Sunday, July 17, 2011

7.17.2011 Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dog?

As far as cultural differences go, the ones between Koreans and Americans are pretty mild. Already I've absorbed many of the cultural mores of my new home. I no longer blink at almost-showing-panty-length skirts in the workplace, while visible cleavage startles me. The American tradition of three months of summer vacation seems like a monumental waste of everyone's time. Kimchi goes with everything, the best dishes are bright red with chili paste, and even lollipops taste too sweet to me now. But there's one thing I just still don't see eye-to-eye with Koreans about: dogs. And I'm not talking about in the soup.

"I just want to be your fwiend..."
I don't come from what you would call "animal people." We always had a dog when I was a child, but only one at a time. My sister and I kept a few of the pets traditionally given to children, usually hamsters. This is in strong contrast with Linus's attitude towards pets, which has traditionally been the more and varied, the better - including dogs, cats, ferrets, multiple parrots, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and pot-bellied pigs. So it's understandable that Linus doesn't get why a lot of Koreans are afraid of dogs. But I have to admit, I'm a little confused myself.

It's not like there aren't dogs in Korea. There are tons! There are even a number of quite large dogs - Huskies are pretty popular (though I don't know why, considering the climate). And while we've seen a few strays, nearly all the dogs we've met have owners and are well-cared-for. Some very popular reality shows center almost entirely on animal stories, particularly dogs.

"... or do I?"
Nevertheless, every time we go for a walk, many of the people we meet react with fear to our ten-pound, tail-wagging Jack Russell. They skirt her on the sidewalk and clutch their boyfriends' arms, despite us keeping Friday on a very short leash. When they do approach her, they shriek when she tries to sniff the hand they're using to pet her. By far the saddest cases are the children. Multiple times in a single walk I held Friday as still as I could while mothers encouraged their three-year-olds to pet the puppy, only to have the children scream every time she moved her head and refuse to come within touching distance. I don't think that ALL of these children - or their adult counterparts, for that matter - can have had previous bad experiences with dogs. I'll be the first to admit, Friday can be a bit of a butt-head sometimes, but you won't meet a friendlier, happier dog with strangers. So what's with all the fear?

My totally uneducated stab-in-the-dark answer is this: it's about familiarity. Most American children are taught, from an early age, how to approach dogs and handle them safely. Most urban Korean children are not. Although there are a lot of dogs visible in Korea, most families still don't own one. The dogs that people see regularly fall into two categories: small lapdogs that, as far as I can tell, are usually very poorly trained, and large dogs that are kept strictly outdoors and never mingle much with the family. If your only encounters with dogs are with big barking ones in people's yards and tiny, crazy, probably nippy little five-pounders, being approached by an uproariously happy and rather large (by Korean standards) terrier can be kind of scary.

So it's not that I don't understand, but I do wish it was different. I firmly believe that animals in the household are an essential ingredient to a happy and healthy life, and I admit to being ethnocentric enough to stand by that idea. Now I just need to figure out how to smuggle Friday into my classroom...


  1. If nothing else, they may be a happy, healthy, ingredient in a really good meal.

    Kidding, kidding.

    That is very strange to hear, but I think you get the same reaction in the US from children of parents who are neat freaks or are afraid little jimmy or janey is going to die of a horrible allergic reaction if any pets are allowed into the home.
    They are interested, but the concept of a "pet" being friendly is completely alien to them.

  2. That's absolutely true. It's just so much less common in the U.S. than in Korea. We used to take Friday to the farmer's market and she would just be swarmed by children. All the kids here want to look at her but freak out if she comes near them or tries to lick their hands. Sad. :(

  3. We take her with us running every other day or so, and she pretty consistently scares people on the running path by doing nothing other than being there. :/

  4. My sister's kids are terrified of cats for the same reason - lack of familiarity. They are totally fine with the family's rather larger retrievers, but cats and their unpredictable movements startle them.