Saturday, February 27, 2010

Goshiwon 101

I'd like to say I moved into a Goshiwon because I was interested in seeing how "real" Korean people live, to experience it myself. Sadly, my motives were much more mundane than that. On my second day in Korea I lost my passport, my wallet, nearly all my money, my credit cards and my ATM card. Yes, I am a person without papers. I would have been able to scrape up the $5000 (yes five thousand dollar) minimum apartment deposit before the disappearance of my things, but in the end it became impossible. With a bit of mad money that I found, a small loan from a fellow teacher, and a desperate call to my aunt, I was finally calm enough to figure out where I was to live. The dorms where I was being permitted to stay were to be renovated. I had three days in which to find somewhere to stay - and the money to cover the expenses.

Enter KB Bank. I was *unknowingly* in the financial district and saw a big sign and thought 'that's as good a place as any to find a way to get money.' Between Messrs. Choi and Kim, and a nice young intern nicknamed Brandon, a bit of money found its way to me via Aunt Ceil in small town Tennessee. She tells me that the Western Union woman asked her several times if I could trust Mr. Choi to receive the money and to give it to me. "He's a banker" she tells the overly nervous woman. It always amazes me how protective uninformed strangers become. I mean, they don't live in grass huts, these people. They are the most wired nation in the world... or maybe second to Japan. Either way, they're civilized!

So now, coins jingling in my pocket, and hope at last, I meet up with my fellow teacher and a Mr. Park (there are a million Mr. Parks here - and Mr. Lees and Mr. Kims as well). We begin the search for an apartment. My expectations are, I think, low, but it seems that even I don't realize what you can get with only a $1,000 deposit. All are unfurnished. The first has trash cans right outside the window. Thinking of the sweltering Seoul summer, I decline. And there is the apartment with prostitute red wallpaper (no stove), and the new one, still being worked on - not enough room for the four of us to even stand in. Where ever would a bed go let alone a table and chair? But the one that finally created absolute hopelessness was the one just the right size, just the right place, stinking of dog urine. No, no, and no.

Mr. Park is a good Christian man in this land of the Morning Something or Other and has watched as my prospects fall apart. He eventually agrees to show me a goshiwon. He is reluctant of course since he does not get a commission for this. But I appeal to his what-would-Jesus-do philosophy, and off we go. We see a sign - there is one on the 87th floor, or so it seems after we climb up and up and up the steps. Mr. Park has not even broken a sweat. Meanwhile, Scott and I are huffing and puffing and muttering about gyms and working out and the word "shape" comes to mind. I think of what my aunt always says - "round is a shape". The stench of smoke fills the air, plastic bowls with soaking clothes are in the lobby, and the manager looks like an Asian version of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. From his facial expression, it's clear he is telling Mr. Park that there are no rooms available (thank goodness) but there is another goshiwon near Samsung Plaza.

Here we are. Fourth floor, two doors down from one of the biggest malls in Seoul (AK Plaza, a.k.a. Samsung Plaza - see photo above, taken from the internet). Next door to all that is happening in Bundang, we are in a suburb of Seoul that has its own regional train line connecting it to all that is in the capital. And the goshiwan is lovely. It smells, if not aromatherapy good, at least clean. The walls are dark wood, the air quiet of noise, absent of the overwhelming smell of kimchee that seems to cling to so many places. It is like walking into a library and being offered a little place to rest between your assignments. It is perfect.

Within two days, I have moved my things to my new digs; three trips back and forth on the bus, schlepping heavy bags, getting on and off the wrong bus twice, visiting Lotte Mart for yogurt and apples to fill my $10 a month dorm size refrigerator. A stop at Emart for socks and for a couple of plants to bring life to my little room. And finally a visit to Alpha for the desk supplies I store in a little basket hidden inside a little wooden door on top of the desk, inside of the room that now is my home. I feel like the woman who swallowed a fly.

My little goshiwon room is about 6 feet by 6 feet. It is smaller than Aunt Ceil's closet. It is like living in a sailboat, library, hostel combined. I can cook in the kitchen, but it is cheaper to go out (tuna gimbop, the Korean version of sushi is $2.50 and comes with soup and a side or two and is very filling). The bathroom taunts with its shower stalls without shower. You pour warm water into a bowl, douse yourself, lather up, pour again, douse again, rinse off. Don't forget to wear your shower shoes if you do not want to fall!

The people peer out their doors at me, and I feel like an exotic hot house flower, dropping in to know them and to give them a glimpse of what is out there. And soon, they are becoming accustomed to me, speak the few words of English they know, me speaking the few words of Korean I know, and deeply depending on charades for communication. But it is good. And it is interesting. While my intentions may have not been noble, reality has in fact given me an opportunity to see these people in a way many foreigners do not enjoy.

Mrs. Room Next Door, Mrs. Kim Divorced Across the Hall, and Mr. Manager have taken me under their wings and have decided to show me what's what. Next time... a bit of what's what... and a who's who!

n.b. here is a photo of a similar goshiwon. Mine has no window, but the ceiling is blue and painted with clouds. That's a nice touch.


  1. You are the bravest person in the world!! (Well, right after my mom, anyway!) I just admire you more than I can say. What a wonderful adventure~~ what is the address we can send things--TINY things--to?

  2. Hi,
    I know this post is ooming over a year later, so you may not even remember much about the goshiwon, but I am desperately searching for a goshiwon in the Bundang area. I am coming to Korea a week before my teaching job is supposed to start and have nowhere to stay. I heard about a goshiwon near AK plaza but can't find any info about it. If you had any information or knew where I could find more info, you saving my sanity. Thanks so much ^^