Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fish Out of Water

We never set out to own animals in Korea, but they seem to find us. First we rescued hamsters from a snake. Then we rescued a dog from some people who didn't really know how to care for him, followed by another dog from some traffic - although we managed to find that one's owner. And now, it's fish.

Personal relationships are quite important in Korea, and the social network is often how business will be done. This meant that when I bought into a health insurance plan here, it was only proper that I gave Korean Mother's insurance friend a hearing before running off to sign a deal with some faceless, but potentially more competitive, corporation. We eventually signed the deal with her anyway because we were busy, and didn't have time to wade through the complexities of all the various deals in the wider market.

The line between friendship and business gets blurred like this, meetings can be social with the underlying suspicion of being opportunistic, lunch can be bought, and the vague sense of obligation to return the favour grows bigger with every bill. Then sometimes, your insurance agent gives you an aquarium full of tropical fish with the words "I hope you will bring me some more clients".

To my mind Korean Mother didn't want to have the fish, but didn't want to face the rudeness of rejecting the gift, so they quickly landed in our office. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events - on the one hand I thought it might bring a little island of calmness to our increasingly stress-filled trading floor, but on the other hand it meant I suddenly had to learn all about keeping fish in addition to my DSLR learning curve, Korean studies, trading, baby related work and another sudden political campaign I'd become involved in back in the UK. But herein lies another lesson about language barriers. Korean Mother wanted the fish, but thought I liked them, so decided to give them to us. Had I known that, I would have readily set her straight and said "keep the fish". As it was, this fact only emerged two weeks later, after two of our thirteen fish depressingly died and another one was separated into a box before giving birth to seventeen babies.

So I read all I could about the fish in the limited time I had, and came to the conclusion that they needed some plants - or at least, the smaller ones in our tank did. I researched about plants, and then we went to a fish store, but we came away empty-handed - the woman in the shop just raised more questions than she answered. I could write a long story about everything that happened afterwards but suffice to say that my conclusion was that there are two schools of opinions on fish-related matters - the Internet consensus, comprising of various large hobby and commercial sites, discussion boards and Wikipedia, and the second school of opinion - Korean shop owners - which often appears to disagree with it. What I learned from the Internet was that the pH level of the water was quite important, and what I was told by the shop owners was "oh, you don't want to worry about that sort of thing". And I ended up with some plants - a random fish store selection - not the ones I thought were compatible with our fish. That was another one of those "oh don't worry about it" scenarios.

Another "oh don't worry about it" moments came when Korean Mother was given some more fish, including five babies, by her Insurance Friend, and she insisted on keeping them in a large jar. Now admittedly, the jar was so large that it probably held as much water as our aquarium, but there was no filter, heater or anything else you might think necessary. By this time I'd read about the basic needs of a healthy tropical aquarium, and was growing increasingly frustrated with the fact that I couldn't pursued her through my translator wife that this was not a good idea.

Korean Mother did, at least, change the water regularly, but she'd do all of it and clean the jar, which necessitated transferring all the fish to a much smaller container. Finally, for reasons I just don't understand and the language barrier prevents me from discovering, the large jar would be left to dry for gradually longer periods until one day she showed no inclination to move the fish back at all. "This", I told my wife, "is going to turn into a disaster". I suggested she buy an aquarium - it would be much less work - then I offered to buy her an aquarium with the proper equipment, and when that failed, I insisted on it, but to no avail.

So it had reached the stage where the only way anything was going to get done was by me going down to the fish store on my own, and somehow muddling through buying what Korean Mother needed, despite her considerable resistance. Korean Mother is a Buddhist, and holds all life as sacred, so I really couldn't understand it.

The next day we went out together leaving the fish in the small jar with my final words on the subject being "she's not leaving those fish in that jar is she?" Sure enough, when we returned in the evening, about ten dead fish were floating at the top. The remarkable thing was, that five one centimetre-long baby fish in the jar and an immature guppy had survived, although the latter took two days before it was able to submerge below the water surface again.

Korean Mother's plan to separate the dead fish from the survivors apparently involved pouring the water into the sink on the dubious principle that the latter would stay in the jar. This may or may not have worked but apparently it doesn't work if you pour really fast. She gets flustered sometimes. Following my horrified look, numeric hand gestures and some frantic translation work by my wife, Korean Mother somehow found the two missing baby fish in the unspeakable hole that is used in sinks in this country to collect festering masses of Korean food, and improbably they were returned safely to the water.

Korean Mother decided to buy a proper aquarium. She hadn't wanted to pay the money to buy one before, but once in the store I was not entirely surprised when the 50-inch LCD mentality took over and she chose a tank that was over three times the price of what we have. There's a lot which has frustrated me in connection with the fish - but file this under something positive which would never have happened in my country - the store owner offered to give us a lift back to our apartment with it so he could set it up and have a look at our fish to help us identify a couple of them we'd failed to.

What I took from all this is not about fish but about language. Aside from the fact I ended up with an aquarium I'd have been quite happy not to have, somehow, the fact that I can't effectively communicate in Korean makes it feel to me that I'm really not getting my point across sometimes. Perhaps it means I'm easier to ignore. I guess I play that game too. Touché.

And as for the story of those fish stores versus the Internet though, I have reached the conclusion that I'm going to side with the Internet; Korean Mother was at one of those shops recently to stock her aquarium, and when I looked more closely at their tanks, I saw they were full of dead fish, and they'd clearly been dead for some time. What's more, it wasn't long before some of the fish be bought started suffering from fin rot, and once again the treatment advice differed significantly from the Internet consensus. Something has to be done because it's not something I want to see; watching them slowly waste away while being constantly pecked at by the other fish can be uncomfortably reminiscent of life as a foreigner in Korea.

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