Pooping in Korea

Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.

Until you get a job in a kindergarten.

When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.

The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.

Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.

You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.

I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.

I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.

Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.

When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)

Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.

Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.

I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”

But they find out it’s me anyway. They kneel down…look through the tiny crack beneath the door. They see my shoes. “IT’S DANIEL TEACHER!”
Immediately it starts.

They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.

The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”

By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.

Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.

I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.

Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!

From time to time, I manage to elude them, but even then the torture doesn’t end. After flushing away the spoils of war, I’ll wash my hands, whistling merrily to myself, whereupon a child will come running in. They’ll inspect the bathroom thoroughly and eventually catch a whiff. With all the energy they can muster they’ll run from the room screaming “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING! DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING!” and I’ll attempt the task of denying it for the rest of the day to the children that just wont shut up about it. Me? Pooping? Pfff. No way. Whoever smelt it dealt it.  Who ever denied it supplied it.
But denial in the end is useless, because one thing I’ve learnt is that although children are good at smelling shit, they are even better at smelling bullshit.

—————–
Photo by Michel Filion.

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137 thoughts on “Pooping in Korea”

  1. Makes one wonder why we build these elaborate conventions about perfectly natural functions to torture ourselves with. Brainwashing from early childhood onwards won’t go away, though.
    The proper response to the accusation of pooping is to confirm it, and claim the size of the product was that of a football or larger! 🙂

    1. Yes, I should take ownership of my poops and be proud of them. That would probably create more discomfort and awkwardness for me though and the children wouldn’t stop going on about it as they’re poop obsessed. The last thing I want is a child running around shouting “DANIEL TEACHER HAD A POOP THE SIZE OF A FOOTBALL!”

      In Japan, apparently toilet anxiety is a major problem for girls. They don’t like having other girls hear them peeing, so they flush the toilet first and use that sound to cover up their peeing, then they flush a second time. To counteract this and save water, they’ve started to add a button to their toilets that makes a flushing noise to cover up the sound of your peeing. Genius or ridiculous? I’m not sure.

      1. The football, or beach-ball, or wrecking-ball sized poops would actually soon bring the thing into ridicule – or create a cult of hero worshippers! 🙂
        To me, the whole thing is indicative of parents and adult models – yours and theirs both – having given undue emphasis to the whole process. In our household there is a fairly casual and matter-of-fact approach to the subject.

      2. I once warned my friend, just landed in Japan, to not worry if the toilet “sang to her” along with a list of other instructions for a very basic function. She didn’t understand till she came and just about all she had to say was “Thank you” and “You weren’t kidding”. Insert smirk. I write fiction and I couldn’t make this up. Worked in Korea to. This article is right on track.

  2. This takes me back… I taught there in 2007 and had exactly the same experience. You just couldn’t go to the bathroom without being entirely visible to everyone around. Even the classroom opposite… Urgh. Eventually I found a coffee shop with an impeccably clean bathroom and I began to make that my “regular”.

    1. I love how to those people in the coffee-shop you were no doubt known as “The Strange Foreign Guy Who Always Comes In To Have A Poop”. Which is somehow better than the alternative of kids shouting that you’re pooping.

    1. Same here. I initially I was like “ewww” then immediately after, “can’t not read this”. And I’m so glad I did! Really funny. I taught kids in Wenzhou, China and yes, the boys have a bizarre obsession with poop. I even learned to draw the perfect cartoon poop from them! But all the while I’m reading your post, I’m wondering, why not just poop at home?

      1. As I’ve said, when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go! But also the Korean cuisine doesn’t agree with my stomach a lot of the time. Too much red chilli!

  3. Pooping in Japan was kind of the same. Luckily I had a door and there was a teachers bathroom, but the toilet was a hole in the ground and with no air conditioning I would sweat bullets trying to balance while squatting in such a way that I wouldn’t just crap directly Into my pants. Shit is stressful.

  4. How funny! Having lived in Asia, I thought this post would be abut squat toilets, which are always an adjustment.

    Oh, the cultural adjustments we make as expats. Love your blog. And congrats on being Freshly Pressed. It always means a massive number of comments. Hope you’re prepared. I speak from experience.

    Blogging from Ecuador,
    Kathy

  5. I would go in the farthest cubicle from the (doorless) toilet entrance to avoid any contact with students, as it was of the squatting variety, had enough space below the door for a child to easily squeeze through, and had no lock… Unfortunately being on the fifth floor and next to an enormous window that made me visible to the residents of several streets.

    Nice post!

  6. Oh my god, the horrors of sharing a toilet with students in hagwon. One toilet on the whole fifth floor, with two hagwons, a play school (harbouring mobile but un-potty-trained menaces), and the offices of Park Geun-Hye’s political party.

    The stall in our toilet had this flimsy slide door with a magnet (a MAGNET) to hold it “shut.” I miss many things about Korea, but this is not one of them.

    1. Hah, I know of this book and a couple of times have asked the students “Why are you guys so obsessed with pooping? Everybody poops!” Then they just insist that they don’t poop! Darn kids.

  7. When I was teaching out in the north west of China the bathrooms were dreadful too. It was one, solitary trough at a slight angle, that spanned the length of the room (so everybody’s handiwork was mutually viewable when the water flushed it from top to bottom… kind of like a rancid log flume), with walls that separated you from the person immediately to either side, but no door to protect from being visible in front. I think during the entire year I used it once. And luckily nobody was there that time. I’d have died. Full frontal squat in front of your students is not my idea of a good time!

  8. In China, I hear they used to make the kids poop as a group, squatting over the open trough that was the latrine. They had only two times a day scheduled for the potty run, and if individual need was very pressing, the kid came in for intense shaming. It was an incredibly effective way to enforce group consciousness, part of Mao’s plan.

  9. What a nightmare, even worse than having your own children, for a start no-one can give birth to a whole class. But I have to ask – why on earth would you poop at work, dont you have a bathroom at home?

    1. I do have a bathroom at home, but when you gotta go you gotta go. (Plus I work an almost 10 hour day, meaning at some point I’ve just got to go at work!)

  10. When I read your title I thought this piece would be about a tourist struggling with Korean style bathrooms (is that even a thing?) but I was thrilled to see it was about something even funnier!

    Kudos to you, Daniel teacher

    1. There are Korean style bathrooms – squat toilets. Thankfully my school has Western toilets. If we had squat toilets, I’d probably have to quit!

      1. Coincedentally, my co-worker was just telling me his most interesting pooping story today. He was inside a stall when another co-worker started tossing water into the stall and then sprayed him with the fire extinguisher. He saw all these white particles in the air and ran out with his pants and underpants around his ankles.

        Perhaps kindergarten sounds more appealing now? 🙂

  11. Haha…I am sorry for your predicament, but I also had a good laugh because I can relate. I travel a lot, mostly in rural Africa, and as a little kid going to the bathroom was the thing that caused me the most anxiety. There just isn’t privacy or a real toilet when you’re schlepping through rural Ethiopia. I still have to lock the door even when I’m alone in my apartment. Ah, well…good luck 🙂

  12. This is too funny!! One of my close family friends has a bathroom that is literally right next to their living room entertainment center, and I have never been brave enough to use it – I’m too afraid that the conversation outside will lull right when I finally calm down enough to allow for sphincter-release…

    1. They don’t do it to the Korean teachers because they respect them a lot more. There’s less respect for me because I’m the foreign, novelty teacher.

      That and they can smell my fear.

  13. this is an amazing post. i feel for you, dude. let me assure you though, it has nothing to do with korean children. i work in a few japanese kindergartens, and they find the word “poop” to be about the funniest thing in the world.

    be thankful everyday that they aren’t sticking their little fingers up your butt. japanese kids love to kancho their foreign teachers.

    1. I’ve had my fair share of fingers up the butt too. One 6 year old kid is obsessed with seeing my belly…always trying to pull up my t-shirt and shouting “LOOK AT DANIEL TEACHER’S BELLY!”

  14. Not only did the blog make me laugh, all the comments (except this one) are a laugh as well. If I ever go there I am taking a port-a-loo

    1. They’d probably rock the port-a-loo back and forth with you in it. Eventually it’d topple over leaving you trapped in there, covered in your own urine.

  15. Your post is so hilarious!! I used to work in Early Childhood Education industry (not in teaching though), so I know they can be very, very persistent once they are engaged in, ermmm, such “activities” TOGETHER. But no matter what, they are still cute little angels. 🙂

  16. Soooo funny! Laughed so hard, my dog gave me the side eye! Imagine trying to do the silent farts in the office bathroom?

  17. O’ my God I never thought in million years I would enjoy a post about pooping for a second I thought WHAT ?! But you captured my attention very nice post
    Best regard
    Zara h.

  18. I can relate to this on a level (also at my office, I hate American style bathroom cubicles). I spent a year teaching English in Spain. Luckily there was a designated teacher bathroom with a door that fully closed (not a cubicle bathroom where you can see another person’s legs) so you got privacy. There was also a designated teacher cubicle in the girls’ bathroom but for some reason there never seemed to be any toilet paper (so I’d have to seal from the kids’ cubicles) or soap, which was disgusting since students couldn’t properly wash their hands. (There was soap in the teacher bathroom) Not to mention the whole once a month period thing we ladies have the misfortune to have (which concerns me greatly more than pooping ever will! I judge bathrooms if they aren’t properly equipped to deal with menstruating women)–I can’t imagine using the bathroom with kids trying to get a peek dealing with that.

  19. I share the same enjoyment that you have of sitting on the toilet. Don’t know what it is, but it brings about a sense of relaxation and serenity. It might have something to do with sphincter release. My wife still questions why I spend so much time on the toilet. She thinks I am doing another activity. But you are a brave man, I would have just held it until I got home. Then it becomes like going into labor. But ask one of your Korean coworkers (one of the older ones) about the pigs on Jeju Island (Jeju-ddongdaejji). It is by far the most fascinating and horrifying stories I have ever heard about pooping in Korea, or anywhere for that matter.

    1. I actually went to Jeju at Christmas and ate some of those black pigs! Thankfully it seems they’ve no longer got any poop connection, regardless they are delicious.

  20. Maybe you should do the same when THEY are pooping! Start banging the door and yelling LITTLE KIM IS POOPING or whatever 😀

    I once saw a kid taking a poo in the middle of an alley in a small town in northern China. Kids pooping in the street is not an uncommon sight here but this kid started waving and yelling HALLO at me while he was doing his thing…

    1. I have actually pulled on the door a few times and shouted to one of the children “AMY! AMY! AMY! ARE YOU USING THE TOILET!?” and the girl screamed in fright and shouted “GO AWAY DANIEL TEACHER!” in a desperate voice.

  21. This is hilarious! And really important. I wonder what would happen if you countered their screams with “YES, I’M POOPING, LEAVE ME ALONE.” I suppose it wouldn’t work, right?

    1. I must confess, I tried this today while having a wee. They just got more excited and started shouting louder about how I was pooping. After I’d left the cubicle they went in, pulled up the toilet seat and looked down to see if I’d left anything behind!

  22. haha! loved this! while your digestion may be suffering, you made us all laugh. i hope your urge to poop returns when you get home and you can poop in private. come to baltimore! where you can poop in an alley and no one gives a damn 🙂

  23. Daniel Teacher is funny. Loved your story about pooping even though I think what the hell was I thinking even recognizing I read a pooping story. It just “pooped” out at me. 😀 Loved the story. I felt the anxiety in your words. It sounds like and ordeal. Why not take to pooping at home. Save yourself.

    F

  24. I have lived in Korea for a few years now, I know exactly what you mean, however, I have always chose to plug mine until the end of the day; it just isn’t worth the distraction it causes. Great sense of humour about the whole thing.
    Where in Korea do you live? I Live in Muju, Jeollabuk-do, but lived in Seoul for a couple of years.
    Korean pooping culture is certainly absent of any secrecy, they are very comfortable with the whole procedure, I have even heard a couple of 아저씨들 nattering with one another while crapping, and praising each others farts. Bloody hilarious.

    1. I live in Daegu.

      I’ve noticed that they find poop to be incredibly amusing. When my girlfriend and I visited Insadong, I was so tempted to buy a dong-bang (poop shaped bread) but I chickened out.

  25. What an amazing story, it makes me sad though that as we get older we start to care so much about going to the toilet without anyone knowing. I am a student nurse so I am used to seeing people using the toilet and I often talk about my own bowel movements, the majority of people tell me to keep it to myself. It is just a normal body function and shouldn’t be shameful

    1. I can see why it’s seen as shameful. Excrement is tied into disgust. When we’re kids we haven’t been conditioned into being disgusted by it yet, but as we get older the conditioning is very strong. We’ve been conditioned to be so disgusted in it that we feel shame about it when discussing it with others. Obviously you’ve been desensitized to the shame due to your job!

      (Just a theory…)

  26. I have no idea how you survive this! I would fall to pieces and die of embarrassment because no matter how much I have accepted the idea that I poop, I just cannot have others knowing it as well!

  27. This was absolutely brilliant. Yes, this post about poop brightened my day immediately. I think everyone can sympathize with being poo-shy, and sympathize even more so that no one ever wants to talk about being poo-shy. Hilarious, well-written, and somehow cute with all the sphincter talk. Thanks for sharing!

  28. yes i also pooped in Korea. Not your regular toilet seat, but a hole on the ground. Squat down and let go..no flushing needed. ejjeje
    as army guy station just a 2 miles from the DMZ 1985. I really liked the culture and food.

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