Illustration by motobus
“You’re Asian, can I ask you something?”
“Asian-American, yes, go ahead.”
“Have you ever eaten dog?”
I blinked in surprise and stumbled through several uhs and ums before I could respond to my (white) colleague. The question was genuinely curious, but not without a gleam of hostility. The answer was: No, I haven’t. But how is one supposed to answer this barbed and accusatory question?
What else do we eat, which we should question?
By the facts, yes: Asians eat dog meat – stewed, steamed, boiled, and barbequed. Some Chinese eat dog for its medicinal qualities, believing it to be good for metabolism and warmth. In Korea, poshintang, “tonic soup,” is a common dog stew known for its stamina and virility-increasing potency. Dog meat has been a part of Southeast and East Asian cuisine for thousands of years.
What then, is the controversy over dog meat? The answer is a visceral, disgusted churning in the Western appetite. In America, dogs are known as “man’s best friend.” They’re companions and members of the family – definitely not dinner. To see a dozen dogs cramped up against one another in a single cage, awaiting their grisly fate at a slaughterhouse, very reasonably inspires animal-welfare activism.
What makes dogs more special, than say, pigs? Pigs are far more intelligent, but our relationship with dogs is rooted in a symbiotic evolution. In exchange for food and security, friendly wolves served as hunting aids, warning systems, garbage disposals, as well as defenders and guardians of children. According to a DNA study, humans’ sense of smell was reduced because our alliance with dogs rendered it unnecessary. In a significant sense, dogs made us human, our affinity towards them. However, in hunter-gatherer times, thousands of years before refrigeration and crop storage, “when times were tough, dogs could have served as an emergency food supply.”
Hence, biology does not fully explain our taste buds. Western outrage toward dog-eating remains primarily a feature of a high-minded, well-fed culture, whose convictions betray a certain industrial privilege. Western cultural superiority does not necessarily understand how Chinese and Korean people have suffered from famine brought on by authorities. In the context of Chinese rural culture, where dogs compete with humans for resources, “eating dogs appears to be a compensatory adaption to material deprivation and the lack of reliable sources of other meats,” writes Frank H. Wu, Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Meat vendors in Asia today generally make a distinction between the dogs raised at home – pets, and the kind raised for eating – food. There’s no doubt, however, that the cultural superiority of the United States has influence. Under international scrutiny, when the Olympic Games were held in Seoul, Korea in 1988 and in Beijing, China in 2008, both countries vigorously banned and regulated dog meat. In the absence of a moral argument for giving up dog-eating, these countries wish to maintain their image in the face of worldwide opinion.
In the United States, narratives of Asians and dog-eating reduce the people of Asia to a minor aspect of their diverse ways of life. This allows stereotypes to abound, and form the basis for a belief that Asian people are inferior. As Wu says, “dog eating becomes an excuse to make Asians the butt of jokes and ultimately to disrespect complete culture as primitive.”
“Do Asians eat dogs?” The gaze of the question, curious and blaming, weighs upon me.
I feel vulnerable, but there is a dignified response that illuminates prejudice: “Why do you ask?”