"It looks like they are not going to try to rent out our old apartment, so we will have to pay the rent on it until it gets torn down next June," said my wife, while simultaneously feeding me lead shot from the freezer, or so my gut was telling me.
We broke our contract, seven months into a two-year contract. First question: what is the penalty clause for breaking a contract like this? Answer: technically, there is no penalty clause, because you can't break the contract. As long as no one is living in that apartment, you are responsible for paying the rent, and you sure don't get your deposit back. There are supposed to be rules, like the owner can't raise the rent, making it less likely for a new tenant to move in. But otherwise it is a system that just assumes someone will move in. Our old neighborhood had a stretch of ten real estate agencies lining one side of the road, broken up only by a phone store and a dietary supplement store.
We had understood that we would be paying rent on both places until someone moved in, which would make our budget tight for a month or two. But now it was scary: Horyon checked and found that our old apartment was not being listed for sale! The real estate agent had told the apartment owner that she did not have to do anything, because she would keep getting rent whether someone new moved in or not. And frankly, wouldn't she rather avoid dealing with all that registration nonsense, and the transferring of key money, and all the little clean up stuff, like putting up new wallpaper over the old cracks (which I am sure are no indication that the building is close to falling down on its own, much less with the help of an earthquake or two).
Context time: in September the southern part of Korea has been the epicenter of a few little earthquakes, measuring: 5.1 and 5.8 within an hour of each other on September 12th, then a week later a 4.5, a 3.5 two days after that, then a 3.1 on the 28th. October 2nd offered up a 3.0, barely noticeable after the previous excitement, and followed by a typhoon on the 5th that killed a few people. And another earthquake on Monday October 10th. Looks like Monday is our regular earthquake day.
Anyway, the old building was constantly shedding bits of concrete, and the safety railings were all loose. The elevator was out of order anytime there was enough rain to flood the basement, but even when it did work you had to take half a flight of stairs to get to your floor. It was slow to get to the ninth floor, but once it got there you had to get the heck out in a hurry, because the doors would close three seconds after opening. That elevator nailed me a few times
It was a nice neighborhood, though. A five minute walk from Horyon's parents, a ten minute walk from the subway, a real French bakery just down the street, and Gwanganli Beach only a 20 minute walk away.
On the other hand, it was only a five minute walk from Horyon's parents, people whom I love and respect and don't want to wander into my home at random hours when I may or may not be wearing pants.
We were happy to be out, even paying two rents each month for a month or two. But that horrid sinking feeling dragged on my gut for a couple of days. It felt like a hopeless situation, but neither of us realized that the sleeping dragon had been awakened, and was even then doing battle. Horyon's mother never liked our real estate agent, and didn't trust her. When she found out how we were being used, she started making calls and visiting friends and kicking up a mess. Over the weekend she managed to find someone who would rent our old apartment. Not just move in, but take over the key money as well as the full rent!
The problem was that we couldn't reach the apartment owner to seal the deal. The real estate agent had told the owner to not answer the phone. At this point in the story, I am not sure what the various motivations were. Why would the real estate agent want to make our lives miserable? Why would she not want to get another tenant into the apartment, thereby earning some sort of commision? Why hadn't she just listed the apartment? I don't know. Why would the apartment owner not answer her phone? I don't know. But my mother-in-law sent her a text message that basically threatened to sue her if she didn't deal with us, so she finally picked up. Within three days, a contract was signed. By the end of the week, we had our deposit money back.
I don't like to admit it, but for those few days I was starting to resurrect some of my old feelings about Korea. The feelings I had back in 2007 when we moved back to the states. The feeling that this society is built on disrespect, and that the Confucianism at the root of Korean society had grown into a big, ugly, repressive monster that only benefited those at the top. We moved to America in 2007 partly because we wanted a good future and competent schools for our children, but also partly because I was no longer able to go about my daily life without an inner raging against my host country. My attitude was completely unfair, and reflected more about myself than Korea. Korea is not perfect, and the cultural differences between here and the midwestern United States are very real. But my concept of what the midwestern United States is actually like to live in had only the most tenuous connection to the actual experience of living there.
Long story short: I learned to love Korea by leaving it for four years. I still love the United States, but it lost some of it's shininess during that four years. And wherever you go, there you are.
Fortunately, those negative feelings about Korea did not have much chance to germinate, and were quickly uprooted. I am still aware that there are individuals out there who will do mean things and treat you unkindly, but for the most part people aren't interested in making life worse for others. Most people will be kind, given the opportunity, because it makes them feel better about themselves. As long as there is not too much at stake, anyway.
Enough philosophical musings, let's get down to brass tacks:
The new apartment is a downsize for us, from 34 to 25 pyeong* (~1200 sq ft to 890 sq ft). So we lost about a quarter of our old floor space. To be fair, some of what we lost was a hallway, in which we hung coats on the wall and piled bags and stuff on the floor. We're better off without that. We think that we also lost some communal space, like the hall outside leading to the elevator. We lost a bit in the living room, but the old one was more space than we needed. The most painful loss was the kitchen/dining room. It is now much more difficult for us to sit down together to eat a meal. When we do, it's impossible to walk through the kitchen.
But the kids now have their own bedrooms. Quinten's room is big enough for his bed and some shelves. He doesn't do much other than sleep in there because there's not room for even a little person like himself to play. I am proud of how quickly he has adjusted to sleeping in there by himself, though.
Maxine loves having her own room, and has already taken to shutting herself in to read, draw, and grow that icky shell thing that teenagers get.** She has about half again as much space as Quinten, so there is a desk and bookshelf, a tall chest of drawers, and her bed in there. She is so happy to have her own desk and office chair!
Horyon and I are in the master bedroom, where we have some lovely built-in closets that were a present from her parents. For the first time in five years I have all of my clothes in the same room, and it's the room where I sleep! I've also got a combination desk/bookshelf and a rolling office chair. Mine is more expensive than Maxine's, of course: you have to pay for the kind of quality that can hold me.
Of course, one aspect of downsizing was that we had to get rid of stuff. Which we did. Certainly not all of the useless stuff, but a lot of it. And now I have three or four plastic bins full of stuff that I couldn't bear to part with, and now barely look at because they are in plastic bins on the verandah. Occasionally I miss something and go out to find it. Eventually I really need to go through those bins and toss out everything that is left.
We acquired some cool stuff in the move from friends that were also moving. The two big ones are a sofa and an electric piano. Both are old, and show it. They survived a little girl's childhood, and have the marker stains to prove it. The sofa sits lower than it should in some places, and the arm rest is a tiny bit wiggly, but when we haven't piled laundry and books and toys all over it, it is perfect for a nap. The electric piano is a little scuffed up, and the buttons are all labeled in Korean, but it sounds good. When we got it, it was capable of playing more loudly than the neighbors would appreciate. Thankfully, Quinten fixed that by dropping a screw into one of the headphone jacks. How clever is my boy? Now you have to turn the volume all the way up to hear it, and I have to figure out how to fish a screw out of a headphone jack. Ah well, idle hands and all that.
A couple of weeks after getting the piano I was out with Quinten and we passed the Alladin used book store in Seomyeon (which is not bad for English readers: there are a few shelves of English novels, as well as CDs and DVDs if you still like your media to have a physical presence). I went in, dragging my poor, bored child with me, and asked if they had piano music. They did! I spent about $10 and got half a dozen books of music, ranging from Maxine level to slightly above mine. Since then I have spent some time playing the electric piano, and really enjoying it. I honestly can't remember why I took piano lessons back in middle school, but I suspect my mother was the motivating force. Whether or not that is true, my parents at the very least paid for my lessons and drove me to them. Thank you Mom and Dad!
One other good thing about the piano is that Maxine spends a lot of time on it. She took piano lessons for about three years, then got bumped. I guess the teacher had some better students lined up. Anyway, she enjoys it, and knows enough to not get quickly frustrated and quit. I think we will be setting her up with lessons next spring. Maybe by then we will be settled enough to consider that.
This post has gone on long enough. I have delayed with the intention of taking photos and including them, but clearly that is not going to happen. Perhaps I will shoehorn them in at some point.
* I just now learned that the pyeong has Chinese origins, which shouldn't be surprising considering that China has always been just sort of monstrously there, hovering over Korea, breathing yellow dust down its back and leaking culture all over the place.
** Sorry. Just realized that I was thinking of a caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. Looks different, acts different... are butterflies sullen, by any chance?