A lot of my friends back home have asked me what my apartment in Korea is like and how it differs from Irish homes. I can understand this curiosity – before I moved to Korea I tried to picture myself sitting in my apartment, just doing the things I do. How big would it be? What furniture would it have? What colour would the walls be?
The main difference is that in Korea it’s very unusual to live in a house, unless you’re G-Dragon or something. Due to the population density, space is at a premium and most people live in apartments. Driveways, sheds, gardens and attics are just some of the things people do without here. Another difference is that before people get married they usually live with their parents, for cultural and economic reasons that are too complicated to get into here. And those who do live independently usually have a small studio apartment, known as a ‘One Room’. Unlike in Ireland, sharing an apartment with your friends is very uncommon. I had never lived alone before, so I had visions of coming home to my cold, empty apartment, rocking backwards and forwards and crying. But it’s not like that at all – there are always events on and people to hang out with, so you can be as social as you like – you just have to get of your arse and leave your apartment.
I can still remember, crystal clear, the day I moved into my very own ‘One Room’. I was happy to see coffee shops, convenience stores and many types of restaurants on my doorstep. The happy feeling rose as I laid eyes on the brand new seven story apartment building which was to be my new home, and entered the sparking clean lift. My co-teacher pressed ‘4’, which I found surprising. Four is considered an unlucky number in Korea because it is a homonym for death. Many buildings don’t have a fourth floor, and instead skip straight from 3 to 5.
‘Ooh, a fancy dial pad!’ I thought, as my co-teacher typed in the door code on apartment 401, and turned the handle. But then my heart dropped. I knew apartments in Korea were small, but this one wasn’t a whole lot bigger than my bedroom back home.
After recovering from the small size, I remembered to take off my shoes before stepping inside. While in Ireland it’s normal to walk around the house with shoes on, this is a sure way to make a Korean person gasp in horror, and then retrace your steps with a floor cloth. This is because in Korean homes, a lot of daily living takes place on the floor – eating, relaxing and often even sleeping. And because people spit a lot on the streets here, walking into someone’s house with shoes on is like bringing the phlegm of hundreds of people onto their bed, sofa and kitchen table. Never do it.
I looked around my new home and saw that it was sparkling new and very clean, with inoffensive wallpaper, a sizable fridge and a lovely wooden floor. It was quite sparse at the the time, but I’ve slowly made it my own.
Left alone, I quickly discovered what was to become the bane of my existence. I went to the toilet and then turned on the tap to wash my hands. Imagine my horror when my head was instead drenched in cold water. While I know a couple of people in Korea with a separate shower (and one girl who has a bath, the wagon), most bathrooms in Korea are of the wet-room variety, with the shower head connected to the sink taps. You have to turn a knob to switch between two, which is grand if you’re the type of person who remembers to do such things. Many of my mornings have taken the same form – shower, dress,dry and style hair, go to the toilet, try to wash hands but instead drench head and ruin hairstyle. Say ‘feck it’ and do a pony tail.
Later on that first night, my Korean friend GaYoung came over to help me settle in. We went nuts in the nearby Tesco (or Home Plus, as it’s known in Korea), buying a clothes horse and cleaning products and all the other things you have to buy when you move into a new place. We came home and sat on the floor eating ramen, because I had no table. I woke up after the first night in my new bed, to find Young quietly writing English translations and sticking them all my appliances, making the use of my heating system, rice cooker and washing machine a lot easier.
I quickly got over the small size of my new home. Cleaning and hoovering only takes a few minutes, my electricity bill is delightfully low (less than the equivalent of €10 every month), and I still have enough space for all my things. I’ve also learned to do without the things I took for granted back home – I have no television so I catch up on shows on my laptop, I have no oven so microwave mug cakes have to satisfy my baking urges, and I have no table and chairs so I break out the floor table and cushions when I have guests.
The only thing I struggle a little with is a lack of a couch. Non-Korean guests aren’t comfortable sitting on the floor for too long, so I have to let them to sit on my bed. I prop some pillows up so it’s like an extra wide couch with no arm wrests. This takes me back to my teenage years, when I would hang out with friends in my room when other family members were using the sitting room. And my Korean friends actually talk about visiting my ‘room’ rather than my apartment. (I call it my ‘house’ for some reason).
It’s not that couches don’t exist in Korea. I’ve been to a few Korean family homes, and most of them have had couches, which they seem to use about 10% of the time. They just end up sitting on the floor in front of the couch, especially while eating. The same goes for beds – I once stayed at a friends’ apartment where everyone had their own bedroom and bed, but the whole family still slept on mats in the living room. This might have as much to do with importance of the family and sharing in Korean society, as only having to put the heating or air conditioner on in one part of the house.
Bigger family apartments in Korea often have a balcony to dry clothes, but this can be difficult in my One Room. In winter, though, there is a novel solution. I can still remember an occasion when my mother Skyped me few weeks into my time in Korea. ‘Is that clothes I see all over the floor?’ she asked me, spying my jeans and jumpers spread out behind me. ‘Some things never feckin change’ was implicit in her tone. I told her I was actually drying them, and explained ‘ondol’, the efficient and brilliant Korean heating system where hot water pipes run under the floor. Ondol is undoubtedly my favourite thing about living in a Korean apartment. There’s no cumbersome radiators, and there’s nothing quite like coming home after hard day and lying down on a nice warm spot directly over a pipe. I don’t know why this type of heating isn’t used to nearly the same extent in other parts of the world, because it truly is wonderful.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and remember: This is just the perspective of one foreigner living in Korea. To get a better idea of how Korean people live, come to Korea and visit some!