Jul/Aug 2018 Nonfiction

Onya's Korean Adventure

by Aaron Dorman

Image copyright Aaron Dorman

Onya Vs The Landlord

In the summer of yellow dust, I found a stray puppy dog just outside my home, the top story of a duplex along a row of small radish farms outside of Jeju City, South Korea. This tiny little lady had amazing coloring, a black and tan brindle coat which came together sharply around her face, with dark patterns swirling around her eyes.

The puppy was playful and responded enthusiastically to my attention, even rolling over so I could pat her belly. I gave her some food and water. This dog discovery came about ten minutes before I was supposed to head to school, where I worked as an ESL teacher. I was torn, but I left her in the hope her owner was nearby.

It was not the first time I'd run into stray dogs, and even puppies, roaming around Jeju. They were a common sight. Many mutts were often neglected out of hand, left to wander the street as garbage eaters. In the spring, my coworkers and I had found a dog on one of the Olles (coastal hiking trails) and foster-cared for him for a week or so until another expat volunteered to raise him. Then, I hadn't felt ready or responsible enough to take care of a dog on my own.

But when I came home from Scholars Academy Global, the puppy from the morning was still there. Where was her owner? I'd had some sense of "community" dog culture in a rural neighborhood like mine, but there were plenty of dogs accounted for behind the gates. It didn't seem likely to me that someone would just leave a puppy to fend for themselves with so many larger strays wandering around. I wasn't comfortable with just leaving her on the road. So for that night, I picked her up and made a makeshift bed on my terrace using a blanket and a chair. I had no dog supplies, and the closest thing I had to dog food was dry oatmeal. The pup stayed there all night, and greeted me again in the morning. So I tried to block the stairs, left her some water, and then, over the course of the week, I began buying more and more things for her: food, a handful of bones, some squeaky toys.

I started to bring the dog inside when I was home, and when she easily tore through the cardboard boxes I'd tried to crate her in, I ended up buying a real puppy crate. I started to take the puppy out on walks after my job was done for the day. I bought her a collar and took her to the vet—at one point I noticed she had about two dozen ticks all over her body, including in her ears.

I named the puppy Onya, after the first two syllables in the Korean "hello" (which is really "Anyung" but this bastardization is revenge for all those "sandwicheeeees" I had to put up with). As soon as she had regular food, water, and shelter Onya, started teething. The first week I played with her, all she wanted to do was lick my hand and roll over on her belly, and then, once I'd committed to her care, overnight she decided she'd rather bite my fingers off one at a time.

Onya liked my fingers the best, but if they weren't available, then she was willing to make do with the bed mattress, or my shirts, or cords and cables, or books, or anything within reach, which was almost everything since she liked to climb up my chairs. Every attempt to discipline her or make her stop was interpreted as some hilarious game, and Onya was strong, so holding her down for more than a few seconds was a struggle. The Internet said to freeze a few hand towels as makeshift bones and she seemed okay with this for a few minutes. Later on I was able to find real bones, which lasted just as long as the towels, but I could "trick" Onya into taking the bone outside, after which I could lock the door and be at peace. When she was still little, Onya preferred to be out at night, anyway, on the terrace, in the yard, or in her little makeshift basket bed.

This is where the water gun came into play, originally intended to train Onya on where and when to use the bathroom. It failed because Onya decided (logically, I suppose) that the best place to take a dump in the house was in the very back corner of the laundry room behind the machines where I couldn't really reach without climbing over everything, such that I couldn't stop her until it was too late.

My boss, Hughie, was very supportive of my pet adoption. As a lover of children and animals, Hughie thought it might even be a good idea to bring the dog to the school.

I laughed because I thought it was a good joke.

"I'm serious," Hughie said, and he looked at me seriously. But at least he could point the way to a local vet. So by early July, Onya soon had a comfy crate, a real leash and collar, and a clean bill of health, full of shots and free of ticks.

Then one Friday night, out on a stroll with Onya to kill time before the expat trivia, I ran into my landlord.

"What are you doing?" he gestured.

"I'm taking the dog for a walk," I said. I motioned to Onya and the leash and showed with my finger that we were about to circle around the block.

"Oh," said the landlord. "That's my dog."

"What, this dog?" I asked. "You mean my dog?"

"That's my dog," he said in English.

The next day I had my bosses call my landlord to clarify the situation. He had to understand, I explained, that I had been taking care of this dog for about a month, including trips to the vet. The landlord's reply was that not only was he the owner of the dog, but that I was no longer allowed to bring the dog into my apartment upstairs as it was "an outside dog."

I was incensed. Where were the adoption papers? Where did he think the dog was for the past few weeks? What kind of responsible dog owner abandons a puppy for a month? How had he not seen the collar? When should I expect a reimbursement check for the health appointments? I expected these questions to be ignored and they were.

Poor Onya—I have no idea what the landlord called her, I don't even know if he bothered to give her a name—was suddenly caught in the middle of a passive-aggressive custody battle.

I wasn't prepared for this scenario. I could neither fully assert nor relinquish my claim to the dog. The dog might not have been his, but the house was, and I couldn't afford to lose that. I tried to be coy about when I let the dog inside the house, although it was probably obvious on rainy nights that I was keeping Onya with me inside. I limited the amount of time she was in the house, although I still provided food and toys, and played with her outside when I got home from work. But I needed the landlord's assistance in the morning.

My motorcycle stayed broken so I had to walk to school; each day, Onya wanted to accompany me. A few times I was able to sneak out of the house (there was a backdoor entrance and staircase) but Onya was smart enough to realize eventually that even if she didn't see me leave, if she heard a door, she could intercept me down the stairs. She also learned my routes to work so if I ran out of the gates of the duplex before she saw me, she could run for about half a mile until she caught up.

If I could get their attention in time, the landlord would sternly yell at Onya or grab her collar. If he was loud enough he could intimidate Onya into cowing down and sulking under the stairs. Sometimes he would keep her there long enough for me to get to work. At other times, however, I'd be walking along and suddenly Onya would bump up against me, ready for an adventure. This made me late to work several times a week.

Even after claiming ownership, the landlord didn't show any interest in the dog. Nobody downstairs spent any time with her; a large bowl was left out filled with water, which I never saw cleaned. They left the garbage open for her outside and I'd have to fight to get it away from her when I came home.

Once Onya grew big enough, the landlord and I started playing a cruel game. The landlord began to tie her up outside, where she had access to water but no shelter. One night when it rained I untied her and let her sleep upstairs with me. For several days I would untie the dog at night and wake up to find the landlord had tied her up again in the morning.

On a Friday when I was coming home from work, the skies were overcast and so once again, when I found Onya attached to the rusty gates, I began to loosen the cord. Except this time, while I was doing so, the landlord came out and caught me in the act. He began to shout angrily at me in Korean and motioned me to get away from the gate. And I shouted back in English, and neither of us needed to know the meaning of the actual words to understand what the other was saying.

That was it. I called up Hughie. "You have to talk to my landlord," I said. "Tell him I'll buy the dog."


"Talk to my landlord! Tell him I'll buy the dog! $30,000 Won!" I said. "Please! I've had enough of this!"

"Why do I have to talk to him?"

"Because he doesn't speak English! I need someone to translate! Please help me! Help my dog! HELP!" I said.

I handed the phone off. While the landlord was listening I pulled out a wad of bills and waved them at him so he'd understand. The man listened into the phone and then suddenly let out a tremendous belly laugh, staring at me and the dog. He shared a private joke with Hughie on the other end of the line and then gave me back the phone. He was probably feeling the way you would if your son brought home a goldfish he'd won at the school fair and your neighbor came over and offered you thirty dollars for it. Then he gave me back the dog.

The custody battle was over. I'd paid for Onya, but I had won.


Onya Vs the Vet Who Was Not Properly Vetted

Now that she was officially "mine," I took Onya everywhere. I took her to the beach. I took her to trivia at the expat bar, "La Vie." I took her to poker night at the hagwon. I took her for two-hour walks around the oreums (small hills that ring the volcano), along the road and into the Shin-Jeju. I took her to restaurants. I taught Onya how to sit and be polite while we were out with friends.

I'd been telling people all along that my time with Onya would be temporary and that I was frustrated by all the time and effort it took to take care of her. But then we'd have moments together like one night when we were walking near the house and another dog came up to us to play. Onya leapt in front of me and sat on top of my feet. The other dog looked confused (poor guy) and tried to approach, but Onya kept batting him away with her paws and her snout. If she could take such responsibility for me, I could afford to do the same in kind.

It was important to me that she was integrated into the rest of the foreigner community. But really, I wanted to show Onya off. I wanted people to know that I was taking good care of this neglected mutt; it was a major step in my desire to enhance my reputation as an adult.

And it was working! My friends thought of me as a "dog man" and I was being solicited advice for how to take care of puppies by several others who had recently gotten a dog. I'd been a trailblazer among my buddies in terms of scoping out the best bones and treats in E-Mart and the pet stores around Jeju.

On our walks, Onya was often met with comical reactions from people, like an elephant to a mouse. Fully grown men and women would shriek or cower when confronted with this seven-pound puppy monster. Children were very scared as well, especially when Onya started growing; at the beach a girl ran screaming to her mother, who reprimanded me for having the dog in public, as she was "Too scary! Too scary!" This was when Onya was about the size of a beagle.

Onya was growing up fast. One of her ears had "popped up." She'd learned, almost by accident, that fresh air accompanied fresh poop.

At night Onya would curl up on the edge of the bed like my dog in America used to do, and I was happy to have a housemate. But I didn't need any more.

Before school I took her to the vets across the street to get the operation done. They were confused about what I wanted, so I drew a diagram.

Then the vets, two brothers, made a lazy "cultural-differences" mistake. Unable to give me an accurate and honest assessment of the operation in Korean, they decided instead to give me an inaccurate one. After the surgery was complete, the price of the operation magically doubled as they began citing a number of extra medical costs. Included in this was the recommendation that Onya stay with them an extra week, for a moderate nightly room charge. Why this was necessary they could never explain. Why the sudden price increase was necessary wasn't really explained either, except that translated through my co-teacher Scarlett "this is just how they normally do things, they didn't think it would be a problem."

I sounded the alarm. The Jeju Weekly was notified about a pair of disreputable vets operating out of Shin-Jeju and that my dog was being held hostage. An army of Korean dog-lovers called the doctor's office and spoke to them on my behalf. Before class I walked over to the doctor's and visited Onya in her cage; she was very happy to see me. Three days later, they gave me the dog, and the pills, but they let me know they were not pleased with the phone calls and insinuations, and that they'd given me a "discount," so by the time I finally left with the dog, we both knew that I wouldn't be going back there, not even to return the dog recovery cone.

The next few nights were miserable. There was no way to tell Onya in a language she understood that she must spend the next seven days recuperating, instead of going about her usual active outdoor adventures. The cone kept falling off and Onya wasn't too fond of having it on. She changed positions every ten minutes or so and then decided at 6 am that sleepy time was over, and it was playtime again.

One day while I went to work, my landlord went snooping around my apartment, ostensibly to give me the electric bill, but he eventually wandered about and took the time to let the dog out of her crate, so she could smash her water dish and eat a pencil (this while there were still stitches in her belly).

My landlord called SAG to tell the secretary that my apartment was too messy and that I needed to turn the fans off. Here is the message I relayed back to him through the secretary: It is summer. It is hot outside. You almost killed the dog by letting her out. Please do not step inside the apartment. Please go to hell.


Onya Vs. Typhoon Bolaven

For a whole day before the storm, trucks were blaring with messages over a loudspeaker warning everyone to stay inside and turn off all electronics. Lock the doors, close all the windows, get everything off the balcony, pray.

School was canceled but the storm did not begin in earnest until the evening. All of the teachers gathered on facebook and kept track of the hourly progress of Typhoon Bolaven, a once-in-a-decade death spiral that seemed certain to drop a terrible payload of thunder and lightning and wind and wetness right over Jeju island. It was only a question of when and how strong it would be when it reached us. Would Bolaven become a tropical storm? As it moved north over the sea, Bolaven began to drift westward. Would Jeju be spared the worst?

The bottom half of my floor flooded almost immediately. I moved some of my shoes out of harm's way but the welcome mat was already sunk. Constant thunder was only about the third-loudest banging noise bombarding the house, and the wind was so loud that you couldn't even hear the rain falling. Or maybe the rain was falling so hard and fast that you couldn't hear the wind blowing.

The front door lock came undone and it whipped back and forth, knocking against the frame and shaking the whole house. The house did a lot of shaking that night. Before I locked the door again I waded into a puddle by the door and took a look outside; my balcony had become a swimming pool. Even the next few days, when things dried up quickly, my balcony had a current as the remaining rainwater surged towards the drain pipe.

Would this rickety duplex with its flimsy wooden walls and large frosted glass windows even survive such a storm? The windows rocked and rattled all night long, water coming through enough to keep my floor nice and damp. I took all my valuables and Onya and locked us inside the bedroom. That was the room least likely to suffer from the campaign outside since there were two sets of windows, but the external set, just like the other parts of the house, was shuddering convulsively.

Onya did not enjoy Typhoon Bolaven. She huddled close to me and whimpered throughout the night, periodically peeing around the room in response or anticipation of the next blast and shockwave echoing through the house.

Several miles away, some of the older, less durable buildings near city hall completely collapsed. Many older homes were destroyed and a fellow teacher and Fulbright scholar had to help her host family rebuild. Tin rooves caved in, signs fell down into the street, motorcycles and scooters lay bent and broken on the sidewalk. But not my motorcycle; although it leaned sideways the storm had very little impact on its already impaired ability to move forward. It's possible the typhoon gave it a nice hosing down to wash away the gathering dust.

What is there to do in a bedroom that is about to cave in amidst angry weather noises? Not very much, besides try to sleep, which I was very good at. The white thunder gave way to white noise which put me in a daze, until I was awoken by a peeing dog and, having nothing else to do, took out the tarot cards.

"Will I survive the storm?" I asked.

The answer? Death. Inverted.


Onya Finally Goes Home

The storm signaled the end for me. It was time to go home. There's more to that story, but that's for another time. What about Onya? Should she stay or come back to America with me? It was a difficult decision, but I was apprehensive about the logistics of the journey. In Korea, I had performed the role of a self-sustaining adult, but would that last back home? Or would the illusion be shattered? I didn't want to take that chance with Onya, and it turned out, I wouldn't have to.

After 30 minutes in transit, during which the sun did not set, I got into a cab heading from Daegu International Airport to a place called "George."

That was what I had been instructed to tell cab drivers. Who was George? It seemed vague, but the driver knew what he was doing. We rode right through the heart of Daegu. George turned out to be a giant fence. Actually an American army base. But we didn't go inside. Just in front of the gates there stood a young couple.

The woman was carrying with her an enormous bone. Bigger than her head. The two of them were craning their necks and scanning the rotary as if they were expecting someone.

"Well," I said to the passenger sitting in my lap, "this is our stop." When I opened the door, the couple started slowly walking towards me. I shouted at them and waved.

"We knew it was you," said the woman. "We knew it was you right away when we saw her head looking out of the window."

"Her other ear popped up yesterday," I said, "just in time for the plane ride."

"How did that go?" asked the man.

"Fine. I was so certain that something was going to go wrong, that I hadn't filled out some form, but here we are. I didn't make friends with the Jeju-air employees who spent twenty minutes helping me get her into the crate, but it doesn't matter now."

Onya sat down and let the woman lean over to grab her chin and scratch her behind the ears. "She's so beautiful," she said.

"I've never seen marbling on a coat before like this," said the man.

"Neither have I," I said. "Onya is one of a kind. She is a dog of destiny."

"We have a gift," the woman said. "We figured after the flight, she'd want something nice to chew on. We weren't sure how big she was so we guessed."

"You might want to wait on that," I suggested. "Once she starts on that thing, she won't stop." Until I saw the bone, I didn't know how serious they were about taking her in. I'd thought that this would have to be an audition.

But they hadn't just bought a bone. Waiting for Onya in their home was a new bed, new toys, a brand new collar, whatever they had thought of to get ready.

"She needs a lot of exercise," I said. "She'll need some space to roam around."

"I don't work," the woman said to me. "I'll have all day to take care of her. We'll make a lap around the base every day, won't we, my little baby?" She brought her face down to the dog's and started making baby noises.

This wasn't an adoption interview. It was a ceremony of accession.

I picked up Onya for the last time and let her lick my chin. "Goodbye, my darling," I said. "You're going to be part of a family now."

The man was an officer in the army. I had fought for Onya's freedom and he had fought for mine. Let this be amends for all those times I didn't honor our troops.

I held her out to the couple. "Take her," I said, "she's yours."

The woman wrapped her arms around Onya's belly and pulled her to her breast. The man patted Onya's head.

"You're going home," he said.


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