2009년 6월 11일 목요일

A Throne Away from Home

I was teetering on the brink. Should I take the job at Nam Incheon SLP or not?

I'd looked into all the practical questions the State Department website recommended foolhardy Americans ask when considering a teaching job in Korea. I'd established that the school in question had been around for years, so it wasn't likely to fold while I was there. It was affiliated with a university, so there was probably some sort of professional oversight of things. The administrator spoke excellent English, so I'd be able to communicate with the Korean staff easily. I spoke to one of the foreign teachers, and she spoke well of the place and didn't seem to be trying to hide anything. Overall, I figured that the worst case scenario was that the State Department warnings were right, that going to teach English in Korea was a fool's errand, I'd end up living in substandard housing while not getting paid for my sixty hours a week of teaching in a dismal and overcrowded dump, and I'd have to go pleading to my sister to fly me home with her frequent-flyer miles. (Yeah, she'd berate me for my stupidity, but she did that anyway so what did I realy have to lose?)

Worst case scenario, I figured, was a free trip to Korea. Or nearly free -- I'd be out the cost of a passport and some scolding from my sister. That didn't seem like too high a price to pay for a little adventure.

But one thought nagged at me and made me hesitate.

What were Korean toilets like?

I wasn't exactly the seasoned world traveller. I'd only been to Germany and France. But France had taught me that you didn't have to stray too far culturally to come across some truly bewildering toilets.

We weren't five miles into France when we encountered the first.

I'd been traveling with my husband, Craig, and his friend, Eddie. We'd wanted to push to get the whole way into France before our first pit stop -- which was a bad idea, since we also figured that we'd need lots of Jolt to keep us awake for all that driving. By the time we crossed the border into France our bladders were the size of watermelons and crying to be emptied. NOW.

But, just as we expected, there was a roadside rest area just over the border. We were saved!

I parked the car and scurried over to the side of the building with the skirted-figure sign, while Craig and Eddie made their way to the panted-figured side. I made my way around a baffles only to be baffled.

There before me, set into the ground, was a clean, new, shallow cement trough. Painted on either side was a footprint to show the user where to stand. I dutifully planted a foot on either side and contemplated my predicament. Whoever had designed this bathroom evidently didn't realize that various solids and fluids were usually released by drivers at roadside rest stops; he hadn't designed any sort of drain or trap door or other exit in the trough for whatever fluids or solids might be deposited there. No. Whatever you voided would accumulate between your feet and, I presumed, await additions by the next visitor.

I called to Craig and Eddie, who joined me promptly.

"Look at this!"

They didn't seem nearly as put out as I was. "It's the same on the men's side," they told me.

"Well, I'm not doing my business in there," I announced.

I climbed over the guardrail and made my way into the bushes for Nature's Latrine. I was a camper and hiker; a hole in the dirt is a proper latrine. A nice clean cement trough isn't.

France offered further bewilderment when we stopped for the night at Rheims. Our hotel room featured a sink and a bidet, but no toilet.

"What I need to do can't be done in a bidet," I pointed out. We searched the room and found a closet -- a clothes closet, not a water closet. We crossed the hall and knocked on Eddie's door, to no avail. He was even more scantily provided for than we were, for he lacked the bidet.

The three of us prowled the entire floor of the hotel, opening every unlocked door. We found broom closets. We found showers. But there wasn't a toilet to be found. I ended up walking up the street to a gas station.

The final toilet insult came in Paris in the form of the sidewalk pay toilets.

They were some brushed-steel capsules that would have looked at home in any Star Trek movie aboard the most cutting-edge spaceship. When you put your coin in the slot, the door slid open with an efficient WHOOSH!

Revealing a tiny stainless steel room, in the center of which stood a thigh-high stainless-steel pedestal atop which perched a stainless-steel bowl. It looked like a futuristic clean freak's idea of a birdbath. And, like the cement trough, it had no drain or other exit in the bottom.

"I'm not depositing my business in a stainless steel birdbath!" I announced.

My husband, being less coy about his bodily functions, volunteered to try it out. He stepped in. The door WHOOSHED shut behind him. A few minutes later, it WHOOSHED open again. He stepped out and the door closed behind him.

THUD! We could hear a sound as if the floor had dropped away like a trap door. Then a loud WHISSSSHHH as if of a high-power sprayer. Then a CLUNK!

Curiosity overwhelmed us. We put more money in just to get the door to open again. The little stainless steel room was empty and clean.

And no way was I going to step into a public toilet with a floor that dropped.

For the rest of our trip to Paris, I made a point of remembering where all the plain old ordinary commode-style toilets were so I could go to one when the need arose. I'd make an extra subway ride to get to one. I was having none of the bizarre non-toilets.

If I'd encountered such weirdness in such a non-alien country as France, what could I expect to encounter in the mysterious East? You might have to stand on your head to use an Asian toilet!

So I asked for pictures of the apartments.

I got back pictures showing a normal living room, kitchen, and bathroom -- complete with easily-recognizable American style toilet.

I took the job.

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