Toilet paper, or toilet roll as we call it in NI, is everywhere you look in Korea. Everywhere, that is, except the toilets.
I was really quite bemused by the seemingly bizarre toilet roll sightings I made during my first few months here. There was a toilet roll in every classroom in the school, just sitting there on the desk or casually hanging out on a bookshelf. There was a toilet roll on the main desk at reception in the entrance hall. There were toilet rolls in the local restaurants, and toilet rolls on the bars in the pubs. My most disbelieving reaction to a toilet roll sighting was when I was on a bus and saw one hanging from the ceiling, on a proper toilet roll holder and everything!
Then I was at a friend’s place one night, eating a very spicy meal that she’d prepared, and I got up to go and blow my nose (it’s extremely rude to do this at the table ). “Do you have a tissue?” I asked. She nodded, and pointed to the fridge – on the side of which was, you’ve guessed it, a toilet roll, neatly displayed on its holder. The time had come.
“Soo kyung, why is there toilet roll in kitchens… and on buses… and, well, everywhere?” I asked, trying not to sound impertinent. She looked blankly at me, until I indicated her kitchen toilet roll with a confused look on my face. Then realisation dawned on her. “Oh, of course!” she said, “In English you call it TOILET roll. I didn’t realise that that meant you only use it for… toilet. In Korean, its name has nothing to do with toilets. It’s just tissue on a roll. We use it for everything.”
Funny how a name can change how you view something. It’s called toilet roll, so I only expected to see it by the toilet, and thought it was odd and out of place if I saw it somewhere else. But now, I’ve accepted that it’s basically just tissue on a handy roll, and no longer even notice it hanging in the bus, or in a fancy reception area, or in the kitchen. Or anywhere but the toilets, really, as there is never any toilet roll in the toilets. You learn to carry a wad of it in your bag or your pocket when you’re out and about, in case of an emergency. One great toilet-related thing about Korea is that there are public toilets just about everywhere – you just nip into the nearest building and have a look around the elevator/staircase area, and you’ll find toilets of some description. Mind you, it can be a somewhat unpleasant experience, but needs must.
Oh, and when I say that there’s no toilet roll in the toilets, I also mean that there’s no toilet roll in the toilets. Yes, in Korea you are not allowed to flush toilet roll down the loo. And yes, I realised with a sinking heart after a few days here that that was indeed what that big open bucket by the toilet was for. You go, you wipe, you throw. This is particularly nasty when you’re in a busy bar at about 3am, when the (two) toilet cubicles have been in constant use all night long. The bucket is not only full of used toilet roll, it is overflowing. There are crumpled and scrunched bits of soggy toilet roll scattered all around the bucket, all around the toilet, and indeed, all along the corridor back to the bar after everyone’s started getting the stuff spiked on their kitten heels.
I can understand the No Flushing Toilet Paper rule in developing countries where the toilets simply can’t handle it, but in Korea? One of the most technologically advanced nations in the world? Where the toilets often have control panels and heated seats and wash ‘n’ spray options? Seriously, look at korean toilet reviews, they might surprise you. Please. Just let us flush our toilet roll, for crying out loud…