Living rent-free in Taiwan sounded like paradise to Karen E. Bender and her family—until they met their roommates.

By Karen E. Bender
Updated June 16, 2015
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Illustration: Insects, 1734
Credit: New York Public Library/Getty Images

We didn’t know that the house was inhabited. We just knew that it was free. My husband had received a Fulbright grant to teach at a university in Taiwan, and we were packing up and moving there for the year. We were going to live in a house on campus, which was like a joyously overgrown park/forest. Workers cut the tall grass with weed whackers, not lawn mowers, so most of it remained about a foot high, and the house was nestled among green bushes and palm trees. We were warned about the house's state of disrepair—it was about 60 years old and moldy and crumbly in parts—but we didn't care. It was convenient; it was free.

We unpacked. One of us innocently set an open juice container on the kitchen counter. We left, and when we returned, five minutes later, there were ants. Not a few ants—a dark, organized stream of ants, thick as hair, coming from a crack in the wall, massing around the juice, a fuzzy, moving swarm. A juice drop. There was a drop of juice on the counter, and it was a call to the ant population in the area, an opportunistic convoy with finely honed communication skills. Another battalion was coming from inside a cabinet.

We grabbed a paper towel and wiped the ants up. Then we continued unpacking. Someone cheerfully dropped a pastry wrapper into the sink, and when we returned, there they were—even more ants, from cracks we hadn't noticed, in the ceiling.

We had been welcomed.

The house was free and on campus and somewhat crumbly, and it was also alive.

We met even more insects over the course of a few days. A child came running out of the bathroom, shrieking, “The spider!” We looked. It was about three inches across, or the size of a spider one might buy at Party City to hang outside the window for Halloween. It crept quickly across the bathroom—harmful just in its ability to create insomnia. So we hit it with a shoe. It crumpled. Out of nowhere, a gang of ants appeared, as though summoned, ready to cart the spider off to the den somewhere.

There was a call—“eh-eh-eh”—from the wall.

“What was that?

It was a gecko. Now they appeared, scrambling up the walls, their white bellies pressed against the windows. They eat bugs, so they were here to help us.

So began our year of living with the insects.

Our family members had different responses to the bugs. Our daughter hated the ants. “There are ants all over my bed!” she announced, and I rushed in, expecting a swarm, and found: One. Two. Three. I picked them off with Kleenex, and we searched, my heart fearful that I would find another and she would refuse to sleep in her bed. But where then? Thankfully, they vanished. For that night.

There were regular mosquitos and black flies, which were teensy, fairylike creatures, but which left chomping, weltish bites. They seemed mostly to like biting our son, so we set a large mesh net over his bed, which kept them out. We fought the mosquitos with burning coils of bitter scent outside the door, and wire paddles that could electrify them, and shoes. We went to sleep wearing long sleeves and dabbed on a substance called Green Oil, a menthol oil we bought at the 7-Eleven that made your throat tingle when you breathed it. We debated filling the house with toxic gas or injecting chemicals into the floorboards to get rid of the ants/flies/mosquitos/termites, but then I read about the chemicals and their effects and decided no.

When you live in a house that is alive, you are not quite sure what is going to happen. What might swerve onto your arm, or drop onto your head, or stream in trails into the kitchen sink. You cultivate a balance between wanting comfort, to set your plate down without swarms of ants rushing toward it, and deciding to allow a few ants on the table just because they are there.

At first I was edgy, picking ants off my daughter's bed, tucking in my son's mosquito net, wondering if that smushy thing I just stepped on was alive, but then I got used to it. We swept up; we wiped off the bugs that were in the way and went on with it. Anything vaguely foodlike had to be bagged. I didn't like the biting things; they had to go. But the furry caterpillar inching across the bathroom was kind of interesting, and the ants, if they were in small numbers, could be ignored.

And then it was winter, and for a few months, everything died or hid. The ants disappeared. Someone left an unwashed glass in the sink (“For God’s sake, someone wash the glass!! Quick!”), but oddly, nothing crawled into it. There were no mosquitos shrieking in our ears. The walls were silent. We shivered, as there was no central heating, but the house was peaceful, even a bit peculiar and still.

Then it was spring. One day we walked into the house and things started dropping from the ceiling. They were small and brown and curled. Some of them flew. What were they? Where were they coming from? We ran through the house capturing them with Kleenexes and brooms and threw them outside. We were taking out some trash and passed a giant palm frond; I kicked it over and spied dozens of these little squirmy bugs underneath. Some flew off.

They were called bai yi. Or…termites. At night, I saw them swarming under the streetlights, a cloud of orange confetti. They had entered the house with a vengeance. I had a moment of fear: Who would win? Would this be the moment the insects took over and we'd have to gas the house or move out? But then they disappeared, just gone—and the ants were back, more tentatively this time. Or maybe we were just ready, with our knotted plastic bags and cereal boxes crammed in the refrigerator. And there were the giant spiders, but I had gotten so used to them that, when one crawled behind a dresser, I didn't hunt it down. I just let it go.

Were we becoming blasé? What did it mean about us that we were learning to live with the bugs? Everyone around us lived with bugs; they swept up their ants and bai yi and went about their day. Friends who lived in the newer apartments in the city didn't have the same issues. But our neighbors didn't assume that a house was a place contained within itself; they didn't think that it was a fortress for humans. And why is the idea of home-as-fortress necessary? From bugs, from dirt, from any chaos at all?

I used to think our house in the U.S. had bugs. Sometimes we saw cockroaches run across the floor; sometimes ants circled the cat bowl. But when we returned from Taiwan, our house was mostly empty of things crawling out of nowhere. There was nothing in the shower, nothing flying or dropping from the ceiling. There was no one there but us. My husband and daughter were most relieved—they had not liked the bugs at all. I thought it was more peaceful, yes, but also—I have to say—a bit more boring. When I saw a spider crawl across our bathroom—one that looked absurdly tiny, though it was normal size— I felt relieved. Something else was here.

I let it go.

About the Author

Karen E. Bender's most recent book is the story collection Refund, published by Counterpoint Press.