Minimal Intervention – Toilet Technology
This month the Korean census is being compiled and on Sunday afternoon I was visited by a friendly woman who took my details. Handing me the census form to complete, I sat at my desk by the front-door while she knelt on her knees so her shod feet hung over the small entrance where you leave your shoes. From that position she could just manage to offer me assistance without taking her shoes off and entering my one-room proper. With her at my feet looking up, I felt a little like a Buddha.
One of the questions on the census asked if my ‘one-room’ toilet is ‘sit-down’ or ‘squat’ and it would seem that the ‘sit-down’ toilet is more desirable or ‘classy’ than a ‘squat’ job and this might suggest that the proliferation of such toilets is part of the ‘westernization’ of Korea. Not only are Koreans being encouraged to eat western shit in the form of fast-food, but they are being encouraged to expel it whilst seated. I’ve had my fair share of squatting in countries like India and Morocco and having to do so in Korea always reminds me of unpleasant digital incursions necessitated by a lack of toilet paper. Of course, Korea has toilet paper, or at least it’s available but if you’re using a toilet away from home there is a probability that both the toilet you are forced to use and you yourself, are tissue-less and hence a digital dredging will be required. Last time I encountered such a situation I was fortunate that both a hose lay in the cubicle and a handkerchief in my pocket (Emergency Dump)
Personally, the idea of squat toilets are rich in unpleasant associations but they do offer some advantage on the seated toilet bowl. Firstly, they conform to the Korean ideal of ‘well-being’ in that they ideally align the body to provide the greatest expulsion of waste and in the process help reduce or retard the development of hemorrhoids. Secondly, much less ‘skinship’ is required squatting and most notable are the fact you don’t have to sit on what is a public seat and neither do you have to reach for the sheets from a communal toilet roll. Nothing is worse than having to sit on those stainless steel toilets in British public conveniences which look great if regularly cleaned, but when not are tarnished with stains of unspeakable origins.
I notice many K-bloggers don’t like squat toilets but for those who have traveled and have more than one frame of reference, even the worst Korean public toilets aren’t that bad; they actually have partitions and doors, are usually made of porcelain, have running water, and there’s never a sea of shit six feet from your backside. Regardless of where you are in the world, shitting anywhere but in your home is a gamble and the worst you can expect in Korea is a lack of toilet paper, some bad smells and the need to squat. And unlike some of the more ‘developed’ countries in which I’ve traveled, you’re unlikely to encounter anything ‘seedy.’ I once wet for a piss in a toilet in Denver and what I witnessed can be left to the imagination. Yes; Korean public toilets often lack toilet paper and they can be basic and require that you squat but in the scale of things this isn’t that bad. But Korea is full of surprises and it is just possible to discover that the emergency toilet is not only impeccably clean but creatively designed. Last winter, on my way to Seoul, the bus pulled-in at what in the UK would be ‘motorway services.’ The gents toilet was amazing with a large central, glass atrium which filled the toilet with natural light and under which a large garden flourished. There were even a number of showers. Many bloggers seem to think Koreans have a monopoly on dirty toilets and not only could I cite truly unpleasant toilet experiences, but also that you don’t necessarily need to travel beyond Britain or the USA to find them. I’ve taught in British schools where students would piss or shit on the floor because they thought it amusing and I have even seen examples where kids would jam a whole toilet roll in the ‘S’ bend and then cap it with a shit. Every country has unclean toilets and a lack of toilet paper does not make a toilet ‘dirty’ it just means you should have carried tissues with the same zeal in which you carry a bottled water in summer.
I am tempted to refer to the toilet on which you sit as ‘comfortable.’ Of course, this is a culturally orientated value judgment as Koreans do not find squatting, either on a toilet or waiting for a bus, uncomfortable. It isn’t that a Korean wouldn’t want to read a book or newspaper while squatting, but that to do so seated is preferable. The difference is much the same between that of a stool and an armchair; a stool is great for milking a cow or weeding the garden but if you want to watch TV or read a novel, an armchair is much nicer.
Basically, Korea has four classes of toilet which may be designated squat, seated, luxury-seated and deluxe-seated. The three classes can be further classified by four bands based on cleanliness: very bad, bad, okay, super nice. The UK, on the other hand, only has one class of toilet, ‘seated’ and though UK toilets can be ‘super nice’ in terms of cleanliness, I have yet to witness a ‘luxury’ or ‘deluxe’ toilet though it’s been rumoured for a long time that the Queen has one.
Both Korea and Japan have taken the western style toilet and transformed it into a luxury item which has invested bathrooms and toilets with the same comfort one would expect in a bedroom or front room. If the ubiquitous British toilet is suitable for reading and relaxation, the Korean luxury toilet provides the comfort in which to enjoy the marathon epics of Tolstoy and Wagner. Many Koreans households now have toilets fitted with an additional tier which is plumbed and wired-in to create a crapper with the same sophistication as the Starship Enterprise. Among the state of the art additions are features such as a toilet lid which raises and closes at the touch of a button or even automatically as you enter or leave the toilet. Koreans love heat under them and so a heated toilet seat is ideal. Cleaning you arse properly never really caught on in the UK and only on the rarest occasions have I ever seen a bidet in a British home. A recent survey revealed 1 in 4 British commuters had fecal matter on their hands (Telegraph. UK) which would suggest either sinks by a toilet are a rarity or us Brits wash our hands in the toilet bowl before flushing it. Meanwhile, over 70% of Japanese households have a bidet and Korea is rapidly catching up.
Korean toilet fixtures provide a high-tech control console from which to activated a bidet and by which the temperature, force, and location of the spray are controlled. Once douched, an anal-dryer kicks-in and blow-dries the entire area. So, far, only one digit has been required to complete a procedure that formally required at the very minimum, an entire hand. Equipped with musical accompaniment, the ability to automatically inject a variety of scents into the air as well as instantly sucking out foul smells from almost the exact point of their origin, deluxe models sanitize the entire process and take poo-ing where no one has gone before.
There seems to be some discrepancy about whether toilet paper should be used before activating the bidet. Some sources suggest ‘wiping away’ excess matter, some suggest ‘patting’ it partially clean, which I guess means removing any ‘crumbs’, while others opt for the immediate activation of the anal shower unit. I guess it all depends on the consistency of your crap and certainly, while you might be able to ‘pat’ a bum clean that has just expelled the remnants of a Korean diet, a western diet will render a much stickier, chocolaty mess totally impervious to anything but a vigorous wiping. The luxury of a hands-free crap, of cleaning your backside without any form of manual intervention is probably only possible on a diet high in fibre and as most waygukins who eat Korean food on a daily basis, will testify, this is achieved when what you expel looks much the same as when ingested. If the contents of your toilet bowl resemble last nights kimchi-stew, your bowels are blessed with ‘well-being’ and a bidet will free your hands completely.
And often other luxurious bathroom innovations can be found. I worked in one academy where a kids toilet had been designed and not only were there a miniature urinal, sink and sit-down toilet, but the room itself was less than two meters high and the door by which you entered was miniature. The entire bathroom was like something from a doll’s house.
There is so much more to Korean toilets and ablutions than squat loos and lack of toilet paper and putting up with a little discomfort, which could just as well occur ‘back home’ seems to distract some many bloggers not just from what else is out there, but also the usefulness of their experience as a subject. So, next time you find yourself caught short and in a squat toilet with no tissue paper…
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.