By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
While there are many things that I love about Korea, there are two things that drive me crazy. One is that, in my observation, most Korean men don't wash their hands after using the bathroom.
I know some people get defensive about non-Koreans commenting in a negative way about Korean culture and life, that they want to attack the messenger and the messenger's native country. So I will start by clearly stating that many men in America don't wash their hands either.
According to the Website Stop Handshaking, while 92 percent of adults in America say they wash their hands in public restrooms, an observational study of 6,076 adults sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) found that only 66 percent of men actually washed their hands in public restrooms (88 percent of women did so).
As an aside, I am curious how they "observed" that many people washing or not washing their hands, but I accept the results, thank them for verifying my own observation and will continue evading shaking hands with people.
I am not alone. There are some well-known people who don't shake hands, according to Stop HandShaking. Donald Trump does his best to avoid shaking hands. Actor/comedian Howie Mandel avoids shaking hands. Got it? Not everyone in America washes their hands and I also avoid shaking hands there.
I prefer to wave or fist-bump. The "a-ha!" moment was years ago, a friendly Korean men, after striking up a conversation with me after using the bathroom, wanted to shake hands as we were leaving (we talked, I washed my hands, but he didn't). He may have changed his shirt, not actually used the bathroom, but I began to notice how few men washed their hands.
A wonderful thing happened two years ago after I sprained my right wrist. People stopped trying to shake my hand. Some determined people insisted ― left-handed. I couldn't fake having two sprained wrists.
My wrist got better, but I continued wearing the wrist brace. Some of my Korean friends pointed out that I had been wearing that wrist brace for a really long time. I began carrying the wrist brace to put on at social and business events.
Some people might think I am complaining about Koreans. No way. I don't try to change Koreans. But I do say what I believe and respond appropriately to things I don't like, no matter where I am.
I tell people not to take it personally. After all, even if they wash their hands, they may be shaking hands with plenty of other people who don't. Sometimes I can't avoid it, especially when older Korean men insist on shaking hands.
Wise guys point out that fist-bumps aren't perfect either, that I should do an elbow-bump, or Namaste, or the peace-sign. I agree with them all, I'm fine with whichever way they'd like, besides shaking hands. Then at other times, what the hell, I shake hands, it is too much of a hassle to explain or have people saying I'm too picky.
A second related thing that drives me crazy about Korea are the bathrooms. Of course, I'm not suggesting that all bathrooms in Korea are terrible or that all bathrooms in America are spotless. The bathroom at the Yeouido subway station one stop from my office even won the "Best Toilet" award a few years ago ― deservedly so. If there were ever an international "Best Toilet" or "Best Custodian" competition, then I would nominate and write a heartfelt recommendation for the bathroom and attendant at Yeouido station.
Overall, most bathrooms in Seoul are not well-maintained. Outside of Seoul, they are usually disasters. One reason to avoid mom-and-pop restaurants is that mom and pop apparently don't like to clean the restaurant bathroom.
Last year, I got into two interesting conversations about this. A Frenchman criticized me for not being more accepting of Korea's bathrooms and said it wasn't a problem that Koreans didn't wash their hands after using them. His point was that visitors to Korea should accept everything about Korea (yes, "everything," so he may have been to an extreme). It seemed that he would defend Koreans taking turns punching him in the face if there had already been a tradition of Koreans punching Frenchmen in the face.
Shortly after that, I had a conversation with a Korean-American acquaintance. He was shocked when he first went to America to find that bathrooms could be so clean, it made him realize how atrocious Korean bathrooms were maintained. He was even more critical about that than I have ever been, expressing his utter amazement that people would use the bathroom without washing their hands.
In agreement and disagreement, I had pleasant conversations with both of them. In parting, I waved good-bye to the Frenchman and shook hands with the Korean-American.
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Video with photos from 2012 when I sprained my wrist.