Expat Cats –Part 1, Korea


When I moved to South Korea in 1988, the country was recovering from the dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. In a week it would host its great coming-out party, the Seoul Olympics, which despite being well organized would be temporarily mired in controversy, with the national inferiority complex exposed.

My first impression of Seoul was that it was as militaristic, as nationalistic,  as drab and as prudish as post-revolutionary China could be. and far more misogynistic.  Pro-democracy student demonstrators battled with riot police, although it was clear from their own organizations that they didn’t know what democracy meant. In society as a whole, There were lots of military uniforms, work uniforms and civilian clothes that were uniform in cut and color. One look at someone or someone’s car would tell you their status in the Confucian world order—fancy black vehicles for executives to ordinary white for the wives, gray for status in-between. Prostitution thrived, but “good” women had to stay virgins until marriage and avoid going sleeveless in public. Any advertising featuring scantily clad women used white, sometimes black models, never Asians. During my time there I saw an amazing transformation–at least on the surface.

Look at those eyes

Some popular beliefs were odd. It was said that you could die by sleeping in a room while an electric fan was on. Less oddly, considering how cats with black fur were viewed in the west, cats were associated with evil spirits and bad luck.

Someone told me cats were treated like living pest control. The owner of a shop or a factory would keep the cat tied up all day without food or water so that when it was released at night. It would attack anything that moved—cockroaches, rats, anything.

My job at a for-profit language school included housing in a new, concrete slab apartment house complex. One evening I stopped at a little shop and found a young cat tied by one leg near the owner’s chair. I picked him up and petted him, and he purred. Among themselves the owner and by-standers expressed surprise and disapproval.

After I’d served out my one-year sentence at the school that brought me to Korea, I moved up to a good job at Dongguk University, the Buddhist school, and later found an apartment in the Sookmyoung University area near the US Army post.

One afternoon in 1997 or 1998, a group of friends gathered in my apartment for coffee and talk. Syll, an elderly Korean woman who loved animals of all kinds, had brought with her a kitten she’d rescued from a trash can. She explained that she couldn’t keep him any longer because he kept pestering her old, blind dog, trying to get him to play.

Looking at me, she announced that if she couldn’t find a home for him that day, she was going to take him up to a Buddhist monastery where the monks would look after him. I knew that temple monks would offer all the animals food and shelter but that they probably would not protect a little kitten from dogs.

Yani was allowed to rip up The Stars and Stripes, but not the International Herald Tribune.

A friend working with the US Army agreed to pick up cat food for me at the commissary on post. She said she and her husband would be staying on for another two years. As it turned out, they had to leave within a few months. But cat food was available on the black market—purchased at the commissary and sold in little shops for three times the original price.

So I had a cat. For three weeks he ran around my apartment in a panic. He seemed to get no sleep at all. But eventually he settled down and became the cat he was—loving, loveable and very intelligent with excellent communication skills.

For calling purposes I thought he should have a name with two open syllables, that is, syllables ending in vowels. I called him Yani, completely unaware of the musician Yanni Chryssomallis.

Once a week Mrs. Woo, a sweet woman in her early seventies, came over to clean and iron.  She did not like Yani. She was such a butterfingers that I’d long since taken to putting away the glassware and all sharp objects before she arrived. Whenever he broke something, she immediately told me so she wouldn’t be blamed for it.

He was a smart cat, but his body was growing faster than his mind was assimilating this information. For example, in the kitchen he’d come to the butcher block, calculate the amount of thrust he’d need to make it to the top and either use too much and go skidding along the surface, knocking everything to the floor, or he’d use too little and stop mid-air, flaying his paws all the way down. I’d laugh at him, and he’d toss his head haughtily and stalk off.

Gradually Yani and Mrs. Woo became friends. She had a calming influence on him. When she scrubbed the bathtub, he’d sit quietly on the edge of the tub keeping her company. It was lovely to watch.

Yani on the couch

One night Yani taught me to play fetch. I was seated on the couch grading compositions, so with a batch of papers folded length-wise and held together with an elastic hairband—not a rubber band because those can tear up a cat’s intestines if he swallows it.

Yani jumped up on the coffee table, picked one up in his mouth, tossed it on the floor and retrieved it and brought it to me. Then he did it again. It was clear that he wanted me to toss it. So I did, and over the next three days or so he must have run after it close to a hundred times. Then he got tired of the game, and we did something else.

The overhead light in the bathroom cast a shadow onto the kitchen floor so that I’d sit down, stretch out my arm and wiggle my fingers in imitation of some five-legged animal scurrying along. Yani would jump on the shadow as if trying to get his claws into it. I’d turn off the light and wiggle my fingers again. He would look at my hand and then the floor. Then he would work out where the shadow would be if the light were on and pounce on that spot. The cat understood abstractions.

One morning he was pawing away at the floor, looking up at me and then pawing away again. His expression asked if I got it.

I said, “Silly cat, there’s no shadow there.”

He jumped into the bathtub and pawed away again.

I said, “Silly cat, there’s no shadow there either.”

Now, in Asia bathrooms are built with the floor lower than the rest of the rooms, a little ridge in the doorway and a good drain in the center of the floor. Cleaning often involves tossing buckets of water over everything. So there’s no problem when you’re stepping out of the tub and water sloshes out over the side. It just goes down the drain. Except in this case there was a litter box between the bathtub and the sink. As I discovered when I removed the lid from the box, what Yani had been trying to tell me with his pawing was that his litter box was flooded. What better way for a cat to say “litter box” than to pantomime covering up his shit? Only the human was too daft to get it.

When I came home from school, Yani would hear me opening the metal gate outside, walk up the few steps to the front stoop and unlock the door. By the time I was in the entryway, he’d jump down from his spot on top of the refrigerator or up from wherever he’d been.  Even before I removed my shoes in the entryway—this was Korea—he’d be on the butcher block with his head stretched out, and we’d greet each other by rubbing noses back and forth.

In the battles over whether he was going to go outside—he said yes, I said no—I often thought that if this cat were any smarter I’d be in real trouble. Fortunately, I was a lot bigger.

Another problem was his temper. If he wanted attention and I ignored him, his ears would go back, his tail would lash the air, he’d emit a high eeeeee sound, run over and bite my arm. My arms didn’t quite resemble hamburger meat, but there were enough little bites on them that sometimes in class, when I was writing on the board, I could hear the students talking very quietly behind me, and I suspected they were discussing all the little marks on my arms.

Yani and Dwight

Actually, Yani bit almost everybody. I had guests coming over for a pot luck dinner about once a month, and he’d be making nice to someone and then bite. It was not a love nip. This drew blood. To teach him what he was doing, I howled when he bit me, but he showed no remorse. I’m not sure he understood what he’d done.

Another problem was finding a veterinarian who liked cats. A friend recommended a clinic near Ehwa Woman’s University. I liked the vet, a nice man Yani seemed to have no problems with. But he left after too short a period of time.

The vet who took over the practice was a young woman whose choice of profession seemed to have been made by her scores on the university entrance exams, as was fairly common among students. She certainly had no empathy with animals—or me, actually. She did manage to talk this “rich American” into an expensive and unnecessary teeth cleaning. Coming out of anesthesia, he was very unhappy about being unable to jump because his hind legs wouldn’t move properly. There was no more teeth cleaning.

By the time I figured out that we were freaking Yani out, it was too late. Fear had entered his mind in a way that could not be undone. On one occasion I was on one side of the stainless steel examination table, and the vet was on the other. She asked me what brand of cat food I gave him. I said Iams. Since Iams cat food was not available on the Korean market, she assumed I was giving him dog food and launched into a rant about how you shouldn’t feed that to cats. I objected. As often happens in Korea, our voices grew louder. Then I discovered Yani was trembling uncontrollably.

The last time I took him to her, I asked her to trim his claws. It just seemed like a good idea until she grabbed him and started hacking away, ignoring his clear distress. Five times I had to order her to stop. As I paid, I told her I needed a copy of his records because I was going to take him to someone else. She asked why and looked totally clueless. No idea.

Then I decided to try a vet who made house calls. Yani got a whiff of the medicinal smell as soon as the man walked into the apartment and fled into the living room and up the curtains. All of his fur was standing on end, he was hissing and as we got him down I discovered we’d scared the shit out of him. He had to be wrestled into a position where he could be given his annual shots. The vet was not eager to return.

A friend recommended a clinic in the Itaewon area, so close to where a lot of westerners lived and near my house. I liked the vet there, a young woman who was very sympathetic.

By this time Yani was so terrified that he had to be put in a device used when giving rabies shots to wild animals. It looked like two tennis rackets that could be clamped together to hold the animal while a needle was inserted between the wires.

Once I asked her over for coffee, suppressing the urge to advise her to wash all medicinal smells off herself first. She came and was amazed that the cat was now calm and peaceful, happy to sit on a lap and be stroked while he purred. ‘She thought he was a totally different cat.

Your reaction?

In my advanced English conversation classes at the university, I announced that I considered it my job to prepare students for employment in places where they’d have to deal with people who looked like me. The textbooks I wrote for them included a lot of cross-cultural stuff, much of it created from interviews on this website. We’d start off every semester with a look at concepts like stereotypes as seen in a variety of different places. (Link)

As part of the drill I included a photo of Yani looking poker-faced directly into the camera with pupils narrowed by bright light. I thought he looked cute. Many of my students thought he was scary, as if he could look straight through them.

My spiel included drawings on the blackboard of a camera lens adjusting to bright light by closing the aperture and a cat’s eyes as doing the same by narrowing the pupils. I explained it as a purely mechanical process having nothing to do with spirits or supernatural powers or bad luck. Who knows what effect this had? But in general I got a reputation among students for turning them into “international people.”

Yani was with me for six and a half years. Then he started making such a royal fuss about going out at night that I gave in. Twice he came back in the wee hours, but the third time he didn’t.

I was heart-broken. At night I’d sit on the stairs in front of my door and wait for him, getting up several times during the night. The landlady objected to having the gate open, although she had a second gate protecting her apartment.

I also walked around the neighborhood and other neighborhoods calling his name: Yani, Yani-a! Sometimes someone would mock me by imitating my call.

The urban residential area seemed to go on forever, so it was easy to see how a cat who didn’t know his way around all the little winding streets could get hopelessly lost. I went to the nearby Namsan, or South Mountain, and called for him. There no one paid attention, I think because Koreans are allowed to blow off steam by yelling from hilltops.

Photo I used on the poster offering a reward in English and Korean

I made posters offering a reward in English and Korean and put them up on posts. Friends of mine tacked up the picture in various places on the army post. Someone in the neighborhood said he’d seen Yani running around with other cats. He was easy to spot because he was well-nourished and considerably larger than the others.

Word was that on the Namsan the large number of feral cats had led some officials to send people up there to kill them. I preferred to think Yani had been running around with his new friends, gotten lost and had been unable to find his way home. Or, since he was clearly a pet, maybe someone took him in.

One night I got a call from the owner of a nearby shop saying someone had my cat. I ran down the hill. A woman there looked like she had gotten herself scratched up by grabbing the probably feral cat she was holding. He looked nothing like Yani, None of the markings was the same. I was so disappointed and disgusted that I left without giving the poor woman anything for her trouble, which I certainly would now.

My misery went on for five weeks, and then some friends took me in hand and announced that I needed another cat. Syll said she knew of a couple of homeless kittens who were hanging out at a little shop she passed when she went hiking up this mountain on the edge of Seoul. The four of us piled into a taxi.

In Korea there’s a term for an unemployed man who sits around his wife’s shop all day until closing time, when he pulls the door shut and locks up. He’s called a “shutter husband.” The man lounging around his wife’s shop seemed like that. He was drunk, and he said he didn’t think he wanted to part with the kittens now, but we should come back and maybe he’d change is mind.

Syll said. “I’m not talking to this guy.”

I said. “The kittens didn’t look very healthy”.

Mary said. “There’s a new cat shop in Haebang-chon across from that Indian restaurant we like.” (This was now 2004, and there had been a big change in Korean attitudes about cats and just about everything else.)

I said, “Oh, it’s not going to be open at 6:30 Sunday evening.”

It turned out Mary had done her homework. The shop was open, and they had two Russian Blue cats, a breed with very short fur which tends to stay on the cat, so little shedding. People like Mary with cat allergies were said to be less bothered by them than by other cats.

The boy was very friendly. When Mary and I put our hands into the cage, he was making nice to both of us at once, purring, rubbing himself against our hands and arms. The girl cowered in the corner.

The Russians were cheaper than some of the other breeds, but still pricey. I forget how much—either $300 or $600 each, which included the cost of importing them from Russia. I told the shop owner that we were going to the restaurant across the street and he shouldn’t sell the boy before we got back.

At dinner Syll volunteered to take me to a Korea cat show where prices would be a lot cheaper. I said it was too late, the decision had already been made.

After dinner we went back to the shop, and I handed over my credit card. As the boy was packed into what looked like a little gym bag with a fiber mesh on one side, his sister ventured a bit out of her cage and meowed as if to ask what we were doing with her brother. It was very sad, but I didn’t know whether Yani would be back, and I didn’t want to end up with two boys and a girl—ironic, because that did happen later.

I was sent home with the cat in the bag and free food and litter. A month later I was back, and the girl was gone. I thought, Fine. She has a home. The following month I was back again. I said to the shop guy, “You have another Russian Blue.”

“That’s your cat’s sister.”

A family had bought her, given her a name, taken her to a vet for shots, kept her for a while and returned her. I think the problem was that she was so shy she spent weeks hiding behind the refrigerator. I just handed over my credit card.

When we arrived back at the apartment, I started reviewing what I’d heard about introducing pets to each other gradually, letting them get used to each other’s smells before meeting face to face. It turned out none of that was necessary. We walked in, and there was no reaction, no hissing. I set the bag down and let the girl out. They approached each other. They were amazed.

Oh, It’s you!

It’s you!

For hours they chased each other around the apartment, and then they collapsed in each other’s arms. The next morning when I opened my bedroom door the girl stretched out her forepaws on the floor with her butt in the air, as close as a cat could get to the Confucian prostrations Korean children used to do every morning at their father’s bedroom door. Then she did a little summersault and jumped up. I never saw that bow again.

A cat breeder’s photo of a Russian Blue who looks exactly like Raku

Russians Blues have gray fur with guard hairs tipped with silver, so the coat shimmers. The adults have no markings. The eyes are a light jade green. On a breeder’s website I found a photo of a cat who looked exactly like the boy. The cats were said to be intelligent, non-destructive, quiet, and loving to their family. This proved true except that it took the girl a long time to really trust me. For the first year and a half, I thought of her not as my cat, but as my cat’s sister.

I’d named him Raku, the Japanese word for “bliss” and also the name for a type of smoked pottery I’d done when I was a studio potter. In Korea one can also find unglazed roof or wall tiles that have been smoked gray. The girl was now Sasha, a name the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov used for both male and female characters.

In the meantime, the vet at the clinic in Itaewon had changed. The new guy loved animals. He’d fixed Raku, and I took Sasha to him for spaying. I was told to keep them separate so he didn’t pull out her stitches. After three days of trying to keep them apart in my one-bedroom apartment, I opened the door and found there was no need to worry. Raku had gently licked his sister’s belly without pulling on the suture.

hen I had guests Raku loved coming into the living room for some extra attention. Sasha didn’t appear for at least a few months, but when she did it seemed as if she found her way onto the lap of whatever woman was feeling sad in order to offer herself as comfort.

Even though Sasha was extremely submissive and would get off my lap when Raku walked into the room, I assume because all attention belong to him as the dominant cat, he reached an age when he had to assert himself. If he was sitting on the windowsill and she ventured to sit beside him, he’d hiss at her and she’d have to retreat to a spot behind him. Once I walked into the living room and saw her lying on the floor, paws tucked primly under her body, while he sat up tall on his haunches, with one paw firmly on her nose.

Raku and Sasha on the couch

At the end of 2006, the semester ended. I would turn 65 in January, so time to move on. Mary and her husband had moved to the Philippines, and we talked about retiring together. Before my visa ended I made a trip to Japan in order to pick up a tourist visa, which would allow me extra time to decide what to do next and to move my stuff.

Then everything seemed to happen fast. I flew to the Philippines, and we found a house. I got a mover to ship furniture, appliances, boxes of books, boxes of clothes—for the first time in my life I was not moving like a poor graduate student.

What to do with the cats? I considered a door-to-door pet service, but it was a simple flight from Seoul to Manila. The vet volunteered to help with the paperwork associated with “importing’ animals into the Philippines. Only Philippine Air would take two cats on one ticket. I think it was an extra $300 each. Would their animal cargo facilities be safe enough?

I worried for three months. When the day came, I was staying at a friend’s house. Another friend came to drive me to the airport. I’d gotten special diapers for the cat carriers, which was good because Raku was so frightened he had an accident on the way. In the office for extra-large luggage and pets, I changed the diaper in his cage and fussed over the cats until one of the employees assured me they’d take good care of them, and I was shooed out of the office to look after my own departure.