In December, 2006, I taught my last class at Dongguk University in Seoul and retired from full-time teaching. I realized then that after my work visa ran out at the end of February, I would have three weeks to get out of the country. At that point I had two cats, an apartment full of stuff and some uncertainty about whether to try to find a part-time job or move out of the country. In the end I flew to Japan to pick up a tourist’s visa, which bought me an additional three months to do the thing properly.
I’d always moved like a vagabond of the aging graduate student variety: you disposed of most of the stuff, maybe stored some at a friend’s house, drove off with the rest in your car or got on an airplane with whatever was allowed in your free baggage allowance. But this time I didn’t want to dispose of everything for a fraction of its worth only to replace it at what I now figured would be my final destination, retirement in the Philippines with some old friends, Mary and Walter. I flew down to Manila. Inside a gated community, the real estate agent had found us a large bungalow with living room, dining room, kitchen, study and three bedrooms inside the house. Outside was a garage with a “driver’s room” above it and a cement-walled “dirty kitchen”—for tasks like doing laundry and cleaning fish. The adjoining “maid’s room” was about the size of a large bathroom, with a wooden plank bed and no windows. Chilling. The driver’s room was much nicer, with wooden shutters for windows, reflecting the driver’s higher status. Except for a strip around the periphery, the yard inside the high wall had been paved over.
Moving what I didn’t want to replace meant serious international moving like corporate people did. I got on the Internet, and then called Corea International Logistics. CIL sent out a nice man to my apartment, look at the stuff and give me an estimate. I started taking inventory, which proved to me that at this point in my life this was the practical thing to do. Both the actual and the replacement value of the stuff was many times the cost of moving it.
On the day of the big move, the cats and I were staying at my friend Joan’s. I went back to the apartment before the orange and black CIL truck arrived. Five men jumped out of the back wearing gray and yellow uniforms with the company logo on them. Right behind was a small car with the boss, the man who’d given me the estimate, with his white shirt and clipboard. Immediately everybody got to work. Neighbors gathered outside to watch, and it was actually quite a show. The men had lots of sturdy, orange and black cardboard packing crates which they were cutting and taping to fit around appliances, furniture, pictures, books, computer stuff, a rug, everything. It was a virtual percussion band of five rolls of duct tape being ripped down cardboard. The crew packed everything, including, as I discovered later, parts of the kitchen sink.
I ran errands for a few hours, and when I returned they were done. Everything was packed in the truck. I signed the paperwork, and the men left. The apartment looked dirty and abandoned and oddly smaller. In Korea an apartment gets at least new flooring when an old tenant moves out, so there was no need to do more than a cursory cleanup. When the landlady appeared to return my security deposit, she didn’t look upset, but I wished I had a better final image of what had been my happy home for over ten years.
The other big issue was the cats. I have two Russian Blues, brother and sister born in Russia and imported by a cat dealer in Korea. Two quiet, non-destructive, loving, pampered, inside-only felines who were capable of raising holy hell on a short taxi ride to see the vet. There was no question about their coming along, and I was appalled at the number of people who asked. I mean really, when you move do you take your children? The question was only how. I got on the Internet and discovered there would be no quarantine. I also found international pet transfer services, which like the moving company will arrange pickup at your house, transfer, customs and delivery to your new house, but in this case I couldn’t see the advantages. My Korean vet told me where to download the forms I needed to “import” my animals to the Philippines. He arranged for them to get their assorted examinations at the proper time and filled out the paperwork for me. The pet services used ordinary commercial airlines with animals transported in the animal cargo hold, where temperature was properly regulated. And in this case, it was a non-stop flight of three to four hours.
This knowledge didn’t prevent panic. I’d heard of a cat’s never being the same after a short hop from something like Ohio to Idaho. I called the airlines and quizzed them extensively. What were the conditions of the animal cargo space? Would it be possible for my cats to ride up above with the people? Could I take two cats on one person-ticket? Asiana and Korean Air allowed only one animal per ticket. If you brought two cats, you had to have two tickets, and two people had to be sitting in the two seats. My travel agent offered to come along if I paid her way, but I declined. Philippine Air would let me bring them both for a modest fee. And, since I’d observed animals arriving on my last trip, I knew PAL would accept the snap-type animal carrier, so I wouldn’t have to buy new screw-type carriers at inflated Korean prices. I put the carriers in the living room, lined them with freshly-used tee-shirts smelling like me and attempted to instruct one cat at a time in how to lick at the water bottle so water would come out. It didn’t work, whether because of faulty dispenser design or inadequate student motivation or intelligence, I don’t know. But as I said it was a short flight.
On flying day, my friend Kelly ferried us to the airport in her car, parked and went with me to the oversized luggage office, where I cleaned Raku’s cage—he had had an accident in the car—and lined it with a fresh cat-carrier diaper and handed over the paperwork. The women working there had to tell me twice that the cats would be fine and it was okay to leave. I finally said goodbye to Kelly and checked in.
Directly before I got on the plane there was an incident which could have proved very troublesome. In Seoul I’d changed $6,000 into Filipino pesos, not knowing until later that it was illegal to bring that much money into the country. Aren’t most countries more concerned about how much of their currency you take out than how much you bring in? I’d stashed this wad in one of the secret pockets of the camera backpack, only to have it discovered by a Korean airport employee when it went through the security check. Wide-eyed, he leafed through the bills.
“How much money is this?”
“Not much,” I said, with an I-can’t-be-bothered look into the distance.
He handed back my bag and waved me through, but now I had something else to worry about all the way to Manila.
By the time we arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I found my suitcase and the cats right away, but there was some confusion about where to take the paperwork for the cats, where to pay, where to find change since customs didn’t have any. When Mary and I got to the house, the cats sauntered out of their carriers like seasoned travelers. It took Raku five minutes to find a way out of the house and into the courtyard with its poisonous-to-cats plants and possible escape routes.
He was looking for the door that would take him back home to Korea. He was terrified of the ceiling fan in the kitchen and pissed off that Sasha wasn’t. I lured him into the kitchen one night, he gobbled down some canned food with wild eyes at the fan and body low to the floor, dashed out of the room and immediately threw up. He took his emotions out on his sister, and a pattern developed. He would hiss and give her a paw in the face, I would yell at him, he would walk out of the room, and she would follow him from a distance to apologize and make sure he was all right. Did his behavior constitute a personality change of the type you’re supposed to see about? I got a vet to make a house call and was told, “Oh, he’s just hot and grumpy. Keep him in the air-con.” The next day I found the two of them on my bed, licking each other’s faces and making up. I decided to forget about it.
About three weeks after CIL boxed up the stuff, it was delivered by the Filipino partner in a faded blue truck with five guys in their own casual clothes and flip-flops. The boss was a nice guy who’d spent a year in Pusan. I stood by the truck looking very cute in my red shorts and red and black STOP THE WAR tee-shirt—from a demonstration in Seoul against the Iraq war—to check off each of the 96 boxes and tell the crew where they went. Before they left, they made a big pile of the boxes they’d unpacked. After my nomadic life, I wanted to save them all. But I still had maybe 50 or 60 more to unpack. I got most of it done in three days, then spent another two getting stuff better organized. The frenzy over unpacking came partly from my intense dislike of chaos, as if a mess could cause disorder in my head by coming in from the outside, and partly from the emotional upheaval that’s part of moving. I think it’s in Black, White and Jewish that Rebecca Walker talks about the place where a sense of loss intersects with uncertainty about the future, and that place is really uncomfortable. As I organized my study I looked at the oriental rug and the furniture which had been in my apartment in Seoul and thought of the many friends who’d crowded together for a meal and a long chat. I thought of the lovely retirement dinner my colleagues in the English Department had given me, and the send-off I got from a large group of friends at Marakesh Night, a Moroccan restaurant in Itaewon owned by my friend Mr. Mostafa. Would new adventures in the Philippines make the move worth it? I only knew that for many people retiring and growing older meant living in an ever-shrinking world, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
As many as possible of the boxes went into the storage area next to the driver’s room above the garage. They were an enormous help only two years and two and a three months later when we were flooded and had to move again. (Link)
Then there was the house. After Mary and Walter moved in, they discovered a big water leak under the house which required lots of additional plumbing. This was done Filipino style, which meant blue plastic pipes out where you can see them, but at least the repairs were effective and relatively cheap. For a while they had to shower with a hose run through their window from the outside, which was fine. In the Philippines you don’t really need hot water, although we later bought some little heaters for both showers. The wiring needed to be redone in order to accommodate a huge air-conditioner which we rarely used. Well, we didn’t know.
On my previous trip we’d bought some chairs without cushions and a day bed, and Mary had hired an upholsterer who now appeared with her “cultured” speech affections that sent me up the wall. She had with her some wrinkled curtains—she claimed she’d ironed them, but that was before she’d wadded them up and stuffed them into plastic sacks. The curtains were five inches too long. The zip-on cushions for the chairs were okay, but instead of making something similar for the sofa bed, she’d come up with a beruffled slipcover which slipped off the shoulders of the sofa as soon as anyone sat on it. I was appalled. In Seoul I’d successfully covered my own couch with Indian bedspreads, even though having no sewing machine I’d had to do all the seams by hand. So who was this boss lady who was now repressing the urge to explain to the upholsterer that her bad design, inaccurate measuring and unpressed seams would never have passed inspection by my ninth-grade home economics teacher? With some effort I kept the sarcasm out of my voice as I gave an introductory lesson on cutting on the bias to increase stretchiness. Eventually her work passed.
In her study Mary was having similar problems with the telephone and DSL people—same company, different work orders. One of the DSL guys made a royal mess of her connection with countless unnecessary wires, while a phone guy yanked the Voice Over Internet Protocol out of her office. None of the guys would listen to her telling them what she wanted in Internet hookup or to me saying I didn’t want a phone in my study. The DSL connection did not work. Despite frequent trips to the Bayantel office, many times the telephone bill was sent to the wrong address and the phone service disconnected when we didn’t pay the bill. We finally got cable Internet connection.
While she was still living in her old apartment, Mary had hired a woman named Fe to do the cleaning, laundry, ironing and some of the shopping. Since her previous employer had returned to Australia, she was now ours six days a week. I found her to be bright, friendly, helpful and, unlike our Mrs. Woo in Korea, not prone to hiding things in strange places. After the flood she also proved to have exceptional skills in organizing cleanup, removal and moving crews. Our grocery shopping trips began with a ride by taxi or tricycle—a motorcycle with sidecar. Out of habit, I would take a supermarket cart, and she would take it from me, saying, “Mahm, I will be the one to push the cart.” So like a yangban of the Korean gentry, I would march ahead with my list and pretend to be in charge while she would follow with the cart and diplomatically assist in the decision-making. Then we would bring the stuff home, cook some of it and store the rest in a huge kitchen that was clearly designed by someone who didn’t care whether it “worked” or not. After all, the kitchen staff would be using it and could fetch a ladder to get stuff from cabinets fourteen feet above the floor. Because of the air-con, the exercise equipment had also found its place in the kitchen, but after watching me race from one counter space to another while I cooked, Fe remarked I didn’t need it. I’d get enough exercise just cooking a meal.
I had a month to get settled in before leaving for Thailand and my first writer’s conference. I’d sit at my desk and look past the computer to the calamansi tree outside the window, its low, spreading branches and the stonework pattern of the wall behind it reminding me of Mondrian’s Cherry Tree series. New country, new vocation, I’d tell myself. And so it was.