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.