Residence: Seoul, Korea
Date of Performance/Collection: 14 April 2020
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English
Original Script: 짬타이거
Phonetic (Roman) Script: Zzam tiger
Transliteration: Leftover tiger
Translation: Leftover cat
The following conversation was translated from its original language Korean.
All Korean men have to serve in the military, so there’s a lot of military specific stuff and language that most men know. One thing that I remember is the zzam-tiger. “Zzam” is a shortened word for “zzanban” which means leftover food. Zzam tigers are cats that roam around army bases and eat leftover food. They are called tigers because I think it’s a cuter nickname, and Koreans just love anything that have to do with tigers. Most zzam-tigers are stray cats, but quite often there are upper ranking officers who bring their own pet cats to their bases, so it’s a mixed bag. But either way, no soldier is supposed to harm or even remotely be rude to the cat. Besides risking insulting your officer’s pet, why would you just be a dick to a cat? That’s mean. Most soldiers are really nice to these cats, because they’re cute. Most zzam-tigers are treated as mascots of those bases, and all bases have at least one zzam-tiger. It’s like having a communal pet. And it’s really therapeutic to have a cat around, because these cats are really friendly. They can also get rid of rats, if your base has any. Similarly, if your base has a dog, they are called zzam-wolf, and seagulls near navy ships are called zzam-phoenix. The part of the joke is to call them stronger than they really are. It’s part of the fun.
My informant is a Korean man in his mid 20s, who had just been discharged from his mandatory service about a year ago. His base also had a stray cat that was beloved by him and his fellow soldiers. Military jargon and tales are very a large part of Korean culture, especially for Korean men, as mandatory military service is an almost-universal experience for them. It is a unifying thing that most Korean men share, and a frequent conversation starter.
The conversation took place over the phone. My informant was at his house in Seoul, Korea, and he was alone in a comfortable setting.
It is common to find stories of animals living amongst soldiers all around the world. Most U.S. bases in foreign countries allow soldiers to have pets, and historically most navy ships and submarines had cats on board to get rid of rats. Animals are known for providing therapeutic presence, and for soldiers who have high stress occupations, having these animals around seem like an effective way to help them.