Moving On, Part 6

Working in the in-between house

This section deals with my indecision about what to do after teaching in Asia for two decades, retirement in the Philippines and work on a novel manuscript.

One day in the spring of 2007 I was sat in the Hard Rock Café in Fukuoka, eating a large salad and waiting to collect my tourist visa from the Korean Consulate. I remembered when my friend Françoise and I were in Hong Kong and she discovered that someone had unzipped her bag and taken her wallet, which held all her money and identification. She kept exclaiming, “I have no identity!” She seemed to mean that without her documents she was nobody.

Twenty-one years later, at age sixty-five I had no job and no country of residence. When I’d left Pittsburgh I’d intended to roam the world with two suitcases and a typewriter, but instead I’d taught two years in China, settled down in Korea, acquired cats and apartment full of stuff, and learned to eat kimchi with great gusto. I’d even stayed on during the 1997 economic crisis when the Korean won temporarily lost half of its previous value—it sank from 688 per US dollar in 1988 to around 1700 per dollar, then slowly climbed up to 1000 per dollar. By 2007, I’d been teaching English at Dongguk University in Seoul for more than seventeen years, but my last contract would run out at the end of February, leaving me three weeks to get out of the country. The tourist visa would buy me three months to sort things out. So now what? Maybe stay in Korea and try to get a part-time university job with residence documents, which to my knowledge no foreigner had been allowed to do. Maybe tutor privately on a tourist visa, which was illegal and could result in fines and deportation—although the government seemed to have stopped offering a reward for turning in illegal English teachers. I also didn’t know what the lack of official status would mean in terms of having a phone or a bank account, and of course I was no longer covered by Korean National Health, although I did have private insurance.

On the one hand, retirement loomed like a purgatory filled with too much television and hanging around my former workplace waiting for someone to join me for lunch. On the other, much as I’d loved teaching, maybe thirty-seven years in front of a classroom was enough. I had the beginnings of a novel manuscript I’d been fiddling with for years, and I wanted to make something of it.

I could go “home.” I pictured the iconic British colonial returning to a land he didn’t know, without a household staff to look after him, possibly unable to boil an egg or operate a can opener. Well, not quite that, but I knew the years abroad had created such an abyss that the most superficial conversation—say with the stranger cutting my hair—had to include my explaining that I didn’t really live there. In 1956 I’d returned to the States as a high school girl who didn’t know who Elvis Presley was. Thirty years later I’d been a college professor who didn’t know who Madonna was. I thought of a Catholic nun who’d complained that she loved Korea but she was being sent back to the States, where she didn’t even know how to use the telephones in the airport. Much as I loved Pittsburgh and my friends there, when I went back I’d always gotten bored after the reverse culture shock wore off. I’d missed the cultural friction and the daily discovery.

That’s why I was open to Mary and Walter’s invitation to join them in Quezon City, where Mary was working on a master’s degree in educational technology at the University of the Philippines. She was full of hyperbole about everything: the tropical climate and natural beauty, the friendliness of the people, the low prices and the widespread use of English—all of which made life so much easier than in Korea. I’d gone down with them before, looked around, saw a place which reminded me vaguely of China and realized I could be happy there. On another trip we rented a large house in a middle-class gated community. The house was a bungalow behind a high wall: a paved yard with a bit of earth around it for plants, a huge living room, dining room, a small study, three bedrooms and two inside bathrooms. Out back was a bathroom for the domestic help, a “dirty kitchen” for laundry and grilling or cleaning fish, a maid’s room—a concrete cell with no windows and a ramshackle wooden bed which I ordered removed immediately. Above the garage was the driver’s room, which to show his higher status did have windows covered with wooden slats rather than glass. The real estate agent recommended a housekeeper named Fe, a smart, well-educated, patient, extremely practical woman who came in during the day.

For this move I did something I’d never considered doing before. I hired professional movers. On the appointed day they showed up in a large truck painted orange and black with the Korean company logo and five or six men dressed in yellow and black uniforms, also with the company logo, jumped out the back. The man in charge arrived in his own car with a white shirt, tie and clipboard. The workers packed everything, cutting boxes to fit appliances and furniture, ripping off lengths of duct tape almost in unison. The neighbors came out to watch. Within three or four hours they packed everything, including as I later discovered parts of the kitchen sink that didn’t belong to me. After a few days and many farewells, a friend drove me to the airport together with two cat carriers, a suitcase and a backpack. Within two weeks the Filipino partner of the moving company arrived—in jeans and flip-flops—with all 98 boxes. I stood at the back of the battered blue truck with the clipboard and tried to look efficient as I marked off each box and told the men which room to put it in. Because I hate chaos, I worked like a maniac, and three days later everything was more or less in its place.

One morning I went outside and found Fe sitting on a little plastic stool in the dirty kitchen doing washing clothes in a pail. I stormed into Mary’s study. “Why in the hell is she doing the laundry by hand?”

“That’s what she wanted. She said just buy her that plastic stool. So I did.”

“Why not take the washing down to the river and beat it on the rocks? Jees! There’s a perfectly good LG washing machine out there.”

“She didn’t know how to read the Korean.”

“I’ll show her.”

It took a little persuasion, but Fe learned to dump the laundry and the soap in the machine, turn it on, and come back to collect the clean clothes around half an hour later. I lost the rash I’d apparently gotten from detergent in inadequately rinsed denim shorts.

We settled into our roles. Fe cleaned and looked after Walter, a semi-invalid in his mid-eighties. Once a week when Fe and I did the grocery shopping together, she insisted it was her job to push the cart. There was a limit to how much work she would allow me to do in the kitchen. There still is. I’m sure this is not, as a Western friend suggested, a matter of looking out for job security. It’s older than that. Doing things the Filipino way sometimes seems almost Confucian in its assignment of tasks. I’m allowed to play the cooking expert if I want to but not to wash the dishes.

A month after we arrived in Quezon City I was on my way to Chiang Mai for the Abroad Writers’ Conference. I’d been on short trips to Thailand before—a week in Phuket, a couple of short stays in Pattaya, a bit of Bangkok coming and going. For me this was not about going to an exotic place, although I did use our little bit of free time to visit various temples. It was about traveling a relatively short distance to get some professional feedback on my first attempt at fiction. I’d have been mortified if I’d realized how bad my manuscript really was.  There were around fourteen participants, all very supportive. Two are still friends. We had two weeks with the novelist Chris Abani and the memoirist Rebecca Walker. We worked hard, rereading everyone’s manuscripts, which had been emailed to us, and doing homework assignments. After the conference Rebecca labored through my entire manuscript and provided feedback. I revised it, and she read it again. She taught me how to “take my writing to the next level” as she’d promised, and I really learned a lot. But the manuscript was still far too complicated, with three interconnected stories set in both China and Korea. To an Asian-based expat the two settings made some sense; to a normal Stateside reader, they didn’t.

A lot of my life now consisted of sitting at my computer desk. I’d look up through the window at the short calamansi tree with its spreading horizontal branches, the block pattern of the concrete wall behind it and think of Mondrian’s Cherry Tree series. Then I’d go for a swim in the subdivision pool, a lovely place surrounded by lush tropical foliage and flowering trees. With proper timing I’d have the pool all to myself.

The following summer I went to Abroad Writers’ in the South of France. Again I made some good friendships, and I discovered what it meant to be “just one among many,” which I never had as a scholar in a tight job market or a professor working very independently. The writers’ conferences which focus on the business can be very tense and competitive, but the workshops I’ve attended have all shown great respect for everyone’s work. That year we had Rebecca Walker again and the novelist Russell C. Jones. Russell tried to tell me that my three-for-the-price-of-one approach was not working.

I didn’t listen until the 2009 San Francisco Writers’ Conference, when I got advice from someone who either couldn’t keep the whole plot in his head or pretended not to. To pitch a novel to an agent, you need to be able to sum up the whole thing in twenty-five words or less. One sentence would be better. In a way I knew that because I’d already done it with my doctoral dissertation, which covered a character prototype in many works by a major-major German writer. But I couldn’t yet do it with fiction.

Okay, after the conference I picked one story and one protagonist and started over. I took a graduate-level creative writing class at the University of the Philippines. In the summer I went to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where Chris Abani was teaching. He assured me that my writing was now light years ahead of where it had been two years before. I spent another year revising, took another class at UP and went back to Port Townsend again.

The current manuscript was born when Chris picked up my first chapter, waved it in the air, and said, “This is your novel. Write about this.” Okay, so it would not be about my protagonist’s adventures in Asia. It would be about my protagonist preparing herself for that quest by confronting her guilt and ridding herself of the burdens of her past. Got it, finally. Chris pointed us in the direction of Twenty Masterplots and How to Build Them and showed us how to find the premise in our work. He talked with me about the focus of each of the first four chapters. I went to Pittsburgh, saw friends and collected background information, which I now needed because the entire thing would be set in Pittsburgh, with Asia appearing only in my protagonist’s imagination. Back home in Quezon City I had a magical revelation when I realized of course I knew how to put together a transformation plot. My entire life had been a transformation. In 2011, I took the novel to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where I got more help and more support. People said the manuscript looked very promising.

It’s not an autobiographical novel. The psychological profile is based in part on bits of information from Motherless Daughters, a study of women who’d lost their mothers at an early age. But with my constant revising I was adding more of myself—the studio pottery I’d done for a while, backed up with online research, the academic background, the political interests and particularly the emotions. Chris says, “Why do you write? Discover that and you’ll find something that will sustain you when nothing else will.” My protagonist asks herself the same question about her art work, and the reader gets some hints about what that is. She’s twenty-three and missing her parents. I’m seventy-one and missing my parents.

I’ve discovered that for me the combination which works best is a complicated character and a simple plot. I’ve read that basically all fiction has only one plot: someone arrives or someone leaves, maybe both. Mine leaves, joyfully and unburdened, which hopefully with decent karma I will do one day.

So the thing is now finished, at least for a time, and in the hands of an agent. I’ve gained a lot from long-suffering friends, some women I met at writers’ conferences, some in Korea, who started reading the manuscript long before it was readable. I’ve discovered the joy of creation far exceeds the joy of holding the published work in my hands, although for fiction it may be different than for scholarship and textbooks and websites. Writing fiction is the most challenging, all-absorbing thing I’ve ever done.

In the meantime, Walter died, a quiet, good man who is very much missed. A year later, in September 2009, Mary and I and the cats were flooded out of our home. Traumatized, we rented a large, overpriced living and office space which had once been occupied by a Korean non-governmental organization and was still occupied by lots of junk the NGO had left behind. In early November, Mary returned to the States to be with her children. I couldn’t see packing up all my stuff and moving back to either Korea or Pittsburgh. The real estate agent who’d found the bungalow in Xavierville 1 found my current townhouse in Xavierville 2, which lies on somewhat higher ground.

These days most of my friends in Manila are Filipinos. I don’t really do the expat scene. I’m gradually discovering more about the politics and the culture and posting my discoveries on this website. I try to help out when needed. I’ve made a little progress with the language via the two Tagalog classes taught at UP and a tedious but comprehensible textbook done with the audiolingual method, which I used when I taught my first German classes in 1966. I’m in the very early stages of doing a memoir, let’s say pre-first-draft.

And, yes, after retirement life does go on.