Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Year of the Dog

by G. Jack Urso 

At Houghton College, the Evangelical Christian college I attended in the 1980s, there was a small white house that sat at the entrance. At the time I was a student there, it housed a large family of Cambodian refugees. Houghton College is a fairly remote, rural town in Western New York. How a family of Cambodian refugees ended up here, I’m not certain, but in a typical American display of “We mean well, but we don’t know what we’re doing,” whoever sponsored the family relocated them from a war-torn tropical nation to the Middle of Nowhere, NY, where snow falls in feet and can remain on the ground, and I kid you not, until early May.
In my last year of college, as part of my work with Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), I worked with an organization called Allegheny County Outreach in a Big Brother/Big Sister-type outreach program. Anke, with whom I was the co-director of homecoming that year, was tasked as the Big Sister for the four younger Cambodian kids, who ranged in age from about six to twelve-years-old. Overwhelmed, particularly with the silent, surly twelve-year-old boy, she asked me if I would be Big Brother to her Big Sister and help out.

In addition to homecoming, ESA, playing bass in two bands, working part-time, disc jockeying on the college radio station, and writing a weekly column in the college newspaper, I wasn’t studying, so why not help out.
Most Saturdays, Anke and I would do some kind of activity with the kids, such as taking them to a movie on campus or to the cafeteria for dinner and desert. There was a cultural gap that was difficult to manage at times. The youngest ones were usually just happy to be somewhere with “the big kids,” but the twelve-year-old was moody and surly. The Cambodia they escaped from was war-torn and experienced a nationwide genocide. My mother, who saw a lot of horrible things during the occupation of Sicily by the Nazis in World War II (see “News from the Front: Memories of a World War II Refugee”), gave me a certain amount of understanding, but being only 21 what the hell did I know about life, let alone kids?

The culture clash became apparent when we brought the kids to a luncheon event for all the children in the program. I’m not sure who originally thought of the idea kids like clowns, but they probably never had kids or saw clowns or saw kids and clowns together, ever. For the younger Cambodian children especially, in whose culture white is the color associated with death and mourning, white-faced clowns were both confusing and terrifying.

The culture clash also manifested itself in what only can be described as an awful and tragic miscommunication. Anke, in all her innocent naiveté, got the kids a puppy as a way of cheering the kids up and giving them something they could play with and learn responsibility.

A few weeks later, Anke asked how the puppy was and the children replied it was great and they enjoyed it very much.

Let me pause while that sinks in.

That’s long enough. Yes, OH MY GOD, they ate the poor thing!

It’s one of those times when you really don’t know what to say. We understood the differences in culture, but being confronted with it rather than as a sidebar comment in the margin of our sociology textbook, was a surreal experience.

Anke, as you can imagine was absolutely horrified. She looked at me for help and almost immediately regretted it.

Without missing a beat, and wanting to break the tension and belay the children’s confusion at Anke’s reaction, I commented as nonchalantly as possible, “I had some with the Korean students. It was OK, spicy, but a little tough and chewy.”

Let me back up and explain.

Cave Canem

In my freshman year, 1984, I befriended several South Korean students, Jin Kim and Min Kim (no relation), and a couple others whose names I forget, but included one young man whose fiancé was on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which was shot down by a Soviet aircraft on September 1, 1983. One day, they made a big deal of cooking up a real homemade South Korean meal. They went to Buffalo to visit the local Korean community and get the ingredients. Nobody else was invited, or perhaps they turned down the invitation knowing what was coming.

As we all sat down to eat, Jin and Min kept giving each other sideways glances and looking at me. They asked me how I liked the dish, which was some kind of beef with vegetables and noodles, and snickered at each other. I was missing out on the joke until, finally, the guy who lost his fiancé on Flight 007, and had little patience for pranks, blurted out, “It’s dog. We’re eating dog.”

They all looked at me, waiting for my reaction, having successfully baited the ignorant American, but I grew up with a Sicilian mother who made her own sausage (with real intestines!), butchered chickens and rabbits, and kept decapitated goat heads in the freezer to keep the brains fresh, so the revelation, however distasteful, didn’t faze me. They would have to do a lot more than feed me dog to get my goat.

“It’s a little chewy, but OK,” I commented in a backhanded passive-aggressive complement.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . .

Already stunned by the children’s confession, my admission angered Anke and she looked at me as though I was eating dog right then and there.

The oldest boy put his head back and laughed, almost uncontrollably. He laughed at me for admitting I once ate dog, he laughed at Anke for being horrified, and he probably laughed at the Koreans for not knowing how to cook dog properly. After that, our relationship improved and he began to talk with me more. Nothing serious, but he started to let his guard down.

While it seems I am making fun of eating dog, I am an animal rights advocate and have been involved in animal rescue and pet adoption groups, so I don’t toss around what happened lightly, but what happened, happened. I didn’t do so intentionally, but having done so I used it to reach across a cultural and age gap to connect with an immigrant child from a war-torn country. In that regard, I have no regrets. 

That white house at the entrance of Houghton College is long gone. It has been replaced by a modern, upscale inn which likely services a steady stream of visiting parents and prospective students. Whatever happened to the Cambodian family is unknown. That angry, young twelve-year-old boy would be about 46 now, and even the youngest child would be about 40. If they remember Anke and I at all, we are but long-distant memories shrouded by the passage of the years. Time, and life, goes on.

Well, except for the dog, obviously. 

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