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.
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.
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.
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.
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.