Sunday, October 28, 2007


Which are Scarier: Misquitoes or Pigeons?

One of the definitions of "roommate" that you can find at is "a person with whom you share a room or rooms." By that definition, since I came to Korea I've had three types of roommates: Americans, South Africans and mosquitoes.

The closeness of the relationships I've shared with my roommates has varied. I've become good friends with some of them, and with others communication consisted of little more than "Can I borrow some bread?" and "Can you please turn the light off when you're done in there?"

Then, there are the roommates who want to be really close to me, so much so that they want a share of my sleeping hours and portion of my blood. Of the three categories I mentioned in the first paragraph, you ought to be able to tell which kind I mean (unless there are stereotypes about South Africans I'm not aware of).

This is a subject that weighs heavily on my mind at the moment because it's been autumn for more than a month, and the weather here in Seoul is getting colder. So, the effects of this particular seasonal change that I had grown accustomed to, such as cool evenings, the increasing occurrence of cold symptoms, busier schedules in schools and universities, along with the failure of the St. Louis Cardinals to advance in or even reach the MLB post-season are all in effect.

Why then, are the mosquitoes still here? Why must I go to sleep almost fully clothed and with my oscillating fan blowing at full blast upon my face in order to avoid being awoken by the sound of high-pitched buzzing in my ear? When I apply that mosquito repellent I bought in Thailand, do I still wake up with red spots all over my upper extremities because Korean insects are immune to substances manufactured in other Asian countries?

There are plug-in devices I could use in my room, but if I ask a native for help finding one, will I be wearing down their willingness to help me with possible future needs, like computer maintenance and/or blood transfusions?

Above all, why must I concern myself with this subject at all when the change of seasons could be taking care of the problem for me? I'd like to invest more time and energy in teaching the students proper English, or at least convincing them to show up. Why can't Mother Nature give me a break?

Maybe it's because, sophist old spinster that that she is, she knows that this is the closest thing to wildlife I'm likely to encounter here in Korea. With a population of 12 million-strong, Seoul is the third city in which I've resided since coming to Korea, after living in two of the nation's tiniest municipalities, Suncheon and Chuncheon, which had populations of a mere 250,000 each.

The determination of the locals to develop into an economic and industrial powerhouse has had its benefits: after almost total poverty following the Korean War it is now the 12th largest economy in the world and literacy is almost 100 percent. On the downside, they've lived in cities for so long that they have no idea what to do with animals.

Some Korean women, in particular, are scared positively witless by a variety of creatures, including house cats, cocker spaniels and/or earthworms. If an anonymous survey asked them to choose which was the scariest threat their facing society today, most women here would probably not choose A) a nuclear-armed North Korea, or B) a rapid economic downturn, but C) pigeons.

I've had female students who made plans to study in Western countries only to back out, simply because they heard that these places have large fowl. I have asked them why they would be afraid of an animal that human beings have been successfully eating for thousands of years, and the most eloquent answer I can get from them is, "Birds' feet are very … not good."

So, perhaps I should welcome mosquitoes into my room at night, since they carry relatively few diseases here. Maybe I should abide the cockroaches that occasionally show up in the floors and the walls, along with the ants who have forced me to leave my cereal box in the refrigerator lest they become part of my breakfast.

After all, within a year I expect to be married to a Korean woman. After that, given my future female roommate's superior household maintenance skills, along with her discriminating tastes in pets, I may have much less nature in my life.

She seems friendly to the idea of dogs, and possibly a cat, but my suggestion of the African Grey Parrot was promptly shot down.

"But they can learn up to a hundred words, and distinguish between colors, shapes and numbers," I said.

"I told you," she replied. "Scarrrrrryyyyy birds' feet."

I lost that debate. I always do.

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