Land of the Fragrant Loo?
Whether one is a duchess or a waitress, a chap or a chav, it is an inescapable fact of life: Several times a day, one must temporarily abandon the company one is in so as to ``turn one’s bike around,” ``shave a horse,” or perhaps, ``see a man about a dog.”
I speak of course, of visiting ``the necessarium,” ``the throne room,” ``the thunder box” ― or, if you prefer, ``the toilet.”
Whether these essential visits are sedate and satisfying or unpleasant and hurried depends heavily upon available facilities. And when it comes to facilities, there is, in today’s cosmopolitan society, increasingly a global standard for signage, plumbing and cleansing arrangements.
It was not ever thus. In the early days of international travel, those returning from foreign shores would often bring home inter-cultural toilet tales.
Early British tourists to France would, upon returning, regale friends with the delights of chateaux, vineyards and cuisine but ― after the children were safely a-bed ― would, in hushed voices, tell gruesome tales of the squat toilettes into which the natives emptied their bowels.
A shared language does not necessarily imply a shared lexicon of euphemism. Early American visitors to the U.K. made frequent requests to visit ``the bathroom”; perplexed Brits remarked upon how obsessed these Yanks were with cleanliness, given their recourse to a bath not just at very odd times of the day, but several times per day, too.
The more distant the culture, the droller the tale.
Take the black Englishman residing in Hong Kong in the 1970s. When China opened her borders to foreign tourists, he was among the first to penetrate rural Guangzhou where he visited an unlit communal convenience in the Chinese countryside.
It was pitch black inside. Our man took his seat and was preparing to ease springs when a local peasant strolled in and sat beside him. In the gloom, the two chatted, for the Englishman was fluent in Cantonese. Finishing their business, both walked out into daylight. The Chinese looked at the Englishman, howled in horror and sped off, yelling, ``Help! Help! Toilet ghosts really do exist!”
He had never seen a black person before.
Naturally, Western travelers to Korea suffered toilet-related misadventures. A chum who served in the U.S. Peace Corps in the 1960s vividly remembers a colleague joining him deep in rural Korea. The colleague was a smart, wholesome, all-American female, but her briefings, alas, had left out one crucial aspect of local life. Upon arriving in situ, she visited the village outhouse. Moments later, she shrieked, shot out, leapt onto the bus for Seoul, and took the first flight home.
What had befallen her? According to my pal (who collapses with mirth whenever he recalls it) the outhouse in question hung over a pig-sty. As the young lady eased her bottom over the edge, a porker turned its snout upward and gave the broad white target a friendly snuffle.
I, too, have suffered. Seared into my brain is a memory from my first trip here, as a backpacker in 1989. At a rural rail station, nature called. I heeded, and entered the dank lavatory. The scene within was worthy of Dante. The floor was awash with foul liquid, giving off a noxious reek, and inside the stall was a swamp of ― dear reader, I spare you the details.
Suffice to say, I exited backward and waited ― cheeks clenched, red in the face for the train to arrive, so I could use the facility thereon.
That was then. Today’s Korea has undergone a ``Miracle of the U-end.” The ``honeypots” ― those stinking receptacles of ``night soil” ― and rickety outhouses are gone, replaced by spotless, sweet-smelling public conveniences, often boasting piped music to ease one's movements; few nations can boast such wonderful water closets.
Given Korea’s eagerness to trumpet its achievements, why has this renaissance in receptacles not been broadcast worldwide?
Why is the Korean Loo Association (I don’t know if that is the official name, but given local enthusiasm for associations, such a body surely exists) not entering the republic in all international rankings of public toilet cleanliness, accessibility and luxury?
Why is the Blue House not announcing a strategic plan to lay the world’s most advanced plumbing infrastructure?
Why is Lee Kun-hee not proclaiming a new growth engine and ordering Samsung to plunge (figuratively speaking) into toilets?
Why has the National Tourism Organization’s head not been photographed perched upon shining porcelain, inviting tourists to sample ``K-Convenience?”
We have “The Korean Wave”; let’s add the ``Korean Flush.” And with all the hoopla surrounding the national brand, dare I propose a new sub-slogan: ``Korea: Land of the Fragrant Loo?”
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at email@example.com.