IT HAS become clear to me that some pretty sad and lonely people probably live in my goshiwon. Traditionally, these blocks of box rooms with shared bathrooms and a kitchen were places where students could go and study for exams in isolation. But in reality many residents of goshiwons are simply poor people who can't afford to rent anywhere else. Just about everyone I've seen in my goshiwon is in their thirties or forties.
A guy who looks like he is probably in his forties occupies the room next to mine. He always leaves his room door slightly ajar - perhaps because the corridors are air-conditioned, whereas the rooms are not. Whenever he hears me open my door or walk down the corridor he pushes the door shut. So every time I so much as tip-toe to the bathroom I am greeted with a door swinging shut in my face. Every single time.
I can understand people wanting their privacy. But this strikes me as a little strange. Not only that, it somehow seems sad. I don't know if he's shy, hateful, depressed or just introspective. We've never said hello when we've passed each other in corridor. I doubt we ever will. He also never sleeps or, so it seems, leaves the goshiwon. If I come home from the pub at 5 a.m. he is there in his room, light on, door ajar. Same at 2p.m. Same at 12p.m.
I heard him laugh at the television a few minutes ago, a first sign of humanity. Up until now, I was seriously beginning to wonder if he was really human.
There is one guy here I talk to. I think he is about forty. His English is not good and I don't even know his name. Whenever I see him he always asks me where I'm going and have I had dinner. He reckons that kimchi keeps Koreans mentally sharp. He also complains that the Japanese stole their beloved national dish and gave it their own, vaguely different, name. The Japanese are somewhat of a touchy subject in Korea. He is studying for something, but I haven't been able to understand him well enough to know what.
A week or two ago we were on the stairwell talking, having a Coke. He told me he has been living at this goshiwon for a year, but he plans to leave and get a high-paid job in computers. Job satisfaction didn't matter to him, he said, money was his goal.
But one thing he said shocked me. One of the guys at the goshiwon has been living here for seven years. Seven years is much too long to live in a place like this. Seven years is a long time to share a bathroom and kitchen with dozens of other strangers, your only personal space being a glorified cupboard. Seven years is much too long to live alone.
I wondered was it the guy in the room beside me he was talking about. If it was, I could understand why he guarded his meagre personal space so fiercely.
After seven years in a goshiwon who wouldn't?