The Great Apartment Crisis

"Oh, yeah. Just... roll me out of bed sometime Monday," Erin said. She sprawled, a laptop on her stomach. It was Saturday, just before noon, and we had a lazy weekend ahead. The first in a while, actually. Most of the last month had been crazy, getting ready to move at the end of August. Despite a real estate agent binge, we hadn't found anything worth the hassle. We had a few weeks yet, though.

Erin's belly gurgled, working on a blueberry pancake from brunch. I sat at the table, peering myopically at my computer. A weekend of sloth... I was going to enjoy every second.

The doorbell rang.

I glanced at Erin. She shrugged. Since she was the one with the mad language skills, she went to answer it. One of her co-teachers stood on the other side looking frazzled.

"Hello, Erin Teacher! Is your phone bad?" she demanded in slightly broken, rapid-fire English.

"My phone?" Erin replied, "The battery died. I had to charge it. What's going on?"

The woman frowned. "Park Eun-jae Teacher trying to reach you! You need to move to new apartment!"

"You mean, she found another real estate agent for us to see?" Erin asked, confused.

"No, no, no!" The woman waved her hand. "You need to move now! New tenant come Monday!"

Erin blinked. "Excuse me?"

"You landlord..." the woman frowned, searching for the words, "Give away this apartment. He think you move. New person come Monday."

"As in two days from now?"

Erin's co-teacher nodded.

Erin tried again in Korean, just to make sure everyone was on the same page.

"Ne!" (yes) The teacher agreed, very excited.

"But... but... we don't even have a new apartment yet," Erin said.

Erin's co-teacher shrugged. Not her problem. Around the corner, I began to bang my head against the wall.

"You call Park Eun-Jae Teacher," the woman said. "She find a real estate person to help you. Okay?"

"Okay..." Erin stammered, stunned. "Uh, thank you so much for driving here to tell us."

"No problem! We worry because you phone not working. I am glad you are okay." Now that her message was delivered, Erin's co-teacher had become cheerful once more. She gave a little wave and left.

I looked around our scattered stuff and tried not to mourn the death of our lazy weekend. It was hard.

"I don't even know where to begin." Erin murmured.

"I gotta go to the grocery and get some boxes," I said after a moment.

"I gotta call Park Eun-Jae Teacher."

We separated. By the time I got back, Erin had emptied our cabinets into the middle of the room so we could clean them. The phone was on the desk, babbling in speaker mode.

"Erin Teacher, you meet real estate person at three o'clock," Park Eun-Jae's voice sounded tinny.

"That sounds great." Erin threw a pile of shirts at the bed. "Where?"

"You meet Family Mart, okay? Okay, goodbye!"

"Waitwaitwait!" Erin shouted, frozen in the act of tossing our ironing board. There were about a billion Family Marts in Chungju. They were like open pantries, ubiquitous. "Park Eun-Jae Teacher! Which Family Mart?"

"Sorry?" The voice crackled from the speaker.

"Which Family Mart do we meet the real estate agent at?" Erin repeated.

"Oh! Remember last place we look for apartment? Meet near that one."

Erin's eyes goggled. She looked at me. "Do you have any idea what she's talking about?"

"Yeah. I remember a Family Mart in that neighborhood."

"Okay." Erin heaved the microwave at the bed, clearing the last of the counter space. It landed with a crash. "Thank you Park Eun-Jae Teacher! I'm sorry you had to help us on your vacation!"

"Okay! You no problem?"

I snorted, looking at the chaos. Erin put a hand to her face. There was no point getting frustrated. It was just... Korea.

"No problem!" Erin said, charging back into action. Shoes arced through the air.

The phone clicked off and Erin updated me on the insanity. "Park Eun-Jae found us a real estate agent. We're meeting him in an hour. The moving man's coming at two. Oh, good! You've got boxes. Start packing!"

But I was way ahead of her.

Thirty minutes later, we sprinted across town to our rendezvous. The agent was a trim, surprisingly tall Korean man, with hair just going silver. He shook my hand, then Erin's.

"I... speak... small English. You speak Korean?" he managed.

"네, 조금할수있어요." Erin replied.

The man blinked, eyes wide. Then he grinned ear to ear, chattering quickly. Erin shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I said I only speak a little."

He frowned. Then he shrugged. He led us to a nearby apartment building, up a flight of stairs and into a brightly lit hall, tiled in blues and whites. He paused outside a door, turning to assure us, "Very good condition."

As he puzzled out the combination lock, I considered what little I knew of Korean apartments. For people just starting out (or for the typical guest English teachers) the most common arrangment is a one room. It's everything you need stuffed into 200 square feet: TV, bed, washing machine, kitchen, bathroom, etc. The downside? They're cramped. We would know. We'd spent the last two years living in one. Ours ran about ₩400,000 ($400) a month, not counting the ₩5,000,000 deposit (about $5,000). Yes, you read that right. The deposit was more than ten times the rent. This is what's called "key money." It's why most young Koreans live with their parents until marriage. Thankfully, EPIK teachers only had to worry about it if they were silly enough to shop for their own place.

Like us.

The real estate agent fumbled through his notebook for the combination code. He punched it in and led us inside. The place was one step up from a one room; what's called a two bay apartment. It was a large studio partitioned into mini rooms. At 350 square feet, it almost felt spacious. Erin asked how much, and he said ₩450,000 per month. EPIK would give us a living stipend of ₩400,000 per month, so we'd only be responsible for about $50.00. That was manageable.

But ultimately, it felt smaller than our current apartment. A one room had the benefit of an open floor plan. With everything divided up into cramped little sections, more space felt like less. We asked if he had anything else.

The agent frowned. "Okay." I should explain at this point that most Koreans don't mess around when it comes to apartment hunting. They're in, they're out, they're done, boom! Paperwork's signed. I think the agent found our American indecision a touch frustrating.

We moved on. The next size up was a two room. In Korea (at least in Chungju) this often meant one big room with two smaller rooms (bays) off of it, plus a kitchen and bathroom. The agent found one after about a five minute walk. Heaven! Almost 600 square feet of delicious space. There was no way we could even FILL the place with our meager possessions. We asked about prices. ₩10,000,000 key money ($10,000) and  ₩550,000 a month. After the subsidy from our school, we'd only owe $150.00 a month, but that deposit was way too rich for us. We were sad to say no.

Also, the agent was beginning to get profoundly frustrated, and we were getting desperate. It was getting late. We had a lot of crap to get packed before the moving man arrived.

Our next option was an actual apartment, rather than a one or two room. Normally, such things would be beyond expensive in Korea, with deposits of $30,000 or more. But the agent assured us it was in an old building, super cheap. We both had an instinctive "So what's wrong with it?" reaction, but decided to see it anyway. It was a huge split-level, complete with spiral staircase. The first floor had a kitchen, living room, even a separate bay for the washing machine. This was promising. Very, very promising. Then we climbed the stairs to the bedroom.


My head hit the ceiling. It was five feet and sloping. On the plus side, we had a balcony. On the minus, we'd never get our mattress up those winding steps, and I'd be cruising for a concussion every single morning. Cheap, yes, but no.

The agent was thoroughly exasperated by this point. But he had one more place to show us. It was a two room, but not as expensive. The deposit was ₩5,000,000, in our price range, and the monthly rent was ₩550,000.

The elevator rattled, but that was normal. We got off at the top floor. The agent unlocked the door and led us inside. Erin made it to the kitchen and froze. A single tear rolled down her cheek. The room was almost bigger than our whole one room.

I got as far as the windows. We'd have an actual view of the world, instead of a brick wall. We could see for miles, trees, ranks of distant buildings, and beyond, the mountains.

This was the one.

We thanked the agent and told him we'd call with a decision in an hour or so. He went off, shaking his head. We grabbed some chairs outside the Family Mart and stared at each other.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"I want the last place. The one with the kitchen."

"And the windows."

"Yeah," she nodded.

"Well, it's four business days to transfer the money from the States. We won't have funds until next week," I said.

She shook her head. "I know. Let me call Park Eun-Jae Teacher back."

"I really hate bothering her on her vacation."

"Yeah, but she said we should call if we got stuck."

I sighed. "That woman is a saint."

Erin nodded agreement and dialed. She apologized for calling, then explained the problem. We'd found an apartment, but we couldn't make the deposit until the middle of next week, well after we were supposed to have moved. Erin listened as Park Eun-Jae replied. At length. And about halfway through, her eyes began shining. She hung up, gave me an excited look.


"I don't want to ruin it. Just... she said she would call the real estate agent, and then call us back."


We waited. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again. Erin answered, listened, and nodded. "Okay. We'll go find the agent. Thank you, teacher!"

She hung up.

"Well?" I demanded.

"We can secure the place with ₩100,000 ($100.00). Then when we get the rest of the money, we can formally sign the contract."

"And we can move in now with just that?"

She nodded.

"YES!" I shouted. A little Korean grandfather across the way glared at me sourly. But I didn't care. We had hours to pack our crap, clean our apartment, and haul everything across town. But I was happy. Our weekend may have been shot, but we were finally getting out of our tiny old apartment.

Into a place with multiple rooms and doors and EVERYTHING!



Our one room apartment, shortly after we learned we were moving in 24 hours.
Our one room apartment, shortly after we learned we were moving in 24 hours.
Snapped a shot using the phone camera, to commemorate our "Hillbilly Westerners!" moment.
Snapped a shot using the phone camera, to commemorate our "Hillbilly Westerners!" moment.
Hillbilly Westerners
Hillbilly Westerners
The entryway of our new apartment. Notice how it's not IN the kitchen?
The entryway of our new apartment. Notice how it's not IN the kitchen?
The kitchen. Notice how it's bigger than a postage stamp. And you can see the bedroom in the background there.
The kitchen. Notice how it's bigger than a postage stamp. And you can see the bedroom in the background there.
Looking into the living room from the kitchen. There's even a door that I can close! And be in a whole separate room! It's like MAGIC!
Looking into the living room from the kitchen. There's even a door that I can close! And be in a whole separate room! It's like MAGIC!
The view. I know it may not look like much, but this is AWESOME.
The view. I know it may not look like much, but this is AWESOME.