A man's best friend teaches writer about China

By Mary Katherine Smith ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-05-07 13:27:36

My love for dogs goes as far back as my first memory. As a little girl, I collected and displayed a collection of dog figurines. At 5 years old, I was ready and willing to run away with the family dog after the threat of giving him away when he chewed up the sofa. Luckily he stayed - as did I - and my affection for man's best friend continued.

A man's best friend teaches writer about China

As an adult, my reasons for wanting to adopt a dog were purely selfish. I wanted a companion. I wanted a young, energetic dog that would need long walks or runs to help keep me active and motivated to stick to an exercise routine. I wanted something furry to come home to.

Little did I know that my four-legged friend and love for dogs would help me feel more at home in and fall in love with my Shanghai community.

As if being a tall blonde didn't already attract a lot of curious stares, add a 12-kilogram black dog that believes everyone is his best friend to the picture and locals seem even more intrigued.

The decision to adopt Xiao Hei, which means little black in Chinese, definitely fulfilled those initial selfish desires, but the experience has also brought me closer to my neighbors and made me feel more at home, not just in my house but also within my community.

It was on an evening walk a few months after I first brought Xiao Hei home that I spotted the group of elderly Chinese people who gather at the office park close to my home.

After realizing they go there most weeknights, I decided it would be a good way to help Xiao Hei socialize with other dogs. After a few visits, it was not only an opportunity for him to sniff and play but also a chance for me to practice my Chinese.

Conversations started off light, and they found it humorous that the American girl has a dog with a Chinese name.

"Most Chinese give their dogs English names, but you've given him a Chinese name. Very interesting," they laughed. With that simple laugh, it seemed that barriers, cultural and language-wise, were broken and with each visit I felt more a part of the community.

After just a few visits, my reasoning for taking that evening stroll to the makeshift dog park was not just to let my dog play or to practice my Chinese.

I wanted to go to continue feeling like a part of the community. I want to see Wang Zai the poodle and his mom, and Sissy and her dad. I look forward to seeing Buddy - the only one who seems to be able to keep up with Xiao Hei's energy - and enjoy the albeit short and broken conversations I have with his owners.

In the past year that I've been going to the pseudo dog park, I've gotten to know the people who bring their pets to play and the families whose children turn the concrete courtyard into their playground. The other dog owners are not only excited to see Xiao Hei (who is even more excited to see them) but they are always eager to let me practice new words and phrases I've learned.

When they haven't seen me or Xiao Hei in a few days or weeks, they're quick to ask where we've been and what we've been doing.

Even though many years and languages separate us, I've been able to spend time with people I would have never otherwise met and improved my conversation skills. And it's largely because of Xiao Hei.

They say that pets are a good way to help you feel adjusted and have a sense of family, which is especially important when living thousands of miles away from family.

I never expected that having a dog would be a way to help me practice Chinese, better understand Chinese culture and help me feel a part of a community while being so far away from home.

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