Thursday, February 17, 2011

Scenery and Fish

First things first: Hey, New York Mets whatever happens this season, I want you to promise me it will happen without Oliver Perez in the starting rotation. Lets face it, the guys a bum. Deal? Deal.

Second thing: you know what I love about Korea? Customer service. People really go the extra mile. Yesterday I left my Dunkin' Donuts coffee mug sitting on top of the cash machine at the bank. This morning I went back to see if they had it. A clerk asks me which one of the two side-by-side terminals I left it on. I wonder why it matters, but I tell him. He goes into the back. I sit and wait. Minutes go by. I wonder how long it takes to check the lost and found for a coffee mug. He comes back out. "I check CCTV," he says. (His English wasn't very good but I applaud him for giving it a go.) "Person take mug." These guys actually checked the security tape of the ATM, just to see what happened to my mug. I don't think anyone would bother making that sort of effort to find a lost item in the US unless somebody issued them a court order, and even then it would probably take a month to get it done. So the guy takes my number and says he'll call if he finds anything out. I find it strange that somebody here would pick up something that doesn't belong to them and walk off with it, but hey... Dunkin' Donuts, good brand. This evening I get a call from the bank. Turns out one of my students saw it and picked it up for me, and he's going to bring it to me tomorrow. I love this place! Can I stay forever?

Ive been back in Korea for close to three weeks now, and as of today Ive officially been here teaching for a year. Today one of my Korean co-teachers asked me if its stressful living and working in a foreign country where I dont speak the language. I guess its hard for her to imagine being comfortable in a situation like this. Honestly its not that bad. Im not very chatty at work since most people dont understand what Im saying, but I can talk to my friends via instant message and Facebook and I get the chance to talk to someone in English whenever I get together with the other foreign teachers. Ive pretty much learned how to avoid most situations that cant be communicated non-verbally or with my very limited Korean skills at this point. (Except for wrong numbers and spam callers. I really need to learn the Korean phrase for Wrong number.) The trip from the US and back again to Korea wasnt even that shocking, although I kind of assumed it would be. But to properly illustrate that point, first I need to tell you about a fish.

Back around 2002 or so when I was living in New York I bought some fish. It was the first time I had ever owned any sort of pet. My parents always refused to let my sister and I have pets because they didnt want them messing up the house and they didnt want to take care of them. Secretly Ive always wanted a cat, but Ive never really been in a stable enough living situation to be able to properly and responsibly take care of a cat. So instead I shelled out for a 5 1/2 gallon fish tank and a few tropical freshwater fish at a local pet store. Now fish ownership and fish tank management is much different from the ownership of other types of pets. First and foremost, fish die. This is a fact of life when you own fish. If you have a dog or a cat or a rabbit or guinea pig or whatever, you expect it to live and thrive whatever the conditions might be. If your pet gets sick, you take it to the vet and pay the vet a shit-ton of money and then hopefully your pet gets better until the next time you have to take it to the vet and pay the vet a shit-ton of money to treat your pet. Fish are pretty much either healthy and they live, or they get sick and they die, and then you flush them down the toilet Cosby Show style. (Before I flush one of mine I like to say, His name is Robert Paulsen.) You can buy drugs for things like ick and mold but, unless youre raising some sort of rare Deuce Bigalow fish, youre never going to take a pet fish to the vet when it starts swimming a little bit sideways. The other difference between fish and most pets is that most pets live in roughly the same environment you do. Sure, most of the small ones have cages or terrariums or hutches or Habitrails or something, but they can generally survive outside of those things and, for example, breathe the same air that you do. Not so fish. For fish, you have to buy and maintain a tank. To a fish, the tank is their world. The pleasures of raising fish mostly come from choosing your fish, decorating your tank, and then maintaining your fishs tiny biosphere. It's more like raising a plant than owning a pet in a lot of ways. Properly establishing and maintaining a balanced fish tank requires a fair amount of patience, especially for beginners. In my case, it didnt help that I had selected a 5 1/2 gallon tank. 5 1/2 gallons is not an ideal size for more than one or two fish one gallon of water will support roughly one inch of fish, so once you get two or three fish into a 5 1/2 gallon tank and they start to grow the tank gets overcrowded very quickly. I overloaded my talk almost immediately. I got a few small fish, I got excited, I got too many fish, the fish I got grew, and then fish started to get sick and die. Fish get stressed and die very easily if they dont have enough space and shelter. The second trick of maintaining a fish tank is to get the right balance of creatures, plants and tank accouterments. You also need to be careful when mixing breeds of fish and other aquatic sea life because some breeds are passive and some breeds are more aggressive. The more aggressive fish are often more interesting because theyre more active, but they also shouldnt be mixed with passive breeds for obvious reasons. When I first put together my tank I got a snail to eat the algae. The first snail I got was fine for a few weeks, but then it mysteriously disappeared from its shell. So, I got another snail. The second snail I didnt like so much because it ate my plants. But, one day I came by to check the tank and that snail was gone without a trace as well. So I go on the internet and did some research. Turns out one of my fish at the time, a yo-yo loach (great fish, by the way, I highly recommend them), was of a type known for eating snails. This is kind of funny since Im pretty sure Petco sold me the snail and the loach on the same goddamn day. (A word of advice: never trust Petco. Wait, is that trademark libel? I take it back. Always trust Petco.)

The point is, when you start raising fish, you really have to focus on creating and maintaining a balanced environment that will keep your fish happy and healthy. When you buy a new fish, for example, you have to float the fishs plastic bag in your tank for at least 15 minutes before opening it and letting the fish out, in order to let the water temperatures even out, because otherwise the temperature shock can kill the fish. Likewise, when you change out your water to clean your tank, you can only change out about half or a third of your water in one cleaning, or the fresh water can actually kill your fish. The fish need the chemical balance and the various bacteria that live in the tank water to survive. Just about any kind of shock, like introducing a new fish to the tank, can kill fish from the stress.

Over the years my fish and my fish tank have been through a hell of a lot of crazy shit. When I moved from New York to Florida for graduate school I brought the tank with me in my van. I kept it half-full and ran the air pump off an inverter plugged into my car cigarette lighter. Likewise, when I moved to LA after grad school I had to take the fish on a three day journey across the continent. Well, it was supposed to be a three day journey on my way from Phoenix to Las Vegas my vans transmission blew out in the mountains in Arizona. I had to take a cab to get the four or five blocks from the garage to my hotel because I didnt want to carry a fish tank for five blocks. When I got to LA, the first time I tried to add a new fish to the tank every fish in the tank died. The guy at the pet store guessed it must have been some sort of bacteria that got into the tank that the fish werent used to. (Either that or my roommates did something to the fish the fish all died while I was out of town on a job.) After all the fish died I cleaned out all the old water and started re-conditioning the tank, but then I managed to knock one of my roommates room-dividing screens into the tank while I was cleaning, which broke the tank and spilled most of the water into the living room carpet. (Dont tell my old landlord that story.) Its been a rough ride, altogether.

As of today, the tank has one fish, Mr. Blue. Hes a blue cichlid. Cichlids are known as fairly aggressive fish, but theyre colorful and a lot more interesting than a lot of other breeds. With such a small tank, I thought maybe two cichlids and a bottom-feeder might be a good mix. (A lot of fish dont thrive in groups of less than three fish of the same species, which is another difficulty in maintaining such a small fish tank.) Unfortunately, no other fish has ever lasted more than a month or two in the tank with Mr. Blue. Plus, after the other fish dies and Mr. Blue invariably cannibalizes part of the corpse before I find it and fish it out, Mr. Blue always seems to be a little larger and more aggressive. Hes pretty much the Hannibal Lecter of fish at this point. My friends in LA who are taking care of Mr. Blue have cats. The cats like to sit on the fish tank and watch Mr. Blue. At first Mr. Blue stayed away from them but now hes allegedly completely fearless. As far as we know the cats have never tried to get into the tank. I think the cats know better than to fuck with Mr. Blue.

"Come in here and I'll eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

So whats been the point of this long fish story? (Sorry about the pun, couldnt resist.) Well, I think people are a lot like fish. They need to manage their environments. Some people are like goldfish or bettas; they thrive anywhere. Other people need to be with a specific group of people, or need a particular amount of space, or just need a rock to hide under now and again to survive and thrive. As humans I think we like to think of ourselves as an extremely adaptable species, and I think were definitely a lot heartier than fish. But still, there arent a lot of people out there who can survive getting ripped out of their tank on a regular basis. I guess at this point I would put myself more into the betta or goldfish category of people, as opposed to the gourami or tin foil barb category. Being back in the United States was a lot like getting dumped back into the ocean (or maybe a large public aquarium) for a few weeks. Now that Im back in Korea, Im swimming in the 5 1/2 gallon tank again. But, Ive had the time to dig around in the rocks and make myself comfortable here, and I like the other fish who are here with me in the tank, so things are pretty okay. I just hope that when they throw a new fish in the tank in a couple weeks (Mo left for the US today more on that in a later post) itll be a fish I get along with. I dont think people would be too happy with me if I ate the new guy.

(I'm imagining the new teacher happening upon this blog post and getting to that paragraph now. Reminds me of a story about me and my roommate from orientation. Ill tell you about it some other time.)

One last story about my fish for one of the courses Im taking online this year, my professor decided to spice up the introduce yourself on the message board part of the first week by asking us to describe ourselves from the perspective of our pet. Which meant I had to think and write about what my one pet fish, whos half a world away and living alone in a bathroom with two cats, would think of me. I kind of had a Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood moment or two thinking about it Ive abandoned my fish! But Im getting over it now. Hes a tough fish. Hell survive.

Not too much else going on these days, besides welcoming new teachers and saying so long for now to some others. Theres a couple new Talk teachers in town, they seem like theyll fit in with our group. Well, Im off to prepare for another year of school, look for international spices, rent some Korean DVDs now that I can finally hook my netbook up to the TV, and work ahead on my courses in anticipation of visiting Taiwan at the end of next week. Should be a fun trip, Im really looking forward to this one.

Hmm. Maybe I should get a new fish when I get back. A betta, maybe. Is that a good idea?

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