Life in Okinawa is often very different from life in Canada. Sometimes these differences stem from divergent cultures or languages. Sometimes they’re manifested in nature. When you’re living in a subtropical climate, the foliage is bigger, and often so are the bugs.
One of the get-to-know-you questions that we often ask in our ESL classes is: “What are you afraid of?”
When we first came to Okinawa, we were amused to find that everyone seemed to have an answer in common—from the little pink-clad girl; to the grown adult woman; to the big, burly army soldier: cockroaches.
We could see how they might be scary for people. Cockroaches have always been a particularly icky bug from my perspective. When visiting the Toronto Zoo as a child, I always gave the Brazilian cockroach display a wide berth. But it wasn’t until coming to Okinawa that I realized the zoo had been kind in its display. The cockroaches there were 1 or 2 inches long. In Okinawa (and Brazil), they often grow to 3-4 inches in length!
We see cockroaches everywhere in our new homeland: scuttling around the park or on the sidewalk, and occasionally a small one hitches a ride into our home on a delivery box.
For several years, though, we never had to deal with a large one in our home…that is, until The Incident. That’s what we call the episode I’m about to relate. The capitals are intentional.
One evening several years ago, we were at home, chatting in the kitchen. A typhoon had just come through. Okinawan buildings aren’t constructed to be airtight. Because of the pressure differential between outside and inside during typhoons, it’s best to construct buildings in such a way that the pressure outside can equalize with the pressure inside. This minimizes windows blowing out during the storms.
In our kitchen, we have a ventilation pipe going from above our stove, into a cupboard, and out of our house. There are small gaps between the wall and the pipe. That day, the typhoon winds had pushed the cupboard door open a bit.
That night, my back was to the cupboard as Peter and I chatted. He suddenly started stuttering and pointing. I turned. There was a huge cockroach, at least four inches long, making its escape across our wall.
It started to come towards us. We both screamed.
I went into search-and-destroy mode, one that my former roommates will recognize. (I was always the one to take care of mice and spiders before Peter and I were married.) My reflexes are very good (thanks to Roland, my friend from high school who used to try and snatch school supplies from my desk).
Grabbing two lacquer rice bowls (They won’t break easily. Great!), I stalked the cockroach. I had him cornered when he suddenly FLEW towards me!
What?? They can fly??
More screams. He scuttled behind the fridge.
Peter moved the fridge, and I pounced.
The cockroach was so big that he didn’t completely fit in the rice bowl. His antennae were poking out, and as he launched himself at the sides of the bowl, it rattled against the wall ominously even though I was pressing down with all my strength.
“What do we do now?” I asked Peter.
He grabbed some cardboard from our recycling pile, slid it between the wall and bowl, and gingerly brought the bowl and cardboard away from the wall.
“What do we do now?” he asked me.
I did not want that thing loose in our house again. Nor did I want to kill it. I’d heard that cockroach exoskeletons can be surprisingly tough, and I didn’t want the sound and feel of that crunch haunting my nightmares.
“Take it to the park across the street and release it,” I suggested.
Down the stairs Peter went, bowl pressed firmly against cardboard.
How should I let it go? he wondered on reaching the park. The cockroach had already flown at us once before. He didn’t want a repeat performance.
After ensuring that no one was around, he tossed the bowl and cardboard away from him. The bowl went one way and the cardboard went the other. The cockroach was nowhere to be seen. He sheepishly retrieved our items and returned home.
After some research on the Internet, we discovered that cockroaches in Okinawa are more aggressive than ones anywhere else in Japan. They will fly at potential attackers, rather than away from them. The good news is: only males can fly. Females’ wings are too small. So, we didn’t have to worry about our little visitor having laid eggs around our apartment.
We, too, now include "cockroaches" in our list of fears!