I started 2011 with a dilemma. Do I stay in my tiny, closet of an apartment, or do I move somewhere new. Given the size of my current home you would think that it would be an easy decision, but it wasn't. What my apartment lacked in size it made up for in charm and comfort. I had heard horror stories about other Korean apartments, bugs, noisy neighbours, heat and water that didn't always work. I had none of these problems in my current place and knew that I could regret it if I moved. However, I longed for my space. I wanted to have friends over for dinner without them having to sit on my bed to eat.
After some thought, I decided that it wouldn't hurt to look. If I saw something that I really liked than great and if not then I would be fine to stay put. I set an apartment hunting date with my friend Ally, she speaks Korean and would translate with the estate agent. Between the time that I set the date and the apartment hunting day, I had built in my mind an image of this fabulous apartment that I was going to find. Of course, the image in my mind was based on memories of Canadian apartments, which really don't exist in Korea, especially for the money that my school would pay.
Apartment hunting day arrived and Ally and I headed to one of the estate agent offices on my street. We had plenty to choose from as there are about 10 just on my street alone. In Korea renting an apartment or building is very different from Canada. In Canada you normally pay first and last months rent and then a set monthly rent. In Korea you instead negotiate a key deposit (usually around 5 mil or roughly $5,000) and then the monthly amount is low. You can negotiate to pay a higher deposit and then have lower monthly payments or sometimes no payments at all. You get a portion of this deposit back at the end of your contract. In my situation my school was going to actually make the contract so I had no room to negotiate. The agent took us to look at an apartment near where I already lived and although the building was OK, the apartment was no different than my current place. We then looked at 3 or 4 more places and all of them were the same. They may have been slightly larger, but not much and none were as nice. The image in my mind of this great apartment was starting to fade and I began feeling disappointed.
Just as I was about to give up hope, Ally says there is one more place. It's actually in the building where I currently live and it's 2 rooms. This sounded promising so we went to look. It was actually on the ground floor of my building with it's own seperate door to the outside and as soon as we walked in I knew this was the apartment that I wanted. It had one large livingroom / sitting room in the front and then a 2 other rooms, bedroom and office, off of that. As well it had a small kitchen and bathroom. It was 5 times larger than my current place, brand new, clean and in my same building so moving would be easy. I quickly agreed, we called the administration at my school who promised to come by the next day to sign the contract. I left the real estate with a plan to move at the end of February, plenty of time to pack my things and get settled.
I went home and a few hours later my landlord came by and asked if I would move sooner. Right now is a busy time for university students to be looking for new apartments so she wanted to get my place on the market as soon as possible, so I agreed to move the following weekend. I went to bed excited and happy about my new place, not realizing that the next few days would feel like being on a rollercoaster.
The next day was friday and my school was supposed to go and sign the contract. Late afternoon on friday I get a phone call from Ally saying that they did not go. They were busy and would try and go saturday. I start to worry, will the landlord hold the apartment for me. I am reassured that it will be ok, but still this is Korea and you never know. Saturday morning I get a phone call from Ally saying that the school needs my new work contract before they can sign for the apartment. No problem, I get on the bus and deliver it to the school. At the school I meet the Principal who told me she approved me to move and I leave feeling much better. A few hours later Ally called saying the administartion will not sign the contract until the end of February, as that is when my new work contract starts. At this point I had become very excited about this apartment so the disappointment over this news hit me like a tidal wave. I knew there was no way the landlord would hold the apartment for a month. To make it worse I couldn't express my frustration to the school as no one speaks English. This was one of those rare moments when I really felt the cutlure shock and isolation of living in a foreign country.
Later that afternoon, just as I had come to terms with my disappointment and resigned myself to staying in my current apartment the phone rings. It was Ally again. She had spoken to the estate agent, who spoke to the landlord, who agreed to let me still have the apartment. She would let me move in without the contract being signed, on one condition ... I had to move that day. Keep in mind that it is now 3pm, most of my friends are out of town so no one to call for help. I frantically started putting everything I own into suitcases, bags, anything that I could find and started moving. I worked steady for about 4 hours packing and carrying down the stairs load after load of belongings. At some points I would fill my suitcase up, carry it downstairs, dump the contents on my bed, go upstairs and refill it. However by 9pm, I was sitting in my new apartment eating pizza, surrounded by all my belongings either on the bed or in bags on the floor around me.
As stressful as those few hours were, looking back it was the best way to move. I didn't have the anxious days leading up to the move or the time to feel nostalgic about leaving my old place. Afterall, it had been my home for a year and not just any home. It was my first home in Korea and my safe haven when life in Korea became overwhelming. I know though, that soon this new place will feel like home and I know that I made the right decision.