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[Cover Feature] The Emotional Science of Real Estate

by Kim Keonhyung June 14, 2022

The Dating Crisis and a House for Typical Romantic Love

One common theme in modern Korean literature might be called “The Song of Impoverished Love.” The inability to get married due to poverty and class differences is an inevitable conflict for young characters who try to become the agent of their lives through modern dating. Following in this tradition, the short stories “Nangmanjeok sarang-gwa sahoe” (Romantic love and society) by Jeong Yi Hyun (Literature and Society, Spring 2002) and “Seongtan teukseon” (Christmas special) by Kim Ae-ran (Literature and Society, Summer 2006) introduce the idea of sexual expression and juxtapose it with the housing problem in the literature of the 2000s. 

The student narrator of Jeong’s story (Romantic love and society) views herself as a risktaker, seeking a man worth betting her twenty-two years on. She follows “the ten commandments,” her own personal “game manual” to capture a man’s heart, to control sexual relations and elicit erotic feeling. She demonstrates a paradoxical consciousness in that she recognizes sexual objectification by men as the condition and context for heterosexual relations, but uses this male power for her own ends. The narrator admits that the marriage and family system is supported by the labor of dating, in which the woman trades her gender and sexuality for the social class status provided by the man, but she believes that she must aim to get the best deal to fulfill her own desires. “I had to face this desolate world on my own . . . This meant I had to be a strong woman.” This is the attitude of a young woman who strives to have agency even if she has to allow her body and sexuality to be transacted as commodities in the neoliberal market which coexists with gender hierarchy. For her, a house is an important condition for a romantic transaction. “The first thing a guy wonders is what neighborhood I live in, and if I say, ‘Banpo!’1  I start off at an advantage.” She rejects the doctrine of chastity her parents have foisted on her, but respects them for setting her up with a small apartment in Gangnam. She accepts their teaching that female sexuality is an important resource when it comes to marriage, and that one’s home as a newlywed is tantamount to one’s social class. For young women, a fair dating exchange is a very important gendered habitus for class advancement, and (the hierarchy of) locations of residence is what turns this habitus into class.

Stressed and anxious from having to succeed in both the public and private realms, young women imagine dating as a (profane) path to self-realization. But for the male narrator of Kim’s story (Christmas special), dating only confirms his misery and servility to no end. He has been unable to find a job after graduating, and he blames himself for not being able to enjoy a typical relationship with his girlfriend. “The man wanted to spend Christmas with his girlfriend . . . like others did.” But he cannot follow the middle-class heterosexual model, which involves a structured dating itinerary that he calculates to cost twenty thousand won for dinner, fourteen thousand won for movie tickets, twenty thousand won for a present, ten thousand won for tea, and forty thousand won for a love motel room. He feels diminished because he cannot cover these expenses without his girlfriend’s assistance. His biggest complaint is that he is unable to have sex because he doesn’t have a space of his own. “The man looked up at the windows of the yeogwans and love motels and sometimes felt jealous because out of all the rooms, none were his.” He stays at his sister’s place, and “there, even small disturbances could not but startle them [him and his girlfriend]. They had the feeling someone might come, or that they’d have to go . . . The man had felt this even when he first confessed his love.” Coursing through the story is the narrator’s desire to secure a space/capacity to love: “When he fell in love, he wished he had his own room for the first time.” The suffering of young men in an age of low economic growth is embodied in the deprivation of the standard manifestation of heterosexual love because of the lack of one’s own space.

The premise of the story is the young man’s self-loathing, as his entitlement to be the head of the family is delayed, and we are to presume a gendered aesthetic that regards this as a symptom of the times. Descriptions of young men who try to purchase a house while dating but fail, and thus fall short of heterosexual gender roles, were a staple of the “gosiwon2 literature” of the 2000s. At this time, there was widespread social grieving for young people suffering economic hardship who could not reproduce the family through home ownership to continue the standard life cycle. 

Redevelopment as a Form of Love and Violence

On the other hand, people do not purchase houses as a means of family reproduction in the fiction of the 2010s. Rather, a house is a minimum means for maintaining your self-esteem, as you prove you are an economic agent keeping up with the times. Kim Hye-jin, in particular, has written a series of pieces about the emotional science of redevelopment, the Korean way of converting space into capital. In her novel Fire and My Autobiography (Hundae Munhak, 2020),3  part of Namil-dong is being redesignated as Jungang-dong for administrative convenience, and the novel closely examines how this redesignation spurs a redevelopment craze. Namil-dong becomes an object of disgust, and the mindsets of people who define themselves by the neighborhoods in which they live are passed along to the younger generation. The father keeps boasting how leaving Namil-dong at the first opportunity to buy a house in Jungang-dong was the best decision of his life. Finding himself in the right place at the right time to put in a bid for the right price at an auction, he took advantage of this opportunity. He stresses that he was the right fit for Jungang-dong from the beginning as he was an effective economic agent, unlike the pathetic and irresponsible people of Namil-dong. But his “ability” to seize an opportunity was really nothing more than luck. He’d recklessly borrowed money from the bank and as he stood terrified at the auction, not knowing what to do, one of his neighbors unexpectedly arrived and assisted him in making a successful bid. However, the father revises his memories in keeping with the hierarchy of the redevelopment area, repeating this edited memory to his daughter in an attempt to teach her. The father believes that he ended up on “the right side of the tracks” through his own efforts when in fact it was the random chance of the administrative division combined with sheer luck. Still, he declares that the economic outcomes of Namil-dong and Jungang-dong could be intuitively known. 

The mother is wracked with anxiety lest they unwittingly become assimilated into the Namil-dong community. She cannot devote herself to raising her daughter because the father does not earn enough to support them. She scolds her child out of frustration because she hates to see herself working for a living and her daughter hanging out with children whose parents just let them play out on the streets all day. “Hong-ah, you’re different from the children in this neighborhood.” From this exchange, the narrator learns that her mother worries that she’ll grow up like the local kids. The mother classifies children according to the neighborhood where they reside and tries to instill this standard in her daughter as well. She tries to escape from Namil-dong by inculcating in her child a sense that she’s different from the working-class children who are neglected and left to their own devices, and in this way pressures the daughter to study. From these actions that circumscribe her world, the daughter can also “feel that her mother worried and cared about [her].” The narrator realizes that her mother’s anger and frustration have been passed down to her in the form of sacrificial love. The mindset of enabling one’s children to “transcend” a boundary is really a way of maintaining and strengthening that boundary. As an adult, the narrator witnesses the perpetuation of this attitude when her friend Ju-hae tries to have her daughter Su-ah assigned to an elementary school in Jungang-dong rather than Namil-dong. “I’ll never be able to throw off this mindset for as long as I live here. These things don’t disappear on their own. They’re always spreading, moving from person to person, and finally they’re passed down to the next generation and the next.” Paradoxically, loathing is passed down through love. Kim Hye-jin coolly identifies the distinctive emotional structure of Korean families, in which parents project their class anxieties onto their children’s academic performance as the basis for maintaining the distinctions of Korean cities, where real estate is divided according to school districts. 

Kim Hye-jin’s “District 3, District 1” (Literature and Society, Winter 2019) highlights the moments when redevelopment acts as a point of class intersection, creating a partition between female friends and queer lovers. The first-person narrator, “I,” rents a place in a cheap neighborhood that has been on the downturn since it was slated for redevelopment. Every day “I” feels a rush of horror while passing through the bleak alleyways. She feels neglected in Korean society, where young irregular female workers have neither their safety nor survival guaranteed. So, every time she sees the small stray cat Tabby running around with bloody saliva dripping from its chin, she recognizes it as a fellow survivor. Then “I” finally meets “you,” a young woman trying to care for Tabby. “A person pure and good enough to willingly spend time and money on stray cats, you looked like someone who desperately needed my help.” Thanks to this encounter, “I” no longer feels “the horror and dread [she] was so sick of feeling in the alley.” The sense of suffocating confinement that the dilapidated old neighborhood gave her abates for the first time as well. She often looks directly at the other woman’s face. She keeps making eye contact despite warning herself not to. Both sexual tension and affinity grow between the two as they tend to the stray cat together, but their relationship cannot develop smoothly with the redevelopment zone looming in the background.

When they take the cat to the veterinarian’s clinic, the narrator reacts in surprise to hear the treatment will cost millions of won. The other woman, by contrast, calmly pays the fee. The narrator is then surprised by her acquaintance’s demeanor. Whereas the narrator had come to the neighborhood for cheap housing without regard for the redevelopment project, the other woman is financially savvy enough to have turned a profit by speculating in property there. The narrator’s affinity for the other woman, “you,” is also a fascination with neoliberal survival logic and the financial power that each individual woman can appropriate in order to survive. But “I” also says, “On my way home, I thought, you’re such a strange woman. I could see that you felt sorry for suffering animals and helped them however you could, but this was unusual and a bit much.” Looking at her friend, she feels inferior: “‘You’ must see me as useless and incompetent.” Despite the friendship they build up over time, she isn’t able to bridge the gap between herself and this woman, who has set aside one of her properties for the cats she has rescued. The narrator also falls into self-criticism: “Is everything my fault for being so naive?” The gentle face of “you,” unguardedly trying to share tips and information for investing in the redevelopment zone, reminds us of the ambivalent aspects of violence. The narrator thinks of redevelopment from the perspective of residents already living in the zone. She is shocked that the other woman thinks the neighborhood should be destroyed and rebuilt because it’s already dead anyway. She realizes that it is “people like ‘you’ who remain in the end, people who create the expectation that a perfectly good neighborhood will be redeveloped or redesigned, and causing its residents over a decade of suffering.” She is faced with the irony that the financial power women and sexual minorities might exercise to earn a living is predicated on participating in violence against others. 

Trading in Shame

This is not to say that problems disappear once you own a home. “The Brightest World I Know” by Lim Solah (Hyundae Munhak, October 2020) begins with the narrator’s declaration that she has rejected nunchi (intuitive awareness) her whole life. She thinks it’s strange to force yourself to laugh and hide your true feelings just because you don’t want to be excluded. This declaration exempts her from performing emotional labor on the job, and leads to her proud decision to work as a freelancer in the art and culture field. But from the time she buys a house, she can no longer keep this personal dictate regarding emotion. “Real estate prices have risen precipitously in the past one or two years,” so she is no longer able to afford rent. She plans to move to a relatively inexpensive suburb on the far end of the Seoul metropolitan subway line. But while she is still in the stages of finding a place, a showroom representative recommends she buy a new house in the suburbs as it is only half the price of a rental deposit in Seoul. She is charmed by the view from a sunny window overlooking a vegetable garden, especially when comparing it to the dreary city environs, and after hearing that it will be cheaper than renting in Seoul even after adding on the mortgage, she buys the officetel,
a dual-purpose studio that can be used for business or residence. But it’s not long before a high rise goes up in front, blocking the view, and no sooner does the rainy season start than water seeps in from the outer wall, causing distress. She has the leak inspected and learns that it will cost millions of won to fix. The construction company should be liable since the building is not yet a year old, but the contractor has already disappeared, being one of those contractors who avoids liability by declaring bankruptcy as soon as a sale goes through. The narrator tries to contact the other residents to see if they will share in the cost, as the outer wall is a public space, but they just ignore her as it’s not their problem. The tenants’ representative suggests setting the outer wall’s repair costs above the true estimate and then asking the insurance company to reimburse them. If the leftover money is distributed to the tenants, they might agree to have it fixed. The representative knows of an interior design company that will set the rate high, and a contact who can help with insurance claims, so all the problems can be solved with just a little ruse. The narrator says, “I felt like I was stepping on a line, and on the verge of crossing it.” But upon finding that there is a solution, “[t]he muscles in my face started to move. My cheek bones rose, and the tips of my lips spread wide. I was laughing, too. I checked out my grinning face for a while when I was in the bathroom washing my hands, but the smile faded because I was looking.”

The narrator’s friends enter their names in an apartment lottery in preparation for marriage, and the narrator accompanies them to a show home. She’d like to submit her name, too, but since she’s not getting married, she’s ineligible under the points system. The show home representative equates marriage and childbirth with wealth, saying, “Owning an apartment beats having a job in Korea. Nowadays the base rate for an apartment is a billion won. If you have two children and then win the apartment lottery, each child is equivalent to five hundred million won.” They openly discuss the “shrewd” housing strategy of having a fetus recognized as a child and then aborting it, or the “cold” strategy of adopting a child only to abandon it. As a writer, the narrator believes that literature is the constant search for humans’ inner truth or individual standpoints, but she is perplexed by the truths and standpoints surrounding real estate. Aware now that she must endure insults as the condition for having a house, she can trade in real estate with a smile. She learns to hide her shame in the same way she wipes away mold to make her home attractive to bidders. She wants to sell it off quickly and move into a proper apartment. “I traded my officetel at a loss, but I was pleased to think I’d found a sucker to take it.” Despite the niggling feeling that she had to give up something, she finds herself smiling. 

In Hwang Jungeun’s “A Strange Episode” (Epiic, January–March 2021), the characters buy a house for their security, but find themselves in an embarrassing predicament. A lesbian couple, Seon-in and Gang-hee, cry in frustration over the instability of being renters—having to show their place and go around to view others’ places every two or three years. They feel disturbed and insulted (to no purpose) at seeing the order and disorder, the poverty and hardship, of the lives of strangers, and witnessing the hostility of landlords and the disillusionment of tenants. So the two decide to buy a place located at the far end of a residential street facing a mountain. It is one unit in a villa,4 a seventeen-year-old, multi-family residential building, but there is a hiking trail just out front and they admire the blossoms on the fringe trees. Above all, the price fits their budget. The first person home from work turns the light on as a beacon for the other, and the sight of this light on the way home gives them a feeling of safety and security. The narrator says, “We thought this was what a home was for.” 

But the friends who come to congratulate them on buying their first home ask why they didn’t buy a proper apartment. “An apartment building has a management office, and there are many people, which is an advantage if you need to do something collectively.” The two wonder if they will ever need to act collectively, but it turns out they do. Late one rainy night, Gang-hee falls down the stairs at the entrance, suffering a severe head injury. Seon-in is shocked and suggests to the neighbors that they repair the old stairs before someone else gets hurt, but no one is interested. What’s more, water is leaking from the ceiling, but the upstairs neighbor denies responsibility, claiming he’s taken all the measures he can. There is a child living upstairs who runs around at dawn, awaking the couple and disturbing them. When Seon-in complains, the neighbor responds that the only way left to control this child would be to beat him, and did Seon-in want that? Everyone around knows these things are wearing them down, and the couple keeps wondering why no one intervenes. They realize that the light they see on the way home can no longer give them a sense of safety or security. Feeling “a growing sense of suspicion, anger, and disillusionment regarding her neighbors,” Seon-in recalls the ghastly, wide-mouthed grin of the person who sold them the house three years previously. He may have been grinning because he was making his escape from these neighbors. “The landlord rented out the place in that state, and the tenant rented it that way.” Seon-in feels frustrated when she realizes they’ll continue this cycle when they put up their villa to be bought by someone else who’ll expect it to be better than the home they lived in.

The young women discover that the home they’ve worked hard to buy does not bring them the safety or emotional fulfillment that they expected. Instead, a house is part of a system in which you endure contempt in exchange for bare subsistence. You endure it for a while before you have no choice but to pass your disillusionment and anger along to someone else. While the discourse on housing in Korean society focuses on the injunction to become skilled financial agents who pounce upon the profits from redevelopment, or on compassion for the younger generation and its failure to reach the goal of reproducing the heterosexual family, “real estate” only perpetuates these endless dynamics. Is it now possible for us to have a “home” where our lives are intertwined with others instead of “real estate” that is only material space bereft of community? Much is left to discuss.

1     A well-to-do neighborhood inthe greater Gangnam area of Seoul.

2     Cubicle-sized accommodationfavored by those studying for public service exams or those unable to affordother housing.

3     Includedin this volume is my commentary: “A Genealogy of the Hate Economy and theEmotional Science of Redevelopment,” which I have revised and expanded here.

4     InKorea, unlike in the West, a villa refers to asmaller, older residence that is usually four stories tall.

Translated by Kari Schenk

Illustration ©Chulmin Yi

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