For a long time, I wondered, “Where can I find a bathroom?” It is not a subject anyone wants to talk about and yet it is a fact of life. Over time I became obsessed with seeking out a ‘toilet’ as others called it, the word striking me as crass and uncomfortable as my intestines after a spicy meal. It is especially challenging when navigating a new city for the first time, let alone one where English is not the primary language.
This article will talk about two of many memories when needing a toilet was a dire necessity. Both experiences took place in South Korea. If seeing me type the word ‘toilet’ or having me talk about tummy issues, is too much for you, feel free to skip this article.
Before moving overseas, it never occurred to me that toilet paper was a luxury. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I needed to provide it myself.
My first distinct memory of needing a bathroom was after I consumed a prepared lunch that my school offered me. It consisted of sticky-ish rice, kimchi, baby sardines (that had the same grittiness as dirt), and miso soup.
Approximately twenty minutes after lunch I would half walk, half jog to the faculty bathroom. I barely aligned my bottom over the porcelain toilet in the floor before relaxing my muscles. This goes without saying that I would check the other stalls first. I may have been sweating at the effort of remaining calm, but I was not vulgar. I was after all, a polite American who represented her country with professionalism.
That level of candor quickly dissipated after repeated meals. Should someone be in the next stall or in the bathroom at all, with great effort I would contract and release my muscles one splash at a time. Needless-to-say, after several months I developed such strong thigh, buttock, and Kegel muscles that I could remain squatted, with feet flat on the floor, for as long as it took. I was a pro. I could not help however, the squeaks that unwittingly hissed out of my body. There was no hiding the acoustics that bounced off the white walls or the gaseous vapor that could knock a horse unconscious.
The second distinct memory was visiting Busan, a city on the southernmost tip of South Korea. A friend and I decided to spend an afternoon there, so we hopped on an express bus and one and half hours later, we arrived.
We dined on samgyeopsal, which translates as “three-layer meat”, also known as ‘pork belly’. The meal comes with an assortment of vegetables in tiny dishes and of course, kimchi. All of it delicious and most of it volcano spicy.
Not long after we paid and left the restaurant, my intestines began an internal battle with my colon. If I acknowledged the mutiny, I risked an embarrassing accident, so I ignored it. Instead, I practiced my mantra:
Your belly feels calm.
Everything within feels at ease.
It prompted a raging retaliation. Desperate, I told my friend about my predicament. She was understanding but terrible at distraction. While hurrying back to the bus station she likened my discomfort to seeing someone pouring water into a glass over and over.
As she strode, I walked, cheeks clenched, and fought the urge to lock my knees and walk like a duck. Once at the station, she went in search of a toilet while I gracefully waddled over to the pharmacy. Pharmacies in South Korea are like Dunkin Donuts to America; they are on every corner.
Smiling, I said, “Annyeonghaseyo”, which is an informal way to say “hello.” Placing my hands on my stomach, I gave a pained look on my face. The male pharmacist looked at me blankly. I repeated the gesture along with the Korean words I knew for ‘sick’ and ‘stomach’. Then, remembering that many Koreans prefer to write in English when dealing with foreigners (it is a confidence and saving face thing), I grabbed a pen from my daypack (yes, I carried pens and paper) and wrote, “I need medicine for my stomach.” Looking confused, the man continued to stare at me.
Desperate, I squatted, and made the mad gesture of poo squirting out of my butt. Deadpan and in perfect English, he said, “You need medication for an upset stomach.” I felt like an ass, literally. I had wrongly assumed he did not speak English and being too desperate to care, I had just mimed pooping in a public place. I waited as the pharmacist procured a few tablets. I swear I heard angels singing.
My intestines shifted. I locked my knees. The pharmacist gave me a funny look. I sniffed. A gaseous smell permeated the air. I paid, and he raised his arm towards the toilets. I thanked him, in English and walked away slowly, knees clenched.
I would like to say that relief was never so sweet as it was when I finally found the toilets, but the reality was much different. Before I could enter, I had to pay five cents, squeeze through a rusty turnstile designed for petite Koreans, and pay an additional dollar for two packets of tissues, then wait on line for a stall to open. When one did, it was a porcelain toilet in the floor and I had to forgo modesty for necessity. I tooted away as my bowls released themselves, having won the battle against my intestines.
By the time I exited the bathroom, the place was deserted. My friend would later tell me that Koreans scattered and made rude comments about the waygook, or foreigner, who had stunk up the place. I was embarrassed, but hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Any grammar and mechanical issues are the responsibility of the author, and even though she’s an English teacher and does proofread, there may be some errors.