First, the good news. This toilet (yes, that's what it is) is a dying breed in Korea.
New Korean public buildings and apartments almost always have western sit-upon toilets these days. But the chances are that at some point in your Korean year or two, you're going to have to use one of these "squatter closets." Older public buildings still have them (and your hagwon might, as Margaret's did). Railway and bus stations usually have both Asian and western toilets, but some older ones have only the squatters.
Asians consider squatters more sanitary because your bum doesn't touch anything. (Obviously not. It's hanging out there in the middle of the air.) There's also a reason that your dog or cat instinctively squats when he poops -- it aligns your plumbing right to get the nasty stuff out. Besides, Korea is the land of ppalli, ppalli (hurry, hurry). Squatters encourage speed and efficiency. You don't take a magazine into the loo when it's fitted with one of these gadgets.
So, on the assumption that you'll probably run into a few of these while you're in Korea, here are some tips.
Using a squatter closet: If you carry your wallet in your back pocket, transfer it to a side pocket before dropping your pants. The consequences otherwise are unthinkable. Stuff with straps, such as camera cases and shoulder bags, you can hang from your neck if there's no hook in the stall, which is fairly likely.
Roll up your pants cuffs. You also won't be dropping your pants all the way. Put 'em down around your ankles, and not only will they get dunked in anything on the floor (ick), they may also, uh, get in the line of fire if you're not careful (also ick).The part that rises from the floor is the front (call it the hood). This makes sense if you think of a little boy's potty. Face the hood and stand over the rest of the squatter, with your feet on either side of it, beside or just behind the hood. Drop trou to half-mast, and tuck the waistband under your knees as you squat down.
No job is finished until the paperwork is done. And here is where I might lose you. So take a deep breath, because you'll need it, quite literally.Don't drop your used TP in the toilet yet. Look round the stall. See that metal or plastic trash can with the pop-up or lift-up lid? Yeah, that one within easy reach. Guess what it's for: not just for paper towels. That's not even just for used tampons and pads. It's also where your used TP goes. Yeah, I know, ewwww. Fact: Squatter closets were not designed to flush TP. Some older throne toilets can't, either, and older buildings themselves often don't have the greatest plumbing. If you see a can in the stall but decide to chuck your TP in the toilet anyway, you're apt to plug up the plumbing. That'll upset the building maintenance people. They will then think glowering thoughts about westerners. You don't want that to happen, do you? I didn't think so. Do your duty. Hold breath. Pop top. Drop. You'll have a year. Get used to it. For more suggestions and background on squatter closets, see this page on their nearly identical Japanese cousins. There's also a link on that page to step-by-step illustrated instructions which are much more entertaining than mine.
Now, some general notes on Korean restrooms.
Privacy: There was a time when Korea was infamous for some of Asia's filthiest public restrooms. Say what you will about Korea, they usually react to this kind of negative publicity -- and sometimes in ways that actually help! They also tend to go a little overboard. These days, it's not all that rare to find vases of flowers in public loos, and cleaning ajomma now are a lot more common. Sometimes they'll clean several times a day, not just after hours.What are ajomma? Middle aged women. In the mens' room? Yep. Easy there! Did I not say middle aged women? They're there to do a job. Unlike their prudish American counterparts, they're not going to demurely excuse themselves. Ignore them. Trust me, they'll ignore you too. You're in Korea. Privacy is different here. Get used to it.
TP: for all the improvements, public restrooms still may or may not supply certain basics that we Americans sort of take for granted -- toilet paper, for example. The ones that do may have a dispenser outside the toilet stalls, but none inside. Check before you get settled in a stall and grab some from the dispenser if need be. If you forget, and there's none in the stall, I hope you have a pack of tissues in your pocket. Don't forget to use the pop-top can.
Back when Margaret was teaching in 2000 and 2001 -- and you may yet find some of this today -- small family-run restaurants often didn't buy paper napkins for the tables. They just put a TP roll on each table. Many times there'd be a more discreet napkin-stand-in TP roll next to the water cooler or aircon, too. If you were headed for the loo, you'd grab some, since you'd never know what the restroom had. Our Western dining companions found this amusing. Our Korean friends didn't even notice.For better and/or worse, today most Korean eateries have small, neatly folded paper napkins on the table instead. Our lifeline is gone! I hope you have a pack of tissues in your pocket. When we were there, the Kangnung (Gangneung) gas stations gave away free tissue packs with each purchase. Our Korean friends translated this bonus into English as "service." Nice thought, but it did us no good, since we never had a car or scooter and never bought gasoline. I also recommend a little bottle of hand sanitizer. Quite a few Korea restrooms don't provide towels. Some don't have soap, either. If they do, it may be a communal bar on a curved rod above the sink. (Fear not. This is no more unsanitary than a US-type push-button or pull-lever soap dispenser.) A few, mostly in the boonies, don't even have sinks. Does all this leave you unsettled, you poor germ obsessed, antibacterially sanitized American? It shouldn't. Remember that even though they have a much higher smoking rate, Korea's life expectancy is within 1 percent of the US's. So quit worrying so much, and enjoy (the rest of) Korea.