To avoid the embarrassing and frankly quite disgusting details in the information needed to set the scene for this tale, I will just say this: I made kimchi bokkeumbap the other night using some questionable rice left over from several days earlier, and I have been paying the unfortunate price ever since. Capiche? Then let’s begin.
Having said goodbye to my friends after brunch at a nice little cafe in town, I decided to walk home – the sun was shining, the flowers were pretty, I needed the exercise. And anyway, the brunch place is only about a 15 minute walk from my apartment – getting a taxi would be a tad on the lazy side when the weather is neither cripplingly cold nor meltingly humid.
Sadly, I had only been walking for a few minutes when I felt the ominous volcanic rumbling in my stomach. Obviously, getting home was no longer my primary objective. From that moment, my entire goal in life was simply to find a bathroom.
One of the handy things about Korea is that there are public toilets just about everywhere. Any building containing shops, bars, or other businesses generally has a toilet on every floor – you can just walk right in and find one. So I paused and looked around frantically, but my poor heart sank when I realised that the stretch of road towards my home was completely devoid of any such buildings. This never happens, so obviously it would happen to me at this precise moment of emergency.
There was no way I could make it home. In sheer desperate panic, I veered off the main road and headed down a side street, where I could see shops and buildings that could plausibly contain public toilets. The first one I went into turned out to be an apartment building, which was of no use to me. I tried the next door, and found myself in an English hagwon being stared at by a confused receptionist and a bunch of screaming children – I was much too mortified to ask if I could use the bathroom, so I quickly backed out and continued down the street.
I hurriedly chose another winding street and went into the first building there. Result! Oh sweet manna from heaven, there was a toilet at the top of the first staircase! I ran up the stairs, grabbed the door handle… and discovered that it was well and truly locked. As were the toilets in the next two buildings I tried. Why? WHY?!!!!
Cursing the universe and its continued hatred of me, I stood in the street turning in frantic circles before taking off at a run down another street. Finally I found a building containing some kind of fancy photography studio, and (in total despair at this point) poked my head around the door. There was the restroom! Clearly marked “private”, but it was a restroom and the chances were high that it wouldn’t be locked, if it was for the use of customers. I didn’t care about the things I wold normally care about, such as the “private” sign and the swankiness of the building and the security camera in the corridor watching my every move. I made a run for the bathroom, barely able to refrain from letting out a whoop of joy when the door opened and I saw the blissful sight of two toilet cubicles.
Of course they had to be squat toilets.
I will just say this: no matter how many times I encounter these crimes against humanity, I am firm in my belief that there is no dignified way to use them. Particularly in the throes of predicament I was experiencing. I didn’t have much time for contemplation, however, so I made the perhaps slightly bizarre decision to hurriedly remove my jeans and underwear altogether before I attempted it.
You would think, really, that that is as embarrassing and undignified as this tale could get. Hello, have you met me?! There I was, semi-naked in a grotty squat toilet cubicle, jeans and underwear draped around my shoulders due to the impossibility of setting them down on the extremely unsanitary floor, when I heard the restroom door open and a man’s voice call out in Korean. “Who are you? This bathroom is for customers only!” (or something to that effect), he was telling me. Oh, for the love of all that is holy. Deciding to play dumb and hope that he was one of those people who freak out and run away when someone tries to speak to them in English, I called back “Ummmm, I don’t understand! I’m sorry!”.
He hesitated briefly, and then yelled something I didn’t understand. Then he actually rattled the door of my stall. I repeated my babbling in English, suddenly stricken with the fear that he would climb up and look over the partition at me. Being seen in that particular position, naked from the waist down and with my jeans and underwear around my neck would surely be the most mortifying thing that has ever happened to anyone in the history of all time. With renewed panic, I struggled to my feet.
Well. If there is no dignified way to use a squat toilet, then there is absolutely, positively no dignified way of getting up from one. In my haste, I fell back against the wall and dropped my underwear on the floor next to the door, making it now clearly visible to Angry Dude on the other side. Oh, the humiliation. He fell suddenly and understandably silent as I clattered around trying to stand up and get dressed at the same time, in a very limited space with a water-filled hole in the middle of the floor.
When I finally opened the door and slunk out, my face burning with shame, he could do nothing more than simply gape at me in astonishment and confusion while I hastily washed my hands.
“Ummm…. sorry. Thank you.” I mumbled as I pushed past him and took to my heels, leaving him rooted to the spot and staring after me in amazement.
And the icing on the cake? When I paused to catch my breath on the street outside, I realised that I had absolutely no idea where I was. I couldn’t even find myself using the GPS on my phone, but as I knew I couldn’t possibly be far from home, I couldn’t hail a taxi for fear that I was about 30 seconds away and the driver would yell at me for wasting his time. All I could do was wander cluelessly for an hour around the area I’ve lived in for nearly 4 years, until, finally, by some happy accident, I recognised a building and sheepishly realised that I was right across the road from my apartment.
All in a day’s work for me, kids.