Friday, July 24, 2009

Why are Korean school bathrooms so filthy?

Here's the question:

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?


Brian said...

I think kids cleaning the school---at least in my experience in public schools---is another case of image trumping reality. Sure, it's nice for kids to go through the motions, and the teachers will praise kids on the effort, but it's the sorriest attempt at cleaning I've ever seen. And I managed a McDonald's for over 5 years, and I've seen all kinds of bad cleaning.

Rarely if ever will you find soap, cleaner, or bleach used. In the bathroom the kids just ladel water onto the floor, then swish the dirty mop around. They use the hose to hit the urinals and stalls. They run dirty mops over all the floors in the school (mops that are stored in the bathrooms next to the ones used on the bathroom floor). I've never seen so much as a mop bucket used, which tells you they're using neither hot water nor soap. They wipe off the teachers' desks with dirty rags, a job that only accomplishes getting rid of any fingerprints, but does nothing for sanitation or cleanliness.

Let me just reiterate again the lack of hot water. The old manager in me is getting fired up now.

A previous teacher told me the school actually had a budget to hire a janitor, but it just kept the money and used kids instead. My one school actually does have a janitor, a sweet old lady who has loads of elbow grease but no soap.

If you had mop buckets the big thing would be finding a place to store them. But if you had mop buckets, hot water, bleach, and soap, you'd see a massive improvement I think.

Most importantly, you'd smell a massive improvement. Don't even get me started. I don't understand how teachers can sit in the teachers' office with the stench from the bathroom coming from down the hall. It's disgusting. I don't understand how they can tolerate it, and allow the kids to do such a shitty (PUN!) job.

Unknown said...

I would reccomend carrying a pack of baby wipes with you at all times. I have not left for South Korea yet, but I have found them very handy in many different situations. You can use them for wiping clean the toilet seat if sitting is necessary and for cleaning yourself afterwards. I work with kids now an it comes in handy outside of the bathroom too, for cleaning hands, faces and scrapes on knees and elbows. I always carry some in my purse and if the bathrooms are as foul as you're implying you might find them useful as well.

Anonymous said...

The ladies room at my elementary school is far from sparkling. It's not horrible, but the floor is usually wet, the kids often don't flush, the sink counter is always wet and sometimes a little grey. There isn't a soap dispenser, there's just a bar of soap. I've seen poop on the floor, urine on the floor (which is strange for a girl to do, it was outside the stall), and wadded up tissue in the sink.

There's 1 tissue dispenser near the sinks. What gets me is that in the stall with the western toilet, there is a TP holder! It's just never filled. Occasionally I put a roll there, and it lasts for a few days.

There also isn't usually a way to dry your hands, Koreans just sort of shake them off or dry them on their pants. I use toilet paper. Some places have paper towel or a hand dryer, but not many (My rural school has a hand dryer in the teacher's washroom).

My school has a janitor, but she mostly just empties the trash bins and sprays water around. I've gone in after she's been there to find it still dirty, just... wetter. With empty bins.

Michelle said...

I guess I've been lucky after three years in Korea. The ladies rooms of my schools were all quite clean, and toilet paper was usually provided. The only problems were that there was no way to dry your hands after washing them, and the rooms were freezing cold in winter.

I've seen some grimy stalls in subway stations and in the public rooms of some buildings, but I've never seen poop in any of them, and only rarely urine. Again, I've probably been lucky.

The worst I encountered was when I went on a rafting trip outside of Seoul. It was basically a hole cut into a wooden plank, which was then placed over an open pit. This was easily the worst I've ever encountered.

JIW said...

Let's remember to talk about what level of school we are at.

I teach elementary and end using all grades bathroom because I have to seek an empty one sometimes. I have to say that they are pretty clean. Not sparkling but decent.

Yes you have to use the trashcan in the stall. But the girls seem to do this well at the elementary age. The problem though is the trashcan tends to stink up.

We do have an cleaning ahjumma that comes at the end of the day and cleans all the bathrooms. I have said hello to her.

If you are teaching at a hagwon with kindy kids then the bathrooms are going to be a playground of poop. I use to work at a hagwon and the bathrooms were just as you described. And at the hagwon there was one lady who did the cleaning but she was so busy she seemed not to have much time for the bathrooms.

I would like to add that I don't mind the trash bin in the stall. I hate to find out the truth if Korea's pipes can't handle the TP... that would mean backed up pipes and floating sewage everywhere. I am sure some newer buildings can handle it but Koreans keep the habit anyways.

Us ladies know how to wipe and discreetly place it in the bin without showing too much ... you know. Even elementary kids are conscious to this.

As for Middle and High School kids at a very large school... I can see why the bathrooms aren't clean.

Heck, my public high school bathroom in America was a nightmare to walk into. But when you gotta go.

All in all, I don't think Koreans know that us westerners have different Toilet etiquette and TP systems. Maybe this topic would make for a nice cross cultural lesson.

Anonymous said...

Joy, so you were told to put tissue in the trashcans rather than flush? No one ever mentioned it to me (though I had heard about it online) so I always flush the tissue. I wonder how many people are told not to flush tissue.

AA-CHAN said...

The ones I've seen have been mostly alright apart from the overwhelming stench of urine. Reading your post made me wonder though.

The Expat said...

I happen to think that hagwons are much, much cleaner than public schools. Not only do the kids NOT throw shit all over the floors, but janitors are usually hired. Mothers won't send their kids to study in place that has shit on the walls.

When I first met my wife, she tried to get me to toss the paper into the can, but soon after the adopted to the flush method and...wouldn't you know it, we've had ZERO plumbing probems.

Breda said...

um, koreans not less sanitary than westerners? i beg to differ. when i went to the hospital to get my physical, no one wore gloves, there was no soap or towels at the sink outside the bathroom that the nurses were using, and the nurse who took my blood then discarded the used needle in this big bucket with no lid that was filled with needles and splattered with blood--the blood was even on the wall next to it. yuck.

The Expat said...

I don't think anyone said they were more sanitary than Westerns. I agree that hospitals can be pretty lazy about some things though. The blood on the wall is disgusting. There's no excuse for that.

Anonymous said...

This is why I would imagine it be best to train your body and time your bowel movements to be either early in the morning before work or after you get home. Yeesh.

The Expat said...

Yep! Sadly, all public bathrooms don't get proper attention.

Anonymous said...

I plan on coming to Korea to teach soon, but I was there about a year and a half ago for a family wedding (i'm a halfie). Anyway, I found out about a week after I had been staying there that we weren't supposed to be flushing down the toilet paper! My mom didn't bother to tell me and I backed up someone's toilet! Anyway, so I guess you throw it away instead. So I learned to always be prepared with my own TP and some baby wipes. Sorry if this is TMI