Confessions of a Knock-off apartment Kid from the 1980s

In this personal essay, writer Jeong Yi Hyun reflects on her childhood fascination with modern apartment living.


I am not a “natural born apartment kid.” It would, rather, be more appropriate to say that I spent my childhood hankering for the life of an apartment kid.

My first memory of the space called an apartment starts in the early 1980s. Around that time my maternal grandparents moved to the ninth floor of the newly-built Samho Apartment in Bangbae-dong. It was when the real estate development boom in Gangnam had just begun. Any information on which course my grandparents took to sell their traditional style house in Pilwoon-dong, Jongno-gu, and start their life in the apartment, has not stayed with me. There is a better chance that I never had such a memory. For there exists no adult who lets a child, not yet age 10, in on those details – neither then, nor now.

My memory of visiting my grandparents’ new place, led by my mother, is still vivid. We stepped into a small square box. It was an elevator. The elevator was slowly rising up in the air. And then, it abruptly stopped under my feet. I felt vertigo. It was a different feeling from dizziness. I realized even before I stepped into my grandparents’ entrance door that I would be fascinated by this new space, and I would not be able explain why. So is the fundamental nature of enchantment.

Inside, the apartment was almost a perfect square. The living room, kitchen, and bedrooms were partitioned in squares like blocks of tofu. The faint smell of fresh starch-based glue from the new wallpaper faintly wafted in. I went out to the veranda. I squatted down there and looked out. I could see the world. It was my first time seeing the world from such an angle. There were several cars and the tops of a few heads on the streets. They all looked like miniatures. I thought of myself as Gulliver who had arrived at Lilliput.

At my grandparents’ place, I did not eat or go near the TV that I liked so much. I was endlessly hanging out at the windows. I imagined the direction of each car moving at its own speed, the steps of pedestrians walking by at their own pace, and the destinations that they were trying to reach by their slow or deliberate steps at the moment, and their dreams about which I would never know.

I came to have a wish. I wanted to live in an apartment.

My parents had a different idea. I was not sure about my mother, but my father was decisive because they had recently bought a house for the first time. They put everything they had into the house so they could own it. My father began his own family in 1971 when he was 35 years old. He married relatively late compared to the norm at the time. He, who was born a second son to a single mother with little economic means, walked through his life with diligence, working his way through college and becoming a self-made man. After marriage, when he owned his first house, after renting several dwellings, he was in his early 40s. It should be easy to guess how much special affection he had for his first house.

Our house was built in a new residential area on the outskirts of Gwanak Mountain. That’s right. They did not buy a house. The house was clearly newly built. To build his first house for his family, my father purchased the land first, leveled the ground, and laid a cornerstone. In the sizable backyard, young grass with a grandiose name, Korean grass, grew wild. As my mother wished, we planted boxwood trees, rose bushes, sour cherry trees, and persimmon trees. Therefore, to imagine my parents leaving the house and moving to an apartment that looked like a matchbox was an impossible wish.

As everything has its light and shadow, my father fell into considerable debt to build that white-painted house. The basic members of the household were my parents, younger brother, me, and my paternal grandmother, who went back and forth to her oldes...