Single women find surprises in living soloJang Joo-hee is an attractive, successful 29-year-old fashion designer who enjoys her job as the owner of a boutique in upscale Apgujeong, southern Seoul. But the one thing that bothers her the most is not the long hours spent at work but the time she has to spend at home.
She lives with her parents, who are constantly pressuring her to find a nice man and get married. She’s not unhappy about being single ― actually, she likes it just fine, thank you. But her parents won’t back off, especially now that she’s nearing 30.
It’s getting to the point where she’s thinking about moving out, but her parents object. Ms. Jang lived on her own while studying fashion in New York for two years, which she recalls as one of the happiest times of her life. Back then, her parents were willing to send their daughter all by herself to a foreign country, but here in Korea, the idea of living alone is preposterous to her parents.
Some of her male friends have also expressed their concerns: “A woman over the marriageable age of her 20s must have some problems. Forget about moving out and find a significant other before it’s too late.” “You’ll end up living with a man.” “Living alone? Are you looking to sleep around?”
All this, however, doesn’t discourage Ms. Jang from her goal of being independent.
“I’m on my own two feet, at least mentally,” Ms. Jang says. “It’s ridiculous for single women like me to have a curfew, which almost automatically follows when living with parents. ... Three more years, and I’m definitely moving out.”
No wonder she’s envious of her friend, Lee Sun-ju, also 29 and teaching animation at a college in Gyeonggi province. Ms. Lee, who lived with her parents in Mullae-dong, Seoul, moved out three years ago to a house near her college.
“I just felt it was time,” Ms. Lee says.
And more women are starting to feel this way. Lee Dong-hoon, with the Real Estate Bank, a monthly magazine, says, “Despite the stigma, moving out has become quite common, especially for single women in their 20s and 30s, for the past few years.”
A real estate agent in the Hongik University area, western Seoul, says she has seen the same thing in her area.
In Korean society, it’s unusual for members of either gender to live alone before getting married. It’s even ingrained in the Korean language: The three Chinese characters meaning “leaving,” “women” and “house” form the Korean word “chulga,” which means “getting married.”
But lately, pop culture has been embracing singlehood, especially where women are concerned. After last year’s hit movie “Singles,” this year Korea saw a cable TV show titled “Singles in Seoul,” followed by a recent launch of a magazine called “Singles,” which is full of information specifically for working women living alone.
Businesses are realizing the benefits of marketing to single people as well. Construction firms such as Hyundai Development Company have started to build apartments designed for single people, about 33 square meters each, at least half the size of what’s usually on the market.
The Hyundai apartment complex in the upscale Yeoksam-dong area, in southern Seoul, began selling its single units in March for 150 million won ($125,000), a steep price considering the size of the room. Still, all units were sold out by the end of the month.
Choi Min-su, a public relations staff member at Hyundai, says, “The ratio of women to men buying apartments was 3 to 7, which is amazing, considering that hardly any women were buying before.”
Other numbers show that more people are living alone. According to the 2000 census, which is conducted every five years by the Korea National Statistics Office, the number of never-married people in their 30s to 50s reached 1.3 million. It was a marked increase from the 850,000 never-marrieds in 1995.
The number of one-person households was 2.2 million, out of 14.3 million households, in 2000. This represented an increase of 35.4 percent since 1995.
Even though it’s becoming more common to live alone, many people who move out find that they have to face a whole set of new restrictions.
Lim Kae-sung, 44, author of “Only When You’re Happy as a Single, You’re Happy in Marriage” and a member of a singles community at www.ssolo.com, warns women about the responsibilities of maintaining one’s own household.
“Without financial stability, there’s no independence in the truest sense,” says Ms. Lim, who’s been living alone for 15 years since her divorce. “Many single women in their 20s tend to think moving out is just easy, which is totally a mistake. I think only one or two out of 100 singles I know are leading a successful life after moving out.”
She also points out that the media’s image of a hotshot single woman who breaks free from all binding pressures only makes matters worse. “Moving out means facing a harsh reality. You need to get ready for it thoroughly,” she says.
Ms. Lee, the animation instructor, quickly found out that if she wanted to get something done around the house, she’d have to do it herself. “I sometimes wish I had not moved out, now that I know about all the expenses required for living alone,” she says. “Plus, with all the household chores you have to do yourself, you’re more pressed for time as well as money.”
Some find they’re not emotionally ready to leave the nest, even though they thought otherwise.
Chung Soon-young, 32, an outgoing public relations manager, moved out after three years of petitioning her parents. Since her move into an officetel, or a tiny office converted into an apartment, in Sinchon a couple of months ago, she finds herself staying at her parents’ house more and more.
“The hardest part is at night when you get lonely,” Ms. Chung says. She has even thought about giving up her apartment to go back home.
Even Ms. Lee, who generally enjoys living on her own, says, “After moving out, I developed a habit of turning on the television or radio the moment I get home. I can’t bear the dead silence when I’m all alone.”
But all the women interviewed agree that the benefits of living alone more than make up for the disadvantages.
“There’s a certain charm about living alone, which you can’t find anywhere else. You get lonely, but you also grow to enjoy and even appreciate being alone. You’ll never know how it feels before you actually live alone,” Ms. Lee says.
Ms. Chung echoes the sentiment. “After moving out, I feel like I’m more complete as an individual, standing on my two feet.”
However, for some Koreans, this sense of independence is not something women should pursue. Ms. Chung said most of her male friends don’t have any problems with her living alone, except for one who said, “It’s not time for you to move out. It’s time for you to get married and find a husband and get a house.”
Ms. Lim points out that moving out is now more than a trend ― it’s a necessity for working women.
“It’s also your job that shapes you as a single person,” she says. “When you work hard, you don’t want to give up the success you’ve earned for marriage, and so you stay single until you realize you’re too old to be considered eligible for marriage.
“To be incorporated into the established system of marriage means a sacrifice on the part of single women, and that’s the last thing they’d want,” she says. “So they remain single and start living alone when they can’t bear the pressure from their family.”
What’s interesting is that despite all the potential downsides of living alone, Ms. Lim, Ms. Lee and Ms. Chung, who have never met each other, all expressed the same sentiment: “I’ve found my true self by living alone. Moving out may bring a number of hardships, but it’s still worth trying.”
Ready to move out?
1. Am I financially capable of supporting myself without help from others?
2. Do I have more than five friends who are on my side for better or worse?
3. Do I have a goal in my life that I really want to achieve?
4. Do I take care of my own health ― getting a checkup every year or seeing a doctor whenever I feel sick?
5. Am I confident enough to talk to strangers in a totally new situation?
6. Am I able to go to a restaurant, a movie theater or a bar by myself?
7. Do I have a hobby that I can indulge in alone?
8. Do I manage time effectively?
9. Do I manage my emotions when I feel lonely, tense, insecure or afraid?
10. Do I have control over my sexual desires?
by Chun Su-jin