For Pied and Dabbled Things
Back in Scumland UK, the greatest disruption to a lesson would be two students having a fight, possibly assaulting the teacher or simply a student calling you a ‘fucking wanker.’ In Korea, a similar level of disruption is achieved if an insect flies into the classroom. No! I’m not referring to a gigantic hornet or a preying mantis; pandemonium can be unleashed by a simple house fly. On such occasions, students will duck their heads and even move to the other-side of a class and until the insect is removed or killed, all teaching is likely to cease. I know students, teenage boys, who will squeal and panic, if a butterfly flutters into the classroom.
I have seen some beautiful butterflies in the mountains, some the size of small birds with brightly coloured wings. As a schoolboy, my fondness for butterflies was inspired through collecting and trading cards that came with a packet of Brooke Bond PG Tips Tea. Although I’ve noticed dragonflies are admired, some kids even hate butterflies, one of the most majestic and harmless of insects. In Korean, it seems many people relegate most bugs to the same category as cockroaches.
Koreans seem to have a general dislike not just of insects, but bugs in general and ‘bug’ is the preferred term as this precludes having to differentiate between insects and arachnids and many other creepy crawly things. Indeed, terms such as ‘insect’ and the characteristics they exhibit do not seem as easily understood as they might be in the west. The problem of nomenclature, despite biological taxonomy, is obviously cultural but I wonder to what extent it reflects a general disregard for nature in general, especially in a society which has so rapidly become highly urbanized.
Korean students, and many adults I know, seem not just oblivious to nature, but indifferent and unmoved by it. Of course, I am making a sweeping generalization and fully aware many Koreans are quite the obverse as I often come across Korean nature, and nature photography blogs on the internet, but I nonetheless experience different attitudes from students and friends than I would back home. Several years ago, on a mountain trail in Ch’eonan, I was privileged to see a fox posing in profile. My fellow teachers all insisted that either foxes do not exist in Korea or that I must have seen a cat. You simply cannot confuse a cat with a fox, especially having seen the fox motionless and in profile! Every child will give you the correct name when you describe a magpie, one of the most common birds even in urban areas, but describe a jay, a common sight in the mountains, and most will have no idea of its name (산까치). The impressive sorceress spider (무당 거미), with their expansive webs dusted in a powdery yellow, and abdomens emblazoned with red and yellow markings, to all but one of the people I asked, were ‘just’ (그냥) spiders. Wasps and hornets suffer a similar fate and are often clumped together as bees (벌). And then I’m told figs trees don’t grow in Korea when there are several growing in my vicinity.
The reason I am so keen as to Koreans attitudes about nature is that most dictionaries fail to distinguish species and sub-species and hence I am compelled to make inquiries. I often encounter problems trying to discover the Korean word for particular animals or plants. For example, Koreans have a number of different names for ‘octopus’ (낙지, 문어) and will often insist that they are different from each other but this difference has more to do with ‘octopus’ as a food, rather than ‘octopus’ as a species. In Britain, we have a similar problem with ‘sardines’ and ‘pilchards,‘ both different size herrings and most of us differentiate them by the shape of can they are bought in. Sardines, as juvenile pilchards, come in small flat tins whereas the adult pilchard, comes in a round can. I doubt many Brits are capable of differentiating between sardines and pilchards in any other way than by the type of can they occupy when dead and ready to eat.
Differentiating between rats and mice is also problematic and if you tell a Korean you had a mouse in your house, or even had one as a pet, they will recoil in horror. Despite ‘mice’ having a distinct name (생쥐), they are conflated with rats (쥐) and only by describing a rat as having a long leathery tail, can you be understood. Exactly the same occurs with chipmunks (줄무늬 달암쥐) and squirrels (달암쥐) both of which are described as ‘squirrels.’ (다람쥐) Yes, chipmunks are a form of squirrel but they are quite distinct from squirrel squirrels. Indeed, several online dictionaries I consulted identified both squirrels and chipmunk, as squirrels and despite chipmunks being common in the nearby mountains, most people I asked either did not know what they were or simply identified them as ‘squirrels.’
On another occasion I was with friends in the Kayasan Mountains and noticed what looked like clumps of mistletoe high in the trees. I was excited because I’d not seen mistletoe in Korea and it was prolific and thick. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which grows in the uppermost branches of trees, the seeds being deposited via bird droppings. Not only did my friends have no idea what is was, but they weren’t very interested. As we were coming down the mountain, I noticed bags of ‘clippings’ being sold to make tea and was able to confirm it was mistletoe (겨우사리).
In early summer, I was looking at plants, along with a close friend, being sold by a street vendor. She was quite impressed that I was able to identify tomato, aubergine, thyme, rosemary and courgette seedlings as well as larger jade and citrus plants. She had no idea that tomato plants have a distinct smell that is imparted onto your hands if your touch them. My poor friend could only identify a chili plant and asked the vendor to name the plants to corroborate my claims.
It worries me that so many young Koreans are uninterested and uninspired by nature, if not fearful of it, because the easiest means by which species will disappear, is when there is no regard for them. In dystopian novels such as Huxley’s, Brave New World, Zamyatin’s, We, and to a lesser extent, Orwell’s, 1984, nature is perceived as abhorrent, distasteful, imperfect and dirty and hence requiring banishment beyond the confines of ‘civilization.’ Once there is a general dislike, or simply disregard for nature, or even people, and before you know it, the damage has been done. All political and social atrocities are born out of an attitude of dislike, disinterest or loathing and the same can be said of environmental atrocities.
In Kayasan Mountain, behind the impressive Kayasan Park Hotel, next to the nature trail entrance, is a natural history museum in which are housed an extensive collection of insects which are either extinct or endangered. Some of the insects, all dead and mounted, are of gargantuan proportions, some as much as three or four inches long. The gargantuan insects that once lived in the mountains of Korea, with their chunky exoskeletons and long antennae, fascinated not just me but the numerous Korean children, ooo-ing and ah-ing around me; ironically, the same children who yelp, scream and panic when a house fly buzzes into the classroom. It seems that for many, nature only has the power to inspire wonder and awe when it’s dead, mounted, sanitized and safe.
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.