Pray it’s a Foreigner Serving Your High Tea
(Originally published March 15th 2011) Here’s something to ponder. You’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someone’s butt. They might be clothed, they might not. The only choice you have in the matter is what nationality they will be.
When I used to train and teach taekwondo in the UK, sweaty sessions often produced brown watery stains on the butts of students’ white suits. I used to refer to it as ‘bum lick’ and basically, after rubbing shit around your arse smearing it clean, residue remains which when mingled with sweat produces shitty water which then stains your pants. Despite the hideously hot summers in Korea, I have never seen ‘bum lick’ on kids taekwondo pants probably because their diet is substantially different. The moment you convert to loading up on pizza, big mac, bread and pastries plus a churn load of milk, cheese, butter and cream and it takes five minutes and half a roll of toilet paper to smear yourself clean.
Now, I’m not into backsides but if I were forced to stick my nose up someone’s crack, but could choose the nationality of the backside, it would most definitely be Korean. I base my choice on two reasons, firstly: a Korean diet leaves less mess and secondly, Koreans are simply more fastidious about personal hygiene.
With a culinary repository heavily based on soupy type recipes, Korean food never hangs about in the gut too long and when it is expelled it is ejected with such force that suction drags out any loitering debris. Typical British food however, loiters in the intestines and has to be squeezed out of the body like toothpaste. It passes through the body at such a slow pace that the entire intestinal track contains one enormous fecal sausage, a gigantic colonic conga which congests the entire gut like an enormous traffic jam as it slowly worms its way downward. Kimchi jjim, or a bowl of bean curd soup however, is ingested and processed at such speed that by the time it is blown out not only is the consistency unchanged but so too is its temperature. With such force is it ejected from the body that it cleans your backside as it departs. And I have to say, cleaning-up up after a Korean meal is not much different to dabbing your mouth after a drink of water whereas a British diet can only be compared with trying to smear-up a muddy hole.
And you know most Koreans wash their backsides thoroughly because you can watch them doing it in a bathhouse. Many people in the UK still use bathtubs as a primary source of personal hygiene but how can you wash your arse in a little swaddling tub that binds your knees together and prevents easy access. Worse, the same water than cleans your body, that contains dead skin cells, hair, and other scud, the same water that rinsed out your backside and crotch, is then wallowed in. Yew! What a filthy habit and one almost as revolting as fitted carpets or cotton handkerchiefs. British showers aren’t much better being taken standing in restrictive bathtubs or in shower cubicles that provide as much freedom of movement as would a coffin. Have you ever seen a westerner clean their backside? And how do western kids learn how to clean themselves in that area? Are they just left to learn for themselves or do they simply let their underwear soak it up? I assume most westerners clean out their arses but I’ve never seen them doing it.
Nothing annoys me more than those who condemn Korean bathhouses, especially if they’ve only been a few times, and consider them places of moral and physical corruption or seething with rampant contagious infections; or those who like to bash Koreans because they use chopsticks in communal bowls of food or because they once had to use a crappy toilet. Yes, of course somethings in Korea seem ‘dirtier than they do back home but traveling shouldn’t just spotlight the inadequacies in your host country but should also expose ones you hadn’t considered back home. Last year I came across a commentary by a westerner who complained:
And my 02. worth. Korean bathhouses? Dirty. Think about this for a minute.
The hot and cold pools. The water is NOT filtered. You have people who scrub their body and DON’T rinse off and still jump into the pools. I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have also. Leave the sauna, sweat pouring off you and hop into the cold pool! I have never seen a sauna in Korea that filters the water. It gets changed once or twice a day. Japan? Yes the water is filtered and cleaned. Not Korea. I know a few people who caught the crabs in these saunas. The blankets in the sleeping rooms are not washed daily. The towels that the saunas give you to dry off usually are not washed in hot water. I’m not bad mouthing Korea saunas, I have been to a few but most are dirty. Even the fancy looking saunas that are expensive to enter do not filter the hot/cold pool water. People are peeing in them also. I’d think twice. The saunas are good things but many are lacking customers who use good hygiene. If you are lucky enough, you might have been using one when it was being cleaned. I was and never did return.
Actually, I don’t totally disagree! People, me included, go from the various saunas into one of the pools, bodies sweating, and occasionally I see kids get straight in a pool without showering and some bathhouses are cleaner than others. I’m sure some people must pee in the water and I’ve certainly seen people pee in the showers. Is the water filtered? Well, I know water is sucked in through vents and in other places blown out. Is this filtration? I’m no more aware of filtration systems than I would be in British swimming pools where people often swim without showering, and if they do it’s only in a cursory manner, and in which they do urinate. I’ve even seen a turd floating in a British swimming pool but most of us aren’t too bothered about pool hygiene because chlorine sanitizes not just the watery environment but mentally as it leads us to believe the environment is biologically sanitized. British pools might be bug free, but are they clean? Would you wallow in a cesspit if it were purged with a bottle of chlorine?
Without doubt some infections are passed in bathhouses, ‘red eye’ (conjunctivitis) being one and possibly a nasty infection of the testicles but even a mild infection of the bollocks is nasty as it results in them needing to be groped by your GP. Personally, such risks I consider small and I’m happy to gamble infection for the pleasures bathhouses provide. In years of using bathhouses I only ever had one infection and it’s debatable where it would have been contracted. I can identify a number of practices I consider unsavoury in Korea, some examples being how individuals might dump garbage at collection points which isn’t bagged, or dipping odeng (오댕 -fish cake snacks) into communal soy sauce bowls, a habit which I think might actually have almost phased out. Then there is the habit many kids have of coughing in your face without covering their mouth with a hand.
Some restaurants, especially small ones, have dubious cooking areas but once again I’ve seen just as bad in the UK where kitchens are usually hidden from public view. Several years ago I attended a course which was hosted in a prestigious yacht club. When the caterer didn’t turn up, we took it upon ourselves to use the kitchen to make tea and coffee and what we found was alarming; filthy fridges containing curdled milk and atrophied onions, meat placed above vegetables and shelves tacky with sugary residue on which cups were stored upside down. I made a complaint to the local authorities which resulted in the restaurant being fined several thousand pounds. The head chef, who was subsequently sacked, had previously owned a swanky sea food restaurant in the same village. Though lots of westerners will bemoan the state of many public toilets, I’ve seen far worse examples in the UK. I taught in one school where kids would deliberately urinate on the toilet floor, and even, on occasion, defecate beside the toilet rather than in it. There’s good and bad in all cultures but I will admit to being more lenient in terms of standards when I am eating something that costs next to nothing than I am when confronted with bad practices in an expensive, pretentious eatery. When eating out is expensive and an exception rather than the rule, as it is in the UK, I don’t expect Faecal Fingers or dirty anything.
Generally, I do not think standards differ too much between Britain and Korea except in terms of personal hygiene, which unfortunately is one of the most important criteria. It’s great having no rubbish lying in your streets or chlorine in public bathing water but it makes little odds if the community around you are filthy fuckers. Several years ago, research by a British University revealed that between 6 and 53% of city commuters had faecal matter on their hands. (BBC News 2008) Apparently, the further north you go in Britain, the higher the rates of contamination. This is especially alarming when you consider British people will usually fully unwrap a burger before eating it and are much more likely to put things like fingers and pens in their mouths. I’m the first to admit I unwrap my burger fully in order to consume it and find comfort in fingering the bun but Koreans always eat it from the wrapper even after washing their hands.
A person’s hands are the prime tools of first contact, they touch people, open doors, activate buttons and knobs, finger and prepare food and much more; they are the tools which, with an opposing thumb, not only define us as primates, but facilitate and make possible our interaction with the physical world. You can have all the brains in the world but without thumbs – you’re screwed! At the other end of the scale, your bum-hole does very little and generally spends a large proportion of the day sitting on its arse. If a person fails to sanitize their hands after a dump , if they can’t even be bothered to keep clean such an important tools, what horrendous microscopic offenses are lurking in that dark and humid crevice. And then there are the peanuts in bars which in the UK are usually contaminated with multiple traces of urine. My Koreans students often call me ‘dirty’ if I stir my coffee with a pen or put a pen end in my mouth and they are unaware that so many Brits have faecal fingers. Now I know why a number of British confections focus on ‘fingers.’ I have rarely met a dirty Korean student and the pissy urine smell that I’ve noted in numerous infant schools in Britain certainly never existed in the Korean kindergartens in which I taught.
I suspect much of the animosity towards bathhouses is simply the result of nudity; some westerners clearly perceive bathhouses physically ‘dirty’ because they consider nudity morally dirty. As one commentator wrote: I’ve also been here since 2001 and have never gone to a bathhouse. I’m not into sausage fests. I work out every day and shower at home. The room of soapy Koreans just doesn’t appeal to me. For some westerners, all it takes for a clean environment is a piece of cloth over a cock and buttock and suddenly the environment is clean; splash a bit of chlorine around and we will happily swim in each other’s neutralized dirt. In 2008, when I first read how widespread faecal matter was on the hands a large chunk of its population, I made a resolution to be extra vigilant in terms of personal hygiene and not only do I wash my hands after using the toilet, but I sanitize them with a spray or anti-bacterial hand cream. I have not once broken this resolution!
It’s pointless getting defensive about our lack of hygiene, for years the British have been the butt of jokes about bad teeth. I once meet an Australian who told me he’d been taught Brits changed their trousers once every few weeks and I’ve seen the skid marks in changing rooms and smelt the effects of using underwear as blotting paper, in British schools. If you’re British at least, observing how fastidious Koreans are about personal hygiene should prompt you to realise your own cultural failings. What’s important is that you learn from such observations and of course, the process goes both ways. Koreans are also fastidious about dental hygiene and I recently read that brushing teeth three times a day over decades can lead to receding gums. A number of sources now suggest only cleaning teeth with a brush, twice a day. As I said, there are good and bad practices in all cultures.
Okay, so now you’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someones butt. It’s time to choose. What nationality are you going to pick?
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.