When I first arrived in Korea, I remember being taken aback by all the cute little stores with cute little dogs and the myriad accessories that go with them. Were these creatures being sold for dual use? It immediately conjured up that famous scene from Michael Moore’s Roger & Me where the white trash mama proudly shows off her side business for the rolling camera. Her crude, hand painted sign boldly reads: Rabbits or Bunnies. Pets or Meat.
My attitude was certainly one of Western prejudice. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that, like us, Koreans adore their dogs, especially ones of the micro-variety. Everywhere, I saw people walking, carrying and generally doting over their tiny pooches. And these weren’t just run-of-the-mill pups: They were often done up in full regalia, with ribbons and bows and fluorescent pink dye-jobs, resplendent in full-body sweaters and even tennis shoes. Dogs were cool; they were something to be celebrated, loved and dressed up like intergalactic anime characters.
My first pet in Korea was a cat. I had no plans to get a cat, but one day I came home and there she was: a tiny, half-starved kitten abandoned in a cardboard box in front of my apartment. The universe had literally delivered this creature to my doorstep, so I guess you could say that the cat got me. I instantly adopted her and named her after a subway station.
I was more than content keeping just her, but she needed more than I could give. Cats are generally low-maintenance pets, but they still require a modicum of love and attention. I was often out of the house, much to the chagrin of my kitty. Things finally came to a head when, after returning home from a four-day trip to Japan, I was greeted with growls, hisses and several piles of poop glistening upon my bedspread. She needed a companion, so soon I took one in, in the form of a sweet-natured calico living on my street. This assuaged my kitty’s ire. We were now one happy family, and to my relief, no more chocolate stink nuggets were deposited on the bed.
I am an animal lover. Okay, I do eat meat, which makes me not that much of an animal lover, but that’s a debate for another day. I grew up in a big house full of animals and love taking care of critters of all kinds. (Except birds. I don’t understand why anyone would want to keep even one of those squawking shit machines.)
As an animal lover, it should come as no surprise that I ended up marrying another animal lover. My wife took in street cats for years and still maintains a small sanctuary where she looks after their needs. She sees a certain purity and innocence in animals, and her compassion flows mightily. It’s one of the reasons I married her, so it should come as no surprise that we’ve adopted a few more pets since tying the knot.
The first was a hedgehog. There is a horrendous little pet shop in my neighborhood run by a terrible old man who keeps the animals in deplorable conditions. It’s a sad, tragic place, so one day we rescued this little hedgehog from that particular hell and gave him a happy second chance at life.
After the hedgehog, came the goldfish. Word got out in our building that we were animal people, so, when moving out of her apartment, one young woman left the goldfish in a bowl next to our door, along with a can of 2,000 won coffee and a note, imploring us to take the little guy in.
The goldfish looked lonely, so soon my wife headed to the big everything store and brought home a friend. Unfortunately, this friend came in the form of a beta fighting fish – an aggressive, solitary breed that kills on sight. So now we had two different fish in two separate bowls.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before we got a dog. We had chewed upon the idea but never had any real plans to go full Fido. After all, a dog is a huge commitment, a creature that requires loads energy and constant care. One day last September, as we were taking a walk through a local street market, we came upon a lethally cute puppy. He lived in a tiny clothing shop with his mother and older sister, where he spent his days frolicking around the market. Upon seeing our spastic admiration for the little guy, the lady who owned the shop offered him up gratis. After some hemming and hawing, we found ourselves skipping home, puppy in hand, and – aside from some over-enthusiastic humping, headphone eating and errant peeing – he has been an absolute generator of joy.
Our goldfish was recently called home to the Great Bowl in the Sky. Our hedgehog followed not long after, having reached the frayed ends of hedgehog life expectancy, perhaps hastened by an over indulgence in cheese. Both were given stately burials on the mountain behind our home, with thoughts, flowers and eulogies posted on Facebook. Some may raise their eyebrows and whisper mocking words, but if these creatures brought us such happiness, why not send them off with love?
For those of you planning on staying in Korea for a long time: Go ahead and adopt a pet. They’re wellsprings of happiness. Name it after a train station, give it a blue Mohawk, or dress it up in a hanbok. Just know that you are personally responsible for a living being, a creature that deserves better than to be foisted onto another expat once the novelty has worn off.
Illustration by Michael Roy. You can see more of his work here.
Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet