I first understood the dog thing in eighth grade Honors English, thanks to a man whose name I’ve lost to the years. It was at the end of a short string of Veteran’s Day events, the kind of experiential learning our Cincinnati prep academy was known for. The previous speakers’ stories had been interesting, but carefully bloodless: “I served for x number of years, stationed here or there; hey kids, you would not believe how many hours are spent doing maintenance and non-combat activities; no siree,” etc.
This last veteran, however, was less pressed-and-polished than his colleagues—faded bomber jacket, worn-torn jeans and work boots, a baseball cap he’d kept on despite the rest of the group’s de facto adherence to school dress policy. Like the speakers before him, like the majority of our teachers and counselors and administrators, he was American—the Midwestern, born-here-bred-here kind of American. I recognized the hands he rested testily on his knees though, hands that would only relax around a cigarette, a beer can or bottle. These were hands that belonged to my relatives, the various Khmer men my own Khmer mother had me call “uncle” or “grandfather” at temple. His stories would be good.
This last veteran knew what our savage little minds were curious about: the fatal physics of landmines; the festering innards of med tents and triage stations; the vulgar, hilarious humiliations he and his unit had endured. Not all the characters survived, and he didn’t spare us, “Smart kids like you.” Each talk had ended in a Q&A, and until that point, our class had raised our hands out of an instilled academic politeness. This time, our arms shot up in waves, twitching to be called on. Each answer unfolded into another mini-epic.
“How’d you use the bathroom?” Lemme tell you about the time Nevada used the wrong kind of leaves.
“What’s shooting someone like?” Aim lower than you want to, little man, that’s all you need to know.
“Have you ever eaten a dog before?”
Here, he paused, and maybe I imagine more than remember his eyes darting to me, to Tony Tan, to Zhulin and RuiRui and Crystal Nguyen, the handful of Asian faces in a cohort sixty-strong. He told us about a stray dog that had taken to following his unit; they’d named it some single-syllable throwaway name that, like his, I can’t remember. But one of the officers had a Vietnamese sweetheart and decided he was going to marry her proper before things went one way or another. The bride’s family started being real sweet on the dog: calling him over, feeding him bowls and bowls of rice they couldn’t possibly have spared. Got to the point where he could barely walk, he was so fat.
“Couple days after, we’re sitting down at the wedding feast, and they bring out this meat dish, and, well, we knew why we hadn’t seen our buddy around lately.” He scratched his chin, almost wistfully. “Poor guy. Tasted pretty damn good, though.”
The vague awareness that certain Asian countries have a tradition of eating dog meat is one of those racial minutiae you pick up when you’re not quite the all-American kind of American—even if my Latino father and Asian mother raised me to be nothing less. Even though—my mother assured me—certainly Cambodians did not eat dog. Not our people.
Then again, my mother can only speak of the 1960s, pre-war Cambodia of her childhood. Today’s Cambodia is possibly as foreign to her as it is to me, having never been to this country where officials have apparently begun encouraging some restaurants to curb an unmanageable stray population.
Type “dog meat Cambodia” into Google and one of the persistent top hits is a VICE article titled “Inside a Cambodian Restaurant Specializing in Dog Meat.” The featured proprietress is Chinese Cambodian and refuses to have her picture taken or her name printed, stating, “Nowadays, many foreigners look down on those who serve dog meat.”
My mother, though also Chinese Cambodian, would probably also disapprove. She would probably also take issue with the article framing the Khmer consumption of dog as “an age-old tradition somehow usurped by the stigma emanating from the West.” Her texts to me on the subject:
Good morning Nita,
From what I can remember I never heard Cambodian eating dogs! 🙂
Traditional run in my family we don’t eat dog!
We raise them as pets not for eating
Before the Khmer Rouge, my mother’s family owned what would’ve been considered one of the larger farms in Prek Bongkong, the riverside village she still remembers as home. The land produced enough to feed an extended family of parents, grandparents, and seven children, with leftover harvest to stock a grocery store and a market stall. On the farm, every animal had a purpose. The livestock were for eating or for selling; the dogs and cats were there to work.
There’s no heartwarming story about a specific canine companion; my mother speaks of the dogs as a unit, but not without fondness. She remembers the smart curl of their tails, their bright eyes, how the females might wander off for a time and return with a pup or two to be fussed over. What impressed her was their intelligence—the farm dogs hadn’t needed to be trained to follow commands, taught where they could piss or what foods they could eat. They herded, guarded, accompanied you when necessary, and left as soon as they weren’t needed. Their main feat of cunning, however, was how cleanly they disappeared right before the dogcatchers (whom my mother always remembers as Vietnamese) would sweep the village streets.
“That’s how we knew those people were in town—we would go looking for the dogs all around the farm, under the house, in the bushes and the bamboo tree, but we could not find them anywhere.” My mother would recite this story like a favorite charm. “I think maybe we’re the only farm who never lose a dog.”
A child’s memory, as uncomplicated and as retroactively edited as my secondhand recall of dog-meat delight. My mother’s world was simple then: Vietnamese eat dogs, Cambodians do not—a jab whittled down from precolonial conflicts over the fertile Mekong Delta and colonialist strife that the French alternately mediated or stoked depending on their own interests. I’d reasoned these were old wounds, like my father’s good-natured griping at Chilean and Argentinian compadres over the phone during soccer season. In my freshman year of university, when my mother told me, half-laughing, that I better not start dating any Vietnamese boys, I had not heard an ultimatum.
Then, in my senior year, I learned that it was.
My mother, over the phone: “You don’t know those people.”
“I know this person. Duy’s been my friend for like, three years and—”
“I told you not to do this thing, one thing. And you do it because you want to not listen. You want to hurt me.”
We didn’t speak for a month afterward, until she called and our cross-country check-ins resumed as if nothing had happened. We have not spoken about it since. I still don’t understand how or when difference compounded into animosity—during the Khmer Rouge years, perhaps, fed nationalist propaganda and little else. Or perhaps it was during the “liberation,” that night in the rice paddy with Vietnamese bullets flying overhead, biting down the blind instinct to run, wondering if this what the dogs felt like, those dogs long dead.
I can’t yet press this for blood or truth. There are things my mother meant for me to understand in the bone, without words—but I became an American creature, one that needs teaching.
When I asked Duy if he’d ever knowingly eaten dog during his childhood in late ’90s Saigon, he answered directly and without hesitation, “Probably.”
Committing to a relationship with a writer has gotten him used to abrupt, probing questions. I pressed on—a needling he allows me, and my mother does not. “How can you not know?”
“You can’t even tell the difference between beef and pork.” (I can, though he still makes assumptions about what my American upbringing has cost me, as I do about his. After a decade together, we still manage to surprise one another.)
On the days he could afford a school lunch, Duy would lattice his plastic tray with strips of barbecued meat speared on thin skewers; he does not discount the possibility that some of those might’ve been dog, depending on the whims or fortunes of the day’s vendor. Grilled meat is often heavily seasoned—soy sauce, fish sauce, five spice, cane sugar, lemongrass, garlic, and shallot in various combinations—which tends to mask any tell or taste. Google tells me that dog meat is reputed to have a strong, distinct flavor.
Just as my mother is not the voice of Cambodia, Duy and his family don’t speak for Vietnam, especially as the regional differences between the north, south, and central parts of the country are so distinct. Eating dog meat seems to be a practice rooted in the north, where Duy’s father’s family is from; it is less common in the south, where his mother was born. While online articles note that eating dog meat is a traditional charm for good fortune or virility, Duy’s father ascribed a more practical reason: during summer, strays could turn “wild” from the heat. It was better to take care of the problem ahead of time and to make use of what was available. Duy does not doubt that his father, aunts, and uncles have eaten dog—on the close of a lunar month, perhaps, or to wish fertility upon a newlywed couple. Or during the war years, when there wasn’t much left.
The details are mostly speculation; I don’t speak Vietnamese and Duy has little memory of or interest in the details of his family stories now that most members are here in the States. The past is a distant place, worth the occasional visit but not an extended stay. The present is most important, and what lies immediately ahead is of some concern. My mother and her family share a similar philosophy, and I wonder if this is because the Khmer and Vietnamese languages both lack formal verb tenses—every action is placed by context.
At present we live in America, golden land of opportunity, and we are, by birth or naturalization, American citizens. Losing the freedom to eat dog—if it is considered at all—is but a small price to pay.
Duy and I met during undergrad in Central Florida, drawn together in a pack of fellow students whose parents had—like ours—negotiated similar cultural bargains. My mother’s dating demands received sympathetic nods, their outdated reasoning filed away with never sleeping with the fan on, no mirrors in the bedroom, and the taboo of mixed gender socializing. Our defiance became the root of our jokes, our shared tongue. When Tammy (whose given Vietnamese name spans at least a dozen letters) couldn’t decide what to name her new Dachshund puppy, Duy and Anthony (whose Chinese nickname translates to “Dragon,” after his birth year) took turns calling the dog Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner, depending on the time of day. Later, whenever our roommates’ Shiba Inu, K (a mispronunciation of the Korean word for dog; they were neither Korean nor particularly creative), tried to expand her territory to include our bedroom, Duy would put her in place with one warning:
“Oi, shit dog, I will eat you.”
My father had a similar refrain for when our guinea pig Susie was being especially vocal: “Concha de tu madre—shut up or I will cook you.”
Peruvian cuisine doesn’t feature dog, but guinea pigs are traditionally raised as livestock rather than pets. My elementary school years were suffused with a low-key anxiety that Susie might someday end up as stew bits that I’d eat unknowingly. (Turns out I could’ve saved myself some worry: guinea pig is often roasted whole, so there would be no mistaking what I was getting.)
Like my mother, my father spent a good part of his childhood on a farm, one that straddled the Rio Toro instead of the banks of the Mekong. My great-aunt Lusmila owned rolling swathes of land in the Chanchamayo province, where the western edge of the Peruvian Amazon scales the crags and canyons of the Andean highlands. My grandfather often delivered my father and my eldest uncle, Amilcar, there for long stretches of time, for no apparent reason. My uncle loved these impromptu vacations, pretending to be Tarzan or Jungle Jim; my father did not: “I’m telling you, it was hell.”
On the farm, every animal had a purpose—especially the two-legged ones with idle hands. Amilcar, when he could be pinned down, was old enough and strong enough to help the men working the fields or culling the underbrush. My father was a different story. His eyes were as weak as his frame, slight from spending his days hunched over books instead of roughhousing with his brothers—an early indicator of his future in academia. The dense jungle heat made him dizzy and some unknown quality in his blood made him the persistent target of mosquitoes. All this, and he refused to do any task that involved harming the animals.
“I cried when your grandfather took me to the bullfights, the rooster fights. The blood and the noise—it was terrible. I’d beg my daddy to leave and he’d get so furious. ‘Why are you being a sissy, ah? Open your eyes, you are not a woman to be screaming so.’”
After the first disastrous attempt at instilling manhood via dispatching-of-the-day’s-supper (my father still regrets that not-quite-beheaded chicken), Great-Aunt Lusmila found her delicate nephew alternative responsibilities. Outfitted in an old sunhat and insect-veil, my father gathered eggs and fed the animals, reciting scripture and the verses of Rubén Darío to whichever small flock he was charged with, oftentimes alongside the dogs.
The Chanchamayo farm dogs also operated as a pack, valued more for their service than their companionship; they were guardians, hunters, bred to bring down wild pigs and stand against cougars or jaguars long enough for the men to ready their guns. My father immortalizes two in particular: Poopsie and Neron, the former a yellow, short-haired mutt and the latter something of a German Shepherd with a jet-black coat. I grew up on stories of the pair. “Huge, like wolves,” my father would say, and I’d believe him. These dogs had been his heroes, after all.
Lusmila must have sensed this, and she allowed my grandfather to “borrow” these prize pack leaders at intervals, a rare sentimentality for a woman said to be as tough as the mountains she’d tamed. Poopsie and Neron must’ve looked out of place in my father’s hometown of Tarma, but they adjusted to their city vacations. No one dared approach the property while Neron kept guard. “He never barked, Neron, just attacked, like a lion”—my father made a snap-jaw motion with his hand—“just hah.” Poopsie was the friendlier of the two but still tended to see humans as sheep to be watched and tolerated; regardless, these herding instincts saved my youngest uncle, Edgardo, from toddling off the second-floor balcony. Whenever they’d return to the farm with my father, they’d easily resume their positions as heads of the pack.
Though he’s built legends around the pair, my father rarely refers to the two as pets, or even as his own: “the dogs” or “that dog,” rather than “my dog.” The concept of a pet—an animal kept for no purpose other than friendship—was as odd to him as it was to my mother, but it appealed to the soft-hearted, friendless boy who still haunts the cracks in his charismatic professor persona. To this day, he insists that The Jungle Book was my favorite Disney movie as a child and that we watched it together over and over—though I have much clearer memories of The Great Mouse Detective, and a wild child running through the jungle is closer to my mother’s childhood than his own. He filled our bookshelves with animal stories: Black Beauty and Jack London. Unsurprising, then, that my brother and I grew up with the American certainty that not only would we own a dog, but that said dog would be imbued with a human sensitivity and conscious intelligence—he or she would know us, protect us, and love us in some pure and uncomplicated way.
Divo joined our family sometime after the Veteran’s Day event. He was not the typical dog for a PetSmart adoption fair—the local shelters’ weekend staple and where my dad would take me and my brother while my mother shopped at the WalMart next door. “Just to look,” he would assure her, and that’s usually all we did: peering into carriers and dog crates, craning over the heads of the other children at the puppy pen. Divo, a purebred Doberman Pinscher, was the exception; my father pulled us over immediately.
“He’s great with children,” the volunteer assured us. A cold nose nudged into my hand, searching for scratches—I obliged gladly. “He’s got basic training, no behavioral issues, anything like that. His owner is moving and can’t bring him along, that’s the only reason he’s with us.”
There was another interested party, a man who already owned a pair of Dobermans that he used as guard dogs. But the adoption society wanted Divo placed with a family—apparently that was where he belonged.
It took a week for my mother to yield, even with our coordinated wheedling. I was in eighth grade and my brother was in fifth, so we were no longer “too young,” we’d been doing well in school, and neither of us had done anything monumentally irresponsible lately. We’d been taking decent care of the rats I’d gotten for last year’s science fair project, keeping to their feeding schedule and chasing them down when they escaped their makeshift cages. One dog was a minimal responsibility compared to what had been expected of our parents when they’d been our ages, but that was the way of things in this country. So, the following Saturday morning, we sacrificed our cartoon time and brought home our first family dog.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) categorizes Doberman Pinschers under the Working Group: “Quick to learn, these intelligent, capable animals make solid companions.” Divo echoed the farm dogs my parents knew—imposing, bright, and useful. On the other hand, the AKC continues, “their considerable dimensions and strength alone… make many working dogs unsuitable as pets for average families.” While my parents haggled down the adoption fees (two hundred dollars is quite reasonable for a pedigree dog with shots and training, but never paying full price was one of the few cultural practices my parents shared), my brother and I took Divo on our first “walk” through the store. While he was content to stay at our side, he could also drag us clear across the aisles. We decided to keep this to ourselves.
My parents took over the bulk of Divo’s care immediately. My father’s insomnia meant he was up and about at 4 a.m., around the same time Divo started getting testy from prowling our basement. My father’s face was the first one Divo saw each day, my father the one who filled Divo’s food bowl and checked his water and let him out in the yard. My father also became custodian to the upstairs door—Dobermans had been primarily bred as guard dogs, fully committed to the well-being of their owners; my first alarm through middle and high school was a high-pitched whining and a rough snout poking into my ear until I gave some sign of life.
My mother, reluctant about owning a pet for as long as I could remember, assumed the more demanding tasks with a deft hand. She gave Divo baths and took him on walks around the neighborhood. He was never able to drag her; his strength redirected with a tug and a firm, “Stop it.” During the weekends, she ran him to Rapid Run Park, circled, and jogged back—a distance of at least two miles. Out of all of us, my mother is the most athletic, and Divo became the only one who could keep up. She was the only one who could hold him steady to clip his nails. When Divo tore open his front paw on the chain link of our backyard fence, she checked, cleaned, and bandaged the wound until it healed. “I did this when I was little,” she’d said, and left it at that; the Khmer Rough had taken the farm of her childhood, but its lessons had stayed.
What my brother and I did is small in comparison: We taught Divo “shake,” refilled his water bowl, and let him out whenever my dad had a late faculty meeting or my mother stayed overtime processing credit card requests at Fifth Third. Divo was the pass we needed for solo walking trips to the local library, a pillow for long summer video game sessions, and a quiet companion when AP homework kept us up to ungodly hours. My brother and I had always been a pair, despite the three years between us; we were the only kids in our neighborhood and two of a small group of kids in school who checked off more than two boxes in demographics surveys. No one had a pedigree exactly like ours—a distinction Divo shared.
Though now considered a singular breed, Dobermans originated from the combination of dog varieties to which tax collector and shelter owner Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann had access. The breed’s history is piecemeal and confusing, a cross of unlikely, disparate elements from terriers to Rottweilers. My brother and I were both born in a Kentucky hospital, just across the Ohio River, products of a New York marriage arranged between the youngest daughter of a refugee family and the immigrant scholar living upstairs—two bloodlines from opposite ends of the globe, tangled by diaspora. Such distinguished hybridity joined us all, animal and human, in a lonely, exclusive tribe.
The care we offered Divo was as imperfect and varied as our selves. My father drew little distinction between “human food” and “dog food” and so rounded out Divo’s diet with raw meat scraps and leftover bones from beef soup, spiced ribs, or pollo a la brasa. During the workweek, Divo was home by himself for hours with little stimulation. He’d take out his boredom by inventing new “tricks”: opening his food bag, deconstructing the trash can contents, and, once, letting the rats out. My parents’ reaction was to yell Divo into a corner, a technique many training manuals describe as ineffective.
“Man, this crazy dog,” my father would grumble.
My mother would roll her eyes. “Well what you expect? You’re crazy, the dog crazy, too.”
“Ay, shut up, shorty.”
“Whatever, old man.”
I’m not sure we did the best by Divo, certainly not in the “pets are people, too” way; neither of my parents were inclined to such coddling. Divo learned commands and reprimands in English, Spanish, and Khmer—but he also learned endearments. “Eres muy lindo, mi perrito precioso,” my father would baby-talk after a couple glasses of wine, and Divo learned this was the best time to put his head on the kitchen table for scraps and scratches. My mother never voiced such sentimentalities, but Divo would be the first one to greet her when she came home from work, and we’d hear her laughter blend into his excited whining. “How’s my dog?” or, more often, after we’d somehow failed to live up to the standard of care she’d put in place, “My poor dog, what are they doing to you?”
Divo ended up living an impressive fourteen years, longer than expected for many large dogs. Longevity seems to be a trend for animals in our family—our guinea pig Susie lived about a decade, and the rats hung on for five years each. Divo’s later years were marked by the ailments common to his breed: a collection of large-though-benign lipomas on his neck and chest and joint pain that left him unable to climb stairs. We would take him out to the yard by opening the garage and walking him up the grassy incline. Our neighbor saw us making this journey once. As Divo sniffed eagerly at her open palms, his stubby tail wagging full tilt, I noted the furrow in her brow.
“Doesn’t he suffer?” she asked.
I couldn’t answer her—I knew only that no matter how long I was away, Divo still welcomed me back with the same enthusiasm. He still wanted walking, still hunted down his food, still shadowed us through our days.
She kept on. “He’s getting rather old, don’t you think?”
I knew what she was suggesting—our responsibility to spare pain, to make the compassionate choice for an animal who cannot verbalize its will. This was a logic my parents knew, too, in more visceral ways than me. Still, it had never been discussed. My father would open the garage as many times as needed; my mother would lift Divo into the car and drive to a park with easier paths.
“Dogs know,” my father said, when I told him of the exchange. “They tell you when it’s time.”
He put out his hand, and Divo laid his snout in it. I remembered that Neron died from wounds he’d gotten defending the farm from a puma, that he’d held on for a handful of days with Poopsie at his side. That once he had gone, Poopsie had followed, though he’d been healthy enough. I remembered that my mother did not know what happened to any of her animals. In the worlds my parents had known, the lives of creatures had followed a natural rhythm; that rhythm’s disruption had been the cause of much of their pain. There was no reason, no responsibility to repeat such a thing.
Seven years after Duy and I met, while exploring a chic suburb near where we’d recently settled, we stumbled onto an outdoor adoption event.
Two streets had been blocked off, the wide boulevards lined with tents, staffed by volunteers hanging onto the leashes of overexcited dogs and trying to corral puppies into play pens. General rescue societies bumped up against boutique endeavors for particular breeds. We passed pit bulls, Shibas, greyhounds, Newfoundlands. We’d come to the neighborhood for Duy to expand his work wardrobe, his new job adjusting insurance requiring a business-casual dress code, but he was suddenly full of questions at the Akita Inu rescue organization’s table.
“Are they hard to train?”
“Is this about how big they’ll get?”
“How often do they shed?”
While he and the chief volunteer managed a surprisingly long conversation, the ambassador Akita, Hank, tolerated my tentative petting with aloof grace. When seated, Hank came up a little past my waist—about the same size as Divo, which was already impressive. His thick fur, however, made Hank seem almost leonine. Duy and I ended up taking a handful of informative flyers and semi-seriously discussing the possibility of ownership on the drive back home.
“I thought you didn’t want a fluffy dog?” I asked. Three years and four residence changes after living with K, we were still finding her fur in our clothes.
Duy shrugged. “Well, if you take care of brushing it every day and sweeping the floor.”
I’d just started graduate school. I thought of next year’s teaching load, thesis preparation, laundry. “Why me?”
“You’re the one who wants a dog.”
The divide between my desire for dog ownership and its realities widened, became a border I found I wasn’t yet able to cross. We were living in a spare bedroom in Duy’s uncle’s house. The idea of a dog, of our dog, would have to remain a thought experiment. I needed it to be a thought experiment. When Divo died two years earlier, I hadn’t been there.
My brother had called while Duy and I were sitting in a Peruvian take-out chain in Orlando.
“He’s lying in the bathroom, he can’t move, He won’t.”
My first impulse was to tell him to get Mom, but she wasn’t there either—she was in upstate New York, caring for our rapidly deteriorating grandmother. My dad was on the phone with her, passing along the same news. Formalities, really, because we knew we’d all be in agreement, for once: It was time. Divo was letting us know.
I cried, and Duy held my hand and didn’t say anything, this animal grief alien to him—the closest he’d had to a pet were tiger oscars kept in a tank by the front door for good luck. I cried harder later, when my father called to tell me it was done. The veterinarian office had taken care of cremating the body, but he and my brother hadn’t taken the ashes.
“But why?” I’d taken solace in the idea that Divo’s remains would live in an urn next to my grandfather’s, in the small shrine my mother had built. My father, his voice stuffed and heavy, gave a practical reason: it was an extra few hundred dollars. Peruvians are Catholic by majority—my father’s parents are buried in Tarma, and there had been rites he’d missed and graves he can’t visit. He was acclimated to finality; I was not.
Driving home from the adoption event, I realized I still wasn’t acclimated. I thought of Divo’s leather collar, the only thing left for me to say goodbye to.
“What would we name it, even? We could do the whole Japanese-name-for-Japanese-breed-thing, but I don’t know.”
Our former roommate’s friends had been so taken by K that they’d decided to buy a Shiba of their own. They’d called her Amaterasu, a choice one of my Japanese graduate professors likened to naming one’s pet “Jesus Christ”—pretension bordering on blasphemy. But I also didn’t want to name my someday-dog a one-syllable throwaway like “Hank,” even in a just-pretend conversation.
Duy drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “What’s the word for ‘meat’?”
Divo is the only dog Duy has never joked about eating. Three distant years of college language study dropped the word into my mouth. “Niku?”
“Niku.” He tasted the syllables and grinned. “I like that.”
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.