Thursday, March 6, 2014

Kicked to the Curb: Moving House in Taipei When You Don't Want To

One ordinary Monday night, I came home from work, turned the key, opened the door and thought the same thing I think every night: I'm happy to be home. I love my home. My husband and I are so lucky to be able to live here! I may just be renting, but wow. What real estate heaven is this? Downtown Taipei! A tatami tea nook! An elevator in a city full of walk-ups! We were allowed to paint our walls! Natural light! Friendly neighbors - great for practicing Chinese! Three bedrooms - we had an office and a guest room! When I walked in the door I'd sometimes let out an audible "aaah" - this is home.

In all my previous apartments - even the nicer ones - I'd never quite felt that way. In those places I'd always known I'd be moving on, and I hadn't had the money to decorate the way I really wanted to (think rural Taiwan meets vintage Japan meets cool minimalist Turkish Mediterranean meets colorful India). With this apartment, I could afford to do what I wanted - my tastes are not expensive, but they are specific.

The next day I came home, turned the key, opened the door and my heart sank.

I had gotten a phone call from our landlady - a Buddhist nun who lives in a monastery in southern Taiwan - earlier that evening. A pit had formed in my stomach as she told me that we would have to find a new place to live. Her sister wanted to move into our place. I didn't ask for details because I already understood: apartments in Taiwan may be in one person's name, but they're often not really considered to be owned by that person alone. They're family-owned in spirit, and who lives there is often a family decision. That apartment was as much her sister's as hers. I wanted to yell and cry - let her know that I felt like she'd just sucker-punched me. But one does not yell and cry at a nun who hasn't done anything wrong. I couldn't make my problem her problem. I couldn't even be angry with her - her voice cracked, too, when she told me. She said she was so sorry, and she wanted us to find an apartment we'd really be happy with so we could take two, three months if necessary.

But it didn't make me feel better.

I had to get back to work, but I managed to croak out the bad news to Brendan and somehow face down the last hour and a half before I could go home. He looked like he was going to cry; this was really something, he rarely displays emotions as openly as I do.

My heart cracked. A knot formed in my gut. My eyes smarted and my head swam. I describe it in physical terms because that's how bad it hit me: it physically hurt.

So I looked around at our custom blue ombre curtains, our aqua blue wall, our high-quality faux-wood floor (restaurant grade, very durable), our antique milk glass pendant lamp that perfectly fit the tatami-floored nook it was hanging in. Some children were still playing, at that late hour, in the little courtyard that our window overlooked. Oh yes - no traffic noise. And I thought - I'm going to have to give all of this up. I don't want to! No! I refuse! I'd planned to spend several years, or more, in this apartment! I...I won't! I...have to. It's not my decision.

I'd given up fantastic apartments before - the one with the full view from my bedroom picture window over the Potomac River and National Mall in Washington, DC. The sweet little townhouse with wood floors and generous kitchen. But I'd chosen to give them up - I wasn't pushed. I'd regretted leaving them behind but I was moving on to other things - to other countries. This was different.

Then, as we began the search for a new place - still ongoing - I started beating myself up over my feelings. There were refugees fleeing their homes in other parts of the world with the clothes on their back and not much else, in the direst of circumstances. Through history people have been taken from their homes against their will, to be kicked out of the country, beaten and interrogated, imprisoned or killed. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world live in sub-par conditions, many in slums that would turn your stomach. What a First World Problem! I have no right to be feeling this way! I got a slice of real estate heaven and now I was being made to trade it in for what would probably be a not-so-tasty slice of real estate mediocrity. Boo fuckin' hoo. Wah wah wah, poor little white girl can't keep her dream apartment because she doesn't own it. I felt like crud and I didn't even have sympathy for myself.

Some folks told me to be optimistic - maybe we'd find a place that was even better, minimizing the flaws of the old place. Not likely - it had so few flaws. Maybe we'd find a place with other great features that would make up for the features we might have to compromise on. Hah - except I'm not willing to compromise on features like natural light and floors that aren't hideous, not to mention not freezing in the winter and having the apartment be hotter than the outside in summer (a major problem with one apartment we'd had). I was told point blank that I had better "find my gratitude" that I got to live in a great place at all, even if I had to move on.

None of that advice was bad, but it didn't work.

Considering the situations of those far less fortunate than myself did put things into perspective and was a reminder not to get too dramatic about the whole thing, but it didn't spackle over the hole in my gut. I still felt like crap. "Find your gratitude", while it came from the right body of advice, sounded more condescending than helpful. "You'll find something as good or better" - but I don't want an unknown quantity of 'as good or better', I want what I already have.

For the next two days I walked around with my stomach in a knot and my head a ball of fuzz. Occasionally - over reminders even tangentially related to how much I loved my apartment - an incorporeal spear would fly out of the ether and run me through, right in the belly. I would get into a taxi and think of how easy it was to catch a cab right outside my front door - schwam! I'd see sunlight through a window and think of how great the natural light is in our living room - stab! I'd look at a teal blue pen and think of the brilliant color we were able to paint one livingroom wall - fwoosh!

So I started really thinking about it - why did I feel this way? Over an apartment? Why was I so crushed over what was the very definition of a First World Problem? Why couldn't I "find my gratitude" or at least be optimistic about things? Why did I want to be so dramatic when the situation really didn't call for it?

Then it hit me like another knife in the gut: this is exactly how I've felt during bad breakups. This lint-brained, disemboweled, harpooned-by-the-universe, even-the-sunshine-makes-me-sad feeling is identical in every way to heartbreak. I was going through a breakup: I'd been dumped by my apartment! In the world of real estate, my true love! I'd been hoping for a proposal (I was working out a strategy for saving up the necessary deposit to buy the place - the equivalent of looking at wedding magazines before you're engaged!) and instead I got told 'it's over'. I was mooning over an apartment the way I might moon over an ex with whom I hadn't wanted things to end!

At least when you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you have the option of being single for awhile as you heal, not looking for anyone else as you get over those "I don't want anyone else, not even anyone better, I want him/her!" feelings. You can become open to a relationship on your own time. This felt like being dumped, and then pushed into a new relationship you weren't ready for, while you were still thinking "but I don't want anyone else!" We looked at other places but none excited us - even ones that would have been fine before we found our dream apartment were not satisfactory after we'd been to paradise. "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? No, we'd have been much better off if we'd never fallen in love with that apartment, never found a place that we could truly turn into a 'home' without owning it.

Over the next few days details emerged: we offered to pay more rent (sometimes landlords in Taiwan, rather than raising your rent, will ask you to move out on false pretenses so they can charge more to another renter - I don't get the logic of this at all, as much as I try to be culturally openminded) but that had not been her intention. Her sister visited us and explained things - nearly in tears herself. She was losing her own home, which she'd owned and lived in for decades, through what I feel was no fault of her own. I won't tell her story here - those details belong to her narrative and aren't for me to blast all over the Internet - but the reason for her sudden need to live in what I thought of as our apartment (it wasn't ours, but I thought of it that way) became clear. She said not to worry about the painted walls - she wouldn't make us return them to their original white, and reiterated that we could have all the time we needed - six months, ten, whatever, more than the original two or three - to find a place we were really happy with. We offered to find her a place and pay the rent deducted from our own as the sister would lose that income stream anyway, but she didn't want to deal with a landlord (something she had never done before in her life). What could we say? Her anxiety about landlords was odd - at least she could speak to them in her native language, I had to do so in a language I'd learned with little formal instruction! - but it was her right. This was a very generous offer and quite fair.

I'm only now starting to feel better - just realizing that what I was going through was a breakup, a hellacious "this is nobody's fault, I still love you but we have to end it" dumping, helped me get a grip on things. It led me to these ideas, which lifted me out of the gutter more effectively than the advice I'd been given.

1.) It's okay to feel this way. It seems silly, but breakup heartache seems unjustified to those not going through it, too. You have a right to feel this way. Just feel it for awhile. Like with a breakup, it'll help.

2.) Everybody bounces back from breakups. It takes time, but you do eventually feel better, even if in the beginning all you can do is remind yourself that at some unknown point in the future you will be okay. You will bounce back from this. Just let it happen.

3.) It's okay to not want to "find your gratitude" or be optimistic when you don't really feel that way. You can have a different mindset: looking for diamonds in the turd sandwich may help some, but it's also perfectly acceptable to be a pessimist and call a turd sandwich a turd sandwich because it is one. You do not need to announce that it is actually a very stinky diamond mine. If it helps you more to say "My, this appears to be a big pile of bullshit" when a big pile of bullshit lands on your head, then go with it. Worked for me!

4.) Just remember - the sister who is moving in has lost basically everything. You have not. It's the more personal version of "remember that so many people have it a lot worse than you do", and fulfills a similar purpose. You don't have to automatically feel better upon considering the issues facing others (it really is OK to feel your honest feelings about your own situation while at the same time being aware of how your situation compares to that of others), but it can put your own issues into perspective.

5.) Don't regret making your rented space your "home". It's probably "easier" to not home-ify your rental, so if you ever have to leave you can do so without too much heartache, but you live here and now, and not at some probably-undefinable point in the future when you own your own place and can home-ify it as much as you want. Don't spend these years living in a house that's not a home. 'Tis better to have loved and lost...yadda yadda yadda.

6.) Remember your priorities: of all the bad things that could have happened in life - including the dangers that might befall my husband, my cat, my parents, sister and in-laws, my closest friends, my life abroad, my freelance career, a health crisis, an accident or worse, this is really the least "bad" thing of all the bad things. I have my husband and my kitty: together we three will be okay. If I had to choose another thing that is important to me to sacrifice so I could keep my apartment, I can't imagine what I'd choose. I'd probably say "okay, evil god, then go ahead and take the apartment".

We still haven't found a new place yet - although we trawl the online rental listings daily - and have the luxury of time. I still don't feel fully better, and I'm still not sure I have fully accepted the situation: my head has accepted that my home (effectively my "ex") won't be available for a "getting back together", but my heart still has this vacuum-like sucking feeling at the center. But, like moving on from an ex, I know eventually it will be okay.

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