The most polite form of greeting in the Chinese language is not “hello” or “how are you,” but “have you eaten yet?” And to oblige the greeter, the greetee must respond, “why yes, I’ve eaten.” Seeing that some of the most fundamental bits of Chinese dialogue are centered around, well, the consumption of food, it’s safe to say that the Chinese family exists first and foremost at the dinner table.
And I hated it. All throughout my childhood, phones, books, newspapers, television, anything and everything except food, chopsticks and your own person were not allowed at the dinner table. Dinner time is family time, Baba would say. There was, however, one exception.
“Spaaang-kee, ah,” Mama sings as we settle into our dinner seats. “What are you doing, Spaang-kee?”
Baba grins like an idiot. “Spunk Keeee!” he says, tapping the little guy on the nose once with his index finger.
They are referring to Spunky, the Gu household’s 11-year old beagle, who is shuffling impatiently around our feet underneath the glass table, adjusting and readjusting his sitting position, nose pointing hopefully at the undersides of bowls to leave streaks of moisture on the glass table. He’s the sole distraction my father allows at the dinner table, so long as no dog hair ends up in the rice.
It’s my turn. Mama and Baba are looking at me expectantly. “Hi Spunks,” I grin, patting his plushy brown ears. Baba nods, picks up his chopsticks, and the ingestion of rice, fried eggplant, tofu cubes and steamed shrimp commences.
My dad didn’t always like Spunky. When Spunky was a puppy, Baba, in fact, hated him. He peed on the carpets, shed all over the couches, ruined the grass in the backyard, stole his sweet potatoes—the list can go on. And Baba would get very, very, irrationally angry when Spunky would commit misdeeds, and lock the poor beagle in his kennel. “Time-out!” Baba would mutter to himself, dragging an unwilling Spunky by the collar into his crate. Then, of course, Spunky would whimper and howl, disturbing the peace of my dad’s coveted reading time.
Neither of my parents knew what they were getting into. They were woefully ignorant of how to raise a pet, since growing up in communist China meant that they could barely feed themselves, let alone a family animal. My mother found Spunky more or less amusing—he was cuter, more ke ai, she said, than the chickens her family kept in the closet while growing up. Well, I’d agree.
But my dad, the most composed man on the planet, would lose his cool so easily whenever Spunky had the gall to disobey. Baba was the man of the family, but Spunky clearly had no respect for authority, an unfilial dog. A Confucian abomination.
Once, Spunky went one step too far and peed on my dad’s tennis shoes. “SPUNKY!!!!!!!!!!!” My dad roared angrily. I heard pounding footsteps and the loud, frantic jingling of Spunky’s collar as Spunky ran for his life, my dad chasing him through the house. With nowhere to go but the master bedroom, Spunky hopped on the bed where my mom was sitting, probably hoping for protection. When my dad finally caught up to him, Spunky peed on the bed. Then he looked up at my dad, clearly terrified.
My dad, for a whole minute, just stared at him, and Spunky stared back. Then my dad started laughing. Then my mom nervously started laughing too, fearing that my dad had finally lost it. Spunky, confused by this reaction, just wagged his tail.
We cleaned the sheets and replaced the comforter. The incident was never spoken of again.
Over time, Spunky won Baba over. Maybe it was because Spunky quickly picked up on Chinese, or the fact that he got better about peeing on the carpet. Either way, his antics were now a point of amusement for my father.
At the dinner table, Spunky is the greatest distraction. He whines and pines for attention, for his favorite bits of sweet potato, squeezing back and forth in the small space underneath our kitchen table, stepping on our feet, looking up with his irresistible puppy eyes.
But my dad doesn’t care. Despite the fact that Spunky’s true bloodline hails from Yorkshire and Essex and even Ancient Greece, Spunky is a Chinese dog now, belonging at the Chinese family dinner table.
And he probably understands more Chinese than you.