The New Landlord

The two gray apartment buildings rise outside grandma’s living room windows.

She is their owner, and she is sitting on the brown hardwood floor of her vast two-story house of brick, stretching out her left leg while folding the right one under her knee. There is a large flatscreen television turned off facing a big brown leather couch no one ever sits on, above which hangs a very pink and blue family portrait, with the edges blurred, and everyone inside smiling as if there are sharp objects secretly being inserted into their rectums. In the evenings her husband likes to sit on the floor near the couch and watch the news to learn about how the Japanese are trying to steal Dokdo back again.

Grandma is sitting on the hardwood floor with one leg crossed inside the other, taking green vegetables from a plastic bag. Outside there are hundreds of chili peppers drying in the white sun, on the white cement of her courtyard, beside a well-tended garden. She lay the peppers there herself, and she would not believe you if you told her they originally came from Mexico. For her, they have only ever grown in Korea—우리 나라, our country, our shore, in her words—and they are as eternal as the names she gives to her apartment buildings: Hosanna, Hallelujah, Yo-han, in which the tenants must pay several hundred thousand additional won on their rents every two years.

She could evict all of her tenants at once, charge double the usual prices, and have her buildings refilled in a few months, because that’s the way things work around here. Real values decrease as prices rise. Most of her apartments are single rooms no more than fifteen square feet in size with single bathrooms and single windows overlooking other apartment buildings. Their occupants eat little except rice, kimchi, seaweed, and ramen; every morning they drive enormous, brand new SUVs to office buildings that are within walking distance of their homes, spending twelve hour days copying text from one document to another, nodding and saying “yes” to the voices buzzing out of their phones; their wallets are packed with credit cards.

Her two-story house is almost completely empty. For many years she has invested every penny of rent into the construction of new cement tenements, for Monopoly-like, money makes money. The son in the family portrait knows that there is a population crisis coming, and that there won’t be anyone to live in these apartments once all the grandmas and grandpas die off, no one except the dirty contract laborers from Southeast Asia, so he’s enjoying the ride while it lasts, converting his income to US dollars and buying himself a skinny pale wife who was made pretty and almost even Caucasian under the sharp tools of half a dozen plastic surgeons. He also owns several green gas stations.

The gray apartment buildings are rising into the hot white smog, and as she works on the bare floor, sitting with a straight back, examining her vegetables, two new customers walk inside, greet her husband, and sign a pair of documents. One customer is a small skinny woman with ugly dark skin, and the other is a hairy, sweaty foreigner who smells like damp feet. They have a baby, as all married couples should—grandma believes this down to the molecules in her bone marrow, but she could not explain this opinion if you asked her to—and, more importantly, no pets. They’ll be moving into a bigger apartment (the kind foreigners like) in a month, and after the expiration of approximately two years grandma will raise their rent so that it becomes unaffordable for them, but not for the next couple, armed with credit cards, waiting in line.

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2 thoughts on “The New Landlord

  1. Tom says:

    This is a great portrait of Korea, how it lives and thinks and works and moves. And how different its future will be.

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Thank you!

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