The second of two extracts from the early pages of Park Wan-suh’s Who ate up all the shinga? dealing with the memories of her childhood existence in the countryside near Kaesong in the 1930s and early 1940s, posted to coincide with the Korean garden at the Chelsea Flower Show this coming week, which features an outside toilet.
Grown-ups, for their part, swept the outhouse ground morning and evening, leaving behind clear broom marks. Back then, excrement was used, together with compost, for fertilizer. The population was small relative to the amount of cultivated land, so this night soil was always in short supply. Disposing of the ash in the outhouse covered the faeces and increased its value by bulking it up.
Sometimes villagers want all the way to Songdo to buy human waste for fertilizer, but they complained that the “Kaesong skinflints” watered it down. Of course, those who grumbled were just as miserly, for they never peed in other people’s fields; even if they went to visit neighbours, they held on to their full bladders until they made it back to the edge of their own patches.
I don’t think I was that calculating, being so young, but I’d go off to our outhouse with a pack of friends. If kids are playing house and one suddenly asks, “Who wants to play hide-and-seek?” the others scramble after her. In exactly the same vein, when anyone suggested a trip to the outhouse, we’d all follow. We’d squat together, out round bottoms exposed, and strain in unison, even if we didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Back then, little girls wore “windbreaker knickers,” with an opening underneath to make squatting easier. Even at midday, the outhouse was dark, and the girls’ white bottoms looked pale and blurry, like unripe gourds on a roof beneath a hazy moon.
Although we exposed our bums, it wasn’t a big deal if we didn’t have to move our bowels. Crouching side by side and chatting was fantastic fun. As we squatted in our dim hide-away, excreting little corn ears of dung to mirror what we’d eaten, our trivial tales called forth flights of fancy and elicited histrionic “oohs” and “aahs.” “Did you hear about Kapsun’s dog? It had six puppies, but listen to this! The dog’s yellow, but no puppy was yellow – just black ones, white ones, and white ones with black spots.”
The most important thing was to deposit plentiful, well-formed turds in the outhouse. We knew there was nothing shameful in shit, because it went back to the earth, helping cucumbers and pumpkins grow in abundance and making watermelons and melons sweet. We got not only to savour the instinctive pleasure of excretion, but to feel pride in producing something valuable.
And while the outhouse itself was fun, after a lengthy stay within it the outside world took on an extraordinarily beautiful cast. The sunlight glittering on the green in the kitchen garden, the grasses and trees, the tiny streams – all this was as dazzling as if we’d never seen any of it before. We squinted and sighed, feeling almost as though we’d emerged from a forbidden pleasure. Much later, when I experienced the world’s brilliant strangeness after watching a movie that was off-limits to high-school students, the white collar of my uniform tucked under to conceal my identity, I felt that these outhouse adventures of my childhood were replaying themselves.
From the translation by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein, Columbia University Press, 2009