum on the floor. Having to remove dried gum from the floor is one of the biggest complaints made by janitors.
3. Do not smoke in the restroom. This is a common problem in public facilities. People may assume they can get away with it, but it is common knowledge that smoking is strictly prohibited in a public restroom.
4. Stand close to the urinal while using the facilities. Once the floor becomes flooded with urine, subsequent users wish to keep a distance from the urinal, and it becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The spilling of urine on the floor is the major factor that creates an unpleasant odor in the restroom.
5. Form a single line when waiting to use the facilities. Restrooms become more crowded when people are waiting in front of each stall. This is a fair way to determine who may use the restroom next, and it also allows people using the toilet to feel less rushed.
6. When a person indicates his presence after the first knock, wait quietly. Do not make the person inside feel anxious by knocking again or complaining about waiting.
7. Do not waste time in a public restroom reading a magazine or newspaper.
8. When flushing the toilet, make sure you press the button forcefully enough so that everything disappears.
9. Use products in the restroom such as toilet paper and liquid soap as needed.
by Park Soo-mee