Toilets in Korea have come a long way from the filthy outhouses common just 60 years ago. Still, some potty-goers find themselves straddling one extreme or the other. Squatters, though upgraded to meet 21st century standards, may seem primitive to some foreigners. They can also be challenging— particularly for women, who are not accustomed to aiming for a target. Then there are the futuristic models equipped with armrests that have as many bells and whistles as a DVD remote control. All the impressive features—like seat warming and bidet cleansing—are written in hangeul , making it more convenient to press the wrong button. Anyone who’s been attacked by a commodespewed shower can attest that it’s not a pleasant experience.
In developing nations, these problems are of the least concern when it comes to meeting sanitation demands. And that was a major concern for Sim Jaeduck, a local politician who launched a global campaign to improve sewer systems and took restroom renovations to another level. He started a cultural movement by changing his name to Mr. Toilet, forming the World Toilet Association, and building a gigantic toilet bowl so large he could actually live in it—and that’s just what he did. The million-dollar home garnered headlines around the world when it was completed in 2007. When Sim died in January 2009, his wife donated the luxurious loo to the city of Suwon. Today, Mr. Toilet’s House is a museum open to the public.
Emphasizing the “rest” in restroom was all a part of Mr. Toilet ’s master plan. The museum Haewoojae, which means “a place where one can solve one’s worries,” spotlights a sanctuary some cultures consider taboo. One of several amusing exhibits is something of a dream decoder that offers several scenarios. “Korean people don’t like to talk about...,” begins Lee Youn-sook, before covering her mouth and whispering, “...poop.” However, if Koreans dream about excrement, that’s a different story, explains the museum spokeswoman. “It means they will have a lot of money or their business will be successful.” A pop art exhibit showcases a collection of ladies’ and men’s room signs from around the world. Some feminine and masculine forms depicted are more anatomically correct than others. Most feature the woman sitting and the man standing. One American duo illustrates a bikini and a pair of briefs. Australia and Spain have similar signs showing a boy and girl, each with frightened faces and crossed legs, trying to hold it in. Visitors will find it hard to resist a touch-screen camera. A toilet seat will frame your headshot as you say cheese. Push the flush button if you’re not satisfied with your image.
The museum’s rooftop is shaped like a toilet seat, lined with flags from some of the 66 member nations of the WTA. Environmentalists, politicians, and sanitation experts gathered in Seoul for the association’s inaugural meeting in 2007, with the goal of saving lives with clean water.
“More than 2.6 billion people live without toilets. And most of those people live in Asia and Africa,” says Lee, who adds that about two million people die of waterborne diseases caused by inadequate facilities. The most heartwarming presentation is a testament to what Mr. Toilet was able to accomplish before he died. “Before” photos of unsanitary facilities and “after ” photos of hygienic upgrades line one wall. These beautification projects, financed through the WTA, took place in Mongolia, China, South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana. Admission to the museum is free, but visitors have the opportunity to donate, through the Be a Toilet Angel fundraiser, so that these efforts continue in the countries that need them most.
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