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By Terence Cole @talesfromterry
There are so many things that you don’t know when you move to a foreign country. For instance, did you know that you can’t flush Kleenex wet wipes down the toilet in Korea? I wish I had known this. And I’m pretty sure that my landlord also wishes I had known this!
One morning, I was getting ready to go to work, when the intercom for my building came on. I had gotten into the habit of recording the voice messages from the intercom, and having one of my co-teachers interpret them for me. I recorded the message, then headed off to school. My Korean wasn’t very good at the time, but I could tell that the message was concerning something about my building.
When I went outside, construction was taking place in front of my building. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but the owner of the apartment looked upset while he spoke to the foremen of the construction crew. I greeted the apartment owner, and then went to work like usual.
At our first break, I remembered that I needed one of my co-teachers to interpret the message from the intercom. I had a wonderful co-teacher named Ms. Rose, who not only spoke English very well, but also was an angel to my family and I. She was my unofficial Emo “이모” (auntie in Korea).
I handed Ms. Rose my iPod and asked her to interpret what she heard. She listened to the message for a few minutes, and then we had the following conversation:
Ms. Rose: “They are having a problem with the sewer pipes at your apartment. Something like cloth seems to have been flushed down the pipes, and it has plugged up the entire apartment complex.”
At first I thought to myself, “Well, that puts me in the clear. I certainly haven’t done anything like that!”
But then I though to myself, “Aren’t the wipes that I use kind of cloth-like?” I looked in my bag and brought them out. Before then, I never really thought to double check and see if flushing them was okay, but figured that now might be a good time to find out:
Me: “Ms. Rose, are these okay to flush down the toilet?”
Ms. Rose: “Not at all! You see this little picture on the back of the pack with a toilet with an X through it?”
Me: “I do now.”
Ms. Rose: “That means that you shouldn’t flush them. Kleenex makes wipes that can be flushed, but these aren’t that kind.”
All of the English teachers in the building worked in a shared office, so everyone could hear our conversation. An American English teacher named Crystal then added:
Crystal: “Yeah, but even if someone did flush those wipes, they would have to flush a ridiculous amount to stop up a sewer system!”
The problem was that I did flush a ridiculous amount of those wipes. In fact, I was using so many of them, that I had started buying them in bulk packages!
I wanted to hold it inside, but my spirit urged me to tell the truth. I’ve learned over the years that when your spirit is unsettled, it will remain unsettled until you do what you know you should do:
Me: “Ms. Rose, I think I broke the sewer pipes of my apartment.”
I then explained to her that I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to flush those wipes, and that it was truly an accident. I’d thought to myself, “How can something from Kleenex possibly be bad for toilets!”
I asked her to call my landlord and tell him what happened.
Ms. Rose then told me that it would be better if I didn’t say anything, because I might be liable for the damages to the sewer. I knew that she meant well, but I also knew that my spirit wouldn’t be settled until I had fessed up. I told her that I understood that I might have to pay, but that I wanted to be upfront with the owner.
Shortly thereafter, I headed home for lunch. While walking, it dawned on me that there was no way that Ms. Rose was going to tell my landlord anything! By nature she is a mild-mannered person who does not like to bring up sensitive topics. Talking to a landlord about how the resident foreign teacher broke his apartment’s pipes with Kleenex, is not a conversation that she had any intention of having. The only way this conversation was taking place, was if I made it happen.
I dropped my things off at my apartment, and went to the office of the building administrator. My apartment’s administrator was a middle aged lady who was very nice and helpful. She also didn’t speak any English, so on my way to the office I practiced what I was going to say in my bootleg Korean.
When she saw me, she ushered me into her office with a smile and asked how she could help. We then had approximately the following conversation in Korean:
Apartment Lady: “How can I help you, Terence?”
Me: “There is a problem with the bathrooms of my apartment. Yes?”
Apartment Lady: “Yes, there is a problem with the sewer pipes.”
Me: “Maybe that problem was from me.”
I then showed her the wipes that I had been flushing down the toilet.
Apartment Lady: “NOOOOO!!! Terence, how could you!!!”
Me: “I’m sorry, but I not know. I’m very sorry.”
Apartment Lady: “Okay, okay. The apartment is being fixed. Don’t use these anymore, okay?”
Me: “Yes. I not use them from now on.”
Apartment Lady: “Good. Also, do not tell the apartment owner. Okay?”
To be honest, since the entire conversation took place in Korean, I couldn’t be 100% sure that she told me not to talk to the owner of my apartment. However, I seem to remember her holding one finger to her lips in a, “Shhhhhh. Don’t tell anyone,” kind of way.
I walked back to my apartment and was thankful that I had confessed. Even though it would have been nice to try and slide by and not tell anyone what I had done, I realized that wasn’t the right thing to do. My spirit tends to guide me on things, and whenever I choose to ignore it, things go poorly. My spirit told me to fess up, so I went ahead and did it.
As I walked back into my apartment, I saw a wooden plank beside its entrance. What looked to be a pile of dirty rags sat top of the plank, and the entire mess was positioned next to an open sewer hole. I was pretty sure that those “rags” were actually a mountain of non-flushable Kleenex, that I had been flushing down the toilet for weeks.
Tip from Terence: One thing that Westerners may find surprising about many Asian countries, is that you are not supposed to flush paper products down the toilet. This could be because their sewer systems aren’t designed for this kind of waste, or it could just be a way to prevent sewers from clogging. Most restrooms will have a special waste bin dedicated to used paper products, and you are supposed to throw all used paper waste into this bin. I should have realized that this was why I should not have been flushing paper ANYTHING down the toilet, but old habits die hard. I lived in South Korea for three years, and I can count on one hand how many times I put used paper in that bin. Whoops!
Later on that day, I received a knock on my apartment door. It was the owner of the building. He was an older Korean gentleman who used to work with the American army at one of the local bases, and he spoke English quite well. The owner never bothered to speak Korean with me, because he KNEW I would understand every word he said if he spoke in English:
Owner: “I knew it was you!”
So much for the owner not finding out about what I’d done.
Me: “I’m really sorry. I had no idea that I could not flush those wipes. I’ve stopped using them. Again, I’m really sorry.”
Owner: “How could you not realize this?”
Me: “I’m really sorry.”
Tip from Terence: In the words of the master of personal relations, Dale Carnegie, “If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” If you make a mistake, it is best to admit it as quickly as you can and not make excuses. Apologize sincerely and you will be given much more leniency than you might have received if you had tried to shift the blame elsewhere. Carnegie was an American, but his principles are timeless and work well around the world.
The owner’s face then softened, and he explained what happened because of the Kleenex. The reason the wipes caused so much trouble, was that one of the tree’s roots in front of the apartment had grown to the point of breaking through the apartment’s sewer pipes. My Kleenex wipes were caught in the roots of the tree, which is why the system had gotten backed up.
My mistake had illuminated a problem that the landlord didn’t realize that he had. In my mind, I was a hero for helping him realize his problem!
Of course, I didn’t actually say this to the landlord, but I did stop worrying about whether or not I’d be charged for the damage. The events turned out well (or at least not too badly) for everyone.
And yes, I did stop using the non-flushable wipes. I moved on to the actual flushable kind, because I still loved Kleenex wipes!
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