The Shoebox and the Palace

All clean on the western front.

It’s very cozy.

I remember the day when my main co-teacher showed me my Korean apartment. I was carrying two suitcases and was swaddled in a sopping-wet sweater vest, slick with Korean humidity and my own terror-sweat. I looked around my one room, my first apartment to myself, and was stunned by a sense of grandeur. There were walls and a ceiling, a bed and a couch, pots and pans and an entire bathroom, and they were just for me. They were mine. All twenty cubic metres of them.

My meagre collection of belongings easily slid under beds and into cupboards, my suitcases wedged below the couch and beside the wardrobe. I had no decorations to speak of, other than pictures I sellotaped to walls and whatever sea-creature decals I allowed to remain spread across the apartment in monument to its previous occupant.

I was a grown-up, and this was minimalist living, I thought. The lack of space necessitated the style, but it suited me fine. Extra room just meant more things to clean, more things to polish, more things to worry about damaging or coating in ice cream when I grew careless and sloppy. A one-room was the apartment for me, as it necessarily created a simplistic lifestyle, near monasticism in its quiet, lazy effortlessness. I felt moved in within an evening, and as much as the place could become recognizably mine, as much as a single room with a kitchenette and a single bed can become personalized, it was shaped in my image.

Of course, living within the confines of a shoebox can have its disadvantages. Entertaining became kind of a struggle, as any party larger than three people began to look like a trapeze act, requiring death-defying leaps and impressive tumbling skills in order to get around the couch and into the bathroom. Laundry required the use of the entire apartment to act as dry racks, and thus most of the weekend saw my dripping wet socks and underpants hanging from every doorknob and broom handle and freezer door. The laundry machine puked litres of filthy water into the stopped-up drain of my bathroom leading to regular floods; my fridge regularly grew angry, anthropomorphic icebergs; and I periodically had to venture under my plastic bed to reconfigure the black vinyl cones that were its only buttresses.

Visits to other apartments made me realize the shabbiness of my own, and invitations were thus doled out on rarer and rarer occasions, allowing me the free reign to live in abject squalor. I began to feel less like a grown-up and more like someone living in a dorm-room with improper supervision, or a vagabond just a few measly days away from foregoing all hygiene and making a life on the road. It was hard to think of the place as messy, really, because it was so cramped–it only looked like it was shrouded in a repugnant fug, because of the dimensions, you see. This was still the life for me, I liked to think, although I had the good sense to think this with some degree of shame.

Years later when I first walked into my Chinese apartment, I had very few coping skills for the things I was about to see. The house hunt had led me through a number of dreary, poorly-lit and hilariously furnished homes, all of which my friends disapproved but which, by simple comparison to my previous living arrangements, completely wowed and stunned me. If I hadn’t had others to hold me back, it is entirely likely I would have gladly accepted the first amply spacious broom closet offered to me, so long as it had decent internet and a washing machine that didn’t regularly cause tidal waves.

I had to stand in an entirely separate room to capture the size of this particular room. Think about it.

I had to stand in an entirely separate room to capture the size of this particular room. Think about it.

I selected an apartment that suited my needs, surpassed them, and could still have comfortably houses a large Chinese family that I would rarely see or interact with if I timed things right. I didn’t really conceive of what a three-bedroom apartment meant until moving-in day, where I poured open my backpack and suitcase onto the ocean of white tile like so much spilled olive oil. On my back and in the bowels of a plane, my belongings seemed absurd and over-prepared and more than a little delicate and needy. I had packed the way I imagined a 16th century lady of wealth might pack, assuming that I needed to cover all of my bases, which included my fine clothes being trampled by horse, chamber pot mishaps necessitating excessive pantaloons, and extra sets of everything in case of the black plague. Here, on the great wide floor of my apartment, my things looked pitiful.

There is a room in my apartment I simply never enter—it is an office space where I also store my excess luggage and furniture left in the apartment by the landlady, and also great clouds of oxygen I simply have no need to breathe yet. A whole room, great swaths of physical space, sit unused in one corner of my apartment. The notion seems unfathomable, as just two years ago I would have beaten a unicorn to death just for a few precious extra cubic millimetres in which to exist. But now I am drowning in space, drowning in rooms and windows and seats, so much of them that I simply neglect them, I pretend that they are not mine, I let them rot and fester and go unfilled.

I have already had guests visit my apartment, after it received a thorough and frantic scrubdown as it always does to throw a veil over my slovenliness. While here they went to visit my kitchen, which was an entirely separate room, and commented on the number of burners, which was more than one. When someone needed to use the bathroom, they actually had to ask for directions, and while in there no one could distinguish, solely from sound and the lack of distance from the action, whether it was a number one or a number two.

This, I thought, a single tear cresting the ridge of my eye socket, must be how kings live.


8 thoughts on “The Shoebox and the Palace

  1. “great clouds of oxygen I simply have no need to breathe yet”. hehehehe.

    I still live in tiny apartments in Australia. In our last one you had to walk through the bedroom to go to the bathroom, so entertaining meant you couldn’t simply close the bedroom door.We had no dinner table room and ate sitting on the couch or the floor for four years. We’d ask people over to have a “picnic”.

    Now we have room for a table, two couches (capitalist pigs), a bathroom with laundry space and a balcony.

    Kings indeed!

    • I got used to entertaining (or rather, just not doing it) in a small space that I simply can’t conceive of what to do with all of the space. What do you put on your other couch? Dogs? Squash? Pool equipment?

      • We breed them for capitalist gain. Or put people on them. We don’t have a TV so they face each other and then people do too.

        When you have such a tiny space for entertaining you think “I don’t even need more space” and when you actually have space, it changes you. You lose skills like intense stacking and juggling.

  2. I actually prefer a smaller apartment. Too much empty space makes me uneasy. And it can have its advantages, like you can cook while showering, or use the bathroom in the middle of the night without getting out of bed.

  3. And have you found an ayi yet? Such space would be too much to clean yourself! We live with 3 bedrooms. It is a luxury to be able to offer guests a spare room and dry your laundry in peace. 🙂

    • Not yet, but I haven’t looked too hard… I will be prodding my coworkers soon.

      Cleaning myself isn’t too bad yet, but there are a few weeks coming up where I’m going to need to work on Saturday, and that’s when I will feel the burn of not having enough time to scrub the floors.

      I just can’t wait for someone else to do my laundry.

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