After being back in the US for two months and living in my mother’s enormous house, I decided the time had come to return to Korea and seek refuge in a tiny shoebox. I figured a koshiwon wouldn’t be so bad and even romanticized the whole experience as one I would never forget. I was right, but for the wrong reasons.
What is a Koshiwon
A koshiwon is a tiny little place that hardly qualifies as a studio or dormitory. Usually, people who don’t have the money to live in something bigger rent these because they do not require a deposit known as ‘key money’ which can be upwards of 10 grand. The cheapest ones start at 200ish a month and go up depending on location, size, quality, etc. Mine is just under 400 because I had a private bathroom / shower, was in a good area, and I bargained. However, it is still roughly 10 square meters.
The first time I ever heard of a koshiwon was as I passed one on my way to piano school a few years ago. By the description, it seemed like a dorm where young people lived and studied, but had access to unlimited rice, kimchi, water, ramen, and super fast internet. I imagined that much like the dorms in college, it would be crammed, but everyone would see it as part of the experience and grow to love it. I expected a community, and maybe even expected to see the forging of life long friendships. I remember wondering how anyone who experienced this life and independence would ever be satisfied with going back home and living with their parents.
To begin, there is no community about it at all. Everyone keeps to themselves and are even more shy about talking to strangers than the average Korean (if you can believe it). I met certain residents in the kitchen and when I said ‘hi,’ they would look up, stare at me for a sec, and go back to what they were doing without saying a word. I was being the weird one.
The age group is also not what I expected. While certain people are young, and increasing number of older people live here too and tent to be even more reclusive than the youngsters. Despite living there for 2 months, I only saw about a fourth of the people on my floor, interacted with a handful, and only one person said more than hi to me. If it wasn’t for the guy who runs the front desk (who turned out to be really cool) I would have gone completely mad.
One of the most irritating things about a koshiwon is the plethora of rules and regulations, apparently in place for my satisfaction and safety. When I was hunting for koshiwons, we had to immediately rule out more than half of them because of their strict rules regarding guests. Most do not allow anyone not living there to visit, which for a 28 year old like myself, is completely moronic. As far as I know, I am an adult and who I bring is no one’s business. Thankfully, my koshiwon was pretty cool about this particular cule and I didn’t have to worry about it.
Another annoying rule was about the noise level. I am expected to keep it down at all times no matter what. Like listening to music? Hope you have headphones. Want to watch TV? Minimum volume please. I understand that the walls are paper thin, but it is still not a comfortable place to live.
My first few days, I spent an awful lot of time in the kitchen hoping other residents would come in and shoot the shit, but many didn’t even acknowledge my presence. It was, quite frankly, a complete waste of time. Overall, unless I visit Korea long term without a paid apartment, I hope to never see the inside of a koshiwon again. The free detergent and rice were nice, but totally not worth it. Live and learn though.