Elwood 5566

Learning to Love the ‘One Room’

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative by 노강호 on November 19, 2010

Song-so, Daegu

 

For a long time, I hated referring to my Korean accommodation as a ‘one-room’ and other terms I used to substitute it were either misunderstood or didn’t seem quite right. Koreans use the word ‘apartment’  in relation to the high-rise accommodation in which most  live and it is rare to hear the word ‘house’ as so few of them exist. The houses you do find, often in the country or sandwiched between  taller, city buildings are usually traditional or luxury versions.  Apartments are associated with high-rises and though they can be pokey and small, especially in parts of Seoul where space is the most expensive, they are often extremely spacious. I clearly do not live in an ‘apartment.’ For awhile I used the term ‘studio-room’ or ‘studio-flat’  and though a few of my English-speaking Korean friends understood this, many others didn’t and personally, it didn’t seem appropriate. I have this notion that studio flats are grand, exclusive and the preferred accommodation of artists and opera singers.

 

My barred one-room, Daegu 2003

 

Finding a suitable term to describe my accommodation, without using ‘one-room’, was difficult. ‘One-room’ seems such a pathetic term to use especially when you are anything over forty and invokes the same resonance in Korea as,  ‘unmarried,’ ‘living-alone’ or being ‘childless,’ and in the UK, as the word bed sit. What a ghastly word! What shame it invokes! ‘Bedsits’ are the domains of the unemployed, of single people, those on low wages or youngsters just starting out in life. They are always gloomy, lit by yellowey lights and with stairs that creak, and then there’s the gas meter and dingy bedding of blankets, sheets, and quilt because the ‘bedsit’ is a relic term from the days before the popularity of continental quilts (duvets). But the ‘bedsit’ wasn’t just a manky dwelling; to many it represented a lifestyle as epitomised by Soft Cell’s, Bedsitter.

Sunday morning going slow
I’m talking to the radio
Clothes and records on the floor
The memories of the night before
Out in club land having fun
And now I’m hiding from the sun
Waiting for a visitor
Though no-one knows I’m here for sure

Dancing laughing
Drinking loving
And now I’m all alone
In bed sit land
My only home

The solution, is obvious! Don’t call your accommodation a ‘bedsit.’ Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it has to be grotty any more than it implies you have to lead a pointless hedonistic life.

‘One rooms’ come in all shapes and sizes and some are pretty shitty. Usually they are contained in buildings of two, three of four floors. I lived in a one room in Ch’eonan that was truly a one room. The toilet doesn’t seem to count and probably neither the kitchen but this example, clean and not altogether unpleasant, was simply one room. From the edge of my bed I could lean across to the sink and pull out a sliding table and from their I could prepare a meal, stand up and cook it without take more than half a pace, and then sit back down on the edge of my bed and eat it. Washing up simply involved standing up. My Ch’eonan ‘one-room’ was the ideal accommodation for an invalided person and if I so wished I could have pissed in the sink while stood in my bed. Indeed it was so small that if I’d piddled 360 degrees I could have hit ever wall. Prior to Ch’eonan I had a ‘one-room’ in Daegu and once again it was simply one room, bedroom and kitchen combined, with a separate toilet and shower. It lacked air-conditioning, something I now wouldn’t live without and though it wasn’t unpleasant, the fact I cooked a lot of mackerel at the time made it smell.

But there are perhaps worse types of accommodation. If you’re a waygukin a ‘two-room’ is perhaps worse as it involves sharing facilities with a co-worker. I spent a winter with a great chap from Ghana who happened to have the controls for the ondol heating in his room and he liked the temperature set at maximum. I slept on the floor at the time and the effectiveness of ondol heating is non the more obvious than when you can’t escape its intensity. Under a duvet, all heat is trapped and often there are no cool spots, such as you have with western style radiator heating, from which to escape  the onslaught. I’d sneak the temperature down when he was out, he’d come home, put on two sets of thermal clothing, rack the temperature back up and climb under his duvet. He’d lived in Korea twelve years and like most Koreans, he hated the cold and anything under 25 degrees was classified an atomic winter.

How you might rate as ‘0.50 room,’ that is a one-room shared by two people, would depend on the extent you feel compensated by the luxury of regular sex and I’ve known couples share the tiniest of one-rooms. I like my space and space means a double bed.  A shag is great but I’ve been too long as a sad-singly to want to sleep in the same bed as another human and besides, I snore!

 

past and present

 

Eventually, you come to realise that Koreans don’t actually see anything significantly negative in a ‘one-room.’ As far as such rooms go I feel I am probably luckier than most. My present abode accounts for the combined area of 2.5 of my previous one-rooms and my kitchen is separate from my bedroom/study.  It has also taught me the benefits of minimalism and heightened my awareness of the way we amass shit you don’t really need and of course,  the more space you have the more you feel compelled to fill it. Back in the UK I have a house packed with junk and a substantial set of books shelves which host books and music I have had for years and never accessed. In Korea, a digital orientated life and two terabyte external hard drives have allowed me to acquire and  store enough music and literature for the rest of my life and reduced the storage capacity a thousand fold.  Yes, the future is getting smaller and upgrading to the latest formats is much more enjoyable especially when it involves denying greedy multi-billionaires even more money.

The worst thing about ‘one-rooms’ is they rarely have any view other than the concrete walls of the next building. If you’re on the ground floor the advantage you might have in being able to see the world beyond is ruined by the bars that turn such rooms into a prison cell. In ‘one-room’ land a computer is a necessity because your monitor can provide an appropriate background scene to offset the lack of any real view but one adapts very quickly and if you can imagine you’re in a spaceship or ship, claustrophobia can be minimized.

Links

Soft Cell: Bedsitter (link to youtube)

 

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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