The recent spate of very cold weather in Beijing reminded me of an experience I had many years back while visiting Wuhan in Central China, which is a great city occupying a very similar geographical position in China to Chicago’s position in the U.S.
It was January, and the weather was cold. I was visiting with a Chinese colleague who had an aunt and uncle there whom he had not seen in a long time. They were retired officials and very kindly invited us to their home for a kind of family reunion dinner. In those days, invitations to dine at home were unusual in China, so it was a very special occasion.
We took a taxi, and during the ride to their home my colleague told me that his uncle had mentioned that one dish they were cooking as part of the feast was dog meat. I appreciated the heads up and thought that as a guest I should be polite and try a mouthful.
As I wrote about in my post “Owls and Casinos in Macau” last July, winter weather tends to be the time when some people in some parts of China eat food like dog, civet cat, pangolins etc. because they are considered to having warming effects on the body. Opinions vary widely, including among Chinese people, whether or not this is appropriate, humane, delicious or barbaric. This was also before the popularization in more recent years of urban Chinese families keeping dogs and cats as pets.
We arrived at the aunt and uncle’s home to a warm greeting, various other relatives, and a table laden with a great selection of food. After some chit chat we sat at the long rectangular table and began the dinner. They were very kind and welcoming to me, and I guessed I must have been the first foreign guest they had in their home.
Conversation was lively, understandably with much discussion of what various of my colleague’s family members had been up to in the years since they had last met, what he had been up to, what was going on in Hong Kong, Wuhan, etc.
From time to time the elder son of the household would go off to the kitchen and return with another dish of steaming hot food. Everything was delicious. As always, good home cooking beats restaurant food by a mile.
On one such trip to the kitchen, he returned with a Chinese style. casserole dish and I thought to myself “Here comes Fido (the dog).”
I stuck to my plan and sampled a few bites.
At that point the host said that they had been waiting for a special occasion and today was just such a time. Not only was it a family reunion but they were also especially happy to welcome their nephew’s foreign colleague (ie me) into their home.
He went on to explain that they had been raising the dog for just such a special occasion, and that my presence that evening really capped it off.
I was mortified. I became even more mortified as he then went into some detail about the process of dispatching and preparing the pooch for our dinner, expressing a certain degree of regret about dispatching a family pet for the dinner table. “He was actually a very nice dog…” My heart sank.
I felt a terrible sense of guilt that my presence was the tipping point in bringing this dog from their back yard to the dinner table! I wished I could have rolled back the videotape and edited myself out of the footage so that the dog might have lived.
Despite a profound sense of culture shock, there was nothing I could say or do at that point which would have been appropriate in the circumstances. I continued to eat, giving the casserole dish a miss from that point on.