Monday, October 6, 2014

A few thoughts about owning a dog in Seoul

Give me food.

(Note:  MsCaroline's experiences are based on owning a smallish dog in an international neighborhood in Seoul.  It is likely that, if she had a larger/smaller/cuter/uglier/different breed dog and lived in a different part of Korea, her experience might well be completely different.  If you are thinking about owning a dog in Korea, do not take her experience as the final word.  Everyone's experience is different - this has been hers.)

As most of you know, we left our beloved Yellow Dog with my cousin in Canada when we moved to Seoul.  We had some serious doubts about his ability to adjust happily to life in a small apartment on the 14th floor of a high rise, as well as his ability to adjust to the general traffic and constant noise of a big city.  While it turns out that plenty of people do bring their big dogs to Korea and successfully make the adjustment to apartment living, we realize now that, despite all that,  it probably would not have worked for him, and we made the correct decision.  He is now living a life that most of us would envy, starting with the fact that my cousin makes him a cooked breakfast every. single. morning.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Every. single. morning.

Anyway, the point is, before we moved to Korea, we heard a lot of conflicting information about dogs in Korea:  how they were treated (badly), how they were perceived(Koreans hate dogs, don't have them as pets, etc,) what it was like to own a dog in Korea (challenging), and how hard it was to find landlords who permitted pets.  Now that we've lived here for 3+ years and have experienced dog culture in Seoul ourselves, we have come to our own set of conclusions, which have occasionally fit with what we'd heard, but more often, did not.

Most of you know that, after 2 years in the high-rise, we moved to a new apartment which permitted 'small dogs,' and, 4 months later, brought home a small, flat-faced dog, which was represented to us as being either a French Bulldog or, possibly, a Boston Terrier.  Or, possibly, some of each, which is probably the most likely scenario.

I may or may not be a French Bulldog.  Or Boston Terrier. You won't know for a few months. 

 In any case, Merlot (our other dog is named after beer) joined the household, and the learning curve began.(Note:  It is not a coincidence that MsCaroline's posting frequency dropped drastically after Merlot joined the household.  When she wasn't trying to exercise the dog enough to get it to sleep, she was trying to engineer a pen that would contain it.  It was a dark time.)

Over the past year, we've learned plenty about having a dog in Seoul, some of which confirmed the 'myths' we'd heard, and some of which made us realize that things have been changing even in the 3 short years we've been here.  Here's what our experience has been:

Not all Koreans are scared of dogs:  Before we moved to Korea, we read plenty of blogs and forums that told us that Koreans - who have not traditionally kept dogs as pets - were scared of all dogs and that the mere act of walking down the street with one could cause grown men to shriek like little girls and leap off the sidewalk.  The truth is, yeah, there are a lot more people who are scared of dogs in Korea than there are in North America - even more so if you have a large dog, I'm sure.  MrL and I have personally observed grown adults flattening themselves against a wall, pale with terror, as Merlot ( or, "9 kilos of raging fury" as MrL calls her ) trots pleasantly by on heel, hoping for ear scratches.  Yes, I have seen mothers pull their children behind them when we walk past;  I have seen people deliberately step off the sidewalk or cross the street, just to avoid possible contact with the dog; I have seen schoolchildren scream (yes scream) and run away.  It happens at least a few times a week on our daily walks.
Striding down city sidewalks, terrifying all in her path....

However, in all fairness, there are many more people who love our dog and stop to pet her, admire her, or ask about her.  As it happens, the flat-faced, big-eyed, goblinlike appeal of Frenchies and Boston Terriers is extremely high at the moment, and many hip young Koreans view our girl as a bit of a trendy fashion accessory, sort of like a pair of Doc Martens.  In any case, we rarely complete a walk without at least one lovely young Korean woman stopping to exclaim, "Oh, gwiyoun!" (sounds like 'key-oh!' and means "Oh, cute!")  Merlot is so familiar with this now, that if someone says, 'gwiyoun!' in her hearing, she immediately assumes they are addressing her and turns to the speaker.
Goofy and ridiculous, yes.  Some days, the word 'cute' is not exactly applicable.

I should also add that in many places we take her, she is a virtual Rock Star, attracting actual crowds. While I would like to think this is a result of her innate charm, the truth is, one sees very few flat-faced breeds over here, so it's more like taking a 3-toed sloth for a walk.  Hey, what's that? -I don't know, I think it's one of those things I saw on the Discovery Channel. Let's go look at it! - People gather around her, ask to take photos with her or to have her photo taken with their kids (sure, she's cute, but - a photo? Whatever.  Go ahead) .  The day we took this photo on top of Namsan Mountain at the Lighting of the Beacons Ceremony, there had been a crowd around her for the past half hour, documenting everything she did with their camera phones, including her photo op with one of the guards (who struggled to maintain his gravitas):

Go on.  You know you want to laugh.

Initially, we thought this was an older -vs. - younger generation thing, with the younger generation becoming more westernized and more familiar with the concept of dogs as housepets, but since some of Merlot's biggest admirers in our own neighborhood are elderly - and since plenty of schoolchildren still shriek and run away when they see me coming with Merlot (securely fastened to her lead) - the evidence doesn't support that assumption at all.

Plenty of Seoulites have dogs as pets:   When we got here 3 years ago, the dogs we saw most were the tiny, frou-frou types:  chihuahuas, Yorkie-poos, miniature poodles and mini dachshunds - basically, anything under about 5kg that could be carried in one of those dog purses.  They are still very popular - often dressed in tutus, smoking jackets, onesies, dresses, and shoes.  They have dyed hair (pink is probably the most popular at the moment,) polished fingernails, and quite a few have raincoats and boots. I have seen them carried in front packs (like an infant) and even doggie strollers. So, yes, Koreans do keep dogs as pets. Lately, we have been seeing more medium-to-large sized dogs in our neighborhood, and a Korean friend of mine told me that larger dogs (Dobermans, Labs) are starting to be seen as something of a status symbol:  if you live somewhere with enough space to keep a large dog, you must therefore have a substantial income.  I should also note that I know many people who keep dogs in their apartments, which disproves our earlier belief that Korean landlords do not allow pets.  For every landlord who doesn't, there is likely one who does.  Space, however, is still an issue, especially if you live in apartment, as most expats do.  If you do not mind taking your dog up and down an elevator every time it needs to do its business (or teaching it to do its business indoors on absorbent pads) you should be fine, as long as your dog can adjust to living in an apartment and does not absolutely need a big yard to run in in order to be happy.
Sometimes a dog needs space to roam. And sometimes a dog thinks she is a cat.
Eating dog - less prevalent than in the past:  It is true that Koreans - along with many other Asian cultures - traditionally viewed dogs as livestock or food.  It is also true that there are several traditional dishes that feature dogmeat, including bosintang, a stew traditionally eaten during the hottest part of the summer.  However, it is far less common for Koreans to eat dog than it used to be, and many younger Koreans have never done so.  Laws surrounding the raising of dogs for meat and its sale are vague at best, implying that it is against the law, but not actually illegal (I told you the laws were vague.  Or maybe I meant illogical) and there are still markets that sell dogs for meat, as well as restaurants that sell dishes containing dogmeat, so it is not exactly a charmingly antiquated custom that will necessarily die out anytime soon.  Nonetheless, I have never (knowingly) been in a restaurant that sold dog meat entrees, although I know they are out there (MrL has been to one.)  I could be wrong, but my best guess is that eating dog in Korea is a lot like eating squirrel or rattlesnake meat in the US:  yes, people do it, and those who do so aren't about to quit just because it makes some people uncomfortable, but you're not going to walk into your average grocery store and find it in the meat section.  In any case, in my 3 years in Seoul, I have not run across it, and I am more than happy to keep it that way.

Merlot's primary interaction with the restaurant industry is not as an ingredient, but as a customer. She is well-known at a number of cafes in our neighborhood.
Many Koreans interact differently with dogs than westerners do:

Clucking/tsking/kissing noises:    If you ever want a perfect example of a cultural difference, this would be it. (This is by no means a 'right' or 'wrong' thing, but simply a difference in how we communicate, and it's kind of fascinating, if a bit annoying at times.) In North America, when we make these noises at dogs, we do it with the intention of enticing the dog to come toward us - sort of a, "here, nice doggie" sound. It follows, then, that western dogs who hear this kind of sound respond by heading in the direction of the person who is summoning them. The problem is that when people in Korea make this noise at a dog, it just means, 'this is a noise I make at dogs' or, possibly, "Oh, that's a nice dog," - but it does not necessarily mean that the sound-maker wants the dog to come anywhere near him.  As you can imagine, this leads to daily awkward and embarrassing amusing incidents, wherein the dog is minding its business walking down the sidewalk, someone gets its attention by making noises at it, and the dog stops what it's doing and heads toward the person who has summoned him.  In the US, this would not be a problem, because if you are clucking or 'tsk'ing at a dog, you expect him to come towards you.  In Korea, however, it leads to people backing up and exclaiming in horror alarm as your dog walks towards them. I used to think that, every time I heard someone tsking or clucking at Merlot, it meant they wanted to call her to them for a little visit or an ear scratch.  I know better now, but the first few hundred times I experienced it, I was always confused about what I considered to be 'mixed messages' that were being sent as the 'tsker' backed away.  I asked a Korean friend about this, and she was very surprised to hear that we use these sounds to actually summon our dogs - for her, it's more of just a reaction to seeing a dog. The best I can come up with is to compare it to the way Americans with little kids point to cows and say, "moo."  No response is ever expected from the cow.  It's just what you do.

Petting them differently:  When a Korean person wants to pet Merlot, it's sometimes an interesting - and different - cultural approach.  In the US, typically if you want to interact with a dog, you hold out your hand.  The dog sniffs it, decides whether or not to continue the relationship, and - if the dog approves - you pet it.  By 'pet,' I mean, you do some gentle patting, stroking, or scratching - and if it's a really big dog - maybe give it some gentle whacks on the side, like a cow.

 In Korea, this is not always the case.  In the first place, we run into a lot of people who approach the dog by 'chucking' it under its muzzle.  (This is sort of like what you would do to yourself if you were a middle-aged woman who was hoping against hope to pat away a double chin. Not that MsCaroline would be familiar with this gesture.)  It's not painful or violent or anything - in fact, it seems more like rhythmic tapping - just under the chin, which is (in North American culture, at least) not a typical place for petting dogs.  The other thing that is interesting is when people go to pet Merlot and - before they get their hand to the top of her head - she sniffs or licks their hand.  More often than not, there is either a rapid pulling back of the hand, or a little squeal of alarm, as though the petter fears that she will tear their hand off.  While MsCaroline concedes that an immaculately-behaved dog(which we can all agree Merlot is not) would probably remain perfectly still while being patted on top of the head, she also does not feel that it is completely out of the realm of reasonable behavior for a dog to sniff or lick a hand that is petting it.  However, it is possible that Merlot is the canine equivalent of one of those dreadful children who get away with murder because their soft-headed and weak parents instill no discipline in them.  It could very well be that MsCaroline - as is so often the case with doting parents - is just the last to accept it.

But I can't help it.  She's so.....gwiyoun.


You gonna eat that all yourself? MsCaroline knows - we're working on table manners....



10 comments:

Nance said...

Fascinating. And thoroughly enjoyable. The cultural differences are quite striking when it comes to dogs! Merlot (and you and your husband) is quite the ambassador then.

I'm wondering if it is primarily dogs, or if it is a culture that is just not all that into pets in general. Are there cat owners, small animal (hamsters, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, etc) owners? Or is pet owning simply not part of their culture overall?

I have a Boston Terrier friend, Stella, and she is quite outgoing and more than a little energetic. She is also a bully and very territorial. Her dog parents have to spend a great deal of time with her, so I can absolutely understand your hiatus.

Trish Burgess said...

Reading this has been quite an education. I would probably react like a Korean, especially if my hand was licked. I have no idea what to do with dogs.
So funny to read your posts - I hope this is the start of regular postings. You tease me now and again with the impression of a bonanza of blogging and then disappear, leaving me bereft.
Thanks heavens I can follow you on FB and see what you get up to.

BavarianSojourn said...

I love this post, she is just adorable. The photos are just uber cute as well! I still can't believe how dogs are such a huge part of life here in DE, I think the whole Dogs are an Englishman's best friend thing is wrong. They aren't allowed in English super markets, that's for sure! :D

MsCaroline said...

Nance - As far as I can see, there are plenty of small pets in Korea, too, although I don't know what the percentage of owners might be. There are plenty of pet stores that sell fish, hamsters, mice, and guinea pigs, as well as hedgehogs - much more common than they were when we left the US - I always moon over them and their little pink noses. I think a lot of it has to do with space - at least in Seoul - which probably explains why the mini dogs are so much more popular. I have heard (but can't prove) that cats are slowly becoming more common as well - you don't see them out on leashes, so it's hard to guess.
Your friend Stella sounds like a ball of energy, which - based only on owning one for a year and some reading - seems to be standard for the breed. Merlot is, thankfully, too submissive to be a bully and could care less about her territory as long as someone is keeping her company in it. She is mostly just interested in having people around her. But she is definitely high-energy. My only regret is that all the walking I do with her has not resulted in any corresponding weight loss. Damn.

MsCaroline said...

Trish - plenty of non-dog people out there, but I am guessing you probably would admire from a distance rather than do any chin-chucking. The other thing you have to consider is that England has a long cultural history of dogs as pets, so even if you aren't a dog person, you have lived in a culture where they're relatively common. The whole idea of owning a dog as a pet (instead of livestock or a working animal) is still relatively new in Korea, so one often feels like one is trailblazing.
Thanks for your kind words - I have missed blogging terribly, and am with you in hoping that this is a beginning of a return to normalcy - whatever that looks like.

MsCaroline said...

Emma - so true! One of my friends who left Korea last year to move home to Germany was telling me about her trials in trying to find a new apartment for a family with 3 children. She was so frustrated, because everywhere she looked, people were happy to accommodate dogs, but children were another matter entirely. ; ) Dog culture is very strong in our little German 'bubble' here in Korea - my kids love to hear Merlot stories, and most have stories of their own dogs as well- or Opa and Oma's dogs back home.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

I love to see Korea through your eyes. Totally fascinating. I think you are quite brave to have a dog in an apartment. I must be very conditioned to the idea that dogs need lots of outside space. This is perhaps not unconnected with the fact that the dogs owned by various members of my family are all labrador retrievers!

MsCaroline said...

Elizabeth - even though I know many people do it, I would have a hard time imagining a labrador retriever in an apartment, too! We have almost always had labs (3 in our 23-year marriage) and always had some sort of space for them to run in. The dog we have now would probably enjoy a garden, too, but she is small enough that daily walks and playing fetch in the living room meet her needs. Definitely a change from what we were used to!

Stacy Rushton said...

What a great post, Carolyne! Informative and hysterical in equal measures. I have a particular weakness for snub-nosed dogs so Merlot is definitely gwiyoun and I can see why folks want to take photos with her. We had the same experience with our long-haired blondies in China. All the tourists were taking photos of the Forbidden City. The Chinese were taking photos with our daughters. I finally had to cut them off since the queue was getting ridiculous. I think it's because their friends won't believe the story if they don't see a photo.

MsCaroline said...

Stacy - yes, the snub-nosed dogs are charming, aren't they? (noisy, but charming.) As a child in Bangkok and Taipei (well before the era of digital cameras) I remember hating it that so many people wanted to touch me or my hair for 'good luck.' I can't imagine what this must have been like with your daughters in the digital era!