What it’s like to live in a 50 square-foot micro apartment in Seoul
In the first week, I broke everything: a $2 plate from Daiso, which I’d loved for its spunky polka-dots. A cylindrical holder for my travel-friendly toothbrush and mini toothpaste. Finally, a precious Royal Albert mug I’d been given as a gift that spring.
I looked numbly at the elegant ceramic shards spread across the jaundiced linoleum floor—cracked pieces of beautifully printed lavender and rose, now made useless — and tried to move past my dismay.
“I couldn’t have helped it,” I murmured to myself. Every time I spread my arms, something else topples over.
I wasn’t clumsy. I was just living in a goshiwon.
A typical goshiwon unit is roughly 50 square feet, almost a tenth of a North American studio apartment. Communal kitchens are usually stocked with the basic necessities of survival — kimchi, rice.
The legal definition of a goshiwon is this: “A siloed space built to accommodate a scholar, with the facilities to feed and house them.” The “goshi” in the name quite literally means “test” in Korean; hence the goshiwon is a place in which test-takers reside.
Tests hold a special significance for the Korean people. From the 14th century, men of noble heritage — rich or poor — would study for the civil service examinations, the results upon which lands and titles would be bestowed. One studying man and the outcome of his test could determine the fate of his entire family for generations to come.
The Korean equivalent of the SAT is an 8-hour relay of back-to-back testing. That one day in a high school student’s life determines which university and major they will attend; a sorting hat built on months of preparation, but also the luck of the day. Many Koreans would still allege that a person’s job, marriage partner, retirement path, and family planning is largely dependent on their collegiate community. So it’s not for nothing that suicide rates spike nationwide on the day that those exam results are revealed.
There are, of course, other paths. Civil service examinations still exist to offer stable…