When John and I returned to his home in the countryside, we had a new voice — or should I say, sound — marking our arrival: a dog’s barking.
To be sure, this wasn’t exactly a welcome. The dog, who looked like a miniature German Shepherd, growled and bared its teeth, until my mother-in-law admonished him and shooed him away, to let us in the door. Well, he was only doing his job, as my mother-in-law put it: “He’s a guard dog.”
How could John and I have known then that the dog, affectionately known as Xigou, would become one of our favorite companions during the summer? We whiled away many a blissful moment just rubbing his belly or chasing him playfully around the yard. Even when we left John’s family home, we took pictures with Xigou and gave him one last belly rub, which caused the little guy to roll over excitedly many times.
But, for Xigou, it wasn’t all wanton pleasure, all the time — especially when John’s godfather, who had given the dog to John’s family, came over to see the dog. I once peered out a bedroom window, where I saw Xigou recoil timorously before the godfather, who then whipped him a couple of times — not for any obvious transgression by Xigou, but almost as if to remind Xigou of his subservience in the grand scheme of life there. Xigou yelped desperately, perhaps hoping someone like me or John would protect him from the pain.
Except, we couldn’t. It wasn’t just that we sat a story above him, too far to run down and shield him from the blows. It was a matter of the culture — because even if we could stop it right now, we couldn’t stop it forever (especially since, as a family elder, John’s godfather would hardly care what we thought — he was just that kind of a guy). As long as people like John’s godfather roamed the streets (far too many), Xigou would have to suffer the occasional beating.
But he didn’t for long, because Xigou suffered the ultimate by Chinese New Year, 2010 — death. “He caught some bacterial disease and died,” reported my mother-in-law to the two of us, shocked to have lost our furry little summer companion.
“How could they have let Xigou die like that?” I pressed John.
He sighed. “They just don’t have this culture, to take care of dogs the way you’re used to.”
Of course, I should have instinctively known that. I’ve seen the skin-and-bones canines tied up beside exhaust-choked streets in Shanghai, the abuse by John’s godfather, and even whimpering dogs thrown in sacks in a food market in Zhengzhou. But maybe I held on to the mythology we often do when things come close to home — that our family will be different.
They weren’t, and they’re still not. Just yesterday, my father-in-law mentioned they took in two new dogs, a mother and one of her pups — for guarding purposes, of course.
“You should consider getting the dogs vaccinations against these diseases, or medicines,” my husband advised him.
But father-in-law didn’t see why. “We don’t need to do that, unless there’s something going around the community. There are too many dogs, anyhow. Some of the dogs die, some people beat them to death. It’s a kind of natural selection.”
“Beating them to death? That’s too cruel,” I argued.
John’s father-in-law shrugged it off, even chuckling a bit. “That’s just our culture, I guess.”
That is indeed their culture, and they certainly won’t change just because I disagree.
All I know is this — I can only hope that the two dogs they have today will be there to bark at John and I when we return home again next summer.
Have you ever been surprised by the attitudes towards dogs in China?