The Dog Days of My China Summer

My husband John, petting Xigou, a miniature German Shepherd dog
My husband John gave Xigou one last pet before we parted last summer, never knowing it would be his last.

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?

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9 thoughts on “The Dog Days of My China Summer

  • August 30, 2010 at 2:26 am

    Jocelyn, I loved this story, and I do love your language — you are a talented storyteller and cultural bridgebuilder. 🙂

  • August 30, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Oh, this one gets to me. We have two adopted dogs, 包子 who is two and a half, and 摩卡 who is a little over a year old. Even though they are sweet and well behaved and leashed in public, a lot of people are incredibly afraid of them. They are medium sized dogs, but even when they were tiny little balls of fluff we had people shrieking in fear and jumping off the sidewalk into moving traffic to avoid coming anywhere near them. Not everybody reacts that way, of course, but there are many who do. I guess their only exposure to dogs might have been guard dogs (who’ve been beaten to make them vicious) or strays. I’ve had several local Hainanese friends tell me they watched childhood friends die terribly following a dogbite from rabies infected dogs. I guess if that had been my experience, I might feel the same way they do. But I love my (vaccinated!) dogs and I hope that attitudes are slowly changing.

  • August 30, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Wow. A difficult post to read as I’m sure it was to write. This is not meant as a personal criticism, but I’m not entirely comfortable with giving folks a pass because “it” (whatever you are talking about) is or isn’t “their culture”. There are many dog lovers in China — not the majority of course, and probably concentrated in urban areas, but enough to tell me they aren’t entirely outliers. And I suspect the number is growing (thanks in part to the efforts of organizations like Animals Asia Foundation who are all about changing attitudes rather than preaching).

    There are people in our neighborhood (here in Malaysia) who treat their dogs horribly … and others who treat them as pets and family friends. I can’t allow “culture” to excuse it when I see someone being cruel to an animal. I don’t hesitate to step in when I see it happening, and have done so in Thailand and in Vietnam — and was thanked by locals for doing so. All while violating a number of cultural “norms” that we as Westerners are told never to call into question (eg. no confrontation, don’t raise your voice, don’t cause someone to lose face, etc.).

    You’re in an entirely different (and difficult, given that the whipper is an in-law) situation, of course. And I don’t suppose there’s much you can do about how your in-laws treat their animals. I at least can demonstrate to my neighbors by how I treat mine and even go as far as introducing my dog to neighborhood kids so they realize that dogs can be friendly, sweet animals.

    But isn’t “accepting” the needless cruelty to animals because of culture sort of on the same level as, say, accepting and going with the flow of, when confronted with it, the mistreatment of women because of — “culture”?

    Again, this comment is meant to stimulate discussion not criticize you personally.

  • August 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Wow. What a topic. I believe animal abuse laws in the U.S. were put in place with the recognition that, at least in the U.S., such acts are associated with people who commit other violent crimes. Sounds like in China this pattern of abuse might not be associated with those who commit other violent crimes? This was a very educational post. My eyes are wide open. Thank you for bringing up this important topic.

  • August 30, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    Chinese people, especially people in the countryside, are very pragmatic (not talking about beating their animals, but about the animals dying). My parents are thinking about moving out here for a couple of years and my mom is dead set on bringing their huge black lab with them to China and my husband just cannot fathom why they’d go to the expense and the hassle just for a dog (and I kind of agree with my husband on this one, for the record!). My mom says that dog is part of the family, which is even more incomprehensible to my husband. I think part of it has to do with growing up on a farm and seeing animals die quite frequently and just being more used to viewing animals in a non-sentimental way.

    • August 30, 2010 at 11:05 pm

      @kari m., thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      @Nicki, thanks for sharing your experience. That’s wonderful you adopted two dogs, but I’m sure it must be such a surprise to see how people react to them (but not such a surprise when you hear why they’re so afraid)

      @Robyn, thanks so much for posing your questions. Is just “accepting” animal cruelty b/c of culture the same as “accepting” the mistreatment of women, b/c of culture? Maybe. I do know this — you’re certainly right that we let a lot of things go under the guise of “it’s just part of the culture.”

      @Terry, thanks for commenting. I’m no expert in animal abuse in China, but I’d venture to guess that it’s probably not as directly associated with those committing violent crime.

      @Jessica, so glad to see you again, and especially glad you brought up the pragmatism, which I failed to emphasize in this post. That’s exactly how my father-in-law framed it — how so many dogs die in the countryside all the time, so, as you mention, it’s just a more “unsentimental” perspective.

  • September 1, 2010 at 7:47 am

    I’ve held off commenting, as we’ve lost two dogs in the last couple of years – one in very mysterious circumstances (he just straight out vanished and there’s been no trace of him since). But I do now feel the need to add a couple of cents worth.

    I guess I should state that we entrusted our dogs to my parents in law because they live in the countryside, and therefore have a large courtyard and fields for the dogs to run around and be dogs in. And as my in laws have been farmers for generations, and I’d observed their behaviour towards their animals, be they their pet dogs and cat, or the sheep they herded back then, I never had any doubt in their ability to take care of animals.

    In my experience Chinese people see their pets the same way the rest of us do. When my mother in law watched our puppy die, having done all she could to nurse him through his illness, she shed real tears and felt real grief. The disappearance of our cocker spaniel had my parents in law out searching all they could. My father in law is the gentlest man in the world when he’s with his pets, even gentler than when he’s playing with small children, and he’s the gentlest great uncle (soon to be grandfather) I’ve ever seen. The same applies to most (unfortunately not quite all) I’ve my uncles, aunts and cousins in law, and I see the same in my neighbours down here in Beijing. They love their dogs like their children, and many of them leave out food for the neighbourhood stray cats.

    I absolutely do not want to deny anybody else’s experience of China. China is a huge and extremely diverse country that provides room for every point of view to be valid. Chinese people, especially rural folks, are very pragmatic, this is true. There are many people here who are very cruel to animals – and I myself have been frequently tempted to make the nearest blunt object at hand connect at very high velocity with the cranium of an uncle in law because of the way said uncle was treating one of my dogs. All I’m saying is there’s equally no shortage of Chinese people who love their pets as part of their family, and treat and spoil them accordingly.

    • September 1, 2010 at 7:43 pm

      Hi Chris, thanks so much for setting the record straight on this — I’m glad you pointed out your experience (and corrected some of my sweeping suggestions) because, clearly, many Chinese love their animals dearly, and treat them with respect.

      That’s not the case where my in-laws live, but that’s their culture (and when I say “their culture,” I mean their own beliefs, and not necessarily those of China as an entirety).

      Anyhow, it’s reassuring to see that your family is so different.

  • September 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Your marriage is very impressive and very hard to understand.
    My blog focuses on art of life in practice.
    Let know if you are interested in being interviewed by me for publication in my blog one day.


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