Last Friday I travelled to Bu-gok (부곡), about 45 minutes drive outside Daegu, to practice straw cutting with my komdo teacher. The barn where we cut is on a farm and wandering around I discovered some enormous spider webs belonging to what is probably the most prolific spider in Korea, the Sorcerer or Shaman spider (mu-dang – 무당). In English it has several names including the Golden Banana Spider and Joro Spider. Its Latin name is nephila clavata.
The numerous spiders on these webs were neither as large nor colourful, possibly as it is right at the end of their mating season and the end of autumn. Their webs however, were not just large, 3 meters across, but densely intertwined. The genes of the mu-dang have been used in genetically cloning silk worms in order to produce stronger silk. Only the female carries the red marking and apart from being larger than the male, she has cannibalistic tendencies after mating.
©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
October 2010. The Shaman Spider
October 2010. Shaman Spider Webs
Has the weather been a little strange? Until a few days ago, especially with the arrival of the boknal period, on July 14th, it hadn’t been particularly unpleasant and as I haven’t lived in Korea long enough to notice changing weather patterns, less the fact that copious hours sat in steam rooms and the number of years I have spent here, may have resulted in my being somewhat acclimatised, I haven’t really being splashing sweat all over the place.
Last year, I heard the first memi (매미 – cicadas) on July 22nd. Of course, this is not the first memi to sing in Daegu per-se, but the first I heard and I am consistent at standing in a small park everyday in the lead up to their appearance. Last year, the temperature was scorching as I heard what was actually a solitary song. This week, on July 14th, it seems cooler, though certainly above the memi song threshold of 29 degrees Celsius, and I heard my first song for 2011 and it was a full, if somewhat half-hearted chorus.
Memi song can damage your hearing and I advise you to turn down your volume if you activate the video!
The memi will continue to sing into the hanyeoreum (한여름) period, which occurs in August and by which time the rainy has fully moved north and the evenings are hot a balmy. The chang-ma (장마) rain reappears in early September, only for a few weeks after which the memi song will gradually fade away as the temperature decreases.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence
Maybe it’s the nature of the information and blogs I read but there seems to be some agreement that Korean young people have less interest or awareness of the nature around them than their British peers. I have met so many Koreans who do not know the name for the beautiful Jay (산까치) that flashes through the trees on the slopes of mountains, do not know that there are several species of woodpecker (딱다구리) or do not know which tree produces an acorn. Subsequently, it has taken me years to grope my way to knowing the correct names for a bumble bee, wasp and a hornet. Because many Koreans are not reliable at classifying and differentiating wildlife, I’m often forced to use photographs on the internet but I have learnt to be cautious as even here anomalies can appear. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a British kid who hates butterflies – but I know several Korean teenagers who positively detest them.
Living in the city, as I do, it doesn’t take long to forget the beauty of the countryside and worse, to begin to generalise that Koreans, all Koreans, are ignorant of nature. The ignorance, I now realise, is solely mine and having hung around the city too long, where most of my students and friends have been born and bred, I have forgotten that a significant part of the population live in the country. I rarely meet any enthusiasm for wildlife among those Koreans I know and even though they love hiking, the mountains are not really conducive to walking ‘off trail,’ or random exploration. The mountain trails are always busy and as the borders between the human world and the ‘wild,’ provide only a window into the diversity of Korean nature. However, ask Koreans about the camel cricket (곱등이), thread worms (연가시) or cockroach (바퀴벌레) and you elicit animated, revolted responses.
I recently saw a bumble bee (호박벌레) while with a Korean friend and it terrified him. The sight of it actually caused him to step backwards. It was on the floor and suffering the common bumble bee problem, of not being able to take off. It was at the start of spring and in cooler weather they need to ‘warm-up,’ much like cars or humans in the cold. I put my hand down and let it climb on my finger and raising my arm skywards, it was able to launch itself, first plummeting before finally gaining altitude and eventually soaring away on the breeze. My friend was shocked I had dared let it on my hand, not because it could have stung me, which bumble bees rarely do, but because it was ‘dirty,’ but he’s city born and city bred. To date, this is the only bumble bee I’ve seen in Korea. In the UK, one often hears rumours that some of London’s inner city kids have no idea where potatoes come from and have never actually seen a cow. However, I wouldn’t be fool enough to make generalizations from such myopic observations as I seem to have done in Korea where I have prejudged most Koreans to be disinterested in nature and wildlife.
Last week, I spent the morning no more than a twenty-minute car drive from bustling Song-so, in the area of Hwa-won. I’m with a friend whose teenage cousin lives in the area and who is able to tell me the names of wild life not just in Korean, but English. Although the city is blocked from view by one mountain, and the fact it lies only a few kilometers away, the distance might as well be a few hundred kilometers and our teenage guide is definitely more rural than high-rise townie. When I spot a preying mantis in the grass, only a few inches long, he deftly picks it up between finger and thumb, in a manner which seemed practiced and was as excited with it as I was. Okay, I know this is one Korean and that my perception of the relationship between Koreans and nature is being radically transformed by him, but there is farmland as far as I can see; is it really possible to live in such an environment without imbuing some knowledge of and passion for, the surrounding beauty?
The number of times that Korea evokes in me a heightened sense of reality, where I am reminded of the uniqueness of my experience and how amazing it is to be in a culture thousands of miles away from my own, has diminished. Not only is Korea crawling with other waegs, myself included, but it has gradually become home from home. The internet, Skype, messenger, and a foreign EPIK teacher in every school has tamed the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ and brought it much closer to West than it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. And a browse across the Klogosphere tends to dampen the numinous when it is stirred because a zillion others, just like myself, are having a similar experience. But I remember the times I was inspired by my first glimpse of the Milky Way from Korea, my first rice paddy and experienced the break of dawn from the top of a small mountain. Such moments were uplifting, somewhat mystical and quite moving and all the more so in the absence of the internet and an army of fellow foreigners, both of which dull the uniqueness of your experience.
In the base of the Hwa-won valley, the rice paddies are flooded and newly planted with crops. In the distance I heard not just the first cuckoo in late spring, but my very first Korean cuckoo per-se; and all around the air frantically buzzed with busy insects. Of course, the season of the memi has yet to come as the weather is still cool. What was most incredible however, was the air; it was alive with the scent of grass, wild flowers and the humidity of the paddy. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an alive and pregnant smell and it was so heady and rich I snorted it loudly, laughing to myself in what was almost giddy glee. I suspect, if I were to spend more time in this environment, I would quickly discover locals with a love for and knowledge of the nature around them. There was far more to discover here in the broad valley than up the mountain manacled by a trial frequented by an army of hikers.
And I am gradually coming to realise that perhaps Koreans aren’t as ignorant of nature as I had at first thought and now suspect I have been drawing conclusions about them based on the assumption that a bumble bee or hornet are universally significant. If I asked British people about camel crickets and memi, I could arrive at exactly the same conclusion…
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
I much prefer the name ‘memi’ for that bizarre insect known in the west as a cicada. I would imagine that in places with a hot summer and hence a familiarity with this strange animal, places like the USA, there is rarely any confusion about the pronunciation, ‘cicada;’ but in the UK, where summers are cooler and the insect pretty rare, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, mispronunciation is common.
If you’re a visitor to Korea from a country where the song of the memi is simply regular background noise, you probably won’t even notice it but if like me, you are from cooler climes, that summer scream is one dominant leitmotiv in which intense heat, humidity and sticky bollocks converge.
The first memi to sing are more likely to be heard in Daegu as this is the hottest region of the peninsula and last year I heard the first on July 7th when the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius; the last I heard on September 25th when the temperature was 29 degrees. The memi starts ‘singing’ from 84 degrees Fahrenheit, 29 degrees Celsius. There are still a few weeks of relative coolness to enjoy before the world is turned into one sweaty, sticky, noisy hell during which life is spent hugging shadows on the sidewalk, taking constant cold showers and recuperating in the heavenly chill of the air-con. As much as I love spring, it is marred by the anticipation of what lies in its wake and part of my pleasure in hearing the season’s first memi is knowing that I will also hear its last.
SOME INTERNAL LINKS
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Maybe it’s an urban myth, but when I was in China I met a traveler who’d claimed he ‘d seen a cockroach supping dribble for the corner of his room mate’s mouth, who thankfully, was asleep at the time. The roaches I encountered in China dwarfed anything I’ve seen in Korea. And seriously, I actually knew a very strange guy from my army days who ate cockroaches. It wasn’t a party piece, he didn’t brag about it or do it to shock people. If ever a cockroach scuttled within reach his arm snatched it with as much speed and accuracy as a mantis and instantly it was deposited in his mouth. What was uncanny was that the only part of his body that moved was his arm. He didn’t even need to turn his head and could pluck one within the field of his peripheral vision. You met some strange people in the army.
I spent 10 years in the British Army in Germany and most barracks were infested with both the Oriental and the German cockroach. I even found cockroaches in my food but when I complained was simply told they were full of calories. Needless to say I hate this insect and do not wait for them to start visiting my one-room. I’ve probably seen no more than 12 in 3 years and last year saw only a couple as I’d posted at least 10 poisonous banquet boxes around the room. The thing I’ve learnt about cockroaches is that if you happen to see one snooping around the perimeter of your accommodation, or worse, inside as an unwanted guest, you can guarantee there’s been plenty other visits when you’ve been out or sleeping.
I came home this evening and there was one of the filthy pests scuttling about in the opening of my door, where you leave your shoes. With temperatures still cool, it was too slow to avoid being crushed to oblivion. So it’s off to Dream-Mart in the morning to buy one of the numerous anti-cockroach devices. For more information on Korean insects and the filthy roach:
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
새해 복 많이받으세요! Happy New Year! 2011 is the year of the rabbit and as the Chinese astrological calendar operates through a 12 year cycle, this means that it is particularly pertinent to those people born in 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963,1975, 1987, and 1999. I’m not particularly into any form of astrology and only today read the characteristics of my Chinese astrological animal, surprised at how closely it matched my temperament, only to discover I was reading the wrong one. It seems you can find aspects of yourself in any character, Chinese or otherwise. Call me a cynic! Apparently, rabbit people are kind and fabulous dressers, a trait also shared by sheep people which is the character presiding over my birth year. Unfortunately, I am a total slob when it comes to fashion!
I do wonder however, the extent to which astrological characters, or indeed Korean names, influence ones character. I still have an essay from a student in my last high school, who wrote that their name, Dong-jo (동조), when written in hanja (東 照), could be translated as ‘leader from Asia. His grandfather had paid a shaman 250.000 for choosing this name. Dong-jo writes:
‘But without mentioning its price, it is still special because it has a meaning that is still leading me through my whole life. Influenced by my name, I always tried to be a captain of a group which I belonged to. It has been natural for me to be class president every year and even when I spent time in New Zealand, I was captain of our school’s house.’
I have met other Koreans who tell me their names have had an influence on their lives. So, I wonder to what extent your life might change if you not only have a meaningful name, but it is also somehow connected with your zodiac character. I have never been enamored with a goat as my western astrological sign, Capricorn, and as equally uninspired by my Chinese character, a sheep, or my corresponding element, wood. In what way can you rescue anything from the ‘wood sheep?’ My Chinese zodiac sign is as boring and mundane as my western sign!
Bruce Lee (이소룡), born in San Francisco, was not only born in the year of the dragon (1940), but his elemental influence was that of metal. Lee had several names but was originally ‘Little Phoenix’ (細鳳), but as this was slightly feminine, it was later changed to ‘Return Again’ (李振藩) as his parents, having since moved back to Hong Kong, thought he would at sometime return the USA. When he started acting, he adopted the name ‘Little Dragon’ (李小龍) and it is by he is known in Korean (이소룡).
To what extent was the young Lee influenced by his various names and by the fact he was born in the year of the ‘metal dragon.’ I wonder how he would have fared had he been born one year earlier, in 1939, in the year of the ‘rabbit,’ and a boring ‘earth rabbit’ in terms that year’s element. A dragon suits everything about Bruce Lee’s life, his dertermination, fighting prowess and incredible physique but having him utter ‘the rabbit flicks its tail’ after kicking an opponent in the stomach, as he does in Way of the Dragon, is more suited to a character in Kung Fu Panda. I quite envy both Dong-jo and Bruce Lee for having names that gave them something to aspire to from an early age.
Happy New Year and good luck if you too have a boring astrological sign, Chinese or otherwise!
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
This is just a boring snippet for those interested in insects and in particular, the memi (cicada – 매미). Suprisingly, my posts on the memi have attracted considerable hits so I have put the three video-clips together. Before watching, I’d advise you turn down your volume, especially if you are wearing headphones. The memi song can damage your hearing!
All vodcasts were recorded in the same location at approximately the same time of day.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
Yesterday, as I was teaching, I felt some water fall onto my arm from the ceiling. For a moment I looked at it bewildered, unsure where it had come from and looking up deduced it was condensation falling from the vent of the air-conditioner. One of my students muttered some comment, the class laughing in response. I had no idea what he said but recognised one word; a word that immediately invokes revulsion: ‘yeon-ka-shi!’
If you ask Koreans, especially kids about the yeon-ka-shi (연가시), you are likely to be treated to a catalogue of horror stories. The yeon-ka-shi is a parasitic, ‘horsehair’ worm (nematomorpha) that spends part of its life in water where it finds its way into a host. Though some will tell you otherwise, the hosts are insects and not humans though there have been rare cases of human ‘infection.’ One recorded case involved a young girl who vomited up a dead worm. Her mother then took her to hospital where both her and the worm were examined. Now, how true this is I don’t know but I read the article, in fact a medical report, somewhere online and subsequently lost the link. However, the conclusion was that the girl must have drunk contaminated water, ie from a pond or puddle and the worm, killed by stomach acid was subsequently expelled in vomit – not a surprise as a gutful of puddle water is hardly comforting.
I have been treated to numerous gross accounts of the yeon-ka-shi infecting humans, or how it turns insects into zombies which are subsequently driven to suicide. Other stories relate to the worms crawling out of the backside of insects and I have been warned not to stamp on the camel-cricket (곱등이) as this is a frequent host. The truth? Well, it does invade insects and it does crawl out of backsides and out of the abdomens of squashed hosts. There are plenty of gruesome videos recording this example of God’s sickening handiwork.
The size of these parasites in relation to their hosts is alarming. The next video apparently portrays a cricket committing suicide. How observers deduce it is suicide I don’t know. I’d have thought with this massive invasion rummaging around in its body, the cricket was totally out of its mind.
The natural world inspires both awe and horror but given the number and nature of horrific phenomena, it is truly testament to mankind’s stupidity that we should even dream of erecting and idolozing a creator capable of such perverse manifestations. One of a host of creations excluded from that naive polemic, All Things Bright and Beautiful.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
Okay! Here’s a really ugly insect you might see seeking sanctuary as the weather gets colder. The camel cricket (곱등이) is a rather prehistoric looking insect related to the New Zealand weta. They are often found in caves and dark damp places and in some cases never see daylight but also reside in forests and buildings, especially basements. They are nocturnal and unlike other crickets (뀌뚜라미), do not chirp. They are characterised by long legs and antennae. Cave dwelling species, living in continual darkness have been known to eat their own limbs if food is scarce. Apart from their ugliness, they are harmless though their defence mechanism is to jump towards a threat rather than away from it.
The Korean camel-cricket has a somewhat bad reputation as it is associated with the parasitic worm Koreans call the yeon-ka-shi (연가시).
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.