Monday, July 9, 2007

taiwan's dogs

I used to think I was the only one who paid attention to the dogs here on the city streets of Hsinchu, Taiwan. I figured Taiwanese people looked on them like shrubs, or bollards – albeit shrubs that occasionally changed location. The dogs simply lounged on the asphalt, heads on the white line, or curled up under a parked car, or trotted about on group strolls in the morning. But to me, such dogs with such curious social lives could hardly have been more entertaining, accustomed as I am to the individualistic, territorial dogs of the US.

In my home country, dogs are either pets or guards. In either case, they are attached to a person or place, or both, either kept inside, or kept on leashes if outside, or chained to a fence to scare the bejesus out of pitiful strangers walking by on the other side. At this point keeping dogs in place is probably as much a matter of the legal code as anything. But what we see when we see a well groomed hound trotting along next to his owner is not a copy of the municipal code. What we see is “man’s best friend,” an animal that just is that way, as we are this way, naturally, anytime and anywhere. Dogs are built and made, whether by soul or genetics, to stick by the side of a master who is their friend.

In the US I am never easy coming near a strange dog. Some are friendly; some are hostile. Some are a neurotic mix of both, like the one which licked my face as I got in my friend’s truck but bit at my pant legs when I walked alone into the living room. A dog’s character in the US seems to depend on how it is treated, and what kind of people it is around. Dogs in the US are melded to their social niche.

In Taiwan, dogs have their own social lives. The two species, human and dog, are separate. Humans in Taiwan find emotional satisfaction in members of their own species, and in comic books. Instances of human-dog monogamy are rare here. Though as foreign ways are a prime way to earn profits for entrepreneurs, human-beast love is being offered for sale as the latest thing in modern living. Pet shops appear everywhere. These shops are not for pets, as the name might imply, but for people who purchase dogs as spousal substitutes or interactive fashion accessories. Slowly Taiwanese are catching up to the West. Soon they may have dog restaurants.

I find that I am not the only one amazed at the indigenous dogs, however. Crossing a street in Taipei last week, a young couple were as amused as I was to see a plump old dog plod across with us as soon as the “walk” light appeared. A few days ago in Taipei, another chubster attracted attention from a father and son. It waddled ponderously across the zebra crossing. The man said a few words to the boy, and the two of them followed the hippo-like form with curious eyes. Later I came back to the same crossing, and the dog was curled up restfully on it. A couple of young people smiled down at it as they passed. It had on a collar; it also had a patch of mange on one shoulder. These dogs are neither owned nor wild. They are in between in a way American society could never tolerate. Legal systems do not allow it.

They meander like friendly ghosts through the human world of the streets. They have their social lives, their home turfs. A few years ago I lived in an old soldier’s enclave across from Qinghua University. Every morning when I biked or scootered out of those narrow lanes I would pass the same few dogs lounging about, head often sprawled across the line marking the edge of the road, cars and motor bikes whizzing just by them. There was the dog with out turned, dinosaur-like feet. There was the no neck fuzz ball – but that was a real house dog. The family that owned it was an unhappily poor house. They tossed their fuzz ball in the air with all the delight of playing with a baby. If I left early enough, and sat eating an egg crepe at a breakfast place, I might see a little gang of dogs trotting or frolicking along, touring the waking neighborhood.

It is true that these dogs lack health care, and an American would point out that in the States at least every dog is attached to someone who is supposed to keep it free of disease and road accidents. The dogs here that roam live in a state of civilized neglect, neither harassed nor cared for. As a result they are not going to race toward a busy street the way a pent up American dog will do; nor are they alleviated of pain should they get sick. I suspect the ones that don’t die as pups are pretty tough – the way American people are, the ones without health care.

In the US we consider it animal cruelty to let dogs run wild without owners to care for them. But people without health care? That is the matter of the highest principle of state policy! For is not caring for people who are weak and ill nothing more than Stalinism? At least, such is the superstition of people more concerned about the size of the government than the size of this social injustice. Though you will not hear them warning of big government every time the military bureaucracy’s budget is increased. I guess “socialism” sneaks in through an increase in health clinics, whereas an upping of weapons of mass destruction is just the American way. Funny how it is not the other way around. You would almost think from this definition that the danger was not of socialism but of civilization, and the thing threatened not the “American way” but total hegemony.

Taiwan, to add a final note, like most other capitalist countries, not seen an increase in “socialism” by mandating universal health care – not only for its citizens, but for foreigners working here as well. Perhaps I could write a letter to the wise legislators from Utah and Virginia who insist on their superstitious fear in the face of all evidence to the contrary. But it is hard to convince someone a phantom is not lurking when they fervently believe it is there, just waiting to strike.

Like owner, like dog. The paranoid dogs are in the States, where the paranoid people – sometimes mislabeled “conservatives” – are. Who would have guessed you could see so much of a country’s political culture from their dogs?


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