IF ONE WERE TO map my routine trajectory, they would note that I descend five flights of stairs every morning en route to work. Exiting the stairwell, I make a right and head down a narrow hallway used as a makeshift pantry before leaving my building.
However, my skimpy daily expedition would make a pathetic map. After a year in Seoul, my home has become a familiar raft floating on an unknown sea. I have no idea what businesses occupy the floors beneath me, nor what they even look like. I decided it was time to recruit my Korean friend Lia to translate my curiosity and help me explore the business / residential combo that is my officetel.
Meet my neighbors.
Chamjoun Gositel, 3rd floor
One of the most intriguing discoveries I made was the gositel residence. Gosi literally means a test that requires years of study, especially for those aspiring to be lawyers or government officials. These catacomb-sized rooms are traditionally sought out by young adults requiring absolute quiet.
Given an apartment deposit in my building runs between 5 million to 10 million won, gositel are also popular with office men in need of cheap temporary lodging. Including utilities, these tiny furnished rooms with a shared kitchen require no deposit and will only set you back 200,000 won a month.
Inside the claustrophobic entrance of the Chamjoun Gositel, there’s a small sign taped to the glass window of the reception booth stating cell phone use and visitors are prohibited. Unimpressed by the dusty fake floral arrangements and the distant sound of a crying baby, Lia concluded that down-and-out people might want to hide in this coed residence.
“Nobody can track their identity as long as they pay for a small room. Who knows, maybe even a policeman cannot find them,” she explained after painting a dire picture of fugitives on the run.
The office men, 3rd floor
A balding man with carefully combed tufts of hair sits behind a large desk at the entrance of Ju Hana Jeongbotongsi. Dark circles almost engulf his eyes, while the ash from his lit cigarette precariously hovers over a plate of sliced tomatoes. Above his head, a mounted black fan circulates the cloud of smoke throughout the office.
It is just after 7pm, so most of the workers have finished and their microphone headsets are hanging from a short blue cubicle wall. With a bemused expression, the owner tells me that for the last six years he’s run a telephone help center for the credit card transaction machines retailers use. To illustrate the point, an employee picks up a small card reader and wiggles it at me.
24-hour pool hall, 3rd floor
Watching the five or so older men quietly playing makes my friend feel uncomfortable. Despite the room’s brilliant illumination, she anxiously tells me, “Pool halls are one of the most dangerous places. Gangsters love to hang out with their friends here, especially in this kind of cheaper building.”
As we survey the large room stuffed with green and blue pool tables, the men return our gaze through the glass window. “Can you notice they are looking at us with suspicious eyes?” Although I don’t detect sinister thoughts tucked beneath their dress shirts and thinning hair, we nevertheless continue on to the second level.
24-hour Thai massage, 2nd floor
Inside a giant reception area that resembles a living room, the proprietors are slouched in chairs against the wall and glued to the television. Between pivotal reality TV scenes, I manage to eke out details concerning their services. Never having had a massage, I ask what it is that makes a massage “Thai.” Perhaps too difficult to explain during commercial breaks, I am instead told that a one-hour session from a Thai or Korean masseuse costs 50,000 won.
Despite discovering their busiest time is from 10pm onwards, Lia throws her usually fastidious nature to the wind and excitedly exclaims, “How about trying it next time?”
Agit Point: Cocktail, coffee and hof, 2nd floor
The curtain of leaf-shaped beads leads into a dim and smoky greenhouse. We choose a private red velvet booth by the window with a TV blaring talk show above us. Plants adorn the windowsill and jostle with the neon signs for the best view of the neighborhood.
My partner picks the house coffee, which somehow combines the flavor of instant coffee mix and medicine into one concentrated 3,000 won cup. While I suggest pouring the contents into one of pots to spare the owner’s feelings, we decide she must take more pride in her plants than her coffee.
The quince tea I order is delivered in a handmade ceramic cup with shredded fruit and pine nuts floating on top. The tea is syrupy sweet and although I enjoy the atmosphere, next time I would purchase something bottled and without the owner’s kind touch.
The butcher, 1st floor
The pork from Nongpyeok is gently illuminated behind a glass case by pink neon. For the past 10 years, the slender butcher with a short masculine haircut has exclusively supplied the officetel restaurants with meat. Although the shop is usually locked up, she remains on call during the day with a sign in the window listing her number.
Her manner appears casual yet tough, the kind of tomboy that sees no incongruity in wearing a sweater vest with a cherubic embroidered puppy while carving pig carcasses.
PC bang, 1st floor
Currently, the black-painted room is sparsely filled with armchairs, computers, and customers. However, in the past I used to see old men quietly studying every gleaming chrome surface and backlit button of the slot machines before them. These men never approached the machines, though; they just sat in contemplation with their cigarettes limply dangling from their hands. I could hear the sounds of jackpots ringing in their thoughts while their hands never veered from their cigarette-to-mouth course.
As her shop faces the PC bang, I ask the butcher if she knows why the slot machines had suddenly disappeared one day. “They were reported and confiscated by the police,” my friend translates. “Now that they are earning less money, the owners want to sell their property.”
Dry cleaners, 1st floor
Sitting on a small sofa amongst racks of plastic-sleeved clothes, the owner is watching a wall-mounted TV. She tells me that for the past 10 years she’s weathered the rapid turnover that affects many businesses in Seoul by receiving a steady flow of customers from within the officetel.
After explaining her services, she quickly mentions that the neighborhood is a safe and respectable place to be. While I’m inclined to agree, her statement has the opposite effect on my friend. “Why do you think she said that even though we didn’t ask?” Lia queries me. “Because this area is for sexual activities and she wants to defend her neighborhood.”
The nail in the coffin, 1st floor
Exiting the dry cleaners, adjacent to the security office, we find ourselves before a casino PC bang. Lia points out the “adults only” sign while suggesting I take a photo of the flashy and colorful decal that obscures the whole window.
“It’s not like the Gangnam-gu area, which is clean, has lots of students, and is secure.” With fortuitous timing, an old woman begins cursing in a nearby hall. “This symbolizes that this area is dark, and hidden, and filthy. You are staying in a very poor area.”
While my friend might be worried about me, I now find the bustling economic activity below me comforting. The bored expressions from the nail technicians are reliable, while the prune-like B1 sauna customers feel safe and clean.
In attempting to demystify the officetel, I have begun to tame the vast unknown that exists within my home. Now when I pass the butcher strolling between the back doors of restaurants, I smile and greet her because I understand where we belong in each other’s world.
* This post was originally published on GrooveKorea.com and reprinted here with permission.