I have been in Korea for almost 9 months now and I have mostly had positive experiences. Recently, however, I had a serious moment of hating this country.
I was walking around downtown Daegu with my girlfriend. I was in a bad mood because I have been trying to drink less coffee so I was kind of in a funk without my crack, I mean caffeine. I reached my moment of weakness, though, when we passed my favorite coffee-stand lady and I remembered that my coffee punch card was full and it was my turn to get a free cup of joe. This was a big mistake. Because you see I had eaten dalk-galbi the night before. Dalk-galbi is delicious, don’t get me wrong, but it has certain effects on my bathroom activities, if you catch my drift. In essence, I’d had a massive oil line in my belly (dalk-galbi) and had sent down a massive spark (coffee).
I did not get a warning. No, my body did not give me the courteous and gentle warning it usually does when it says to me, “um, excuse me? No rush or anything but you should find a toilet in the next hour or two”. No the message I received from my body on that day was, “YOU HAVE 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. . . You are now not crapping your pants on borrowed time”. At this point my girlfriend and I were still just wandering around the downtown area with no destination in mind. Which is a horrible thing if you are sweating because of the load you are carrying around inside you. You know those cold sweats that make you feel as helpless and uncomfortable as a snail covered in salt.
So I became frantic. For you see, in Korea it is rare for a restroom to provide toilet paper. Here, you have to bring your own and I didn’t have any. Another thing you should understand about Korean restrooms is the squatter. Squatters are generally more common than “sitters”, especially in public restrooms. Being from the US, I am not used to this. I have been forced to squat a time or two and I will tell you that I am not a natural. So my options were looking bleak. For a moment, it appeared as though I would have to squat without toilet paper. Thankfully my girlfriend was still thinking clearly and reminded me that we were only a few blocks from Kyobo, a bookstore. Not just any bookstore, but one with toilet paper and seated toilets! Huzzah!
I was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Everything was going to be OK, so I thought. I had to be careful not to run because it seems like the bouncing from running always escalates the level of poopy-mergency. So I took long strides while still being careful not to create any sort of bouncing effect at all. I looked like a weirdo slinking around like some kind of a cartoon character but desperate times call for desperate measures and walking like a weirdo far outweighed the alternative. I finally reached Kyobo and as I ascended the few stairs to get to the doorway I realized that I had the chills. It was 87 degrees that day.
I rushed around the corner and threw open the door of the restroom to see my worst nightmare. A wall of Korean men just staring at themselves in the mirror. Koreans are notorious for this, men and women. They see a mirror and freeze. Occasionally they will gently push a piece of hair or two but all they are really doing is staring. Of course this is an over generalization but most of them really do this. There must have been ten of them and none of them were moving. They were directly in between me and my much-needed toilet. Another important note about Koreans is the lack of personal space. So when I say they were standing as a wall, they were. They were shoulder to shoulder, unmoving and unmovable. So they thought. I dove right in. Throwing shoulders, elbows, clawing and hissing (okay not really), but I got pretty nasty in there. And I got through. I thought, “This is it! I made it!” Huzzah!
And then I got hit with the scent of cigarettes. I knew I was in trouble. This is another aspect of Korean culture I need to explain. For some reason that I do not understand, many Korean men go and sit on the toilet to smoke instead of going outside or sitting right at the table to smoke. They aren’t pooping, I’ve listened, they are just smoking and usually on the phone. While I will admit that most of my best thinking gets done on the shitter, I strongly subscribe to the theory of, “either shit or get off the toilet”. Even more than this, in Korea you can still smoke almost everywhere, so I will never understand why they do this but it is a fact and an unpleasant one when you are in the situation I was in that day.
So there I was, staring at a bunch of stalls with smoke billowing out of the top. All occupied. You know how the poop inside you always seems to know when you have entered a bathroom and it becomes restless? Those few moments before you actually plop onto the seat are always the most brutal, right? Well those moments were being drawn out painfully slowly for me. Meanwhile the storm in my belly has brewed to produce sounds comparable to a moose getting eaten alive by a grizzly. I went over and violently shook every door three or four times. I would hear the man inside mumble something and I couldn’t say, “Get the fuck out before I spray paint my boxers!”, because no one would understand me. So I turned around to check out the urinals. Yes, I was considering doing it in the urinals. Like I said, desperate times. . .
I would have rather squatted.
And just then, like the gates of heaven, a stall door opened. The man inside must have sensed my urgency from the way I was running around and probably crying (at this point I was near blacked out). I flew inside the stall and. . .
. . . it was glorious! And painfully loud. I sat there a moment thinking about the fact that I had made such a scene just moments before when I had shoved so rudely through people, then shook all the doors, then started unbuckling and backing into a urinal only to climax with that incredible and unignorable explosion. I stopped to think about the walk of shame I was about to endure.
Honestly, I thought it would bother me more than it did. I really didn’t care. All that I cared about was the fact that I had released the monster that was inside me. It was gone! I thought, “Ya, so I shoved a few of you and I may have cut someone’s cigarette break a bit short but you all got a pretty good story out of it”. And so did I.
And I forgave Korea immediately. I forgave the dalk-galbi for planting that nasty seed inside me. I forgave the public toilets for the lack of tissue and squatter tendencies. I forgave the men who stare at themselves and the ones who needlessly occupy much-needed stalls for a smoke break. I forgave them all because, in the end, all that matters is that I didn’t crap my pants.