Archive for the ‘Hygiene’ Category

When I was younger I spent several summers with my parents travelling around Europe. As we drove from country to country in our bright orange Volkswagen camper van I was introduced to what we called the ‘continental’ toilet. This referred to an uninviting hole in the ground that was found at a few of the campsites at which we stayed. A couple of times I tried to make use of one of these utilities. I remember my despair at struggling to balance, hanging over the opening as I aligned my bottom with the target area. As I hovered over the hole, flashes of me falling and being covered with the mess down below made me pull up my shorts and hold in what I had come to release


Fast forward fifteen years or so and my squatting prowess has not improved, as I have had little need for it. If anything time has made me less capable. Getting up and down and generally adopting the appropriate position emits a strange sound somewhat like a whimpering groan.

But for many Koreans, the squat or the ‘Kimchi squat’ (as coined by expats) is part of their daily lives. You become used to seeing people of all ages squatting in the streets whilst waiting for a bus, smoking a cigarette or just reading the paper.

Imagine my surprise when here in Korea I find those toilets I dreaded years before! Granted there are also the western-style lavatories that one has become accustomed to rest one’s rump upon. However, certainly in the more public places such as bus or train stations you may have to fight or wait for one of these more comfortable sanitary installations – due to their popularity and rarity.

As a man I have the ease of using a trough but there have been occasions where it would certainly not be socially acceptable to do so. It’s then that I wait poised for that one western toilet to open its doors to me. Still I wait, but the door remains closed. Seemingly with the occupant half-way down page three of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A door near by me creaks open and I spy a porcelain bowl on the floor of the vacant cubicle. I ponder. Then enter. My old adversary looks even less inviting as I close the door into claustrophobia. I look around at the amenities. A hole and a bin. The four walls surrounding me are bare. Urine-soaked tiles circle the toilet.

How should I do this?

Well, trousers down for a start. Awkwardly I stand over the gaping cavity with legs spread as I begin to lower myself down. Really there should be a rope or handrails for this action. Finally, I am suspended – my bottom almost horizontal with my ankles. This all feels like it could go horribly wrong. But it doesn’t, I don’t fall over, I don’t fall in. I came here to use the toilet and that’s exactly what I accomplished. Just a case of cleaning up. But of course – no toilet paper!

This humble item, considered as absolutely vital in most toilets you are likely to encounter, is actually found at the entrance to the lavatories in a vending machine. Which doesn’t do me much good, considering that I’m squatting and swaying from side to side with my trousers wrapped around my ankles. There has to be something I can use? Rummaging in my pockets I find only my keys, lint and my empty wallet. But wait – the bin. Stretching forward and pulling it close to me I peer inside. Toilet paper! Used toilet paper. With faecal matter attached. Someone has kindly left this dreadful detritus in a bin rather than flush it down the toilet. Can I bring myself to tear around the messed pieces from this unsavoury heap….?

I learn later that putting paper soiled with human waste in a bin is common throughout Korea. This is done regardless of the place or the status of the establishment. It is believed that rather than add a strain to the sewage system used tissues should be put in a bin and collected by some hapless cleaners.

Feeling my legs beginning to go numb I reluctantly stand myself up, pull up my trousers, flush the contents of the hole and walk out of the door. As I wash my hands I realise that there are some culture shocks that will stay with you forever.

© John Brownlie 2010

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It’s almost a year since the H1N1 virus, widely known as swine flu, was the feared pandemic that swept across the world. In North Korea the estimated death rate per infection is estimated as hundreds of times greater than those for South Korea. This glaring example of two extremes owes much to the medical advantage that the south has over the north. What is perhaps even more interesting is that South Korea has been able to gain a measure of infection control better than the UK. (information extrapolated from http://www.flucount.org/ ).

My first awareness of the virus was when arriving in Korea in June last year. I found that it was necessary to complete and sign a questionnaire inquiring if I had any flu-like symptoms. I must admit that I felt pretty sick, sneezing and coughing with a headache to complete the package. And seeing that questionnaire in front of me didn’t make me feel any better. I felt uncomfortable filling in every detail, especially with the words at the bottom of the form. These words warned that if your symptoms were considered serious enough you would be kept in quarantine until they subsided and you were no longer a risk.

It was a moral dilemma: do I potentially start a flu epidemic in a country which will be my home for a year or do I bite the bullet by owning up to my coughs and sneezes and then possibly being locked away in quarantine, hoping my future employer would understand. I bit the bullet and filled out the document – truthfully. After all, I wouldn’t want mass manslaughter on my hands.

I may have been hesitant about handing it in at customs, but as soon as it left my hands I was swift in my exit. But no sooner had I left one room, than I was confronted by a thermal scanner pointing at the entrance that I had just walked through and there was a guard looking at the monitor. There was no doubt in my fevered mind that he was scanning for passengers with high temperatures. I kept my head held healthfully high, staring hard at the camera, daring it to catch me out. It didn’t. So I passed through customs and, amazingly, as soon as I got some fresh air my symptoms disappeared.

In July, one month after I arrived, the country increased its alert level to ‘orange’. This was part of a four tier system: green, amber, orange and red. The alarming fact was that over 12,000 had contracted the influenza virus within a two-week period. The whole country was on high alert. People were encouraged to wear masks when commuting to work via public transport; while in public areas anti-bacterial sprays were made available for general use. The epidemic increased. By autumn, large social gatherings were either postponed or closed. In schools, it was a requirement for students to have a mask with them at all times in an attempt to prevent the epidemic spreading. A school with an infected student or students could be threatened with closure from a few days up to a fortnight. Hagwons (private academies) also adhered to a very similar regulation. My hagwon made it compulsory for teachers as well as students to wear a mask at all times inside the building. Observing these rules was somewhat frustrating, as having to teach English with a mask covering the majority of the face can make it difficult to communicate. It must also have been hard on the Korean students having to try and understand words in English. Maybe those students pronouncing certain English words in a rather muffled manner in later life will blame those masked days. However, prevention is certainly better than cure.

Reflecting on that year, I sense a major flaw in the way the whole influenza epidemic was handled in Korea. I saw very few people cover their mouth when they sneezed and coughed. The ones wearing masks carried on wearing them throughout the long day. They exhaled into them and with every breath the masks would become more contaminated. Personally, I found it very unsettling, to breathe in what my body was naturally attempting to flush out.

Currently, with the ‘alert level’ lowered for H1N1, travelling on public transport I observe individuals not covering their mouth as they shower fellow travelers with germs. Could there be some way to highlight what their coughs and sneezes are doing? Seventy years ago, during the Second World War, Britain’s Ministry of Health pushed to educate the nation by having the slogan ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’. Posters were put up, with Hitler looming over a ‘nation of the sick’. While it may be hard in modern times to find a frightening hate figure such as Adolf, in Korea and around the world the same basic message still applies.

© John Brownlie 2010