Of Dogs and Dialects

 

I am Vietnamese-Australian, yet I speak English better than any other language.  All my reading, writing and thinking is limited to combinations and permutations of the twenty-six lettered Roman alphabet. So do I still have use for another language?

As a little girl, I saw language as a burden.

When I was ten years old, learning Vietnamese was a great big bore. A waste of three hours every Saturday morning at Richmond West Primary School. I didn’t know why I had to learn to speak differently from other people. How did learning Vietnamese help me read my Enid Blytons, my Isobelle Carmodys? How did it help me with public speaking, debating, or simply catching the bus?

David Crystal’s How Language Works reveals an interesting truth about multi-culturalism. He states that multi-linguism is the normal human condition for three quarters of the human race. With more than 6700 languages, co-existing in fewer than 200 countries, most people can speak in two tongues or more.

Yet language is in a constant state of flux.

The United Nations cultural organisation UNESCO says that one language becomes extinct every fortnight. By the end of this century, it is estimated that the world will likely lose half of its 6700 languages. Imagine! Scripts written in dead languages will become indecipherable to many and accessible only by the elite few. Think Latin.

This phenomenon of language shift is occurring right here in Australia. Data from the 2006 Australian Census indicates a decrease in languages other than English amongst second-generation immigrants, who are becoming increasingly monolingual. Foreign languages are yielding to the dominant English domino effect.

Well, dominance isn’t everything. All our languages are completely irreplaceable. They need to be preserved so we can speak to people we otherwise couldn’t, such as our grandparents, and see the world from a perspective we otherwise wouldn’t, such as that of other countries. Interestingly, English isn’t even the world’s most spoken language. It is the third, behind Mandarin and Spanish.

Regardless, I didn’t always see language as identity.

The year I started Vietnamese school was the same year I found out that it is very possible to be embarrassed by your own culture. I found out something terrible and barbaric, which left me completely aghast.

Things were never the same again.

1994 was the Lunar New Year of the Dog. I’ve always loved dogs, however I wasn’t allowed to have one. We had no space. Our apartment at the time was deemed suitable to raising a young child, but not a scampering puppy. Despite my lack of a canine companion, however, I learnt everything I could about Fido. At the Collingwood Library I read reference books until they became dog-eared, memorising an A to Z of prized pedigrees.

One of my favourite Asian dogs was the Chow Chow. This ancient Chinese creature was unique, black tongued with a golden lion mane. But the reason I liked the Chow Chow best was because of its English name, the ‘Puffy Lion Dog’. Surely some meaning had been perverted in translation. Why was this dog ‘puffy’? Was it anaphylactic? Oedematous, perhaps? The misinterpretation puzzled me.

At my regular primary school, a girl asked me an even more perplexing question.

‘Why do all you Asians like eating dogs?’

What?!

This was news to me. I didn’t know anyone, let alone Asians, who ate dog. I had never heard anyone’s rationale for doing so, nor did I wish to.

I vehemently denied this slander. I said no Asian would ever do that. But I was ridiculously confused. Encountering this worded weapon in an Australian schoolyard made me, the bespectacled Asian kid, feel even more different. It raised awkward questions. How could I be proud of my heritage if it was abhorrent to my core?

Dad, do we really eat dog?

Well, yes dear. It’s true. In his infinite wisdom, he decided to tell me a funny story, to lighten the mood. That night I cried. A cute fluffy Puffy Lion Dog was surely not intended to become a Crispy Lion Dog.

In the 1980’s, when the new Vietnamese migrants were arriving on Australian shores, Dad knew a fellow boat person who liked to eat dog. This man had gone to the local supermarket and was impressed by the wealth of clean, pre-packaged food. He bought some tins. Unable to read the English labels, he chose them by their pictures. Wow! He thought, upon seeing a doggy profile. Australia is so rich, they even have dog meat in a can. This man ate ‘dog’ not realising that it was actually ‘dog food’. What he thought was a delicacy, turned out to be a treat fit for Border Collies, only.

At the time, this story made me indignant. It served that man right. Eating dog food was punishment for contemplating dog eating in the first place. Now, however, I feel only empathy for the new refugee. He had learnt, in a most disgusting fashion, that some habits in Australia are not acceptable. A cultural shift. He had to give up some of the ways of the past, to enjoy a new future.

The tough bit about the past is knowing what to keep and what to change. Not all parts of one’s culture are palatable. Some aspects of tradition are just bad. What’s the point of moving to an enlightened country, such as Australia, when bad practices are upheld just in the name of custom?

Like Chinese foot binding, Japanese whaling, and a preference for sons, Asians dog eating has to stop. It’s called progress. According to Wikipedia, dog eating is currently banned in many Asian countries. Only a minority do the damage.

However outdated these practices are, their mere existence should not overwhelm our overall respect for our own culture. Exactly like an extended family, we are part of it, yet do not necessarily have to agree with all of it. We need loyalty to the old, but not blindly so. Sexism, hypocrisy and cruelty should be regarded as past evils, not current identity.

We can define what makes us Asian.

Like a hybrid language, we can borrow vocabulary from all our backgrounds. We can emerge as an amalgamation of ideas, preserving the best and integrating the rest. We can make redundant traditions obsolete. For starters, a dog is a companion, not cuisine. A friend, not food. We have to refresh our cultural image through choice.

So. I’m Asian.

Do I eat dog?

No. Không.

Let me tell you about it in two different languages.

Violet Kieu

Author: Violet Kieu

Violet is a writer and doctor with training in paediatric surgery, general surgery and obstetrics & gynaecology. She has received a Boroondara Literature Award, been shortlisted for the Marjorie Barnard Short Story Award and has published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

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