Expat Life: Asian Toilet Musings on the Eve of the Sochi Olympics

Part of living internationally is adjusting to different toilet habits.  Signs that suggest you do not pee on the floor are therefore, a practical thing.

As the excitement of Lunar New Year fades into the bleak chill of February, MsCaroline finds herself with a bit of time on her hands to devote to her long-neglected blog and a topic of burning importance which has been on her mind for at least a week:  the toilet paper disposal arrangements at the Sochi Olympics.

MsCaroline assumes that all of you are aware that the situation in Sochi is, according to the international journalism community, not quite up to snuff.  Most problematic seem to be the hotel arrangements, which are not quite what people were expecting:  doorknobs are falling off in people's hands (if there even are doorknobs,) power isn't working, and the water coming out of the pipes is either nonexistent or toxic. Athletes' dormitories are a bit more spartan than usual, and some venues reportedly include side-by-side toilets. Some reports suggest that surveillance cameras have been installed in hotel bathrooms, and there has also been international outcry about the systematic extermination of thousands of stray dogs which is apparently taking place in Sochi in advance of the Games.

MsCaroline, has no idea how much of this is true and how much of this has just been blown out of proportion by the media frenzy surrounding the Sochi Olympics. She imagines that, like everything else, the reality lies somewhere in between.  But there has been one photo making the rounds on Twitter and in the media which she feels obligated to address:

This photo has been causing outrage all over the internet

This one popped up a week or so ago, and has been widely disseminated throughout the Twitterverse and picked up by print and video media outlets to use as fuel for their assertions that Sochi is Not Ready For The Olympics.

MsCaroline cannot speak to the toxic water, unreliable doorknobs, or the questionable privacy arrangements.  But she can speak to this, the toilet paper situation, and she feels that it is only right and just to do so.

At the risk of shocking everyone, MsCaroline has to point out that this bin arrangement is not actually such an unusual thing.  In fact, this is the standard in every public toilet she has been in in Seoul, which is a highly-developed western-type city.  It is also the standard in many private homes here - although most westerners she knows(including her own family) just flush.

The reasons MsCaroline has been given for this practice have varied widely, and include:

  • older sewer systems were not designed to handle paper (and, presumably, still aren't.)  More modern buildings with modern plumbing can cope just fine with toilet paper
  • The paper (eg, newspaper or other 'waste' paper) was not designed to disintegrate, as modern paper is, and therefore, was never flushed.
  • People who grew up in the habit of never flushing toilet paper are used to it and have no problem continuing the status quo, regardless of their present plumbing situations
  • during agrarian times, most human waste was collected for manure, which meant that septic tanks were very small - you didn't need a big one - and didn't hold much.  Paper took up valuable space.
MsCaroline has no idea which, if any of these are true - her family, like most expats, flushes, and has had no problems.  However, after almost 3 years back in Asia, she has seen any number of toilet arrangements throughout the region:  squat toilets, toilets that include buckets of water next to them for manual flushing, toilets with no paper anywhere around them, toilets with overflowing paper bins (her least favorite) toilets with no doors, unisex toilets where one casually strolls past the gent standing at the urinal on one's way into the stall, toilets with hoses lying on the ground (presumably for both flushing and cleaning oneself.) On the other side of the coin, some of the public toilets she has run across in Asia are more luxurious than anything she will ever have in her home, and include things like automated air fresheners, 'privacy bells' (masking sounds for the timid,) bidets, heated seats (not unlike the "Ass-blaster 9000" in the Asia Vu's first apartment), and lovely family arrangements that include mummy-sized toilet placed within arm's reach of a toddler-sized version.   The list could go on and on. These days, when MsCaroline travels in Asia, she brings her own paper with her, and is prepared for just about anything, from "luxury" to "outhouse."

Luxury:  our automatic toilet seat, christened  'Ass-blaster 9000' by MrL.

Outhouse at rest area en route to holiday over Chuseok in 2012

But, honestly - paper in the bin? Not a big deal.  

While MsCaroline is sure that there may be plenty of glitches in the system in Sochi, she can assure her readers that paper in the bin - however offensive to Western sensibilities - is not going to cause any permanent damage to the Olympians.

Let the Games begin!


Trish said…
I wasn't shocked by the bin situation either. Having visited Greece in the past, this was very common in most toilets there. I think I was told it was due to the diameter of the pipes not being big enough.
I would love a privacy bell as I am a timid toilet-user. I usually sing.
MsCaroline said…
Trish - I think how well-traveled you are has quite a lot to do with your shock level, and yours is the perfect example. Someone gave me the 'pipe diameter' explanation for Seoul, as well, but I think that only applies to older buildings any more. The 'privacy bells' I have seen in Seoul are fantastic - when you press them, it sounds like someone flushing a toilet - repeatedly - for a good 90 seconds. Only problem is that in many Korean public toilets they also have an emergency bell and you want to be sure what you're pressing will give you camouflage noises and not a team of paramedics breaking into your stall!
Stacy Rushton said…
Hey, growing up we had a house like that right in Houston, Texas. The pipes just couldn't handle the toilet paper so it went in the bin. If you want to see grossed out and appalled, that would have been us every time the darn thing backed up when you most desperately wanted it to GO DOWN. If you know what I mean. We finally learned.

Privacy bells, on the other hand, are a new one to me. I guess they save water since they mimic the flushing noise without our actually having to flush, which is probably what many people were doing. Brilliant idea!
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - See? Like I said, Sochi is not that bad! Our first house, built in 1908, had quite ancient plumbing, especially in the downstairs hall bathroom (one used most often by guests)which often backed up and always took forever to flush even on its best days. Our friend Perry dubbed it the "shxt spinner" and we used to sit around speculating on what a great practical joke kit it would make - the toilet bowl that, after flushing, slowly (and terrifyingly) fills up to the brim (in our bathroom, it then -slowly - went down about 80% of the time - but you never knew for sure unless you watched it.) Next to the toilet would be only a short-handled plunger, and there would be some electronic sensor that would simulate someone knocking at the door just at the water's maximum level. Had we ever marketed it, it would have been christened, "The Houseguest's Nightmare." RE: privacy bells: since I don't read Japanese, I am passing on this info from a friend, who says the name of the gadget, translated into Japanese, is 'Stream Melody.' Great, isn't it?
BavarianSojourn said…
Trish has already mentioned the toilets in Greece doing the same, and I don't remember being that shocked about it. French hole in the floor toilets, and a few toilets in Thailand however... :D
MsCaroline said…
Emma - Having spent my early childhood in Thailand ( I remember distinctly preferring the squat toilet in the maid's quarters to the Western versions in the house), I am pretty hardened to just about any toilet arrangements; I think France has to win hands-down, though: we almost lost my sister in (down) one of those French holes-in-the-ground on a family road trip. As I said to Stacy, though, I really think it depends quite a bit on how much you travel (and where.) If you've only been to 'sanitized' tourist hotels and restaurants, it would be reasonable to be shocked by the paper-in-the-bin arrangement.
Wilma said…
I've never seen it in my travels but when I was a kid and our friends first moved out into the country in Idaho that was the rule in their house. After awhile it was okay to flush but there was an "amount of paper" restriction and it had to be special "septic-safe" TP. As far as the arranagement in your first house, it is quite similar to ours here. We, too, have a plunger as a permanent resident next to the toilet and when Sean was younger he had to bring me a walkie-talkie and take the other one in there with him in case it started to overflow and I was outside or didn't hear him hollar. Even then we still had some horrible flooding disasters, one of which caused a rainstorm in the downstairs bathroom. It's better with the new toilet but still has to be watched. I'm sure you wanted to hear our whole toilet-history here. Oh well, I typed it so I'll post it. I think I need some sleep, I'm losing it.
MsCaroline said…
Wilma - well, it sounds like you would not be in the least bit shocked by the arrangements in Sochi with that sort of life experience! As for the house - isn't it amazing what we can grow used to? It wasn't until I moved to the next house that I realized just how inconvenient that situation had been...; )
Iota said…
Invitation to a tag thingy on my blog, if you're interested.

Our loo in America often blocked, but I never went as far as having a paper bucket. I was amazed that a plunger is looked on as a basic piece of bathroom kit in America. You buy it along with your toilet brush.
MsCaroline said…
Iota - yes, it's interesting that people who are so shocked about paper in the bin also take it for granted that a plunger should be fairly standard equipment in the loo, isn't it? Once again, one of the best parts of travel - getting a new perspective on your own life and how others see it...
Thanks for the tag, will head over to your blog now!

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