If you ask SE Asians what they are afraid of, they will most likely say: ghosts, snakes and lizards. Since I grew up in Hawaii, I can certainly understand why ghosts would be a legitimate concern. Ghost stories are very much part of Hawaiian culture, whether this be a modern development or something that spans back into earlier times, I wouldn’t know, but Hawaii people love a good ghost story and we’ve got them in plenty.
And snakes, of course, they seemed to be universally feared. Farmers often come across them in the fields. They are common and let’s face it, kind of scary. I’ve had them sneak in to my house in Thailand, too. Heck, I’ve got a couple of ‘snake in the house stories’ from back in the States, as well. We might even instinctively fear snakes.
But lizards and geckos? Why would Thais and Khmers fear them? It took a little sleuthing, but I eventually figured out through talking to many students over the years, and discovering why on my own. But I must confess, I still don’t get it. I like lizards. I suppose it goes back to being raised in Hawaii where geckos are common, not feared and part of the everyday landscape.
As children, we used to go lizard hunting. We never hurt them, but catching them can be quite difficult. My younger brother was great at it. We did this outside as I cannot imagine trying to catch them in the house as they scale walls. So, while I never enjoyed a childhood winter, I was lucky to have played outside all year around, climbing trees, running, bicycling, and thriving in a tropical climate (free of snakes I might add, Hawaii does not have them).
After we caught them, we held the lizards gently, but firmly between our thumb and index finger just below their necks so they can’t bite you. We knew how to open their mouths and we pretended they talked when we held them up. Then we let them go.
I watched one hatch from its egg once. I noticed that a mom had put them in one of the holes of a volcanic rock. Curious, I poked at it and in surprise saw that it was opening. I was afraid that I had hurt the little guy, but after he was free from his shell, he scurried off. Just one of those kid moments, I guess, where you are in-tune with your environment.
So, it turns out that these little buggers sometimes fall on you and that’s why SE Asians don’t like them. It can be startling. I had it happened when I was washing the dishes, but I didn’t scream. I did recognize after that moment how that might scare people though.
The mating noises (that sound like kissing/chirping sounds) they make are also peculiar. Especially in a dark house, I could see how it might seem a bit spooky or even bothersome. But honestly, I think it’s the large Tokay geckos that most SE Asians fear. They are mighty defenders and have a way of getting into your house. Did I mention lizards are ubiquitous?
When I first moved into my cat cave (aka wooden house in the bamboo woods) in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t believe how much nature got into my house. When I squeezed a mop, a frog jumped out, mosquitos hungrily dined on my flesh, cicadas buzzed so loudly in the trees I thought there could not be a louder insect in the whole wide world until I heard the frogs (I know, not insects) in the nearby pond – now they were a force to be reckon with!
Unfortunately, my cats liked to ‘play with them’ and by ‘play with them’ I mean, claw and kill. They were however, proficient at killing little field mice so I suppose they earned their keep. Although, I really needed them to do their work when a hearty Tokay found its way into my upstairs bathroom. And here, dear readers, is when I discovered why they are so feared.
I should mention that I did have one in the cat cave bedroom when I first moved in, and it was a little scary to know that it lived behind the wardrobe, but I also knew it had to go out on its own time. Eventually, I coaxed him out. (We don’t have Tokays in Hawaii and I’m not used to large lizards!)
Right. So, the one in the bathroom would not get out. This I found terrifying because he opened his mouth in defense, was large and looked freaky scary and I used this toilet often. I wanted the cats to be useful and chase him out, so I threw the first cat into the bathroom. He nonchalantly sauntered back out. Then I tossed the second cat in there. He, too, promptly left.
Next, I tried holding Romeo as close as possible to the Tokay. But Romeo, my fighter, would have nothing to do with the lizard that knew better and stood still with his jaws wide open. I fetched Pippin, and by this time was sweating in stress and nerves, plus the cats were on the generous side, so I was getting quite the workout. I held him to eye level with the Tokay, but Pippin simply left, again.
I grabbed a broom and tried to shoo the Tokay out. Luckily, he snapped on to the broom bristles allowing me to carry him out while he clamped on snapdragon tight. The distance from the toilet to the outside patio never seemed father. I’m glad he never let go. Who knows what would have happened. Okay, I got it. Tokays are terrifying when backed up in defense and in your house…and on the other end of a broom that you are holding.
Interestingly, my now-boyfriend, but then new coworker, loves lizards, fish and frogs. He had them as pets. (Okay, he raised and bred them. He’s hardcore.) But I didn’t know this about him yet.
Well, one day, he decided to have a little fun with me and he stuck a toy rubber Tokay lizard on my work locker. I guess he wanted to see me scream or something, as those toys are made exactly for that purpose and you can get them at the market. Instead, I saw it, laughed then stuck it on my back shoulder and taught my following classes with the dang thing on me.
The rest you might say is history, heh, heh. We eventually moved in together and when we lived in Chiang Rai, our first house was a kind of Tokay haven. We lived in a traditional wooden house and I remember at one point we had about 4 or 5 coming into the kitchen. I have to admit that was enough for me. I don’t mind an occasional one, but they were outnumbering the humans. The bf, on the other hand, was delighted.
I’m not sure if you know this, but geckos are unique in that they make noises. (Lizards don’t, maybe the big ones hiss.) So, not just the house gecko, but the fearsome Tokay talk. Tokays are known to make a noise like, “toh-kay!” hence the name. The bf likes to make this noise in public places like grocery stores, much to my embarassment.
Anyway, when we were in Chiang Rai, our neighbors found one in their house (they had a 2 year old), and they came over to fetch the bf because they knew he loved them and they didn’t want to hurt it. Good people! Eventually, the men-folk got it out safely.
The sad thing is the Chinese want Tokays for their bullshit medicine. Here:
I know, right? I’m so wrong in believing its crap. Ugh.
Okay, something else you might not know, we name our geckos. One of them we call Cornelius (a house gecko) because we caught him in the toaster with a dried corn kernel in his mouth. They normally eat bugs, so this is highly unusual, but we’re thinking they are adapting to human food as they often go in our trash to forage. The Tokays around the apartment are called Gladys and Georgina. And our Asian painted frog we call Frethel. How our frogs get up to the second floor, I’ll never know. The stairs?
On Friday, during my 6am class, we were in the computer room, so I decided to run up to the loo. There I saw a baby Tokay in the stall. And I knew that the little guy would not last in there. The front door is heavy and always is shut. He would most likely get screamed at or smashed in the door and there are no windows, just an evil fan that runs into the men’s restroom.
I went back to my class and told them about the Tokay. They looked at me like I was mad, but I was used to this as I like the very thing so many of them fear. After a short time, I decided I needed to rescue it. So I went back up and tried to catch it with a towel. And because it was so tiny, I was able to do it! Then I tried to get the little guy to go out the slats in the hallway. One of the cleaners asked what I was doing, then a coworker, but eventually, I was successful.
When I returned to class with a photo of my rescued friend, one of my students flinched away from the picture and covered her face with her hair. The rest of the class was slightly amused, I think. It doesn’t matter. I hope he’s okay. I know he didn’t want to be outside that cold morning, but the ladies WC is no safe place.
Do you like lizards?