This is a piece I wrote as a reflection on my time studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, back in 2015 (almost 5 years ago). Everyone that knows me, knows that my time in South Korea has had a huge impact on my life, my perspective, and my interests. My husband, some friends, and I will visit Seoul again in November 2019. This will be the second time Calum and I have returned to Seoul after our study abroad trip. If you’d like to read more about our original stay in Korea in 2015, you can visit our blog from that time:
(Yes, I’d like to think I’ve improved my blogging skills quite a bit since then!)
An alternate title for this piece is “Life on a Smaller Scale: Goshiwon Living in Seoul, South Korea.”
First Night in The Goshiwon
When I first saw my temporary home in Seoul, South Korea, I cried. And these were not tears of joy.
It was February of 2015, and my boyfriend, Calum, and I had just spent over 15 hours in transit from Dallas to Seoul. It was around 10:00 at night and we hadn’t slept a wink since we left Texas. The airport bus dropped us off a little further from our lodgings than we expected, and we spent an hour in a local McDonalds trying to re-adjust ourselves. Luckily, a friend from our home university (who had already been studying in Seoul for several months) came to meet us and helped us find a taxi to our goshiwon.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a goshiwon is a uniquely Korean style of living quarters originally designed for students who needed space to spend hours in study, away from the distractions of home. It is a sort of hybrid combination of a hostel, a dormitory and a guesthouse. The concept has evolved beyond its original purpose to accommodate travelers, exchange students, and others in need of low-cost housing on a month-to-month basis, but the general set-up of goshiwons remains the same. Goshiwons usually take up 2-4 floors of an urban building. Guests live in individual rooms, complete with a bed, desk, mini-fridge, and TV, and share a kitchen/general living area on a separate floor. Bathrooms may be small units in each room, or shared facilities. Amenities such as Wi-fi, cable TV, cooking utensils, and staple foods (such as rice, eggs and kimchi) are readily available.
I was aware of the general premise of a goshiwon before I arrived in Korea. What I wasn’t prepared for was the size of the rooms. When the goshiwon manager opened the door to my unit, what I saw was a room smaller than many Americans’ closets. The bed, desk, bathroom and a set of small cabinets took up almost every inch of floor space, leaving about 1 square foot of space to stand in the center of the room. There I stood, exhausted and unkempt, with my two bulging suitcases in tow. I had never been so uncomfortably aware of myself before.
I held in my emotions until the manager returned to his office. After he left, I cried myself to sleep.
Grocery Shopping in the City
The next day was a continuation of the roller coaster of emotions. In the morning I got up and took a shower. The bathroom in my room was a tiled space shaped like an “L,” encased by glass and a sliding door. On one side of the L was the toilet, and on the other was a sink with a showerhead attached. In these types of bathrooms (which I learned are very common in Korea, goshiwon or not) the entire bathroom becomes your shower stall. To take a shower, you must turn on the sink and flip a lever to switch the flow of water from the faucet to the showerhead. You then put the showerhead in a holder mounted to the wall so you can stand underneath it. Or else you can just hold the showerhead in your hand.
I remember feeling refreshed and reassured after that shower. The space was small, but it was clean and bright, and the water was nice and hot.
The day further improved when I learned from another goshiwon resident that there was a storage space for suitcases in the building stairwell. I unpacked most of my belongings, placing one suitcase in the stairwell and shoving the other one underneath my bed.
Later that day we met back up with our friend from home (the same friend who had helped us find our accommodations that day before). She took us to a local supermarket to help us stock up on groceries and other necessities.
After we were done shopping, we grabbed lunch in the food court attached to the supermarket. As we ate our friend vented about her experience living and studying in Korea so far. Korea was not where she wanted to study abroad in the first place, and the past few months had been a less than ideal experience for her. “The sun is like a lamp here,” she said, “It never shines, especially during the winter, because the sky is so hazy. I miss the sun.”
When we arrived back at our goshiwon that evening, I broke down again. I envisioned the next five months as a dismal existence, alternating between my tiny closet of a room and a dim, gray city.
A Series of Long Walks
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, my boyfriend and I frequently left our goshiwon to take long walks around Seoul. Most of our walks took place along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, a manmade extension of a natural waterway running through the city into the Han River. Sometimes we walked as far as 8 miles at a time. We continued these walks throughout our entire stay in Seoul; it kept us centered, active and curious.
During Valentine’s Day weekend we rented a traditional home, called a Hanok, in the Jungno district of Seoul. We lived like tourists for the weekend; we visited Changdeokgung Palace, hung out at a famous dog café (Bau House), browsed cheap souvenirs along Insadong street, and snacked on kimchi pancakes and kimbap at Dongdaemun market. We were still struggling to read menus and ask for directions, but we kept trying. Gradually we relaxed and began to feel more comfortable in our new home.
For the Lunar New Year holiday, a Korean friend whom we had met at our home university invited us to go to a ski lodge with his family. We saw this friend several more times during our stay, and he was huge part of what made us love and feel so comfortable in South Korea. Another Korean friend (also from our home university) frequently treated us to meals and small trips in Seoul. I still feel grateful to both. We made several other close Korean friends, and we still talk to them.
Adapting to Our Goshiwon and Our Neighborhood
One day in March, at the end of one of our long walks, we stopped at the small grocery store around the corner from our goshiwon to pick up some snacks. We realized that this store had pretty much all the groceries we could ever need, and it was cheaper, smaller and less hectic than the supermarket we had been to before. From then on, we didn’t go anywhere else for groceries.
We quickly learned that we didn’t need to leave our block to get almost anything we needed or wanted to live. The nearby Olive Young and Watson’s offered personal care products. Every other storefront was home to a coffee shop or a Paris Baguette (sandwich and pastry chain). Restaurants, both chain and local, abounded. There were at least 5 different makeup stores on our block.
We became familiar with many of the local storeowners and employees, and they became familiar with us. We visited one local bakery at least twice a week, and the Korean owner gave us free pastries for Calum’s birthday. We waved to the chef of the mandu (dumpling) shop across the alleyway from the goshiwon when we walked by. A man with two Jindo dog puppies was a resident on our block, and he let us play with the pups on our way to class. We became familiar with the cashier at the grocery store; a young graduate student from Uzbekistan living in Seoul with her husband.
After a few weeks we had fully adjusted to life in the goshiwon. Our rooms no longer felt so small and we were surprised at how little space we actually needed. If anything, the small size of the rooms encouraged us to spend more time in the shared living space upstairs, where we met many new friends from around the world. The goshiwon residents, mostly other foreign exchange students, formed a small and comfortable community. We keep in touch with many of the other residents today. One of our Korean friends moved into the goshiwon after we left based on our recommendation of the place.
Student Life in Korea
In many ways, our lives as exchange students in Korea were not very different from our university student lives at home. Our classes were in English, with students from many countries. We went to class, studied, took tests, and wrote papers. We walked to class in the morning and walked back in the afternoon. We bought school supplies at the local stationary store. We went out to the bars on the weekends.
All international students at Korea University are automatically included in an organization called KUBA, or Korea University Buddy Assistants. Through this group Calum and I were each assigned a Korean buddy, as well as included in a larger buddy group. Each group had about 40 Korean and international students in it. Our groups planned lunches, dinners and activities every week, which we attended frequently. There was almost always something to do and someone to hang out with.
My Korean buddy is still a very dear friend to me. I’d like to think that we were one of the best matched pairs in KUBA!
The five months that Calum and I spent living in the goshiwon turned out to be one of the best times in our lives so far. We were rarely alone, but we were happy. We learned to enjoy life on a smaller scale.
This isn’t to say that goshiwon life is for everyone. Our goshiwon was new, well furnished, and generally catered to foreign residents. I’ve since learned that many goshiwons in Korea suffer from poorly built facilities. The law requires goshiwons to register and maintain certain safety standards (ours did), but some operate outside the legal boundaries. Poorer Korean residents with no other place to live have become victims of fires and other terrible and preventable tragedies while living in goshiwons. It is a serious issue.
More traditional-style goshiwons may be safe, but not nearly as social as ours. Many are home to Korean students who spend most of their time studying, only venturing out of their rooms for a trip to the nearest convenience store.
My point is not to glorify goshiwon living. Instead, I want to show how my experience speaks to the adaptability of human beings, and the way that concepts of space, privacy and socialization are based in culture. Through this experience, Calum and I became more aware of the ideas ingrained in us through our upbringing in the U.S., for example, the need for a lot of personal space, the need for storage for our many belongings, and an aversion to shared or public facilities. Although we haven’t let go of our Americanness, we have changed our ways of thinking about certain aspects of life.
The way we view friendship and relationships has also changed. In general, we feel that our Korean friends are more open to expressing their affection for us and allowing us to express it back. This has encouraged us to be more open and emotionally vulnerable in our friendships back home, although nothing can replace the special bond we have with our Korean friends.
Calum and I are married now, and people often ask us if we would live in Korea again. The simple answer is yes, if circumstances allow it. Would we live in a goshiwon again? As a married couple, probably not. But at least now we know how to use a rice cooker and sort our trash correctly!
I miss Korea everyday. I miss our friends. I miss the BBQ joints and coffee shops. I miss running on the treadmill at the gym while looking out the window at Namsan tower in the distance. I miss walking to class and stopping for a snack at the bakery or the 7-11 store on the way. I miss the mountains and the sea and the skyscrapers.
But I also know that no matter how many times we go back, it will never be the same as the Spring of 2015. Even though many friends are still there, many are not. Even though we are still young, we are not 20 year old university students anymore. I know this, and so I hold the memories of 2015 as tightly as I can.
Our love lock at Namsan tower in Seoul. Photo by Calum.
My Advice for Living and Traveling Abroad
Keep in mind that no matter how much you read and prepare for life in your destination, there will always be something unexpected that arises. There is no way you can know every detail about life in a new place, and you will not be able to know how life there makes you feel until you’ve experienced it firsthand. As cliché as it may sound, you must expect the unexpected. And more importantly, you need to have confidence that you can handle the unexpected when it arrives.
Along these same lines, try to hone a high tolerance for ambiguity. Sometimes when you are in a foreign place, things will happen that you don’t understand, and you will have no way of figuring it out. You must accept that. At the same time, keep an open mind and aim to learn as much as you can about why people in your new home do the things they do. his will help you establish better relationships and thrive in the new cultural environment.
Seek out positive perspectives about your destination. Read stories and watch videos about locals and expats who are loving life there. Be aware of negative opinions, but also take them with a grain of salt. Your experience could turn out to be completely different.
And yes, the sun does shine in Seoul.