When traveling abroad, everything you know about how to perform daily activities can suddenly be turned upside down. Even something as simple as how you go to the bathroom can completely change the instant you arrive on foreign soil. To help ease the culture shock, I have put together a list of everything you need to know about how to use a toilet in South Korea.
Where’s the bathroom?
One of my favorite things about Korea is how easy it is to find a clean public toilet. They are almost everywhere, and if all else fails, you can usually use the toilet at any major coffee shop or fast food restaurant. If you can’t find a toilet, here’s how to ask for the bathroom in Korean: Hwa-jahng-shil-ee uh-dee-eh-yo? 화장실이 어디에요?
Types of Toilets
There are three types of toilets in Korea: “western” toilets (just a normal toilet to you and me), bidets and the squat toilet. Most foreigners I know dread going to a restroom only to find they only have a squat toilet, but the Koreans don’t mind them and here’s why:
You can’t spend a day walking around Korea without seeing someone in the squatting position, whether they are selling fruit in a market or just resting. Koreans are pretty amazing at squatting! They do it beautifully, on flat feet and with perfect balance. If the position is that natural to you, why not squat? Plus, you don’t have to sit on a dirty toilet seat! And most importantly, the squatting position is much better for your body during bowel movements (here’s more info about that). Personally, I am terrible at squatting and choose to only use the squat toilets when I absolutely have no other option. I know a lot of other westerners that feel the same way.
Oh and a tip about the bidets: The buttons are not in English so be careful when pushing them. Typically, the bidets are just normal toilets with a fancy seat so they usually flush the same way (so the handle may be behind the seat lid). Don’t make the mistake of trying to push random buttons while standing thinking it’s going to make the toilet flush. This is one mistake I’m thankful I’ve never made, but I have seen the wet aftermath a few times.
Women, watch out for the urinals!
Some bathrooms in Korea are unisex. If you are a woman and walk into a bathroom that has a urinal and toilet stalls, it’s perfectly acceptable to lock the main door behind you. There’s nothing more awkward than coming out of the stall, rounding the corner expecting to wash your hands only to realize there’s a man doing his business right in front of you. Hate to say that I’ve learned this from experience. Twice.
Don’t forget the toilet paper!
It’s a good idea to always carry some tissues with you. Sometimes the toilet paper dispensers are located outside of the stalls or toilet paper may not be provided at all. If there’s a community toilet for many different businesses, each business will usually provide the toilet paper so you’ll have to grab it before you go in. Yep, I have seen a toilet paper dispenser on the wall of a coffee shop. If you do find yourself in a situation where you are in desperate need of a good samaritan to help bring you some TP, try saying “Huge-ee jome joo-say-oh” (휴지 좀 주세요).
DO NOT flush the toilet paper!
Right now you’re probably wondering what the hell you’re meant to do with your used toilet paper… right? Every toilet stall in Korea will come equipped with a trash bin that is meant to hold all of your soiled tissue. This is probably the most difficult thing for westerners to wrap their head around.
The problem is, the pipes just weren’t designed to hold all of the toilet paper and can easily become clogged. Almost every public bathroom has a sign taped to the door that asks you politely not to flush the paper. Whether or not you flush at home is up to you, but know that most buildings will make you foot the bill if your tissue clogs the pipes. You should definitely factor the age of your building in when making your decision.
What’s up with the soap on a stick?
One of the things that shocked me on my first week in Korea was an encounter with a soap on a stick contraption in a public bathroom. I’ve grown used to liquid soap so it bewildered me so see so many bathrooms that just have bars of soap for everyone to share. The longer I’ve lived in Korea, the more I adapt to the Korean way of life, but it’s definitely a strange sight at first!
Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere!
Primping is a huge thing in Korea, among men and women. In fact, many bathrooms purposely have a separate mirrored area so that the primpers don’t get in the way of those wanting to wash their hands. Oh, and some toilet stalls even have mirrors placed at eye level so you can primp on the toilet.
If you find yourself in the bathroom just after lunch time, be prepared to wait for a sink because there will probably be lots of people brushing their teeth. It isn’t uncommon to have a toothbrush and toothpaste that is strictly for your office.
Along the same lines, one of my favorite things that can sometimes be found in Korean bathrooms is a mouthwash dispenser! I’ve really only seen them in department stores and sometimes restaurants, but I think it’s a great idea!
There you have it… everything you need to know about how to properly use a toilet in Korea (and probably more).
Have you experienced bathrooms like these before (and where)? If not, which of these things would be the hardest for you to get used to?
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