A disgusting Korea-specific problem and how to solve it

As a friend recently said, covid-19 has been excellent for Netflix, journalism, and Zoom. And cleaning products, I’d add.

It’s certainly the time for spring cleaning. We all want to sanitise the bejeezus out of our homes and we have the time on our hands to do it. I finally cleaned my one-year-old white Nike Air Force 1’s (those magic sponges work a treat, by the way) INCLUDING the shoelaces (you can just throw them into the washing machine with your towels).

Wow, this is a super fascinating blog, right?

Working from home is an excellent way to become acutely aware of all the little things you need to fix in your home, and fixing stuff is a wonderful way to procrastinate. One such issue in my apartment is easily blocked drains.

In Australia, I took efficient drainage for granted, giving little thought to how much or what was going down where. But Korea has old, narrow pipes, hence why you can’t flush your toilet paper in some toilets. (Quick aside: does anyone else agree that there should be some general rule for communicating when you can and cannot flush your toilet paper in Korea? For example, all toilets should be taken as paper-flushable, except if they have a sign saying otherwise—just like well-designed doors should be assumed push-able, except if they have a “pull” sign. Signs saying “yes, you can go ahead and flush your toilet paper” should be moot! Ok, weird rant over.)

There’s something quite disgusting about standing in inches of dirty, stagnant shower water. Or brushing your teeth in the bathroom sink as you watch the water level get increasingly higher, filled with toothpaste and spit and other delights. Or smelling something off in your kitchen, and removing the drain cover to find this:

Diagram 1: an artistic rendering of my kitchen sink and drain.

Though I’m not a clean freak, or a germ-a-phobe, I don’t even uphold particulary high standards of hygiene, truth be told(!), this drain issue has been weighing on me. A friend suggested her method of alleviating this issue in her bathroom: she regularly disconnects the pipe at the back of the basin, and removes a thick, black worm of slimy gunk that resembles some kind of living creature from Stranger Things.

NO FREAKIN’ WAY AM I DOING THAT.

I knew there had to be a Korean version of Drano, but wasn’t sure what it was called. This is one of the difficulties of being an expat without a firm grip on the local language (don’t judge me). So you find yourself standing in the supermarket or Daiso aisle for twenty minutes, comparing different bottles of what you’re pretty sure is a bathroom cleaner, while looking up specific Korean words on your tiny-ass iPhone screen (an iPhone SE, much in need of an update, as my friends love to point out.)

But another aspect of expat life is that often, when you get together with other expats, you trade little life hacks. Remember to select this check box on your banking app when you transfer your rent…here’s where you can buy an entire chicken for $5…Coupang Eats is crazy fast for delivery… In this way, I was thankfully spared by one of my work colleagues, who’s hitting the six-year mark of living in Korea, who introduced me to the following products (all available on Coupang, like 99% of anything else you would ever need).

1. 홈스타 (Homestar) Max

This is a wonderfully caustic gel that will cut through all the accumulated hair, soap scum, bodily fluids etc—the aforementioned composite of black slimy gunk—that has clogged your bathroom sink. It comes with a little plastic tub that slides neatly over your drain cover. Pour the entire contents of the bottle into the tub and go watch Netflix and sheet mask your face while the gel works its magic.

Thank you, harsh chemicals.

2. 애기 쓰봉 — biodegradable kitchen drain nets

As illustrated in Diagram 1 above, Korean kitchen sinks have a plastic filter basket beneath the drain cover, which then gets emptied into your food waste rubbish bag. All good in theory but small pieces of food pass through the filter and end up turning to mould on the sides of your drain, and the filter itself becomes so gross that frankly, you have to throw it away and buy a new one. ANYWAY, I’m hoping that these little nets which line the inside of the basket, will help to rectify the issue. Made from corn silk, you can just dispose of the whole thing in your food waste bag.

3. 펑크린—Pong Clean, all-purpose drain cleaner

Pong! Apparently “펑 means boom! bang! pop! or similar, and denotes some kind of unclogging action.

If you want to address any other blocked and/or smelly drains, you can get yourself an all-purpose drain cleaner like this one. Like Homestar Max, you pour it down your drain, wait for a while, and then run some hot water. I haven’t used this one yet, but I feel very comforted by the possession of strong corrosives in my ongoing battle against Korean drains.

If you’ve read this far, I hope I haven’t bored you to death! Happy drain unclogging!

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