Sunday, April 06, 2008

Korea and Dogs

It’s early morning Korea time and I have to take the dogs out for a walk. I get dressed and ready to head out the door, bundle the dogs into various types of harness, rush down the stairs and hit the pavement. This is hyper unusual in a country like Korea. Dog ownership in Korea is of itself a weird thing.

Many have probably heard at some point when talking about Korea that Koreans eat kim-chi. Many are also aware of that fact that Koreans eat a dog. Usually in the form of a soup called Bo-shin-tang. The first fact tends to get lost in a muddle when you toss out that Koreans eat dog. I tend to find in conversations with new people in Korea or in conversations with people back home that the dog thing overrides all right thinking senses sometimes about Koreans.

First, not every Korean eats dog. Most Koreans, especially the children that are coming up in this generation, have never eaten dog. If it was suggested to them that they should eat dog, or one brought over a bowl of dog soup the bringer of said soup would be regarded as an evil murderer. A similar reception to one from a Western point of view.

Secondly, some Koreans still do eat dog soup, but it’s not a nightly thing. Bo-shin-tang is reserved for special occasions once a year. It’s not something one does on the weekend for fun. It’s usually a honeymoon or a birthday to provide strength and stamina. This is not really all that different from eating raw oysters. The difference being that dogs are a lot cuter than raw oysters.

I do not condone eating dogs. I love them, and have owned far to many to be behind eating dogs, but I also don’t condone randomly hating Koreans because at some point dog meat was a lot more important in the diet than it is today. As it were, as times are changing, many Koreans are becoming pet owners. The pets of popularity are definitely dogs. Cats are regarded here as rather filthy animals that no one would want to own. If you do want to own a cat then it is expected that you will pay at least an arm and a leg for a specialty breed of cat. Cat as status symbol. Just any old cat would not do. This stems from a huge problem in Korea with feral cats. They are everywhere, and they are wild.

I once rescued a kitten of a feral cat. I couldn’t keep the kitten so I asked a fellow teacher who was also a cat lover if he would take it. He did. The cat while sweet and even tempered also would not stop meowing (the constant meowing was how I found her). When he left the cat went to a student who promised to take good care of her. However after a few days of living with the constant meowing the girls parents got rid of the cat. Did it end up back on the street? In a shelter? In someones stew pot? It was never known. Later I wondered if it would not have been better to leave that poor kitten to it’s fates.

Lots of Koreans own dogs, however, and they can be heard all the time. You walk down the street and you hear dogs barking constantly. They live in yards, they live on rooftops, they live in apartments. Mostly the dogs are pretty small shitzus and malteeses. But occasionally you get some of the traditional Korean dogs the jin-do-ga which is a big beautiful dog, and every now and again you get some larger breed American dogs. And these dogs mostly live in-doors. It is rare to see anyone walk their dog. I live in a dog neighborhood. I hear the dogs bark and whining constantly. And I’m the only one in the neighborhood that ever puts my dogs on a leash and talks them for walks.

Even the big dog owners rarely take their dogs out for anything. It’s just one of those things about Koreas. Dogs are considered house pets and treated as such. They live like cats. They don’t get enough exercise, can be terribly bored, and never leave their homes. I take my dogs for walks and get no end of looks. Most of the time it is overjoyed glee to see a waygook with a dog. It’s amazing how much speed Koreans can build up running in fear from a shitzu. Although my shitzu is kinda scary.

A few nights ago I had an hajuma yelling at me about the dogs. She was swearing a blue streak in Korean about dog poop in the neighborhood and obviously, since I have the audacity to take my dogs out for a walk, it must be my dogs. Never mind that when the home owners finally clean up the dog poop they just shovel it into the streets; or the homeless man who lives in the park with three small dogs that just wander aimlessly doing whatever they want to do. Nope, dog poop, must be the foreigner’s dogs. This is the same woman who has watched me time and again as I clean up after the dogs. I dislike her.

I live near a home for the indigent elderly in Korea. This is a rare phenomena as most elderly are cared for by their children, Korea being a very family oriented place. However there are the rare few that need someone else to look after them. The men and women who live at the home always light up a smile whenever they see me walking about with the dogs. A few mornings ago as I was leaving with the dog I packed up some jerky treats and out the door we went. It was cold and foggy but it had to be done.

As I rounded on the corner with the home I saw one of the residents who I recognize pretty quickly as she has a massive goiter on her neck. She always is friendly and smiles and talks to the dogs and encourages them to come over for a quick pat. It so happened that on this particular morning the dog being walked decided to let go right in front of her. Me, mildly embarrassed, I clean up and then give the dog a treat. Since I’m still in the process of housebreaking this is an important step.

The old grandmother walked over and started making motions with her hand to mouth. I said the dogs name in Korean and offered to let her pet the dog, which she did. Then she stood making the hand to mouth gesture again and I could only think that she must want to give the dog a treat. So I broke of a piece of the jerky and handed it to her, while telling my dog to sit.

The old woman smiled and thanked me and then popped that dog treat into her mouth. She pet the dog one more time and walked away.

Yeah, eating dog soup is a little weird, but eating dog treats is just plain wrong.

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