It’s been a long search trying to find a Korean resident living in a goshiwon. Despite huge efforts my teammate, Halisia Hubbard, and I still haven’t found one. With less than a week of reporting left, it’s getting down to the wire.
In hindsight a better bio on Tinder would have been “in search of love, goshiwon,” but “in search of people who live in goshiwons,” worked just fine.
I’d posted on Facebook, on Reddit, we messaged people on Instagram, and we both created a Tinder profile to grill unsuspecting young Koreans looking for love on their living arrangements. I messaged bartenders I met, knocked on doors, and asked countless people: do you live in a goshiwon?
Goshiwon are small, affordable micro-apartments, unique to South Korea. They were initially created as student housing, but turned into an affordable alternative for low income Koreans. They are notoriously small, most of them measuring in around 2 square meters, and usually have shared bathrooms and kitchens, and maybe a window to an outside street.
At this point I’ve lost count on how many goshiwons Halisia and I have visited. Our plan of attack was to interview unsuspecting residents coming in and out of their homes. We had already lucked out with an amazing interview with an owner of a goshwion, An Ho. He owned the first goshiwon we’d visited and spoke near perfect English.
We were optimistic the same tactics would work to find a resident, and hopefully gain access, and see just how tiny the apartments were. We searched for goshiwon on “goshipages,” the Korean goshiwon equivalent of craigslist, google-mapped all the ones within ten miles of us and systematically hit all the ones we could find.
That type of reporting, just dropping in and seeing who will talk to you, can be super effective. Most people are receptive to speaking with you, and going and seeing often yields better results than trying to set up more formal interviews.
That being said, reporting in a foreign country is a whole different beast. The biggest challenge is the language barrier. The people who spoke English were few and far between, and those who did either didn’t speak enough or were reticent to talk to us in a different language, let alone let us into their house.
Dropping in and conducting a short interview doesn’t work if you’ve walked five miles and they can’t understand a single word you’ve said. Then all you end up with is blisters… and a few more blisters. So, after a long and disappointing afternoon, walking all around the large Hongdae district, up countless flights of stairs, to continually be rejected, we felt pretty down in the dumps.
We asked An Ho to see if any of his residents would be willing to speak with us, realizing that our tactics of dropping into a goshiwon might never work, but it seemed no one was willing. We used him as our interpreter to speak with residents and the resounding statement was… well I don’t know, it was in Korean, but he translated it to a firm no, and from their body language it was pretty obvious they didn’t want to be bothered.
These people aren’t thrilled to be living in a goshiwon, they are typically on the lower income spectrum, and work tirelessly just to make ends meet. Most goshiwons also don’t allow visitors, which was another big barrier in our reporting.
Goshiwons are very small, and depending on the facilities, can be horrible to live in. The atmosphere in goshiwon isn’t welcoming either, everyone is extremely quiet, and most people aren’t home during the days, only staying in their goshiwon to sleep.
I’m still optimistic we’ll be able to find a Korean who lives in a goshiwon. We were able to gain access to a goshiwon, and saw the interior (although it was vacant), and we have a few potential interviewee’s who have seemed open to talking with us. With five days left in Korea, I know we’ll pull it off, but damn was it a difficult journey.
Blog and photo by Juliana Sukut