I have encountered many a strange thing on my travels of the past 22 years. Gazelles that jumped higher than houses, snake charmers that sat in the middle of the desert miles from human existence, dj's that played from army tanks at raves that lasted for weeks, a lawyer that lived in a flying saucer, 5 homosexual hounds humping in a train like formation, and a family of 8 people, none of which were wearing a crash helmet, on a motorcycle driving the wrong way down a one way street on the pavement, are just some of the events that immediately spring to mind. However, no matter how long I live, or how far I travel, I will never get my head around the squat toilet.
It is difficult to recall when I first encountered this most primitive of devices. If I cast my mind back to the countries that I've visited, I guess that it was Egypt in 1989. Since that time I have visited far too many countries that rely on the squat toilet as their only aid to bodily relief. In Nepal, the squat toilet was taken one step further. Housed within a hastily thrown together bamboo shelter was a hole in the ground. In the darkness that the shelter provided, it was hard to see what was down the hole, but when I heard a strange grunting noise and felt a snout encircling my arse hole, I was out of there before my load hit the pig in the face.
Anyway, I mustn't digress. Fast forward 22 years and I find myself teaching elementary school kids in Korea. Now, I am sure that if you cast your minds back to your time at school you will remember that it was not, under any circumstances OK to take a dump in the school toilet. Personally speaking I only ever recall doing this once. Upon this occasion, I excused myself from class, ran off down the corridor at top speed, gripped with fear, a turtles head pushing through to my underpants. I offloaded quicker than a B52 bomber and was back in class so fast that any suspicions that I had just performed the unspeakable were not aroused.
Call me presumptuous, but I would have expected that as a teacher, I would have had the luxury of a teacher's toilet. A place where I could go to escape the mayhem that is the native English teacher's life in Korea. For anybody reading this who has never worked in a Korean public school, you couldn't even imagine the adulation that comes with the position. Over the 2 years that I've been here I have got used to being mobbed by kids wherever I go in the school. There is no steady amble down the school corridors, no eating your lunch at a leisurely pace, no quiet rest between classes, and certainly no relaxing time on the Thomas Crapper, newspaper in hand, and mind at ease. That is to say, we are permanently on display. Every move I make is at lightening pace. Where possible, I time my walks down the corridors to those times when the kids are in class. Even then, they spot me and wave at me whilst they are supposed to be concentrating on the teacher (it may just be in my mind, but I'm sure that I see a twitch of hatred in the teachers's eye, when this occurs). I eat my dinner at record pace, every mouthful shovelled in, whilst trying to avoid the gaze of the kids. My ears deafened by their cries of "teacher Andy", "teacher Andy", my mind in meltdown as I fight to remain calm.
It gets worse, believe me it gets worse. I only ever teach in the mornings, which means that I am free in the afternoons. During this time I try to remove myself from prying eyes as much as I can, which is never easy when the windows are only half frosted. There always seems to be an eye peering over the top of the frosted part. Outside my safe haven the sounds of the kids' screams, giggles and yells pollute the air. Much worse than this, the whistles of a hundred recorders blasting at once are a sound that are going to feature in my nightmares for the rest of my life.
All distractions aside, I generally manage to achieve some sort of comfort level, as I shut my eyes and relax in my swivel chair. But today is different, my relaxation is halted by a low rumble from deep within. Maybe it is the relative relaxation that forces my bowels into submission, or maybe it is the fear of the squat toilet that creates a movement in my lower intestine. Whatever it is, I can fight it, but I can't make it go away.
Eventually, I give in, grab myself a handful of tissues, empty my trouser pockets in preparation, and with my head hung low I head to the squat toilet. As always happens the kids follow me down the corridor, tugging at my trousers and wanting to speak. My mission has failed, the little monsters have spotted the toilet paper hanging out of my pocket and I have to return to base.
I wait for for 5 minutes before trying again.
The toilet blocks are on every floor, pink tiles for the girls and blue tiles for the boys. They're easy to locate because they are surrounded by an overwhelming stench of urine and kiddie poo (god, is there any worse smell than kiddy poo?). Upon entering the toilet block, I stealthily check to make sure none of the little fuckers are lurking behind the doors - which I kick open to avoid hand contact. And there it is, in all it's non glory - the ubiquitous squat toilet. Hastily, I lock the door and prepare myself for the ghastly experience.
There is a reason why Asians squat at any given opportunity - bus stops, shops, or sometimes even in the middle of the street. And the reason is - the squat toilet. Over many years of practising, these people could squat as an Olympic event. Their centre of gravity is so low that their arses almost touch the ground, their balance perfectly poised. As for myself, my balance is awful and preparation to perform my ablutions is key to my success.
And this is how it goes......
Standing on one leg, I take off one sandal with both hands. I then balance precariously on the sandal as I attempt to take off my trousers. On at least one occasion this has failed miserably and I have submerged my foot, complete with sock, into the squat toilet. With trousers successfully off, I remove my underpants, which I place on my head for want of a better place to put them. With these actions complete, I'm ready to release the turtle, which I do with haste before I fall over. I do however stumble backwards and forwards, and side to side, but fortunately the toilet cubicle is so small and narrow that I'm able to do successfully regain my balance. Rather like a pinball bouncing around a table.
I'm ever aware of any stirrings outside the cubicle because the fact that the native teacher is taking a shit is a source of amusement to the kids. I've had kids peeping both under and over, which is never great when you're sat with your underpants on your head. I can't even begin to imagine how I would have reacted if I'd seen Mr Bell, my English teacher balanced on a squatter with his pants on his head.
The wiping of my arse warrants a story all of it's own and takes almost as many attempts as flushing the offending article away afterwards does. As it makes it's journey into the over-congested, ill functioning Korean sewerage system, I sidle off down the corridor, attempting to blend in with the surroundings. As a 6ft bald English man in a school full of 4 ft Korean kids I fail miserably and my secret is out. The message is passed down the corridor "The teacher just took a shit".