Uptight Americans Could Learn Something From Koreans. About Poop.
I still remember the day, at age 14, when I realized that my non-Korean friends weren't obsessed with poop.
“I haven’t pooped in at least two days,” I told my friend, interpreting her silence as a passive prompt for more information.
“I bet it’s building up.”
The quiet persisted, and I began to understand her soft look of intrigue was actually one of revulsion, but I kept going because that's what you do when you're an unsocialized teen.
“Do you think if I drink some coffee I’ll be able to go soon?”
The answer, of course, was, yes, I would.
She didn’t tell me so, but my mother would have. She’s the one who gave me my first lesson in pooping, after all. Because -- in case you didn’t know -- there are ways. My mom’s been teaching me them for as long as I can remember.
Hint: it’s all about the food.
Mamma No is an objectively good cook. Having spent most of her 20s and 30s in Rome, she picked up kitchen techniques from the Italian nonne next door, and, even more impressively, learned how to craft traditional Korean dishes from a limited selection of local ingredients.
While the fascination with pooping is pretty ubiquitous in Korean culture -- and a key consideration in traditional dishes -- her resulting hyper-consciousness in the kitchen made my poop-ducation an extra-detailed one.
I remember countless a dinner when, upon being served a pasta bianca or tofu stew, my mother, like an overeager hostess, spelled out the various intestinally beneficial qualities of each recipe.
“This green cabbage will give you clean, whole poop,” she would say over a steaming plate.
Because of course, the best foods, apart from being delicious, reward you with semi-hard, solid discharge. NES (Never Ending Shit) is for inexperienced eaters.
Such words of intestinal wisdom have probably been as much a part of my upbringing as your folks’ chidings to finish your green beans. I honestly still don’t find it any more weird than parents telling their kids to drink milk for strong bones. But people tell me it is.
My friend’s less-than-enthused response to my question that day gave me the first hint that shitting techniques may not be the most normal small-talk topic. Up until high school, I had been working bowel problems into conversation on the reg. I genuinely thought it was a completely casual topic -- an everyday inquiry of the “how’d you sleep last night?” variety.
And why not? Pooping is one of our bodies’ most essential satisfactions, second only to sex and sleeping. If yawns are 1/10 of an orgasm, pooping are at least 3/10 of one. And we all talk about the former two subjects in spades.
I personally can’t recall the last visit home when I didn’t leave with a fresh supply of bathroom advice.
“Activia yogurt is a great low-calorie snack. Plus, if you have one in the morning, you’ll be able to poop by lunch time,” my mom would confidently prescribe.
“A kiwi a day keeps the constipation away,” she’d chime.
In my household, even general health tips have almost always been coupled with remarks on bowel movements. If my skin breaks out, my mom tells me it’s because I’m constipated. If I’m stressed, she’ll inquire on the softness of my poop -- as a gauge of the severity of my anxiety, of course.
My other Korean friends cite the same conversational trend. On a recent visit to New York, one friend’s dad contemplated gifting her a yogurt-making machine (sorry Mom, secret’s out) but instead settled on a pickled bean recipe “guaranteed to make your bowels move.”
Other Korean staples have similarly been recommended to me as purgative catalysts: kimchi, napa cabbage, Korean chili peppers.
Or, perhaps you’re familiar with Yakult, that pink, sweet, milky drink sold in teeny 2.7 oz plastic bottles at ethnic markets. What is a delicious imported treat for most people is often marketed as Bathroom Helper for me.
As my cousin puts it, “Everything I eat is based on how much it makes me poo.”
To be honest, I get many people's aversion to shoot the shit about their own poop. Human excrement is, objectively, a gross subject.
But I like to think of this preoccupation as an extension of Korean culture.
Generally, food in Korea is savored less as a source of pleasure in and of itself, and more as a social experience. Given this lesser emphasis on instant gratification, the widened focus on the eating process from start to finish makes sense.
But maybe I’m just bullshitting myself.
Korean food also centers around red meat, fiber-rich stews, and sinfully spiced veggies -- an explosion of flavor bound to pose a challenge against the harmonious balance of gut flora. An interest in restorative techniques is to be expected.
Whatever the origins, I dream of a world in which we can discuss poop as casually as dieting tips. While eating. I think of it as the next frontier in the world of stigmatized bodily topics.
Yesterday, my mom sent me another one of her pooping suggestions.
“...and it’ll clean out your entire stomach,” it ended.
Now don’t tell me you don’t want to be let on on that secret.
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