Sunday, August 17, 2014


The move I just made, from Third Ajumma's rooftop apartment in the southeastern periphery of Seoul to my new, humble yeogwan digs close to Dongguk University's campus in the geographic center of town, had to have been one of the most draining, exhausting experiences of my adult life. In Third Ajumma's apartment in Karak-dong, I lived on the fifth floor—the oksang-cheung, i.e., the rooftop. Calling it a "penthouse" ought to produce a snicker; the apartment was small and moldy and unkempt, but it was a decent roof over my head despite the lack of air conditioning. I had to run almost seventeen parcels downstairs from that apartment; I occasionally stacked two boxes and ran both down together, but in most cases I was dealing with boxes that, while not particularly heavy, were rather bulky. The truck-driving ajeossi showed up early and grudgingly helped out by taking down two or three of the lightest boxes. We heaved and slid everything onto the ajeossi's flatbed; the ajeossi covered my possessions with a tarp to protect them from the light rain that fell Sunday morning. In all, I must have gone up and down those four flights of stairs about ten times. I was dripping with sweat by the time I got into the truck and headed into the center of town. My goodbyes to my relatives were brief; they were on their way to church.

On the way, I saw that the ajeossi had a dashboard GPS. Since I had the yeogwan's address on my phone thanks to a KakaoTalk dialogue I'd had with the yeogwan ajumma, I suggested punching the address into the GPS and navigating that way. (The other, more old-school method would have been for us to call the yeogwan ajumma and ask her to relay us directions to her place.) The ajeossi shrugged and told me flatly that he had no idea how to use the GPS, which immediately produced a Then why the fuck do you HAVE it? response in my mind. So it was up to me to figure the GPS out in Korean. It wasn't too hard; I'd used dashboard-GPS technology in the States (I used to own a beautiful Garmin Nüvi setup), and the logic-tree that the Korean GPS followed was very similar. I eventually got the machine to give us turn-by-turn guidance, and the path it chose ended up—according to the ajeossi, at least—making sense.

We arrived at the yeogwan, and then it was a matter of unloading all the boxes and bags. Once that was done, I paid the ajeossi his W50,000, and he drove off, probably looking forward to his next drink. I stood there for a moment, staring forlornly at my huge pile of possessions, which I now had to lug up, by myself, to the fourth floor of this new place. After standing for a minute or two, psyching myself up while the rain whispered around me (the yeogwan had a large awning under which I'd placed all my boxes and bags, so they were protected), I grabbed a large box and grunted my way up the long flights of stairs. The yeogwan ajumma and ajeossi were taken by surprise: I had arrived around 9:15AM, which was phenomenally early for any yeogwan guest. The ajumma barked at the ajeossi to go prepare my room (i.e., change out the bed linens and do whatever cursory cleaning was necessary to get the room ready for a guest). He then did the unexpected and helped me carry several boxes upstairs. I probably made eight or nine trips up the yeogwan's long flights of stairs, but eventually the job was done. The yeogwan ajumma commented about how sweaty I was; I smiled grimly and told her I had just done the up-and-down thing at the apartment in Karak-dong.

I'll say this for my new place, grungy though it be: it's got a good fan and decent air conditioning, both of which a sweaty guy will crave in the aftermath of great effort. Once the yeogwan ajeossi had departed and I had said my final thanks to him, I closed my door and sat heavily on the yeogwan's bed, staring stupidly into space while the fan and the A/C worked to dry me off. Eventually, I mustered the strength to shower and change clothes. I ended up taking a very long afternoon nap, old man that I am, and ordered out for dinner.

The true work of settling in begins on Monday. In theory, I'll be meeting up with my buddy Tom to go shopping for an aeng-geul, which sounds like Konglish for "angle," but which is actually Konglish for do-it-yourself metal-frame shelving. Charles's wife Hyunjin had told me about it before; it's a cheap, customizable way to set up storage space. You tell the hardware-shop ajeossi what size shelving you're looking for, and he cuts the metal pieces and provides the nuts and bolts for you to put the thing together. The plan is to order the aeng-geul on Monday, pick it up on Tuesday, and have all my possessions unboxed and placed on shelves by the end of the week. I'll feel much more at home once all of that has been done.

So here I sit, surrounded by boxes. It's 1994 all over again: I'm right back where I started twenty years ago, as if my life hasn't progressed at all. Of course, that's not strictly true: with my new job and my side jobs, I'm now poised to earn a lot more money, and in about a year, I ought to have saved enough to move into a better place. At that point, I can concentrate on paying down major debts. While I'm no longer sure I can be debt-free by age fifty, I'm going to give that goal a college try. So as with the film I just saw on the train up to Seoul, I'm ready to begin again.


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