By George R. Hogan
It only takes a few weeks to realize that Koreans are very proud of the rapid development their nation underwent soon after the Korean War finally subsided.
While walking around Seoul, it's sometimes hard to imagine the carnage and violence that once engulfed the now bustling megalopolis. Each decade of the past 60 years has ushered in new waves of social, structural and technological modernity and Seoul, the city that I have now called home for three years, is undoubtedly destined to reach a newer and ``greener'' pinnacle in the near future. Current economic woes aside, there is nothing impeding further and grander development. That is, except for one thing.
This one thing is the only obstacle that must be overcome before any more apartments can be built, canals constructed or sidewalks repaired: Koreans have got to stop putting soiled toilet paper in the trashcan. You see it everywhere. You could be in the finest restaurant in the ritziest part of town eating the most expensive Beluga caviar with a pearl spoon, but once you close that stall door behind you, the fine food, drinks and atmosphere quickly fade as you are faced with a bin full of filthy, used toilet paper. It immediately transforms an enjoyable dining (and bathroom) experience into one that is either rushed or outright unhealthy.
Like so many aging generations around the world, older Koreans have many ``when I was your age'' moments, which are usually, followed by a light-hearted chuckle or, possibly, a sheepish smile. But if Korean bathrooms are the topic, this classic, and usually playful, expression is not fitting. Koreans of all ages join in on the wipe and toss method without giving it a second thought. Why would they question it? That's what their parents and grandparents did. That's what they see in the bathrooms in schools, malls and public buildings. Those who use the wipe and toss method might not see anything particularly unclean about it. To others, however, there is.
Don't get me wrong, I'm usually one of the first to stick up for the quirks of this nation, but sometimes the strength (or weakness) of my stomach overrides my loyalties. I'm surprised this practice didn't disappear long ago and I honestly can't think of a single plausible reason as to why the wipe and toss method is still used.
Sure, Korea developed at a breakneck pace and there could be a few cultural holdovers, but that isn't an excuse. That pace allowed for contemporary infrastructure to develop. It allowed for the modernization of nearly every public work and plumbing was not left behind. In fact, Seoul is a member of the World Plumbing Council and even hosted the newly elected executive board which. and I quote, ``has worked closely together for the past six years on matters pertaining to education and training and the role plumbing plays in protecting the health and safety of people all over the world.''
From what I can gather, phase one is complete. Seoul has overcome most of its structural issues regarding plumbing. I'm not going to deny that thousands of buildings and homes scattered around the city might not be equipped with modern plumbing that can handle heavy loads, but it seems like that's becoming less and less of an issue. The solution lies in the crumpled (or folded) tissue-filled hands of our gracious Korean hosts.
A few days ago in class, I was discussing the complexities of rapid modernization in Korea and the difficulties that some facets of Korean society experienced during that transformation. The conversation ventured into the world of tangible versus non-tangible culture and I asked if anyone (perhaps begging for the discussion) could think of any habits that existed today which seem ``old-fashioned.''
Low and behold, a brave student called the wipe and toss method into question. I immediately prodded the class in hopes of discovering who ― if anybody ― used this method. Out of 19 students, not one of them raised their hands. Either none of them were guilty or they realized that it's a bit unsanitary.
The advances that this nation has made in the past 60 years are something that no one can deny. I have witnessed Korea change a lot in the short time in which I have been here and I am always thrilled to be a cheerleader when I see it worthy, but wipe and toss has simply got to go. That, my friends, is one of the few snags left that Korea has yet to tackle. And judging by the record of Koreans, I'd only give it a few years until they overcome that as well. The next step is stocking the bathrooms with enough toilet paper that will last more than two hours.
The writer has been teaching business English and current events for three years in southern Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org