Friday, December 10, 2010

*No Photo for this one.  I’ll spare you the visual of a public bathroom.

I’ve spent the majority of this year focusing and writing about what a positive experience living in Korea has been.  But like I mentioned in a previous post, it can’t be perfect everyday.  Friends and I often joke that we have a love-hate relationship with the country.  I say the same thing about America.  Hey, there’s no utopia anywhere on Earth, at least not that I’ve found.

So Korea, I have some grievances to file with you.  The first is your broad definition of what constitutes “clean”.

Soon after I arrived, I was forced to loosen my boundaries of what I considered sanitary.  I fully expected squatter toilets and other public health issues to be handled differently than any Western country I’ve been to.  But wow, Korea, you really broaden the spectrum and take it to a new level.

I’ll spare you the details of how plumbing systems of the past couldn’t handle toilet paper and how the Korean mentality hasn’t changed with newer construction buildings.  So that means any and all used toilet paper goes in the trash can.  If a public bathroom by it’s very natural smells disgusting, just imagine it with all the…oh wait, did I say I’d spare you the details?  OK, just trust me, it’s gross.

So how is one meant to properly wash his or her hands after such an experience?  With bar soap, of course!  Liquid soaps and hand sanitizers are slowly appearing in more public places, but more often than not a couple of bars will be set out in a (petrie) dish or attached to a pole for everyone to put their grimy hands on.

The toilet paper usually provided in public bathrooms is not a given in Korea.  They may or may not have it.  But when they do, it always doubles as paper towels.  OK, using toilet paper to wipe your hands isn’t exactly unsanitary.  It’s just annoying.  With that, I think I’ve said enough about the bathroom situation.  Let me end there by advising all travelers to Korea to do yourself a favor and bring your own TP and sanitizer anytime you’re out in public.

Since, oddly enough, toilet paper is more prevalently found as napkins in a restaurant than for its intended use in a bathroom, let’s talk about dining out, shall we?   You may or may not know that the typical Korean restaurant experience includes many small side dishes (called banchan).  When I say small, I mean tiny dishes with just a few bites in each.  They are meant to be shared and are complimentary to every meal.  But these dishes don’t include tiny serving spoons.  Everyone at the table uses their chopsticks to dig right in to each dish.

It’s common to share food in the West, too, of course.  But say you don’t feel comfortable dipping your spoon into the same dessert as a new friend you’ve just made or a coworker you’ve seen sneezing.  That’s easily remedied by asking for extra plates or cutting food into smaller pieces first.  Not here.  The best you can do is not eat something.  But try doing that when you’re out to dinner with a group of 8 (large group dining is also very common).  Every dish will be touched by everyone’s chopsticks, put in their mouths, and repeated.  Multiply that by the 8 other people each has recently had a meal with and, well, do the math.

The other thing about dining that I find odd is what I call “group soup”.  As one of these many side dishes, you’re often served a bowl of soup.  It, too, is meant to be shared.  But it doesn’t come with a ladle or smaller bowls.  You just stick your spoon in there with everyone else and hope that it’s hot enough to kill off any germs.

So I’m not saying that I don’t do these exact things I find to be unsanitary, but I am fully aware of it as I do it.  I also have no idea what the hepatitis rates are in this country, but I’m sure glad I got my combo vaccinations before I left.

The last thing that really bugs the hell out of me is litter.  I hated it at home, and I hate it even more here.  Outdoor trash cans simply don’t exist.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find a blue bag tied to a post every so often or you’ll come across a random garbage pile from an apartment building and can toss your trash there.  But sadly most Koreans don’t wait for these opportunities.  If they’re done with a coffee cup now, they’re done with it now.  And it shows on the street.  So being that I also believe I’m here for a cultural exchange in addition to teaching English, one of my most frequent lessons to my students is Don’t Be a Litterbug.

The thing is, it’s not like cleanliness is some lofty, unattainable goal here.  We are not some Third World undeveloped country.  Most of my students, both young and old, often note that they also don’t like the garbage on the street.  A few little tweaks to everyday behaviors would make all the difference.  But where does it begin?  A couple of public trash cans and a public service announcement or two about the spread of germs might be a good place to start.  Or just this simple exchange of cultures.  I will definitely be taking home the finer points of my time here.  I hope that in return, I’ve left a little bit behind as well.

Now go wash those hands, Korea.  And don’t throw the toilet-paper-paper-towel on the floor when you’re done with it!