December 28, 2009
Not long ago, on a frigid December morning in the heart of Korea, I was walking to work while in front of me an old woman pushed her cart. She looked indistinguishable from any other old Korean woman – wearing mismatched baggy floral garments, a visor in spite of the complete absence of any sunlight, a face mask to protect her from invisible germs that fly over from foreign countries, and a pair of dirty white gloves.
She was about ten paces ahead of me when it happened… All of a sudden she whipped down her baggy floral trousers and giant brown underpants and proceeded to squeeze out a massive shit on the frosty pavement, followed by a splattering, spraying, steaming puddle of piss.
I was utterly horrified, of course, and for the next two hours I taught my children upstairs in a classroom, the window of which overlooked the scene of the crime. That cabbagey behemoth stared up at me until someone was kind enough to step in it and carry it into obscurity on the bottom of their shoe.
You might well think that I was surprised to see an elderly woman drop her trousers and crap on the street, but to be honest, after two years in Asia it wasn’t quite the shock it might otherwise have been. It was neither the first nor the last time that I’d seen a person shit on the street, and probably ranked around the thousandth time I’d witnessed a person pissing on the street in broad daylight. I’ve come to realise that the expulsion of bodily waste isn’t viewed the same in Asia as it is in the prudish West.
During the summer I was a little shocked to see an old woman – again she looked identical to every Korean woman over the age of fifty – taking a dump on a park bench. I was surprised more than anything by the fact that she hovered her wrinkled cheeks over the bench and fired one out, because there were plenty of bushes, paths and dirty patches nearby that she could have as easily used.
Bushes, paths and dirt patches are pretty common bathrooms in Korea. There is a row of bushes near my house that runs along a busy road with many pedestrians travelling between a dense residential area and a large supermarket. Each and every day I witness old men pissing in the bushes or squatting behind a thin, superfluous tree. Mothers yank their children’s trousers down and grip their genitals, pointing carefully into the dirt.
But it’s not just old men and women who defile the pavements of Asia. Children piss and shit at will, making the streets a treacherous gauntlet of human waste.
In the port city of Busan the beaches are frequently packed with tourists from all over Korea. Toilets conveniently line the top of the beach, but for many that’s just too much effort. In the dense, crowd of Koreans – who cluster together beneath parasols, dressed in suits and ties in spite of the hundred degree heat – the smell of faeces is unmistakable. Families gather around the young and cheer as they void their bowels onto the sand. (It’s worth noting that overcoming constipation is a key theme of children’s books in a nation where intestine-clogging kimchi is eaten three meals a day.)
One little observation: Even cats cover their shit. Koreans don’t.
In stores across Korea you’ll find mothers helping their offspring drop their trousers and piss or shit on the floor, with absolutely no regard for the poor bastard whose job it is to clean up the mess. Sometimes they use a bottle and carry it with them for purposes I don’t care to explore. I remember once seeing a middle-aged woman helping her daughter piss on the floor of a supermarket, right underneath a sign that read: “TOILETS: 50 M” Another time I saw a woman on a boss collecting her son’s piss in a green tea bottle… Now that’s nothing if not an accident waiting to happen.
You might well be wondering what Korea smells like, given that people treat the streets and stores as toilets…
When I first arrived in Korea I was constantly asking, “Who farted?” The whole country smells like an angry, unwashed asshole. I soon realized that the question had several answers: The sewage system is primitive at best, resulting in an unpleasant nostril full of shit fumes each time one passes a drain; people tend to subsist on a diet of cabbage, resulting in unusual levels of particularly ferocious flatulence; and the streets are – as mentioned above – treated as toilets.
There is, however, one place that smells worse than all the streets of festering kimchi farts – the dreaded squatters. I say dreaded because they strike such fear into the hearts of uninitiated travellers. However, to a group of people who would as happily do their business in a bush, on the beach or in front of a kindergarten, they aren’t so bad.
Squatters make even the most unpleasant of sitting toilets look like a throne. They are mere holes in the ground, and usually the ground around them is best left ignored. Squatters have claimed their share of dropped objects, and seen more than a few unbalanced buttcheeks kiss their filthy surface.
Every female expat in South Korea will tell you a story about a squatter – if she isn’t easily embarrassed. My anonymous friends will tell you about wallets and purses that have taken the plunge as girls try desperately to relieve themselves without falling backwards into the hole. Not one of them can claim to have pant-cuffs unsplattered by their own urine.
Squatters cannot cope with toilet paper, either, and so beside every dank hole there is a putrid, fly-swarmed bin overflowing with soiled paper. The smell is never less than eye-watering; the sight worse than anything Hollywood’s sickest minds managed to invent.
When I first arrived in Korea and needed to urinate, I took one look at a squatter and elected to use the nearest bush. I wasn’t ready to stand and pee into that hideous hole, and to this day I’ve clenched and bit my fist to avoid ever having to use one. I think that given the choice I’d probably crap my pants before squatting over one of these nasty devices.
Fortunately for us penis-possessing males there are urinals in most bathrooms. However, these are always placed in front of the door to the girls’ stall. There is something inhibiting about being watched by a queue of waiting women as you try to pee, or having them push rudely past.
Shortly after arriving in Korea I was urinating in one such urinal when a girl swung around my shoulders, ending up face-to-wang with my penis. I thought she was staring at it for a while, as she gripped my back tightly, but then it became apparently she needed to puke. So she threw up as I finished and quickly backed away, leaving the poor girl drunkenly examining the piss-puke pile in the bottom of the blackened trough.
In the Philippines the urinals are altogether more complicated, and just about as public. Filipino guys don’t enjoy having women watch them urinate as much as Korean men, so the urinals are placed apart from the female stalls, but they are largely out in the open, and designed to accommodate as many men as possible.
The strange thing about these urinals is that the back wall is set maybe three feet from where you must stand, behind a large concrete hump, and so one must try and keep a firm stream for the duration of urination. If you let it drop, you drip on your feet. And that may be fine in private, but with peeing as a spectator sport it can be a little embarrassing.
In China the urinals are far more civilised, and actively encourage – nay, demand – patrons to stay close. Every urinal seems to possess a sign in numerous languages requesting the user to stand as close to the bowl as possible.
I found Chinese bathrooms far cleaner than Korean or Filipino bathrooms, which was nice considering what my Korean friends, co-workers and students told me. They said in sincerity that Chinese people all defecate on one another.
Rather, the Chinese and the Koreans seem to share the same affinity for utilising the streets as their dumping ground. The Chinese, however, are a little sneakier in this respect. I was shocked when after a few hours in China I witnessed three small assholes winking at me in a crowded restaurant. You see, three little children had all bent over at the same time, simultaneously barely their butts, balls and whatnots.
It seems that in China – in spite of the biting cold winters – children don’t always use diapers. Frequently their clothes are split down the middle, so that they can just poop and walk. If need be, the mother will pull the legs apart and the kid can just let rip.
When I visited the Great Wall of China I came to realise that it’s not always possible to retire to a restroom when nature comes a’knockin. I was caught short on one of the most famous landmarks on Earth, and I’m sorry to say that I pee’d on it. I pee’d right on top of the Great Wall of China.
What amused me most about Chinese bathrooms was the fact that every piece of porcelain I saw was made by American Standard. My primitive understanding of international politics suggested that China might by reluctant to use an American product where their own might suffice, but apparently not.
The king of Asian bathrooms, however, is unquestionably Japan. I’ve never in my life been as satisfied with the cleanliness of my anus as after visiting a Japanese toilet. Using these hi-tech wonders is like taking your ass to a spa. They are truly the kings of buttdom.
Toilet seats in Japan – like everything else – are guided by advanced electronics. They are littered with buttons that control a host of functions, from cheek warming to ass-cleansing to vaginal hygiene. They’ll leave you confident, relaxed and smelling sweeter than a sphincter ever smelled.
No shower or bath will ever leave your ass as clean as a Japanese toilet. I’m not ass-shamed to say that I spent every damn minute I could afford with my ass parked on those mighty thrones during my stays in Japan.