Living in A Shoe-Box One Room
Tips For the Transition into Korean Housing

A Daiso at Gunja station in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by LERK.

Living in a shoe-box Korean one room can be a challenge, especially for expats who hail from countries that have bigger homes. Most foreigners who move to South Korea to teach English or to study rarely consider that normal parts of accommodations like baths or ovens are relatively rare in most single-person housing. Seven tips for the transition into a small, Korean-style accommodation follow. 


#1. Make do with less


It’s a philosophy, a way of life. Think less rather than more. It can manifest in various ways.


#2. Adjust to your new life.


Recognize Seoul’s mountains and public parks are just as much your home as your small apartment. Spend time in them to relax and unwind. Itaewon’s restaurants, Hongdae’s bars, and Gangnam’s clubs are where you meet friends and share a moment together. In the same vein, you can work and study outside as well. Seoul’s numerous cafes are your office space. Type away in any of the hundreds of cafes that are just a short subway ride away.

Want to hold a meditation meet up with a group of friends or throw a large birthday party? You might look into recreation centers or venues. Better yet, those few friends with big houses and rooftops can help out. If you want an intimate atmosphere or space to accommodate many friends, it’s necessary to lean on certain friends with bigger spaces. Ask them for favors. Hold events with their help. Remember, your home just isn’t cut out for every occasion. You have to give up localism and some of the community-building aspects that would be easier with more space available. It might go against the spirit of the times or your current mood, but tough. You chose to live in Seoul, and adjusting to the reality is the price of doing so. Better to go out into the city and have your needs met than try to make an unworkable situation succeed at home.


#3. Spend days, weeks, and months going through all your stuff.


It’s time to purge all the junk out of your life. Analyze, weigh, and decide whether any things you have should stay with you even one more day. Get rid of all your knick-knacks. Throw them out, donate them, give them away, send them home, or find a way to store them. Even get plastic boxes to store the valuable, priceless stuff. But go through what you have and ponder each piece and it’s connection to you. Weigh the emotional attachments you may have to each piece.


#4. Consider a special rule when looking at anything in your house or in one of the shopping areas.


If you don’t use it, maybe it’s best to throw it out. If it’s not necessary, maybe you shouldn’t buy it.

Seoul is an urban jungle and it’s easy to suddenly get caught up in the rush and to suddenly impulse-shop, be it on the holidays or because there isn’t always something else to do other than look at stuff for sale. Foreigners also get nostalgia when they see rare items from their childhood that somehow found their way in Korean markets or stores, be it foodstuff or other bric-a-brac. No matter what, don’t purchase anything while visiting the array of stores, marts, and markets scattered throughout Korea’s urban centers.

Seasonal or one time things like Christmas trees or lights won’t do you any good. Summer party items or sports equipment for games you rarely play won’t help much. If it doesn’t have utility for most of the year, avoid getting it.

The key is not to add to what you already have. Whatever you do, don’t add to what you have unless it’s one hundred percent necessary. Ninety percent just isn’t good enough. Wait to buy that item you kind of like. Do it after you leave Seoul and the Korean peninsula for good.


#5. Cook basics at home, and get specialty food outside.


Everyone wants to bake bread, grill meat, make cocktails, blend smoothies, or pretty much cook anything and everything in the kitchen.

DIY just won’t cut it once you decide to live in Korea for a year-long contract or longer. Instead, find restaurants and cafes to get certain kinds of food. Don’t buy appliances or specialty food ingredients.

It will just lead to a cluttered space and cause stress.


#6. Say no to the many departing expats offering unused stuff.


Hoards of foreigners leave Korea each year, and everyone has good-as-new herbs, canned tuna, furniture, clothes, kitchen utensils, and pretty much everything under the sun. It really is a shame to see food stuff go to waste but unless it’s something you will definitely use, just say no. You can’t afford to take anything when you live in such a small space. Reject hippie-do-goodness or pack rat thrift and instead protect your sanity and ability to have a clutter-free space.


#7. Avoid holding onto blankets or stuff for guests unless you actually have room for them.


A lot of people have this problem. Many expats have that one friend who will visit once in a blue moon and hold onto extra blankets for them. Even when the friend does follow through on their promise and visits, the rest of the time the blankets are taking up valuable, precious space. Just keep what you use unless you really can store extra blankets and mats for the occasional guest. It’s nice to be hospitable, but letting unused bedding take up important space just isn’t worth it.