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Thank goodness for the moving men

When a correspondent relocates 5,000 miles across the Pacific, who will pack (and unpack) more than 250 boxes of important -- and useless -- 'stuff' he and his wife own? As long as it's not him.

March 03, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — Moving Day, 1976: My meager belongings fit into the back of my dad's Chevrolet Impala when he dumped a skinnier, long-haired version of me off at Buffalo State. I owned nothing and I felt happy.

Later, as I collected stuff like so much lint clinging to an old suit, I needed a small U-Haul trailer come moving day, the biggest one I could rent -- and as many buddies as I could strong-arm into helping me.

Pretty soon, I owned too much stuff to haul it myself. I was getting older; my back wrenched more easily. But I went cheap, and the guys who showed up were ex-cons who got morning sweats and snuck beers on their lunch hour.

Then I got married and my stuff (George Carlin used another word to describe it) didn't just double, it increased exponentially.

Recently, I made the biggest move of my life when I took a job as The Times' Seoul Bureau chief. This time, my company was paying for the move. I didn't have to lift one box. The moving men would come to my house in San Francisco and pack every plate and green ceramic monkey (a gag gift from my late mother) and unpack it on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Still, I was filled with dread.

We own way too much stuff, I told my wife. We need to start throwing things away. Lots of things.

My wife and I have a different view on the value of objects. If I own something that no longer has use to me, I will donate it or throw it away. If the same object has some value to somebody on the planet -- maybe on the steppes of Inner Mongolia -- my wife will insist on keeping said item. Never throw away useful things, she warns.

When packing day finally came, bless the Lord, I was already in Asia. My wife handled the movers in San Francisco. She called me later that day in an irritable mood.

"Why do they have to use so much paper?" she asked. "No wonder we kill so many trees." (Here she was, talking to a guy whose business, at least for now, makes its mark killing trees.)

Then she added, almost as an aside -- a comment I let pass: "We own way too much stuff."

The movers were courteous and professional. They shipped our belongings via container ship. Meanwhile, I had moved into an empty apartment in Seoul. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I had one chair and a small table. I was a bohemian again. Just like college.

Then my stuff arrived.

My wife had arrived the previous day after a month visiting her family in Beijing. The knock came on the door. I didn't want to answer. They knocked again -- they knew I was in there. So I opened up.

What greeted me was an army of fast-moving, hard-working South Korean men -- almost a dozen of them.

Their supervisor, Mr. Kim, handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper with 288 marked boxes, one for each box of my belongings these poor stiffs would have to haul out of two delivery trucks, up a freight elevator 34 floors and into my apartment.

"You have a lot of stuff," Mr. Kim said.

What happened over the next four hours was simply remarkable. My job, if one wants to call it that, was to stand in the doorway as this moving battalion carried each box inside, one by one. They would call out a number and I would check the appropriate box.

Then they would announce the contents and I would direct them to a room. Soon, numbers were flying fast and furious. I couldn't keep up. I was sending boxes of bathroom junk into my home office.

Then my cellphone rang. It was the night editor on the foreign desk in Los Angeles. He wanted to inform me that the paper was running a short wire story on North Korea's latest of near-daily updates on its threat to test a long-range missile.

"Sure, Dave," I said, marking down boxes 177, 254 and 19. "Over there, that way, in the kitchen. Um, no, not you, Dave. Sorry, I'm sort of in moving hell today."

I hung up. Dave is cool, just doing his job. But I was peeved at Kim Jong Il and his generals. Couldn't the regime wait one more day so I could get moved in?

The missile never flew that day, but wrapping paper did. The movers were everywhere at once. They unpacked. They put together furniture that had been dismantled. They arranged books on shelves. They helped me put the spoons and the forks into the right trays.

By 6 p.m., Mr. Kim was pushing paperwork before my eyes. The men were done. The moving paper was gone. The boxes were gone. Other than a few miscellaneous crates spirited away to be sorted through later, the apartment was spotless. It looked as though we had lived there a year, not a day.

The door closed and I marveled, walking room to room. Tutto a posto, as my Italian cousin says, everything in its place. No living out of a suitcase for this couple.

If this is the way they do everything in South Korea, I think I'm going to really like it here. But that was days ago. The blush is already off the moving day rose.

So what did my wife and I do today?

We went shopping, of course -- for more stuff.


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