I've been working in an afternoon program for about three weeks now and have been repeatedly disgusted by how dirty the bathrooms are. If there is toilet paper (which is rare), it's always in a little trash can. Is this just my school or are all school bathrooms in Korea this gross?
I think everyone has been shocked a time or two by the unsanitary conditions in which we have found bathrooms all across the world. I recall some pretty nasty ones at football games in the US -you know, urine-soaked floors mixed with a bit of vomit. I've been to outhouses in Cambodia that looked like pigs might have been living in the poop that fell on them and, in the Philippines, I remember walking into an island bathroom and literally being knocked back by the stench that surrounded me. Still, the things I have seen in Korean schools easily trump them all.
Don't believe me?
How about a bathroom with walls streaked with brown poop-stained fingerprints? Or the endless toilets that have a hearty mixture of urine and rice-filled dung splattered across the seat . I've seen what I only can assume was the excrement of several boys who thought it would be funny to poop in a stall trashcan. Yet, nothing tops the the mammoth log of shit that sported the imprint of a closed fist which was proudly resting in -of all places- the sink. That is seriously disgusting and far worse than I have seen anywhere outside of a festival port-a-jon. (I want to add that the above examples are not the norm in Korea and are certainly not unique to it either. I saw some pretty nasty shit in my private high school in the United States, but this is not a blog about America. It's a blog about Korea.)
First of all, I don't think that Koreans practice poor hygiene. Some might claim that they do, but there really is no way to qualify or quantify that assertion. Koreans are wild for tooth-brushing and it's rare to find a Korean who smells like BO. I think most of the nastiness witnessed in bathrooms are a result of the lack of toilet paper; the Korean habit of throwing soiled toilet paper directly in the trash can; and the lack of official school janitors. I wrote a piece about this in the Korea Times a few months ago which offers a little insight into this dated habit. The long and short of it is that Koreans are convinced that their plumbing and sewage system can not handle toilet paper, so they opt for the "Wipe and Toss Method". It's gross for sure, but most adults at least place the soiled paper in the trashcan. Kids, however, are kids and don't think much about why it's going in the trashcan or who has to clean it up.
The whole thing reminds me of the classic South Park episode, "The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce." In the episode, the school counselor Mr. Mackey is on a crusade to find the person responsible for pooping in a urinal. He was stumped as to why someone would do it. In the end, it was the character Craig who was responsible. Why did he do it? Craig's response: "I don't know." Kids do stupid things without thinking them through. That's the great part of being a kid. While playing with poop might be pretty weird (unless your into German adult films), I don't think there's a greater story behind the poop-play.
I mentioned the South Park episode to make a second point as well. In the episode, the janitor was brought up many times. His name was Mr. Venezuela. While lambasting the kids for being so unthoughtful about the urinal poop, Mr. Mackey says, "You might as well have just laid a big, stinking turd right on Mr. Venezuela's head." He was trying connect the disgusting behavior to the human face who would have to clean that up in hopes of making the kid feel guilty.
In many Korean public schools, there is not a team of janitors cruising the halls cleaning up after kids. In most cases, the kids and teachers are responsible for cleaning. If you were to look in a closet or corner of many Korean classrooms, you will see brooms and dust bins. At the end of the day, the kids will pick-up the brooms and clean their own mess up. I like the idea. It teaches them some responsibility and gives them a sense of propriety. With the kids being largely responsible for cleaning the rooms, that really limits the need for janitors, so usually the maintenance crew doubles as bathroom janitors. I feel like this arrangement leads to an increase of bathroom related messiness.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I was a rare case, but since I knew who the janitor was, I felt a little guilty about trashing the bathrooms. I'm sure I misfired many times and perhaps they were intentional, but in most cases, knowing the janitor's face was enough to deter me. (That, or my memory is so jaded that I create false realities to make myself feel better.)
As mentioned by the questioner, finding toilet paper in school bathrooms can be rare. I have seen plenty of bathrooms with toilet paper dispensers on the wall next to the sinks, but have yet to be in a public school restroom where each individual stall had toilet paper. I have also yet to find myself in a stall where I didn't see remnants of poop on the floor, partition or door handle. It's not a coincidence. This is pretty cut and dry. If there isn't toilet paper available, people improvise. I've had to do some pretty bad things when I have found myself in a similar situation. We all have. I remember being in Jongno two years ago for the New Years Eve countdown. I had to poop so bad and left minutes before the "ball dropped" only to find myself in a bathroom with no toilet paper. Let's just say it was a bit drafty for the rest of the night.
In general, a bathroom is not a particularly clean place, but I think Korea could be doing a better job. Getting rid of the stall trashcans is a start, but putting toilet paper in each school bathroom stall is a definite must. Once those are accomplished, I guarantee that we'll see some improvements. You know it's a bad sign when school bathrooms are dirtier than Han River park bathrooms.
Of course, this entire post was about the men's bathrooms. How about women's? Are they sparkling?