Oriental Medical Pseudoscience Medicine, Sympathetic Magic, and the Consumption of… What?

I mentioned recently that Lime and I are thinking about picking up a second cat to give Peanut/Buffy/Undecided a playmate. She’s been looking at the adopt-a-cat webpages online, and was explaining to me the procedure in Korea for adopting cats. Not an official procedure, mind, just a common one.

It goes like this: you adopt the cat. You pay a flat fee of, say, the equivalent of $20, or $30, or even $50. (Sometimes more.) Then the person who gave you the cat will come a few months later and check out how the cat is doing, as well as giving you the equivalent amount of cat food/supplies for the cash you paid.

(Some of the more zealous cat-givers will actually have conditions like, “Has raised a cat before. Has kept a cat longer than six months. Is willing to send photos and updates monthly.”)

My response to this, of course, was, “What the hell? Isn’t that just a little, I don’t know, involved? Invasive, even? Or, you know, a pain in the ass for all concerned?”

Lime’s (understandable, once I heard it) response was that there are so many things that can happen to a cat in that amount of time that anyone who cares about a cat will make similar stipulations, at least, stupilations like the first list, if not the second.

Like what? Well, you know, cuteness is very popular in Korea. Very popular. As someone put it somewhere online (but I’m too sneezy to search it out), “Cute is to Korea what “edgy” is to the West.” As in, where people spend energy in the West trying to be or seek out whatever is cool or edgy or hip, a lot of people in Korea are similarly fascinated with, or try to be, cute. So you have cute cartoon everything, you have cutesy voices on the nature shows (yes, the animals talk in cute voices) and so on.

So you know, in that atmosphere, kittens are quite popular, because what’s as cute as a kitten? Neoteny, man — it’s a pushbutton in the human brain. Anything remotely childlike, human beings are crazy about it. (Hence Mickey Mouse.)

But cats? Like, the creatures that those cute little kitties become? Not so much. Now, Korea has its cat-lovers, but anyone who lives here — not just Western cat fans — picks up a distinct, widespread lack of affection towards cats. Many, many people describe them as scary — especially their eyes — and you hear things like, “They’re dirty,” or “They’re dangerous.”

Also, cats can simply become a handful, demanding playtime, waking their owners early in the morning, and becoming little ankle-biters. Trust me, I know this as our own cat has essentially begun the transformation. My arms are scarred and she has only just learned that, no, those feet are not toys. So a certain number of cats are simply abandoned by before a year passes, or even six months.It’s something that, again, happens everywhere. This is why stray cats would be a problem in any major city.

That’s only one of the reasons Lime gave my about why people would want to check up on adopted cats. The other, though, surprised me, because, as Snopes points out, it sounds like the stuff of racist North American urban legends, but Lime insists it’s true…

… and from what I know about the sympathetic magic basis of Oriental medicine, it kind of makes sense…

… but also, no, this is not true of all Koreans, or even many Koreans, and it would be wrong to say this is common…

… yet, yes, some people think that the consumption of cat is good for their joints, their flexibility, and for arthritis.

(If you don’t believe me, have a look at the website of KAPES, the Korean Animal Protection and Education Society, where the cat-meat trade is mentioned. Yeah, and I’ve been here for almost seven years now and never heard about a cat meat trade till now, so it can’t be that big, but you know, the surprise is that it even exists at all.)

Well, I’ve never before heard of anyone eating cat here, and can’t help but think that it’s an older-generation thing. As well as a well-kept secret. But I have noticed that cats have a weird kind of significance here. Someone I work with told me that she knew someone who was experimenting on cats (in the scientific sense) and that this experimenter’s mother had gone to the Buddhist temple to try and ask the cats’ forgiveness or blunt their anger at this treatment; she told me that cats have, in Korea, a history of being considered “spiritual” animals. And thus as spooky, for that very reason.

At the same time, I’ve seen older people — especially in the countryside — do things to cats that horrify me, like trying to kill them with a brick or a pipe when the little beasts show up to forage from the trash bins behind the apartment building. (Usually this was done by was apartment building “security guards” — that is, retirees who in no way ensured any security but who were at least gainfully employed so they could track who was coming and going when and with whom, and gripe about how people put out their trash and recyclables.)

I should also note that I’m aware such cat-killing horrifies me explicitly because of socialization. There was a guy named Jim in my middle school who somewhat intellectually, er, challenged, and, to be honest, something of a brute. One day when a cat wandered onto the school grounds, he picked it up by its tail, swung it around, and threw it as hard as he could. This, for Jim and some of the other idiot boys in my class, was entertainment. I wasn’t there to see it, but the ninth grade was small that year, we were all in one class, and so we got lectured on the evil of Jim’s action. (I think the cat got a broken tail, the poor thing, but don’t know if it was killed or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jim had tried to do so, but if he had killed the cat, he would likely have been suspended for a week, and he wasn’t.)

It would be unfair to vilify people for not being horrified, if they were socialized to think of cats as, well, vermin. I feel significantly less sorry about the idea of someone killing a rat in the trash bins. And having seen a lot of strays here rummaging in the trash, and so on, I could see how many people would see cats as vermin. It’s an understandable attitude, sort of… especially if they’ve never seen a cat in any other position.

Then again, I think part of it isn’t even so much about that; I think there’s some serious empathy training that got missed with a number of the older people here. (And some of their kids and grandkids also.) I don’t know whether it goes back farther than that, but there are enough personal stories I’ve heard recountered of encounters with mothers-in-law that put stepmothers in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales to shame; enough hospital horror stories to outdo the most chilling horror fiction anthology (because the hospital stories are real).

Something makes me wonder, though, how much of the wider empathy deficit one can readily observe in public in Northeast Asian societies generally (as discussed, for example, by the Joshing Gnome here — where he discusses the necessity of turning off your empathy for fellow humans if you want to keep yourself sane on the subway in Seoul — or, very amusingly, discussed by Korean-Canadian comedian John Ki here:

(Though, by the way, we don’t have “white dudes” working in convenience stores. Just in case someone took that seriously.)

You know I can’t help but think of, when I think of lack of empathy? What comes to mind are all kinds of other social problems around this side of the world: the scandal about the melamine in Chinese milk products, for example, or the “garbage dumplings” scandal that happened in Korea a few years back. The ongoing suicide epidemic in Northeast Asia — and the way suicides are responded to, mostly, it seems to me, by politicians as excuses to take more and more control of emergent telecommunications technologies, rather than, say, addressing what this really is, a social health and welfare crisis. Or, indeed, the handling of the AIDS epidemic here, which is to say, the ignoring of the AIDS epidemic here.

(As one friend said to me a year or two ago, Korean society is so good at mounting campaigns that it’s outright tragic that so little is being done on an official level to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS here.)

I know, I know, it only looks like an empathy deficit to someone who has been raised, or socialized, or whatever — someone who is in a position to see how greater levels of empathy (or, at least, the forced emulation of empathy) can impact on a society. Most people in Korea have never lived in a city where passersby were treated with basic human dignity or respect. Where, if you walk into someone or step on his or her foot, you might apologize, or, better yet, you might make an effort to avoid walking into or upon someone. In that it’s just in the experience of so few, you can’t really blame people. It’s kind of a, “It’s always been this way,” situation for so many.

Like I say, I think the younger generation is unlikely to do this too much, over here in Korea, but a certain percentage of the older generation seems to regard animals as… no, wait. I was going to write,” seems to regard animals as lower lifeforms,” but we all do that: it’s human to see cats as, well, less intelligent than us. Even when you love a cat (or dog) it’s easy to see there’s less going on upstairs than with even someone like Jim. But I think the significance of that “lower lifeform” status is different. SPCAs of various flavours have long campaigned in the West for humane treatment of animals. SPCAs in the East… well, yeah, such activist groups do exist (one is mentioned in this article on the treatment of cats in Beijing prior to and during the Olympics — kitty gulags of death, really, is the phrase I’d use — and there’s discussion of the inroads made with the concept of animal welfare in China here; in Korea, there’s KAPS and KAPES and KARA — I’m not sure how connected those two organizations are, but they have different websites) but they’re relatively newish, and their message hasn’t penetrated so deeply that the behaviour of older, and less-educated people, has become inexcusable here yet.

Maybe what we need is a visit from a caravan of dark southern wanderers, one of whom holds a kitten in his arms?

By the way, I’ve got a horrid cold, so some of this may be muddled. If it is, my apologies.

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