Box Living Deluxe

Apartment life carries with it a specific type of boredom only noticeable to those who grew up performing an abundance of menial yet enjoyable house-related tasks.  There is no need to wander outside on Sunday morning because there is no newspaper to collect.  There are no plants to water, no lawn to mow, no sprinkler system to tinker with and no garden to tend to.  I don’t need to take a wire brush to the BBQ grill because there is no BBQ grill.  My groceries are all delivered to my house and I always have enough beer to last me through the weekend.

No oil to change, no garage to sweep, no dog to walk and washing my car involves driving to another part of town and putting coins into a machine.  The neighbors don’t wave.  Every time the young woman next door sees me in the hall way, she jumps back and says “깜짝이!”.  Seeing a foreigner is still enough to warrant the Korean equivalent of “Oh shit!”.  It would probably be pointless to mention that we’ve been neighbors for over a year.  The neighbor on the other side of my place always leaves her shoes in the hallway, which leads me to believe that her place is so packed with junk that space for even one more pair of shoes is non-existent.  The couple down the hallway enjoy a level of modesty that peaks somewhere around leaving their underwear on a drying rack in the hallway every weekend.

City life in Seoul brings with it other special time consuming pleasures that make locking oneself inside their apartment all weekend the surest source of contentment.  Last Sunday morning I made the mistake of going to a department store, where I waited over 30 minutes for a parking spot, and where inside I waited over 30 minutes for a seat at a restaurant and consequently upon leaving sat in traffic for over 30 minutes trying to exit the department store garage.  I have learned this lesson countless times, but I still have not internalized it.

Trips across town to Costco or IKEA are an exercise in foolishness and rage control as the lines of cars queue up in a snake like arrangement around the corner and down the street for two blocks just waiting for a chance to enter the congested garage.  What should take an hour or two ends up taking four or five hours, most of which is spent either sitting in lines of cars, or wading through the dense masses of people, most of whom seem to be contentedly killing time with thoughts of buying anything far from their minds.  As most households are up to their eyeballs in debt, buying furniture must be a fanciful pipe dream for many of the families loitering around IKEA on the weekends.  Most of them are likely worried first and foremost about paying back the unscrupulous private money lenders they borrowed from to live in their outdated and overpriced plastic apartments after the banks turned them down, then come the credit card debt and the astronomical education fees for their kids.  What’s left goes to food and utilities and making minimum payments on stacks of bills to delay the inevitable for another 30 days.

More and more, advances in online shopping and delivery service eliminate the need for these energy leeching, time consuming trips.  More and more, one starts to live for high speed internet and 4 for ₩10,000 beer deals at the convenience store.  As a child, I could look out windows on all four sides of my home.  Outside one window was a garden with fountain.  Outside another was the front lawn and peaceful tree lined street.  A third window looked at the side of a neighbor’s home, and the fourth had a panoramic view of a canyon where tall eucalyptus trees blew in the wind.

Now I look out my windows on one side and in one direction.  Directly in front of me I see the massive face of a 16 floor officetel that is 9 units across.  With mixed use units starting on the third floor, there are 117 units facing my window directly across the street.  In a grid pattern starting with the first floor going up and labeling the units 1-9 from left to right, one can get acquainted with one’s neighbors without the need to wave or exchange normal human pleasantries.

12 x 1 is occupied by two girls who have piles of shopping bags and shoe boxes, and a large vanity where they get ready each night for whatever type of job starts after 9pm.  12 x 2 is directly next door and is some type of office where at night a solitary man leans back in his chair at his cubicle, kicks his feat up one his desk and watches something for hours on end on his computer screen.  I can’t tell what he is watching because the screen isn’t facing the street.  In 9 x 4 we have another office where a few workers toil late into the night, every night, doing some type of work that requires every computer to have two monitors running simultaneously.

Directly next door in 9 x 5 is what looks like a one-room being used as a dwelling by a young family.  I only ever see the mother and the toddler.  The room is small and clothing racks are always out drying clothes and making the space seem even smaller.  It is truly bizarre to see workers dressed in suits toiling at their desks in 9 x 4, while literally next door, separated by 1 foot of wall, is a mother in pajamas crawling on the floor with a baby.  If there is a husband/father, and if he ever comes home, he is yet to be seen.  Moving down to 6 x 6, on most nights one will observe a middle aged man standing at the window smoking.  The window has latches on the side, so it cracks open about 8 inches on one side, enough to vent most of his smoke out into the night’s air.  Without fail, each time he finishes a smoke, one can see the glowing orange ember arc slowly down to the footpath below where someone else will either be hit by it, or sweep it up in the morning.

4 x 6 is a large residential spread, with one large room occupied by a giant bed.  Perhaps 90 percent of the room is taken up by the bed which has a large TV at the foot.  A large presumably single middle aged woman lies on the bed with the lights on most nights watching TV while two cats crawl over the white covers.  Two over at 4 x 8 is another residential unit that is devoid of everything except a sofa and a TV in the living room.  A girl, probably early 20s can be seen cooking in the kitchen most nights, and a man, mid-50’s can be seen eating in front of the TV.  She sometimes joins him but more often than not takes her food into another room.  It is clear by the dynamic at play that they are father and daughter; the mother notably absent at all times.  The girl sometimes smokes in her room at night, probably an electronic cigarette, and stares at the wall for long periods of time.

About 50 percent of occupants with units facing the street have chosen to cover up their windows and thus deprive would-be prying eyes of a glance into their riveting day to day lives.  11 x 2 has applied a sheet of artificial frosted glass over their entire street facing window to let in a bit of light while obscuring the view from potential peeping toms.  8 x 2 has opted for a large pink sheet secured in place over the window using duct tape.  6 x 1 has affixed cardboard boxes over the entire window, also with duct tape, in a possible bid to block out all sunlight.  Perhaps the occupant works a night shift somewhere.  Some of the classier units have what look like high quality blinds and drapes.  A Korean acquaintance once told me that most people don’t bother buying things like nice furniture, or drapes or blinds because they know that they will move again soon, and the furniture won’t match the new place, and the blinds/drapes won’t match the size of the new windows, and why buy nice blinds only to let the next occupant have them for free?  Some enterprising occupants try to sell the blinds/drapes on to the next occupant.  Hence the abundance of windows with cardboard or sheets taped over them.

Outside of every window sprawls a monotonous recognizable landscape of homogenous franchise businesses, tacky apartments and hideous oversized neon signs.  The screen golf place is next to the Chinese delivery place which is next to a bakery, café, real estate office and fried chicken place.  A convenience store, a pizza place and a restaurant with sea creatures swimming in a tank out front -some of them are floating belly up at the top of the tank, but nobody seems to mind.  Around the back side of the building are some singing rooms, room salons, and a conveniently placed motel with an enclosed pathway leading directly from the room salon so that Johns don’t have to risk being exposed.  At home their bored middle-aged wives have long since tucked the kids in and are likely on beer number three, watching a TV drama and trying to get drunk quickly in order to forget how much their partners disgust them.  The age-old marriage fantasy having become boring instant it assumed material form, their TVs flickering late at night through windows in a vast sea of concrete cookie-cutter apartments.  The TV dramas are fake and sanitized and thus less threatening/challenging to their shallow lives.  The big city and the suburbs are full of lonely people.  The more densely populated the place, the lonelier the people.

From here we fast forward to daytime and zoom to the local Starbucks, which to many serves as a temporary escape from the branded, stamped concrete landscape.  On any given afternoon, housewives can be seen in groups or pairs shout-talking loudly about the minor crises they encounter on a daily basis.  “Minsoo’s teacher said he’s been misbehaving in class, but that can’t be true!  I’m going to go right down to that school on Monday and give her a piece of my mind.  Young women these days think they are queens!”  At another table, “…and then Yoo-na was almost late to math academy!  Can you believe that bus driver?  I should call and have him fired, he’s too old to be driving a bus anyhow.”  And at the table next to that one, “I know he’s been out with that young bitch they just hired again.  I can smell it on him and he always gets home late.  Whenever I get in the shower, he gets in bed and pretends that he is already sleeping.  He hasn’t touched me in months!” and “My sister’s husband got a raise and large bonus this year, but my husband has been in the same department forever.  How did I get so unlucky?”.

Inordinate amounts of time spent discussing the education of children and other mundane things, to largely no effect.  The more the mothers seek perfection in their kids, the less likely they are to obtain it.  Generous newspaper and TV show references to the various roles that housewives play are nothing more than a polite way to mask the fact that they are nobodies.  These imaginary crises and chaotic days hide the vacuity of their existence.  It is an anecdote to the fact that nothing important ever really happens.  And when these minor crises don’t actually exist, they will create them because how else are they going to spend the 16 waking hours of emotional and intellectual poverty?  Nowhere to go, not a part of anything meaningful, theirs is a prison that requires no walls.  Because modern Korean society is no longer communal, their only significant relationships are with their largely absentee husbands, and most of their emotional and social needs are met by their children who are unqualified to carry the emotional baggage of a grown parent.  When they aren’t busy passing their emotional quirks and character defects on to their children, they are spreading them to whoever will listen to them for an hour at Starbucks over a cup of the cheapest coffee.

Day again turns to night and we zoom back across the night sky to the officetel where one has to wonder what happens behind all of the covered and obscured windows.  Deep down in some uncorrupted corner of our minds, we want to believe that something wonderful is happening behind those covered windows.  A family is bonding.  An aging person is being cared for by a younger family member.  A father is doing a puzzle with his son.  Someone is happily browsing a wedding photo album.  A family of four are all sitting down to eat dinner together at the same table without a single member glued to the glowing screen of a smartphone.  The windows that are uncovered have already told us the full story, but we don’t want to believe that behind the covered windows is just another mom playing with her toddler alone, another middle aged divorcee smoking by the window.  Another obese woman is watching TV with her two cats, and more middle aged men are sitting at their office work desks “working overtime” with their shoes off, beer in hand, watching baseball games or bootleg movies on their PCs.

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33 Responses to Box Living Deluxe

  1. Scott says:

    Another great read. Always a pleasure.

  2. DongDuChoke says:

    I laughed at the Korean neighborhood description.

  3. Skid says:

    Thank you so much for reminding me – again – why I have to get out of Korea asap. The infrequency of your posts reflect my own inaction (I’ve been reading you since I got here many moons ago) – and draws me to conclude that perhaps I sub-consciously hate myself. (But the money is so darn good! Well…..kinda good.)

    However, as a born and bred Catholic, the stories you tell of the (Korean) people we all know, see, and work with every day remind me of my own helplessness in the face of the Great Unknown – and I can do nothing but pity, pray (and I by no means wish to sound condescending writing that) and be very, very grateful that my passport and options are ultimately very, very different.

    As for the yo-ja in the corridor? I get the same thing time and time again. And we’re here two years. I’ve tried saying hello but get a response that can only be described as very, very strange. Sad.

    • The Expat says:

      I have hundreds of pages to mentally dump here, just currently no time. Have been consumed with work for at least a year, only going home to sleep. Publishable, readable stupid expat stories happen around me weekly, just no time at the keyboard. I mostly type posts on my phone while riding the subway.

      • Skid says:

        But with this post, if I may say, you’ve hit the hammer right on the head. ‘A Geek in Korea,’ it ain’t; ‘Eat Your Kimchi,’ it Jesus-so-ain’t; but the reality of life for millions and millions in a real-life, modern-day hi-tech gulag? Yesindeedeesah~Never a truer word said.
        Now please excuse me while I go and throw myself off of my 14th floor balcony, through a curtain of drying laundry and all.

  4. robb9 says:

    Good to see you writing again, I always check in to see if you update. You have not lost your touch, I hope you find the time to keep writing, as it is an obvious talent that have.

  5. PK says:

    Great post – quintessential Korea.

    Counting down the days until I am out. It’s been 7 years, the first 3 of which were fun chasing tail, taking short trips around SE Asia and boozing my liver into oblivion. Once you get beyond that 2-3 years stage, the law of diminishing returns applies heavily in your ability to find positive and happy things here. I am at a low point now of which I know will only continue to go much lower.

    I detest leaving my apartment everyday. The noise, pollution, the ill-mannered spitting grunting ajushi, the pushing, shoving, idiotic driving behavior and overall vibe of this country can no longer fly over my head. These things which I could at one point easily ignore especially during my first 3 years here just eat away at me everyday. I only hope that it doesn’t affect me in the long-term (think PTSD).

    I would’ve exited at the apex of my obliviousness several years ago. But it’s better to act late than never. Few more months till the end of this contract and it”ll be a great experience to tell friends and family one day, but not one I want to continue to live.

    Am I a sadist if I said that I enjoy watching this place drive itself into the ground? I think soon I’ll enjoy the self destruction even more from the outside.

    • The Expat says:

      I’ve been here for a long time. At first I laughed. Then I hated it. Now I am largely impervious to the things that annoy others. I am, how do you call it…..”USED TO it”. And once you get used to it, your blood pressure falls.

      • . says:

        Have you made an exit plan yet? Is leaving Korea in the cards?

        • The Expat says:

          Nope, I haven’t won the lottery, so I have no plan to move to paradise and retire. I’m not even half way through my 30s yet. America is basically a shithole, and I rather like not hearing gunshots at night time etc. it’s a country that ALMOST had Donald Trump as president, so I’m perfectly fine being away from all that. If however, I were not accumulating money and my quality of life here sucked, I’d consider leaving. My quality of life is good, so I guess I don’t think about leaving as often as my friends do.

  6. Greg says:

    Great post. I can almost visualize the scene in my head (particularly of the housewives in Starbucks – so Hanryu).
    I wonder there is there a reason why waygooks don’t go to Japan instead. It’s only an hour’s flight away, living costs are pretty much equal in both countries now (unless you fancy living near the imperial palace), and should encounter far less obscenities when interacting with the locals. And if you ever feel nostalgic about the turbulent life in Korea, you can always go and chill in places such as Shin-okubo in Tokyo or Tsuruhashi in Osaka.

    • The Expat says:

      I think it is because Japan is too real and there are too many rules. It also might be that Japan isn’t hipster enough for each successive generation of ESLers looking to Instagram or Youtube their story of exotic world travel.

  7. DT says:

    Excellent writing – I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon your work here.

    I am teaching a composition class at a university here in Seoul. This particular piece of yours will serve as our material for one of the sessions during our semester. I hope this is okay with you.

    And again, superb prose.

  8. PK says:

    Seems like you’re stuck in middle management – content but not happy; much better out there but there’s also worse. Be careful, this place can be a black hole and if you’ve made it a habit to ignore and get used to a lot of the things here, I can imagine it would have detrimental effects on your future should you decide to leave someday.

  9. Joe P says:

    This may be a first: I am in Africa – and indeed am an African. I have never been to South Korea but the way you have regaled us with your stories of your sojourn [in SK] has been sufficient for me to visualise what it actually is like. And, unwittingly, totally obliterate any wishes to visit the peninsula. I have enjoyed your musings and look forward to more!

  10. hahnak says:

    keep posting when you can find the time. go for typing on your phone as awkward as that might be (and it may not be awkward for you). i love reading your postings.

  11. Gunther says:

    Long time lurker/reader of your posts.

    I’ve been here a while, since 2010 and after going through some shit 2 years ago I am actually in a semi-content state of living here.
    I’d like to go back to the US eventually, but probably not this election..ugh

    Great writing man, perhaps I should pick it up again (I’ve been taking to Instagram cuz it seems simpler, #foodporndaily? #jk)

  12. Skid says:

    just an unrelated question, if I may.

    I just bought myself a second-hand beater-mobile after 4++ years in Korea. Driving for the first time here is not easy, I’m only on the road a month – after having driven for many, many years before relatively hassle free (and a no-claims certificate!) – but Jesus Christ, every time I leave the house here I seem to get into some sort of audi0-dextro (horn and finger, or worse) exchange with some mouth breather that has found him/herself miraculously placed ‘in control’ of a vehicle.

    Is this only me? Driving here is such a major freaking hassle, and extremely dangerous. I used to LOVE cruising around. Anywhere. Except here. I couldn’t be arsed buying a camera get-up for the car, even though a little voice keeps telling me that I should, in preparation for a major incident unless I can keep controlling my temper.

    I am seriously thinking of ditching the car again (and f**k the lost insurance). There’s nowhere really to go, and the roads are full. Everywhere worth going to is full of traffic and unpleasant, noisy people in weird looking, but identical, outdoor gear. Driving here is not fun, just another treadmill it seems: spot your place, edge in, and stay there in a continuous flow of traffic and pollution and obstacles until you reach your destination. I guess it’s analogous to the circle of life here in general.

    (I have noticed however that driving around at 6 in the morning is alright, except for the red-light runners/drunk delivery drivers. How is this even possible/permitted in an ‘advanced ‘ country?)

    Have you ever written anything on your driving experiences here? If so, please post a link; now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I’d love to read your opinion of same.


    • The Expat says:

      I’ve been driving here for almost nine years. Having a car improves most people’s experiences, because at least you don’t have to take TAXIS, where your risk of death is arguably higher than driving your own car (honk if you love airbags). To fully enjoy the car experience, you’ll have to go out late at night or early mornings. Plus it’s nice to have a car when it is raining, or freezing cold, or boiling hot outside, and for those times when you can’t endure the unique aroma in most subway cars (ripe ajeossi).

      Driving is all about learning the patterns of traffic here. When is it busy? Which direction is traffic fucked and at which times?

      Other drivers are extremely reckless, self-centered, willing to violate most traffic laws without shame, and are strongly inclined to LIE lie lie when they hit your car. This is why it is essential to get a dash cam. The person who hits your car will not only lie about causing the accident, but will often times also claim that you caused them to be injured. Even if you drive a $500 car, get a dash cam. Police and insurance companies don’t do what you and I would consider to be an ‘investigation’, so blame is distributed based on a whole bunch of whacky illogical backwards bullshit thinking. Someone hits you, and you may find yourself paying their hospital bills because you can’t articulate fully to the police what actually happened, and even if you can, you are a foreigner, sooooooooooo get ready to take the blame unless you have a dash cam.

      People here get licenses from cereal boxes. Most women I know have licenses and will proudly tell me “I don’t even know how to drive!” Daily, the level of absolute shit driving here still boggles the mind. Highest OECD traffic fatality rate for several years….. hmmmm I wonder why…and let’s not forget that this is a country that is a major auto producer and exporter, so it’s not like cars and car culture are completely new and unfamiliar to these people.

      • Mark Skid says:

        Thanks for that reply; a veritable mini-post, in itself!

        I totally hear you w.r.t. the traffic patterns and driving times, not to mention the advantages of driving despite the dangers during shitty weather. (Which is a lot of the time.)

        For example. a Costco trip on a Saturday mid-morning or afternoon? Ha! Ha! A Trip to the temple on a Sunday? Ha! Ha! Pretty much any trip, evenings or mornings, during the week? Ha! Ha!

        However, because I’ve noticed that Koreans do everything and go everywhere at the same time for some reason, fiddling your driving times BETWEEN those mass-movements-to-nowhere (or the mad-dash race to the next set of red traffic lights, at least) can lead to joy; Costco on a late afternoon mid-week towards the end of the month when the over-stressed-as-it is bank accounts are empty? (Koreans’ of course, not ours!) Yes, please – with a choice of parking spaces and check-outs; The temple on a cold (or hot, because I’ve noticed that Koreans are afraid of the weather) Sunday morning at about 8am? Yes, please – I love those places to myself, and I love waving at the dense traffic leaving the city as I whizz back INTO the city at lunchtime, traffic free. Because, again, Koreans do everything at the same time, for some reason.

        Regarding the use of dash-cams which you’ve kindly recommended, by chance I got chatting socially to an older English man who came to Korea originally in the 1980s as a shipping rep, married a Korean, and has been dividing his retirement between here, for the holidays (Chuseok, Seollal, etc.), and South Florida. Nice. He told me that Koreans, because they are generally immature, emotional and impulsive (his words), will physically use their vehicle to drive you off the road if they feel justified in doing so – like, say, a perception that you insulted them or cut them up, something – and the law will probably back them up to the point that costs will have to be shared. Especially if the one who’s driven off the road happens to be a waygook.

        Now THAT is hassle I don’t need – and add in a criminal charge as I punch his ratty, self-justifying, whiny little face in while we’re waiting for the ‘police’ to show up. (Just more ajeosshis and probably of minimal assistance capability.)

        So yeah, I think a dash-cam is in order, that’s TWO recs from sources I trust in the last week, or so: Yourself and the old English dude. Even though we are out of here next year – PhD here I come – and we’ll take a hit on the cost, watch me pay some scummy ajeosshi’s medical bills because he didn’t like my finger in his rear-view mirror.

        Thanks again, and looking forward to the next post!

      • Lulu says:

        Ripe ajeossi.
        What a perfect description.

    • Tata Hardy says:

      It’s so easy to drive in Korea, you must be a crap driver.

  13. Waeg says:

    one of the best you’ve written, especially liked that second to last paragraph

  14. English-speaking Korean says:

    If you hate Korea so much, why don’t you leave?

    I mean, I get it. I know what it’s like to leave the familiar for an unknown place. You expect everything to be just as it was back home. You’ve lived with certain standards all your life, and anything that falls short of that is just plain wrong. It shouldn’t even be.

    If you can’t take the unfamiliar, then go back to the familiar. Your only other choice is to remember and accept that this life, this country, this lifestyle is the familiar for millions of people, and your lives back home are the unfamiliar to them. The traffic, the “smelly” subways, the seemingly illogical work environment, these are all normal to Koreans.

    If you don’t have the worldview, awareness, or capacity to take travel and cultural diversity as a gift to your life, from the country you entered to the foreigners we accept and pay to teach our children, but are only able to see differences as a negativity, then you really should just go back.

    • The Expat says:

      Geez brother, I don’t know where you got the “I hate this place” vibe from. Why do people live in places they don’t like? Why do people read websites they don’t like? These are all valid questions.

      But I had to delete your other comment, you know, the one that was full of hate speech and racial slurs towards immigrants to Korea? Oh my 하나님~! Why can’t you 사랑해 everyone, including the immigrants bruh? I don’t understand why people live in a place they hate either, but I certainly wouldn’t tell Koreans in the US that they have no right to complain about anything, at all, ever.

      When you say “Go back to where you came from” (Trump style), it doesn’t make any points or win any arguments.

      Sounds like you’re a little frustrated. Perhaps finding a fat, white, alcoholic loser ESL teacher dressed up like Santa Claus and hugging it out might be just what the doctor ordered. Hug it out 형! It’s all about love and peace during the holiday season! Don’t be concerned about the personal decisions that others make about where to live. Focus on bettering yourself as a person, so you will care less about what strangers say online about Korea.

      • . says:

        Where is the article that you wrote about this issue? It was a great comeback to all of those “So why don’t you leave?” fuckfaces.

        • The Expat says:

          The people who ask “Why don’t you leave?” are never asking this out of genuine curiosity. They don’t care why you stay, so it is generally pointless to answer them. This question is always asked out of spite by people who who hope that you will somehow admit some sort of deficiency thereby proving their point that you are in fact a ‘loser’. “Why don’t you leave” immediately identifies the inquisitor as mentally rigid, shallow, incapable of empathy, etc. People who ask this type of question are generally not worth talking to.

  15. Tata Hardy says:

    You don’t use the subway?

    • The Expat says:

      I use the subway when I have to. It is cheap and efficient. The line I take tends to have lots of folks who for whatever reason smell like they are homeless, which after several days of 1 hour commutes each way, gets a little hard to take. I think most of the people who take the line I take to work are ether borderline homeless, or are day laborers who for whatever reason simply choose not to bathe. At night after work it reeks of fish, fermented vegetables and hard liquor.

      Driving in Korea is quite easy, however the number of selfish, reckless pricks on the road far surpasses any country I have ever seen. Korea needs a drastic crackdown on dangerous, moronic driving in the name of public safety.

  16. Johnny Drama says:

    You provide a service to the Expat community. You are the voice of Expats who tire of the Korea-boo and apologist banter. We rally behind you brother in arms.

    As for the driving comments: in full agreement regarding being selective on when to drive. Haven’t taken public transportation or taxis in months, and have limited contact with asinine behaviour (other than my own) and am much happier for it. Dealing with asshats on the road is inevitable however. Dash cam all the way.

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