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.

Night Shots of Uijeongbu

I left my apartment for the first time in three days to go to the McDonald’s that’s a five minute walk away. I took these shots along the way. And yes, there are that many convenience shops within such a small radius.

The Bedbug Club: My Experience with The Little Buggers

Congrats to Washington, DC, which just usurped Baltimore as bedbug capital of the US!

(Warning: there will be pictures of bugs in this entry.)

Bedbugs are a big worry when traveling. They can hide in the seams of mattresses and attach themselves to your luggage.

They can also be lurking in the corners of your new apartment, as I found out last year. The apartment had been empty for about two years, which proves how hardy the little buggers can be. I noticed a bug the very first night after we moved in, and fearing the worst, googled “bedbugs” only to be assured that we definitely had an infestation.

Image: flat brown bedbug on a white wall

The next morning, I gathered up some of the little critters (including a live one I found) in a plastic ziploc bag and we headed to the leasing office. It was all very dramatic, I assure you. The leasing office gave us a couple of options: we could immediately move into another unit or stay in our current one, and they would waive the lease breaking fee if we found a new place to move into by Friday.

Image: blurry photo of two bedbugs in a plastic bag. One has obviously had a blood meal, as its torso is elongated.

We decided to search for a new place and just leave our belongings in the apartment. In the meantime, the leasing office assured us that they would start the extermination process immediately the next day.

My roommate managed to find a new place and moved out by that Friday. I was not so lucky.

I am eternally grateful to my friends Karin and Jim, who so kindly allowed me to stay in their home the first few days and then periodically while my cat and I had to be out of the apartment while the extermination process was happening. They knowingly took a risk by housing us.

During my experience dealing with the bedbugs, I often wondered if I would rather have scabies again or bedbugs. I still don’t know the answer. A couple months after returning home from India, I discovered I had a bad case of scabies, presumably something I picked up on the train I took to New Delhi. While bedbugs live in small dark places like mattresses and come out at night to bite, scabies live in your skin and make you itch at night. The recommended treatment for scabies is a pesticide, applied from the neck down, and left on for 48 hours. You also must wash all of your bedding at very high temperatures, like with bedbugs. Bedbugs are notoriously hard to exterminate and when I say it was a process, I mean it was a process. The exterminators came into my apartment no fewer than five times over the course of the next five weeks, applying pesticide and diatomaceous earth.

Image: my right arm, with four small groups of three bite marks

Those five weeks were pure hell. I would wake up covered in tell-tale bedbug bites: three small bites in a small area, known as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” I was now alone in the apartment, unsure if I should even bother unpacking anything. I had to wash everything I own, which was costly and time-consuming, and I had to throw out hundreds of dollars of yarn that I had accumulated over the years because I didn’t want to take the risk of reinfecting my apartment.

I reached out to a few friends and discovered that some of them had also dealt with bedbugs. One friend told me that when she got them while she was living in NYC, she was embarrassed to wear shorts that summer because of the bites. The more common that bedbugs become, the more important it is for us sufferers to come forward and share our stories so that no one feels as hopeless as we once did.

Bedbugs don’t happen just while traveling. They don’t happen because we’re poor or dirty. They can happen to anyone, and I realize that I was very lucky to have an understanding leasing office that did everything they could to exterminate them. I was also very lucky to have found an amazing new roommate who didn’t seem to mind that the apartment had been infested with bedbugs, as she had just had a friend who also dealt with the little buggers.

My infestation was not nearly as bad as it could have been. The carbon dioxide from my roommate and I had awakened the bedbugs, and my first roommate was lucky in that none of the bugs hitched a ride on her furniture. The infestation was contained mostly to my bedroom, and in one particular corner–that I dubbed “The Bedbug Club.” When I noticed I was sweeping up a majority of bugs in that corner, I put out a little note for the exterminators, which they thought was funny.

Image: corner of my room with a tent note set up that reads “The Bedbug Club/(no seriously, I swept up a bunch hanging out here–be brutal!)” with two crudely drawn images of bedbugs waiting outside a door. One of them has a top hat.

As much as I’ve traveled, it was only time until I got bedbugs. And hopefully, that will be the last time.