Korea and Me: The Apartment


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Korea and Me – a series of photo essays detailing the particulars of the waygook in Korea. These, really, are to show you the individual examples of the general truths for foreign English teachers. My apartment, my school, the neighbourhood, the typical restaurant… I will photograph them endlessly and then write a big slew of words telling you about them. It seems fitting I should start with the apartment.

A large chunk of foreign English teachers live in officetels – single, bachelor style apartments, usually in a building with foreigners, Koreans, and businesses on the first few floors. The most obvious place to start the description: it is small. It has all the basic necessities of life, but it exists in Koreaspace, and thus it must be compressed and squished to allow for maximum efficiency and people-packing. Korea has a large population, a tiny landmass, and little space left to build on the ground, so they build up, and make the places to live tinier and more multi-purpose–a long series of identical Swiss Army apartments.

My apartment, if anything, is on the larger-than-average side. There are some with grander apartments (my friend Thanh has a loft-style, meaning her bed is on a mini-second floor; my friend Sibs has two bedrooms), but most others have something smaller. Upon entering, one such friend with her own tiny rat-hole commented: “Your apartment is huge. You could stand over there. And then you could stand over there.” Another slumped upon walking in, reporting, “I live in a prison cell.” My apartment is spacious enough that I can have guests over to not only eat, but even to sleep on the futon.

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Really, for the most part, you can adapt to any size of Korean apartment you get, but your opinion of it on first blush will largely be determined by its state. Usually, apartments for foreign teachers are owned or contracted out by the school, and thus have housed their own particular cycle of foreigners for a number of years. The condition of your apartment when you enter it on the first day depends on how clean, how kind, and how thoughtful the previous English teacher was.

Again, I was lucky in this regard. Experiences range pretty far: while Thanh found her fridge stocked with fresh, unopened bottles of soju, whiskey, beer, and tequila, a sort of “Have a good time!” tip of the hat from the last waygook who lived there, others have not been so lucky. My neighbours, a couple, found the only remainders of the previous occupant to be copious amounts of human hair, grotesque amounts of grease, and a half-empty box of Trojans.

The woman who once lived in my apartment apparently believed in paying it forward, though sometimes to an absurd degree. Your apartment is supposed to come stocked with a certain bevy of items specified in your contract, but knowing how insufficient many of the items can be on start-up, she stocked up for me. I found: a dozen bottles of shampoo, two fresh bars of soap, laundry detergent, extra utensils and plates, two vacuums, a closet extender, extra blankets, a futon. She even left two unopened bottles of contact solution (as well as… her contacts, still floating in their container, in case I lost mine, I guess?). Wherever you are, Lisa, I owe you a beer. Or porridge, as you left me about two dozen bags of that.

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When you get your Korean apartment, there are a series of adjustments you have to make. You generally have to go through a number of acclimation phases, which can be taken in your own order. My first objective was to personalize it, to at least some degree: I dumped out my books, put up pictures from home, scraped off the butterfly decals from the wall. I smeared a flag upon my front door. It needed to feel like mine before I did anything else.

After hitting the superficial, I began the great cleansing. Despite the obvious fastidiousness of the previous tenant, the apartment didn’t quite feel as though it belonged to me in any way until I had scrubbed the dust and dirt from every corner, rewashed the dishes, and douched the entire bathroom. I washed the individual egg-slots in the fridge. I cleaned the drawers where I kept the utensils. If this apartment was to have any filth, it was to be mine.

The last phase is figuring out how everything works. Shockingly, many appliances in Korea have Korean writing on them! While I can read and write Korean, the words ultimately mean nothing to me, and thus most of the things in my apartment became a work of trial and error. (Except for the washing machine: I asked my co-teacher to read the buttons, and after she gestured to “standard,” I set it to that and have never changed it from there.) Once you have burned yourself, had a cold shower or two, deciphered which bin takes what kind of refuse (Korea is serious business about separating), it all becomes a matter of settling in and adjusting to just how different it is from Western abodes.

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The kitchen, for one. I’m used to enormous, oceanic Canadian kitchens, where you can use four burners at once, shove something in the oven, and still have a few other small appliances whirring the background. Here, I have two burners (electric, something uncommon for Korean apartments), no counter space, and a fridge that just meets my waist (with a separate freezer, though, another rarity). The lifestyle, then, is to do small runs to the grocery store or the bakery, picking up what you need as you go, rather than the North American hording-style shopping habits long embedded in my brain. Having such a tiny kitchen also just encourages you to go out for dinner more often.

Another adjustment: ventilation. Korean summers are obscenely hot, and thus, as a Canadian unaccustomed to mind-bending humidity, the air-conditioner is my best friend. While the space is small, the ACs home above my door, metres away from my bed, seems impossibly far. For the first few weeks, my window latch was also broken, and thus most of the cool air would escape, only to be replaced by its nemesis, boiling hot air. As the weather began to cool over the last week, I rejoiced: Incheon began to approximate pleasant, Toronto in late-May weather. I cracked the windows as far open as they would go to blast the apartment with such moderate temperatures. As I soon discovered, such willy-nilly abandon was poorly thought, as within two nights my arms became spackled with Korean mosquito bites, as most Korean windows do not come with screens.

Really, the only area that has required some serious adjustment is the bathroom. I knew, coming in, that I would likely get a Korean-style shower: a shower-head attached to your sink, and a big hole in the ground. You essentially just shower in the middle of things, soak whatever else is around, and go about your day, wearing flip flops if you need to re-enter for anything else. It is jarring at first: I am used to being cloistered as I shower, contained in a safe porcelain pod where the water lives and can do no damage to anything else. More than that, though, I also have a full-size mirror above my sink, meaning that every day I see myself bathe. Though I am utterly alone in the room, it feels illogically not private, almost seedy: I am watching someone bathe, and someone is watching me bathe. Even though it is the same party, at first you want to just turn around and face the wall when you wash.

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The shower, though, I could easily take, if I did not have to stand directly beside my washing machine. Lodged into the corner of the bathroom, I stand awkwardly beside it, trying not to spray it’s plug or any of the machine parts, hoping as I do not to irrevocably damage it. When I want to do laundry, I have to use an extension cord to plug it in across the bathroom, bisecting the space. From there, it then runs for over an hour, its spin cycles sounding like the power-up time on major rocket ships. As it dries, it vomits the laundry water also onto the floor and down the shower drain, meaning I must try to keep the extension cord and various plugs suspended in the air, and then walk away and not use the bathroom for a while, hoping nothing explodes in my absence.

So, three weeks in, nothing has exploded yet. And really, in my first apartment, and what could basically be your first Korean apartment, there isn’t much of a greater goal.

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21 thoughts on “Korea and Me: The Apartment

  1. i’m going to leave my comments in the order that they occurred to me:

    1. while the previous occupant of thanh’s place was super kind to leave her booze, the whiskey should not have been in the fridge! whiskey is meant to be room room temperature, people!

    2. i prefer to think of the box of trojans as “half-full” and not “half-empty”.

    3. there’s a picture of me on your wall! a drunk picture!

    • 1. To be fair, the power shut off after she left, so it was probably at room temperature once Thanh got there.

      2. Don’t go getting philosophical on me, Wood. When I told the half-empty box part to someone here, they remarked “Oh, it sounds like he must have hit a dry spell halfway through.” I remarked that this assumes this was the first box. Re-evaluate your philosophy as you pair the condoms with the abundant hair and grease remaining in that apartment.

      3. I like that you a) can see yourself in that picture, and b) can tell that you are drunk (well, we). Do I even have any pictures of you that are not drunk?

      • while i would never condone using condoms that you’d found in an apartment you’d moved into, regardless of the hair and grease situation, the wide-eyed optimist in me insists that the box was half-full. good call on the multiple box theory. though, if the hair and grease were as bad as reported, one doubts he was getting repeat visits.

        the lack of sober damon pictures are few and far between. especially in relation to central outings. i think cameras only came out when booze was involved.

        • I guess this just says something about how we view the world: I think the found box of disturbing condoms to be half-empty, you say half-full. How did we ever become friends in the first place? I think it’s a double apartment, so one assumes the condoms may have belonged to a couple… apparently a couple of bonobos, given the rest, but a couple none the less.

          I included a picture from the OISE challenge up on my wall! I assume we weren’t drunk at that time.

  2. i could probably live in that apartment for the exception of the bathroom. there’s no way i can shower like that. that’s just wrong. i loved this comment, “If this apartment was to have any filth, it was to be mine.” damn right. also, the girl with the medieval hat looks super fun!

  3. Michael:

    While Damon seems to have hit the nail on the head with most of the comments, seems there is one comment missed: What do you mean by “she can even sleep on the futon”. Must have been a comment for your mother!

    • I think we both know my mother will ultimately not make the trek. For now, the futon is open to friends and family alike. It’s a way to get people to come to my neighbourhood so I don’t have to commute, honestly.

    • Not only will you be able to stand in it, I will be able to stand somewhere else. At the same time!

      As someone who has thus accompanied me across two continents, and will likely soon come to see a third, you’re damn right you’re up on the wall.

  4. YO nice apartment, great to hear everything is going well. I actually might be able to make it to Korea in Febuary for a 6month contract so here’s hoping. Do you still check your hotmail email, or do you check a different one more frequently. Either way mind telling me which one is your main email account you check the most cause soon im gonna need expert help with the teacher’s college application thanks!!!!!!!!

  5. I thought I would have a small apartment, too before I came to Korea. However, it’s much bigger than I expected, maybe because it’s in the country side (rural area). You seem to have adjusted alright to yours, though.

  6. Well, if it makes you feel even better, there is a trade off. In the countryside, at least where I am, you’d have a nice size apartment but be far from the lots of things and bigger party cities like Seoul, if you like to go out a lot. It takes from 1.5 to 2.5 hours or more depending on where you are going, like places in Seoul because you’d first have to wait for the bus from my area which doesn’t run as frequent as the main city buses (about once an hour), then take another bus to a subway or another bus terminal.

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