How To Move Like A Kennedy
I don't move on the spur of a whim.
I have lived in—let me see—eight countries, both short-term and extended stays.
Moving, for me, means packing up your things, saying goodbye to your friends and getting on a plane to fly 8 hours in another direction where the food, clothing and culture are as similar as vaseline and kitty litter.
Moving from Spain
Moving was a breeze when I was an infant. I let my parents do all the heavy lifting. I don't even remember my first move from Spain—my birth place.
As I learned English, I spoke with this weird quasi New Yorker accent. It grated on my Dad's Illinoian nerves to hear that in our house.
Moving on Guam
On Guam our houses were white. My mother’s little joke was calling it the “Kennedy White House.” I have never lived in a white house since then.
I do remember moving from Barrigada village up to “The Hill,” Nimitz, when we lived on Guam. In one weekend our house had the roof torn off the family room due to a super typhoon, before it was flooded (which was remarkable as we were top of a long slope). My parents declared we would be moving from a flimsily reinforced tin and wood boonie shack, as they were called, to a concrete rebar enforced bunker. Gone were the guava trees and the sugar cane in our backyard in the village. The new house’s side hill was replanted with citrus trees flown in from Arizona. That move required no movers. My mom's friends all got together and moved 80% of the household items, using a station waggon and a pickup truck to do relays. My dad and his friends had to move the biggest things like the heavy Spanish china cabinet, the beds and dining room table that always threatened to slip on its hinge and dump plates into laps. That move took two weeks.
The Barrigada neighborhood we moved from had ethnic Chamorros living on one side and immigrant Filipinos living on the other. Our house on the new hill was in a neighborhood that was an amalgamation of cultures. We had neighbors from Korea, Japan, Thailand, the outer islands of Micronesia and US mainlanders.
Languages were a challenge. Food was always openly embraced.
Moving from Guam
When we made the move from Guam, my father dictated we would leave everything behind we couldn't carry. The paintings my mother loving collected from Spain with their stories of acquisition were left abandoned—”We love you but you cannot come with us.” My mother did keep her Hong Kong island paintings because they were small enough. Oh, and the paintings of Don Quixote and his lady love Dolcenea—those paintings are still with us.
Moving to Thailand after I moved to college
My life was busily distracted with college before the family moved off island. My mom told me to pack a bag and box—that would be my limit to take to Thailand. Even at age 20, I felt no more than 12 in front of my parents. They said pack, and I obeyed. There would be no storage and no movers when we arrived in Thailand. I assumed the new house would resemble the minuscule closets in Hong Kong.
My most precious belongings were already in Tokyo where I was in college. My brother's friends used to stay in my room on sleepovers and they rifled through and stole the coins in my coin collection and emptied out my piggy bank. I would only learn of this months after I was back home during another school break (I made sure to proudly display their forgotten pornography for my mom to discover. Life isn't without some forms of enjoyable revenge). My brother's hoodlum friends had started me in the task of downsizing and boxing up long before we moved to Thailand.
Moving from Thailand to Germany
We moved a few times while my parents continued to live in Thailand. Then we moved to Germany with its Bavarian dollhouse arranged kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. How could they legally call a hallway a bedroom—was it because the doors lock? This was where I was supposed to sleep, but I chose the floor in the living room, because one floor feels pretty much like another no matter where in the world you are.
Language was seldom an issue. I made myself quite well understood. The Germans found in me a kindred spirit of food appreciation and a follower of set rules. I also learned counting started with your thumb (holding up your index finger and thumb meant “two”).
Germany’s bathrooms were a bit frightening with toilet flushes so violent they could snatch away your genitalia in the undertow. I suppose the two or three times my mother screamed when a hairdryer blew up in the socket setting the curtains on fire didn’t make Bavaria any less memorable. This was the land of her forefathers. Water was always filtered. The message was simple: power and water were to be feared and not trusted.
But who couldn’t appreciate a large beer costing less than a small Coke? I loved Germany!
Moving to Hong Kong and to Korea and to the UK
My parents stayed in Germany until just before the Seoul Olympics, then went off to Hong Kong as a temporary stopgap posting before going to Korea with its heat, cold, mold and roaches. I never knew soy sauce could mildew, and trust me, I am an expert; on Guam we bought it in gallon tins that resembled petrol cans. I really liked Korean floors that were all lacquered amber-colored paper, worked up a few inches above where the floor seamed with the walls. The heated floors in winter were covered in summer with sponge foam-lined carpets in the bright blues, reds and greens of Korean patterns. That is my fondest memory. In the Korean marketplace in Shin Okubo’s Korea Town, I still reach out and touch the carpets to see if they feel the same as the ones we had back in 1988.
The decade we spent in the UK (after 3 years in Korea and a year to settle in Alaska) was a time that I was closest to my parents’ childhood culture, while not actually being “back home” in the US. The UK was like a slightly warped form of Alaska for me—no moose, no big mountains with snow caps and no mosquitos! The food was more similar, the language was closer and easier to understand. I didn’t need a dictionary as I had carried around in Germany and Austria. I suppose my biggest fascination with the UK was the door knobs that were all set high—at shoulder height—and how I could actually see a key going into the tumbler.
People in Britain always asked me, the newly transplanted Alaskan, how long I had lived “in Canada.” I assume they were being sincere and truly thought it was a Canadian province instead of a US state.
Moving to my own apartment in Tokyo
When I moved from my first college homestay in Tokyo to my own apartment in western Tokyo, it was because my legal sponsor had moved me out. My homestay family were looking more for a pet than a boarder. It was painless and it was only two suitcases.
I hate moving. I do. I moved into my own Japanese apartment not of my choosing at age 19 and asked for wall stucco to be repaired. I also enquired if the tatami could be replaced. I was informed it was “new.” I lifted up the heavy rice straw mats in their frames and found years of filth, newspaper lining that was dated a decade before (newspaper ink deters tatami mites) and 100,000 yen (then 300 US dollars) in old formatted larger bills that were discontinued a year previous to my moving in. Many people in Japan used to hide their money under the tatami—if they didn’t have a false space in their tansu chest of drawers. I left the money there for two years, and when no one claimed it, I spent it.
In my 4 years there, I repainted the walls and ceiling. I was settled.
I only moved out because of a watershed confrontation over a fax that fell behind a cabinet on a day I wasn’t working. A thirty minute dressing down phone call and a follow up call when the boss offered me a non-apology which was a rationalization of his mistake set me on the path towards the want ads. He stalked me after work the day of the call—he was unhappy the VP made him apologize to me. I decided to change my company, and in so doing, I moved closer into Tokyo and away from the bully.
I quietly downsized, packed boxes and was able to move out in half a hour—setting a new family record that my dad still brags about.
Moving into Yokohama
My next apartment, which is my current, is the one that I have lived in for twenty eight years. It is home for as far back as my current memory will go.
I am settled. I am happy. Sort of. But not really.
I remember the day Fukushima blew up. My security and grounding were washed away like a sand castle succumbing to a rogue wave at the beach. I looked around the place and immediately started scanning tax records to upload and store away. If I had to leave I would do finances and banking later. My suitcase was packed—kept in the kitchen under the table. As the reactor went critical I was spending more time telling union members what needed to be done in the event of an evacuation.
The second or third day after the earthquake and the massive panic exodus from Tokyo, I sat in my apartment and realized the training my family and I did in Germany was no different from the onboard aircraft evacuation training I went through over the years. "Take nothing that will slow you down. Run, run far and don't look back.“
The "don't look back" part made my eyes burn. Few people have seen me cry. I turn into a sobbing mess (as my editor can attest to on her final day at work with me in Tokyo—she thought it was sweet; I was mortified at my tears). Tears are not just little drops of water.
I cried so hard I had bruises under my eyes and a few sore ribs. I sat looking at my home of twenty years and I keened into a pillow. I imagine I sounded like a wild animal. But after days of dealing with tremors, hysterical calls from people trying to flee and the continued expectation of going to work and running a union proved too much. These were only things that could all be replaced.
If things got bad, I would take my suitcase and carry on bag and head to whichever evacuation point was indicated. "Don't look back.”
When I finished my crying jag I was emotionally moved out of my apartment. I still live here but it no longer feels like home—not the way it used to feel.
I will be honest with myself and say I have moved out and I haven't really moved back in yet.