Fighting the cockroach invasion

Fighting the cockroach invasion

It’s the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen. Its black body and wriggling antennae jolt me out of the stupor of taking a two am pee.

I can’t scream. If I scream, it’ll scuttle away into my apartment and I might never see it again. But I’ll know it’s there, watching me.

I need to finish peeing and not make any sudden movements. Not taking my eyes off of it as I stand slowly and pull my pyjama bottoms back up, I watch it walk on the edge of my bookcase, just past the bathroom doorway.

It must be aware of me, but contentedly moves its feelers about, possibly eating the press board at the back of my bookcase: apparently they eat everything. Pressing myself against the opposite side of the door frame, I move as fluidly as I can to get out of the bathroom.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen cockroaches in my apartment. From what I understand – and in Korea, this sometimes isn’t much – the building is infested. Before this, however, the sightings were rare and the bugs were tiny and yellowish.

Tonight though, this bug is as long as my thumb and looks capable of biting or procreating. Wanting to keep the biting and the procreating in my apartment to a minimum, something will have to be done.

Once through the doorway, I walk quickly toward the bottle of RAID that Michael, the teacher who lived here before me, thoughtfully left behind. I creep back to the cockroach, half-afraid it’ll be gone.

It isn’t.

I shudder, then aim the RAID and spray. The body drops to the ground, its legs moving wildly and I shriek once, but keep spraying. I don’t stop until its legs stop twitching.

Its overturned body appears half the size it did two minutes ago. Staring in disgust, I can’t bring myself to pick it up, not even with tissues. It could be playing dead. Hesitating, I leave the light on as I go back to bed.

Spending the rest of the night reading about the habits and life cycle of Asian cockroaches, I go back every twenty minutes to make sure it’s still there.

It is.

After the sun comes up, I finally fall asleep, exhausted. Letting it serve as a warning to others, I decide to leave the body there. Let all cockroaches know: if we’re going to share this apartment, they’d better be a lot better at hiding than this fool.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Anil Jadhav.

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…And then there’s bravery

…And then there’s bravery

Tentacles are writhing in the plate in front of us and we’re going to have to eat them.

Actually, we’ve been looking all evening for a live octopus. It’s just that the reality is a little more alive than I expected.

Walking by the sea, we’re surrounded by young Korean soldiers, couples lighting fireworks off the rocks and cheap plastic inflatables that you pull around on a string. Ignoring all of them, we walk from restaurant to restaurant asking for sanakji.

Coming off the high of surviving a terrifying Viking Ship ride, we’re all confident that not only will there be live octopus, we will want to eat it when we find it. At least, I’m confident.

Three times, owners nod and smile, ushering us into their restaurants with promises of sanakji. Three times they then tell us there isn’t any octopus on a Tuesday, and maybe they hope we’ll be hungry enough to stay and eat at their restaurant anyway. But this has nothing to do with hunger.

When we finally climb the stairs of the first restaurant on the dodgy end, we’ve decided that if they don’t have octopus, we’ll just eat something else. The adrenaline of our near-death experience is wearing off and hunger is starting to encroach on the desire to eat something weird.

But for once, there actually is an octopus in one of their tanks and they’re going to chop it up for us. While sanakji is referred to as “live octopus”, it’s more of a “recently dead octopus.” When ordered, the octopus is chopped up alive and served on a plate, its muscles still jerking.

Crawling over itself, the oil-covered pieces of tentacle are hard to pick up with metal chopsticks. They resist and pull away or slide off, back onto the plate.

Shauna is watching me when I finally get a piece into my mouth. I remember that Asia told me to be sure to chew it thoroughly because the suckers can attach themselves to your throat and choke you.

I bite down hard and I feel the muscle tense and the suckers grip the inside of my cheek. Shauna winces. I chew again until the muscle relaxes and the tentacle is in smaller, deader pieces. I swallow. I try a smile and look back at the plate. There’s an awful lot left.

Picking up a pair of chopsticks, Shauna pokes them onto the plate. The first tentacle she tries to pick up crawls away from her. She pulls her hand back and puts the chopsticks down, “I can’t. I can’t eat that.”

Maybe if we’d found the octopus right away, that sense of bravery from surviving the Viking Ship would have carried us all through this meal. Instead, Maria also shakes her head. She’ll stick with the soup.

But I persist: this octopus did not die so that I could take one bite and waste the rest. Asia and I eat as much as we can, each bite a fight against a small piece of octopus. It seems to fight for its life, even with its life already over. The experience is primal and carnivorous and totally weird.

At the end of the meal, we step outside into the glow of a nighttime carnival and go immediately toward the carts of street food. My act of bravery complete, hunger is coming on strong and those tentacles were not particularly filling. What I need now is a fried potato on a stick. Or ice cream. Nothing with any sentience, please.

There’s bravery…

There’s bravery…

We’re on a mission requiring bravery in the face of both terror and disgust and not everyone is going to make it. But I intend to last to the bitter, slimy end.

We arrive at Wolmido after work on a Tuesday evening, and other people rush to the flashier, better-painted Viking ships. But we know better. The one closest to the water, the ugliest of the the three is the one to go and test your mettle. We head there immediately.

Facing each other from across the ship, we fill the seats on either end. Purses placed on the side, lights are starting to come on as the sun goes down. Slinging the strap over our shoulders as an extra safety precaution, we pull the metal bar down over our laps.

Slowly the ship starts to swing, and we smile. The first time I get butterflies in my stomach on a downward swing, I cry out laughing.

This is the carnival ride I remember from teenage years, finding some excitement in a place eight hours from the nearest amusement park. I let go of the bar for an extra thrill.

When the ship is completely vertical, I hold the bar with one hand. I’m glad the strap is on, but I wish I’d checked to make sure that it wasn’t frayed or loose before the ride started.

The bar wobbles, though it never lets go. I imagine the faces of my friends on the opposite side if it did, our bodies flying toward their terrified grins.

The Vikings brutally killed their enemies and I can hear a sadistic edge to the carnie’s voice as he calls out in Korean words I can’t understand. We scream as the ship goes past vertical and tilts us upside down.

Gripping the bar with both hands while we’re frozen in the air, Emile starts screaming in real terror. Our fear is only blunted by the pure joy of survival. If this bar lets go, I hope I’ll be unconscious before I hit anything on the downward swing.

Swinging down and back up, we watch our friends’ frozen smiles above us as they hang from their straps.

Slowing down, the ride returns to vertical and gradually horizontal positions, filling us with relief and disappointment. I both want to do it again right away and never again in my entire life.

Pulling the strap off me, my legs wobbling, I’m still stunned as we walk past the batting cages to the water. We made it through this first challenge, but I’m not sure if we can all live up to the next. Still reeling, muscles shaking, we begin our search for a restaurant serving live octopus.

But, why?

But, why?

We’ve just thrown a French-fry covered hot dog in the gutter and I’m not sure if we should be more ashamed by our wastefulness or our cultural insensitivity.

“Do you want to walk to McDonald’s?” I offer.

“No, it’s fine,” Shauna says, her face still contorted. “I think we should just go home.”

Ten Minutes Earlier

Following the smell of fried food through narrow streets we walk over a carpet of night club fliers and cards for call girls. It’s too cold to walk to McDonalds and we made a pact to eat more healthily. Also, the taxi stand is closer.

Stepping onto the sidewalk on the main road, the cold wind slices through our winter jackets. A middle-aged woman is manning a food stand right in front of us. She’s the only one still open.

Shauna pulls her blue pea coat tighter and turns to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”

The light and steam from the food cart make it seem like a warm place to stand, but as we move farther away from the protection of the buildings on the side street, my teeth are actually chattering. The woman is wearing a puffy jacket, a fleece headband and warm-looking gloves. She isn’t shivering.

Shauna points to the last hot-dog-on-a-stick, the kind battered in French fries, “Hot dog, juseyo.”

Not wanting to take my hands out of my pockets, I don’t choose anything.

The woman puts the hot dog into a vat of hot oil and lets it sit and warm up. She holds up a bottle of ketchup and Shauna nods, “Ney.”

She holds up a shaker and Shauna nods again, “Ney.”

Pulling the hot dog out of the oil, the woman wraps a napkin around the stick and pours toppings over the French fries. She hands it over with a quick, “Gamsahamnida.”

At the crosswalk, Shauna takes a bite, stops, and looks at me.

“The other thing she asked me. I didn’t know what it was so I just said yes,” she says, her mouth still full. She chews, then swallows. “It was sugar.”

She takes another bite as we cross the street. Sugar covers every bit of ketchup. Ketchup covers every bit of French fry. Chewing one slow bite at a time, Shauna swallows and stops again, “I can’t eat this.”

We look back at the woman. We ‘re the only ones on the street tonight besides the taxi drivers. Neither one of us wants her to see us throw the food away: we come here all the time.

Public trash bins are hard to find in South Korea so walking up past a phone booth, Shauna tosses the remains into the gutter.

“Sugar,” I say, coming to the question that all expats ask themselves at some point, “But, why?”

Teddy bears vs dinosaurs

Teddy bears vs dinosaurs

The bus passes a billboard for a Teddy Bear museum featuring dinosaurs. Turning to Alex, I catch him just before he puts his headphones in. I wonder aloud what the deal is with Teddy Bear museums in Korea. They’re everywhere, from Seoul to Jeju and cover various time periods. Alex listens, resting his iPod on his leg, but not putting it away.

“Are they suggesting that Teddy Bears were there?” I say. Alex hasn’t said much during this rant, but I don’t feel like going to sleep and I don’t want to sit quietly for the next six hours as we drive through Sunday traffic to get back to Incheon. “Who do you think would have won in a battle between Teddy Bears and dinosaurs?”

Now he raises his eyebrows, “Obviously, it would have to be dinosaurs. Is that even a question?”

“But they can’t die,” I say. “Teddy Bears are like really cute zombies.”

“Sabrina, they can’t die because they’re not alive,” he says, but doesn’t pick up his MP3 player.

“You only think they aren’t alive because of the Teddy Bear Law,” I say. “They can’t let humans see them move. And there weren’t any people when dinosaurs were around.”

“I don’t think there were any Teddy Bears around, either.”

“I don’t know, that billboard seems to show differently,” he picks up his iPod at this and starts flipping through songs.

“Dinosaurs are bigger and stronger.”

“But Teddy Bears can’t die.”

“Because they’re not alive,” he says, putting one headphone in. “And even if they were, they’re not big enough to fight dinosaurs.”

“But they could create a Teddy Bear army. Sew themselves back together when they get ripped apart. Even a big dinosaur couldn’t fight off an endless horde.”

“I don’t think you understand how big dinosaurs are, Sabrina.”

Mike walks up the aisle, stepping over stray bags and feet.

“What are you talking about?” he asks, leaning against the seat in front of us.

“Whether Teddy Bears or dinosaurs would win in an epic battle,” I say.

“It has to be dinosaurs, right?” he says, looking from one of us to the other.

“Exactly,” Alex says.

“But Teddy Bears can’t die,” I start.

Mike raises an eyebrow, nods, then stands and walks back up the bus.

English is crazy—full stop

English is crazy—full stop

Paul is from Yorkshire and sometimes I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I’ve spent most of my life under the mistaken assumption that because English is my first language, I have a really good handle on it. I even studied it in university. Living overseas has changed all that.

Today, he looks troubled, which is unusual for someone I usually see with a wide grin on his face. He walks into the staffroom, puts his teacher’s guide down, sits in the office chair across from me and stares intently into space. I look at him a moment and then turn back to my own desk and continue writing my lesson plan.

“What do you call a full stop?” he asks, looking at me.

“I don’t know,” I say, setting my pen down. Working together in Korea, these conversations come up once in awhile. He might get a text message from his Canadian girlfriend that I have to decipher. Or someone uses the phrase “fanny pack” causing confusion and hilarity: fanny does not mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.

He picks out a textbook from the colourful row of them on the shelf and opens it on the desk beside me. He points to the end of a sentence.

“That,” he says. “What do you call that?”

“A period,” I say.

“Well, why do you call it that?” he says, glaring at me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why? What do you call it?”

Every English-speaking country seems to have their own version of the language. It means you can understand one another ninety percent of the time, but then it betrays you in places you never expected.

“Do you know,” he says, completely ignoring me, “that I’ve been telling the gifted class to use full stops for months? Every day when I look at their writing, I say, ‘You have to remember your full stops at the end of sentences.’”

He sits down in the chair next to me, shaking his head.

“Then, today, Jody puts up his hand and says, ‘Teacher, what is a full stop?’” The corner of my mouth is twitching. “For a month they’ve had no idea what I’m on about.

“Period,” he says, looking at me. “Stupid word.”

The giant blue balloon

The giant blue balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the US tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.

Oh.

The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.