Taking a Cat to Korea: Merlin’s Story

When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.

As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.

Merlin as a baby. Merlin is an all black cat with then-blue eyes and has a little shaved patch on his front paw from being in the hospital for several days. He is sitting next to a stuffed animal plushie of a squirrel, both on a white fleece blanket. The edges of the photo have been overlaid with some fancy black lace graphic.

I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.

I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.

Merlin, laying on top of me with his front paws outstretched, facing me.

My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known,  he would have had to plan around it.

Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.

When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.

All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.

Merlin looking out the window of my apartment on our first night in Korea. There are a bunch of neon lights coming in through the window and he is behind some ugly curtains, sitting on a ledge next to an ugly pig statue that was left from the previous tenant.

So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)

At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:

  • rabies vaccination: $40
  • health check-up: $32
  • rabies titer test: $200
  • overnight stay and sedation: $50
  • one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
  • cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??

That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.

Merlin snuggled up in my gray and purple fleece jacket.

As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.

I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.

Coronavirus in Korea (코로나19)

I remember a guest coming in towards my expected flight date and asking me if I was worried about Coronavirus. I said no. At the time, the virus was mostly constrained to China, affecting me only in that my chosen flight path would have to have me transfer somewhere other than China.

What would I say now?

One of the many emergency alerts I receive throughout the day.

I’m not worried about myself.

I’m worried for my family back in the States, where my brother works as a pizza delivery driver, coming into contact with who knows what kind of germs; where my dad is considered an “essential” worker because he works in the food industry; where my mom finds herself with less and less dictation work as hospitals cancel or postpone all elective surgeries.

Where, you know, you can’t find toilet paper or basic necessities like, apparently, yeast, since we’re all going to come out of 2020 being master bread bakers.

No, I’m only worried about myself insofar as I might be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 and unknowingly pass it along to my students, who range in age from 6ish to 15ish. (I say -ish because Korea has a different aging system as the rest of the world, which usually puts them at least one year older than their “international” age.) And kids will be kids, especially the littler ones who run up to you and hold your hand when you’re walking to the gym, or sneeze directly onto your hand while you’re guiding them through an assignment. (This particular kid is a handful and wasn’t wearing his mask at the time, of course.)

Cases of ramen (six to a pack) sitting atop packages of toilet paper outside a shop.

No, I’m not worried about myself. Toilet paper? Sitting outside the grocery store on the sidewalk. Easy meals? Ramen is aplenty here, in all different types and flavors. (My life has personally been changed forever with the introduction of jja-jang-myeon, black bean noodle.) There’s hand sanitizer on the bus. Most everyone is wearing masks, and there’s enough to go around, as Korea has implemented a strict policy allotting the purchase of two masks per person per specified day of the week based on the end number of your birth year, e.g. my birth year ends on 5 and so I can buy masks on Friday when those whose birth years end in 5 and 0 can purchase masks. The delivery system in South Korea is unparalleled, and even if I didn’t want to walk the seven minutes to McDonald’s, I could have it delivered faster in the time it would take me to get home with it. (This also includes grocery deliveries.)

I’m worried about my former co-workers, who have suddenly found themselves without jobs. I’m worried about the hoarding of essential goods like toilet paper and bread. I’m worried that the US economy will never recover from this, and the various industries being hit hardest will be forever changed, in ways we can’t imagine. I’m worried, obviously, about the frontline fighters who didn’t ask for their lives to be a “sacrifice” but get ready for work each day anyway. I’m worried about those whose pre-existing conditions mean that facing the virus is a true battle for life or death.

Here in Korea, almost all of us wear masks. There is plenty of hand sanitizer. We make our kids wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before playing. We take our own temperatures and the kids’ each day. Thanks to Korea’s preparedness, its economy has not completely tanked in the way that the US economy has. Sure, public schools have been delayed for over a month now, but life seems to go on, and it gets more and more “normal” by the week as the numbers of recently infected each day in Korea dwindle to under 30.

I’m safer and more well prepared to handle life as a whole, healthy or not, in South Korea. I am really thankful that karma decided to put me here now, as my life back in the States would be a hellish nightmare right now.

Medical Exam and Immigration: The First Steps

Last week the other new teacher and I went to the local hospital for our medical exam. In order to get an ARC (alien registration card), you must pass a medical exam.

the outside of a hospital, with a blue tent situated in front that you must enter before going into the hospital itself

Before we were allowed into the hospital, a nurse standing outside in a face mask, gloves, and a gown asked us if we had a cold and what the purpose of our visit was. They provided hand sanitizer for us to use and gave us a little sticker to wear.

First, we were taken into a room to have our height and weight measured. In that same room, we were told to cover one eye and read a few lines on an eye chart. We also were seen into a small soundproof booth and given a set of headphones, and told to raise our hands when we heard a beep. (I am hard-of-hearing in one ear so I was very familiar with this aspect of the exam.)

Then we were taken into a room with a doctor who asked us if we had any mental health problems, skin problems, and any other internal problems. While I waited for the other teacher to finish her consultation, the director of my school who had accompanied us to the hospital told me, with a clicking of his tongue, that the doctor doing the consulation was actually an OB-GYN who had found himself out of work in his field due to the low birth rate in Korea.

view inside the hospital; two open restrooms can be seen

We were then seen by a nurse who took a blood sample. I watched as this nurse drew one vial of blood and then proceeded to pour bits of it into other vials, all with her hands, and all without gloves. You could tell that she took hundreds of these samples a day, but I was still very worried for her safety.

Then she gave us an open paper cup and instructed us to pee in the cup. I noticed, for the first time since arriving in Korea, a squat toilet in addition to a Western-style toilet. There was no lid for our sample, and we opened up a little cupboard where a mirror would normally be in the restroom and sat the cup there. It was open on the other side so a nurse could reach in and retrieve the samples, but I was very surprised that they would just leave the cups open like that.

the inside of the changing room with blue tops and pink bottoms next to a set of numbered, lime green lockers with keys hanging from each

Next up was the chest x-ray. We were shown into a room and told to take off our shirts and bras and put on the open shirt provided. The other teacher and I were unsure of what to do so we also put on the provided pants, which proved unnecessary. The x-ray was super quick and we were back in our clothes.

Lastly was the dentist check-up. I swear, this dentist spent maybe thirty seconds looking at my teeth and pointing out that I have cavities and need to have a scaling procedure done. (Once my insurance kicks in, I plan on visiting a dentist that will take longer than thirty seconds looking at my teeth.)

Unfortunately, the other teacher has a shy bladder so even after we were finished with all the steps of the medical exam, we still had to wait on her to give a urine sample. Fortunately, I had purchased a 2 litre bottle of water before leaving our apartment, so she was able to down the vast majority of that to assist her. I also helped by playing her a video of a waterfall on my phone, and the director distracted her by telling her the story of another teacher who was so afraid of needles that he passed out while they were drawing blood.

A week later, we went to pick up our medical exam results which we were embossed and sealed in an envelope. The next day, we went to the immigration office, which provided hand sanitizer and a quick thermometer check before we were allowed to enter. We had to give fingerprints there and then went to Burger King afterwards, as one does.

the inside of a Burger King with no customers probably because it was 10:30 am

Even the director pointed out that he doesn’t understand why we must perform all aspects of the medical exam. I know they are testing for hard drugs, HIV, and tuberculosis, but is a dental exam really necessary? Is it possible to have one cavity too many and be turned away for improper brushing? I also have a lot of opinions about the full breadth of what they are testing for and how some of it is discriminatory but I’ll save that for another time.

My blood type is A, in case anyone is wondering.

From Baltimore to Seoul…

On the day I left for Korea, I faced every traveller’s worst nightmare.

image description: a plane window, seen from behind; the back of the seat is blue and there’s a brown fuzzy bit from a stuffed animal in the seat in front poking out towards the window

No, not a long delay or a cancelled flight.

I forgot my passport at home.

*insert Pac-Man dying noise here*

In my defense, I hadn’t slept well and woke up at 4:30. I remember my friend Carin pointing out to me not to leave my bag and I thought I had slung it across my shoulder, but I had actually slung across my Hydroflask in its carrier. Normally I don’t use my large 32 oz Hydroflask but wanted it for the long flight, and my muscle memory must’ve thought that I had grabbed my bag.

I didn’t realize I didn’t have my passport until I got to the check-in desk. Cue the frantic messages and phone calls, and somehow I managed to get a hold of my roommate before she left for work. The problem was then having my friend Carin drive from BWI airport all the way into DC and back with enough time for me to catch my flight. I wasn’t worried about catching the actual flight, but about the bag check-in, which cuts off 45 minutes prior to the flight.

I cut it close, but in the end, Carin and LaTroy came through for me and I made my flight.

I didn’t run into too many hiccups during my flight. When I first checked in to BWI, it took a bit of time for them to check me in because of my cat, but after a quick looksie at my paperwork, they verified that I was good to travel. My newest piece of luggage came in exactly at 50 pounds, which was great, but I knew that my second, older piece of luggage was going to be overweight, which was another fee.

The big question: how best to get Merlin through security. While I had asked for a private screening, I was told that I’d still have to send all of my luggage through the xray machine and take Merlin out of his carrier anyways which kind of… defeats the purpose of a private screening? So I waited until the last possible minute, reached in, wrestled him from his harness (which would have set off the metal detectors), and held onto him for dear life.

He squirmed a bit but he was mostly calm. I waited for what felt like ten minutes until the TSA agent gave me the go-ahead to walk through the metal detector, and then she told me she’d have to swab my hands. I asked her if I could put my cat back in the carrier and she asked if I was traveling with anyone, implying that if I was, I could hand the cat over to them. Luckily, she allowed me to put him back in the carrier and immediately swabbed my hands which, by that time, were covered in black fur.

My carry-on bag got pulled aside for extra screening and this time, it wasn’t because I was flying with coffee. (Pro-tip: if you fly with coffee, be sure that it’s easily accessible because they will have to screen it as coffee is apparently often used to smuggle drugs and/or money.) Turns out I had another “organic material” in my bag: cat litter. The TSA agent opened it up, put a little litter on two pieces of paper, administered two separate chemicals, and then let me go. She told me to take out the litter the next time I flew and there wouldn’t be a need for the extra screening.

I was initially planning on sneaking away to a family restroom to let Merlin have the chance to use the toilet before my second flight, but by the time I got from my previous gate to the next, they had already started the boarding process. I had only given Merlin a small amount of food in the morning, so I hoped he was going to be okay. I took someone’s advice from the internet and bought a bunch of cardboard shirt boxes that I could fill with litter and then dispose of.

The first flight from BWI to Detroit went by smoothly and quickly. The second flight from Detroit to Incheon wasn’t too bad either–I mostly slept or stared into space, although I did watch “Parasite” for the third time.

When I finally got into Korea, my overwhelming emotion was… I’m sweaty. Really, really sweaty. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d let me into the country (they did, and that was painless), or even whether or not they’d let Merlin into the country (I had all the right paperwork)… I was just sweaty and pretty miserable, waiting in line after line.

Going through customs was an interesting experience. When I got to the first agent, she peered into my bag and her eyes lit up. “Ohhhh he’s so big and cute!” She then told me that I had to move to a different line and she shouted at her colleague (in Korean) that she had a cat.

The new agent checked Merlin for his microchip and went over the signed paper from the USDA and asked to see the original rabies titer test results. Then I had to hand over the signed paper from the USDA and, seeing that I wasn’t so willing to give it up, let me know that it was only good for thirty days from the signing.

image description: a purple cat carrier with a mesh top seen sitting on the floor underneath a plane seat at my feet; Merlin is a black cat and only his bright orange eyes can be seen through the mesh top

I was particularly stressed out about that piece of paper and for a few days, there was a question of whether I would even be able to make my flight, as I wasn’t going to fly out without my cat. In order to travel to South Korea with a cat, the cat must first get a rabies titer test, the results of which can take up to a month. Then, within ten days of travel, the cat must have a full health check-up and the results must be sent to the USDA to be apostilled.

I took Merlin in for his check up on Saturday and the vet told me to call the USDA on Monday to make sure they got the digital paperwork. Problem was… Monday was President’s Day. I got a call on Tuesday from the vet, saying that they needed a more specific address to list on the form (not just “South Korea”) and I could only give them the school’s address, which I hoped would be enough. Oh, and they weren’t going to be able to send the paperwork digitally so I would have to pay for them to FedEx the forms.

I received the paperwork on Thursday morning, before my Friday morning flight. As you can imagine, I wanted to hold onto that paperwork for as long as I could because I had stressed out so much about it.

When I finally got through customs, I noticed that there was no one waiting for me as there should have been. I gave a call to the director of my school and he answered, apologizing for not being there when I landed. He had mistaken the terminal I was flying in to, so I waited a few minutes outside my terminal for him to pull up. Then it was an hour drive to my apartment.

image description: view of the interior of a plane being boarded; there are three sets of three seats each along the left of the plane and people can be seen sitting and standing

Merlin bounced back pretty fast from the trip. He threw up the little food I gave him before the first flight, but didn’t defecate or urinate in his carrier. He immediately ran out of the carrier and under my bed but came out a few minutes later to poke around the apartment. I will note that it was a few days until he used the makeshift litter box, probably because he was scared of my temporary roommate (another new teacher) and the new environment.

So, Lessons Learned:

1) It is totally possible to fly internationally with a cat. I am blessed that my cat is super chill and quiet and has been through a lot in his little life so he bounced back pretty quickly from the trauma of a 14-hour flight.

2) If traveling with a cat… realize that your cat will take up most of the space at your feet. You also won’t likely be getting into your carry-on in the overhead bin, so don’t pack it like you’ll be able to easily reach in and grab things.

3) Be nice to flight attendants. If they find out your favorite cookie is Biscoff (Delta’s cookie of choice), they may just give you extra cookies.

4) Sometimes plane food is great. Other times it’s worse than Mickey D’s.

5) For the love of all that is holy… Make sure you’ve got your passport!

image description: a picture of snowy mountain peaks outside of a plane window where a plane wing can be seen at the top left of the picture

You May Notice Something Different about My Homepage…

Yes, everyone, it’s official: I’m moving to South Korea at the end of this month! I just bought my plane ticket and am actually currently on hold with Delta regarding taking Merlin with me.

This is a dream ten years running, and I’m about to make it a reality.

Edited to add: the one-question questionnaire that I was given after the phone call was to rate the customer service representative based on whether or not I would hire them for a customer service rep job, one being “definitely not” and five being “definitely yes.” Never got that one before.