Banner design by Helena, portrait by Eva


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Painting the Town, Squat Toilets


You know you're in Korea when November 11th is Peppero Day, not Remembrance Day. Korean children and lovers exchange chocolate coated cookies, as Canadians remember fallen soldiers. (I wore a poppy in my heart.)

After a day of sightseeing with a colleague, my friend Chung Lim Jang and I got together. I asked him to meet me at my apartment because I was having trouble figuring out the control knobs on my wall. He set me straight. One turns on the gas stove, one is to control the temperature of the apartment. The next (numbered 1-7) is to program sleeping hours; at night the heat periodically turns off and on to save electricity. The final one controls water temperature. (I cursed the my cold shower last night.)

Chung also read my mail, which turned out to be the former tenant's phone and hydro bills. Finally, looking up from my rice cooker's manual, he told me how to turn out fluffier rice. He wanted to make it clear, though, that rice-cooking, and cooking in general, is a woman's territory in Korea, not a man's, and I had better ask a female colleague for advice. "That's traditional," I said, smiling.

As we were on our way out the door, he reminded me that I'm to remove my footwear at other people's houses. Part of it is to refrain from trailing in dirt (like in Canada) but it's mostly because of the heated floors; you might as well feel the warmth through your socks.

We went to a cozy restaurant 2 seconds from my house. The exterior is glass and wood, the lighting campfire-warm. I passed it every night after work and saw tables of young people talking, smoking and laughing. I wanted to join them so badly!

He ordered a delicious meal. The main dish was rice with black beans, cabbage and kochi-chung, all blanketed in soft, runny egg. It came with side dishes of brown seaweed, spinach, kim-chi (as always), small octopus, cold fish soup and so on. My pallet is more experimental than it was when I arrived 3 weeks ago. In fact, I think I'm more experimental. With the meal, we drank a Japanese liquor that tasted like desert wine and went straight to my head.

The toilet was an experience. The owner of the restaurant took a liking to me and hovered over our table throughout the meal to make sure everything was alright. When I asked him where the bathroom was, he ushered me outside to another building. The night was cold. I climbed a concrete flight of stairs and was faced with SQUAT TOILETS. I had heard of the "phenomena" before, but conquering one is another story! I had to pull down my pants and balance ever so precariously over the filthy pit. I won't go into details but my mission was accomplished. It should be an Olympic sport. I peed.

The conversation was GOOD this time. Chung had religiously studied English. The disconnect originally experienced can be reduced to the language barrier.

He opened up to me. When he joined the army 2 years ago, he left a girlfriend behind. I asked if he was sad about it. This lead to a conversation about a fellow soldier who committed suicide when his girlfriend broke up with him. Chung saw shocking things in the army: a soldier who drank acid, explosives set off unexpectedly, dead friends. He had to travel to Seoul and give regards to the Mother and Father of the suicide victim.

When you finish your time in the Korean army, society considers you a man and you have to act the part. I asked him if emotions are valued in Korea. He said 'inner strength' means wearing a shield in public. Only with CLOSE friends can you admit vulnerability.

We laughed a lot. Miscommunication can lead to hearing some fairly absurd things! I used chop sticks, asked him about taking classes at the University, must-sees in Korea, and whether we could sing Karaoke soon. He actually broke into song at the table, showing me his new sound, one he had been practicing: "vibration!"

Again we went to a bar, but this time to one a block from my apartment. He told me China is home to an even bigger drinking culture than Korea. Koreans are opposed to drinking without food- it's practically unheard of. So get this! He insisted we order something... ok ok who am I to refuse? He went to the counter and returned with a bowl of sugared water, cherry tomatoes and canned peaches. Two spoons. I've never eaten something so bizarre with a mug of beer.

My night ended with a real breathing, moving, speaking Joshua Levy on web cam! He stopped by a Future Shop after work this week and bought his new toy. It was so fun to wave hello and hear Ryan on speaker phone when he called to say he was outside... They were going to a movie and I got to watch Josh brush his teeth and lace his running shoes. Technology is so weird. I felt like I was right back in Montreal again... even suggested Josh bring along the webcam so I could see the movie!


Anonymous said...

I love my new toy. It allows me to communicate better with my old one ;) j/k. It was fun to "speak" for you and "move" for you. My, what things we used to take for granted. I think distance has brought us closer. As Joni Mitchell once said: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." And Joni Mitchell doesn't lie. (to paraphrase Janet Jackson).

Your blog is filling up with exotic stories. I find it interesting that, while they still sound exotic to me, they no longer seem to sound exotic to you. You're just describing your day-to-day, mundane activities; eating, meeting friends, going for walks. The word "octopus" no longer drops off your pen to be shocking, but because your mouth waters.

Eva, don't change TOO much. Keep the good bits : ) But if you learn how to cook because it's the womanly thing to do, I won't complain!

Greg Santos said...


Sounds like you're having some great experiences over there - one truly hasn't lived until they've experienced "squat toilets" at least once.

I went into New York yesterday with Maryn on Remembrance Day - in the US they celebrate Veteran's Day - and nobody wore poppies! It was so bizarre. The other sad thing, however, was that many people didn't realize it was Veteran's Day either.

I, too, wore a poppy in my heart.

Helena said...

I avoided squat toilets for as long as possible, and was nearly defeated by my first experience, but came to prefer them, as far as public restrooms go, since you don't have to actually *touch* anything. That's a plus in my book.

eMCee said...

Wow! I don't know if I will be able to do the squat toilet thing. Are there ANY public restrooms with American toilets?

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