It was our last day in Yangshou, a popular Chinese tourist destination renowned throughout the world for its countless eerie rock formations, which dot the foggy landscape like apparitions. After a breakfast of pig brain soup (to fortify our mental health, the menu said), Christina and I decided to have a peek at the local meat and vegetable market, which was tucked away in a warehouse-like building off the main road. There is something about watching a Chinese butcher in action — a cigarette hanging from his expressionless lips as he slams his square blade down on a giant ham hock or side of beef — that really makes me feel alive. I’d been in China less than a month, and so far wandering the marketplaces was my favourite part of the experience. It was grisly and mundane all at once and almost comical in its sheer Chinese-ness. I kept thinking to myself, “No, this isn’t a movie or quite like the stereotypes I imagined, and yet somehow it’s exactly like that.”
Inside the warehouse, we made a beeline for the meat market first — no matter how large and absurdly phallic a vegetable is, it’s always trumped by the spectre of death. We saw all the familiar sights: In one direction, nets full of squirming turtles, buckets of live scorpions, enormous bloody fish heads still twitching as their bodies were being fileted a few feet away. In the other, rows of chickens in various stages of disassembly—ones that looked like safe American chickens with their heads and feet removed, others that were dead and plucked but still had their appendages intact, and of course live chickens waiting ignorantly for their death. And next to those, cages of rabbits, all cute and floppy eared, like they’d been snatched from the pages of a children’s book.
There was hardly any ventilation, and Christina remarked that the stench was overwhelming, so thick that she felt like she was eating the putrid air. Only then did I realise just how rank it was. But it hardly bothered me. I was too overwhelmed by the chaotic visual delights.
“Oh my god,” Christina said suddenly: “Are those dogs?”
A few feet away, hanging from the ceiling by hooks, were the carcasses of what could only be, yes, dogs. What breed, I couldn’t tell. Brown ones, average size — the Platonic ideal of “dog,” you might say. They had been sliced vertically down the middle and had their organs removed, so the white ribs and dark red edges of the chasm running the length of each body were the main colours I saw. Hanging there like that, they almost didn’t even look real. I had a weird thought: Perhaps they were some kind simulacrum, put there for my benefit, to create a more perfect image of China as I’d hoped it would be. I’d come here eager to see some dead dogs, wondering whether that little piece of cultural trivia was true. And now, suddenly, here it was, exactly as I had imagined. And yet … why did it look so strange?
On a small table off to the side was a carcass that seemed to have been discarded for some reason, although it was fully intact. Like the hanging dogs, it too looked oddly fake, like it was made out of plastic, the Chinese dog equivalent of a reindeer lawn-ornament. Perhaps, I thought, this was because it had been shaved: Without its hair, it didn’t look like a real dog anymore. But more than that, I realised, it was because it was dead, so incredibly dead that it had been transformed into something else entirely. It struck me how palpable — how visible — life is, and therefore death as well. Even though it was still in total dog form, no one would mistake this piece of meat and bones for anything but a dead dog. It was obviously not sleeping, and obviously never coming back to life.
Christina had been flitting around the scene, materialising by my side from time to time to squeeze my hand. But this time when she reappeared, she yanked my whole arm.
“And cats too!” she said.
On the floor near where the dog carcasses were hanging, I saw a large cage of cats — fluffy orange-and-white house cats — that somehow we had both overlooked. Now my mind was really reeling. Before coming to China, when a friend (and avowed cat lover) had made me promise not to eat any cat meat, I was skeptical about how much opportunity I would even have. They just didn’t seem meaty enough. On the other hand, there were also cages of pigeons and rats here, and there’s more meat on a cat’s bones than either of those unsavory animals.
“Oh no, that one looks just like Odessa!” Christina said. She buried her face in my arm. Odessa was her cat back home in Florida.
Christina and I are both cat people. Dog people … not so much. In fact, back in New York, where I live, I’d been recklessly cultivating a reputation as a dog hater for some time. Mostly I’d been doing this to amuse myself. I take an odd sort of pleasure in offending people, and I’m always surprised by how deeply upset dog lovers are by the idea that everyone doesn’t love dogs, as if there’s something objectively wonderful about this animal, something that we as members of the human species must agree upon.
But what did we think about this grim spectacle we’d stumbled upon in Yangshuo? These cages of cats, animals we loved, and carcasses of dogs, animals we despised. Did we feel upset, reviled, as “civilised” Americans — as citizens of a country of absurd pet lovers, a nation of softies that dote on our pets like they’re more important than people? No, Christina and I are strong, we are adventurous … we felt excited, giddy with the rush that comes with seeing something new, something unexpected, something horrible — something we weren't even sure existed until we saw it with our own eyes, since how could we believe it otherwise.
We watched the Chinese butchers go about their work, cigarettes hanging from their lips as they carved up the animals and burned their bodies with blowtorches, while children raced around in the melee, unfazed and still utterly innocent.
I looked down at my feet. The floor was streaked with blood and bits of gristle and organs of all kinds, mingling with the water and mud that also ran in rivulets in every direction. I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures, until one of the butchers waved at me to put it away. The legality of eating dogs and cats in China seems to be a matter of debate, something the country is trying to move away from as it becomes more modernised, although obviously it’s still practiced in some places.
We’d searched for a similar scene in Guangzhou, but when we’d located the area of the famous Qingping Market that was notorious for killing cats and dogs, we found that in a supreme display of calculated irony it had been remade as a pet market. Cats and dogs were still for sale, but now they were sold with collars and toys — a clever repackaging of the “live animal market,” no doubt meant to show curious tourists how far China had come in just a few short years. And now, in Yangshuo, we’d stumbled quite by accident on the grisly version of the live animal market we’d hoped to find in Guangzhou.
I put my camera away and we moved off in the direction of the vegetable market, where things were much less bloody and smelly and where we could catch our breath and collect our thoughts, if we had any. Christina and I are essentially voyeurs, people who are interested in watching life, with few moral qualms about the things we see — and anyway, sometimes it’s better to save reflection for later, if you must indulge it at all. Ethical handwringing is not something that interests us, and mainly we just kept laughing and staring at each other saying, “Oh fudge muffins, I can’t believe what we just saw!” (Christina’s idiosyncratic vocabulary was rubbing off on me.)
The rest of the day passed pleasantly. We played cards in the park, sat in McDonald’s for hours drinking coffee and eating Pineapple and Sweet Taro Pies. I bought a souvenir Chinese characters T-shirt for a friend back home and even successfully haggled the price in half. We sat at a bar and talked to some other Americans, trying to impress them with our tale of the dog market, but likely offending them instead. Soon it was dinnertime.
Since it was our last night in Yangshuo, I wanted to try some river snails — a local specialty. As we flipped through the menu, once again it was Christina who spotted the thing we’d been hoping to find without even realising it. Right there on the menu in English: “dog meat.” We stared at each other, wondering if we were really that bold.
I can’t remember which of us had mentioned it first, but an obsession with eating dog had been running through our conversations for weeks. It was probably me that brought it up, as I’d been telling friends in New York that I would definitely eat a dog in China if I had the opportunity. This was partially to amuse myself, a way of really cementing my status as a dog hater, which was an aspect of my personality I’d been playing up a lot lately, but it was also something of a conversational gambit. Eating dog is such a taboo in America that I just wanted to see my friends’ reactions. I wasn’t even sure if people really did that in China. In fact, until that moment, I had kind of doubted I would actually have the opportunity.
“We can’t let those dogs we saw this morning go to waste,” I said, feeling very practical and noble all at once.
“Oh shucks, we have to try it!” Christina agreed. Her only hesitation was the price — 60 yuan for the dish seemed a bit steep. “What if it doesn’t taste good?” she worried. Then we’d have wasted a whole 10 dollars — about five meals at the Muslim restaurant near her apartment in Guangzhou.
“We’ll have the river snails too,” I said, somewhat insensibly, as there was no guarantee a plate of slimy river snails would be any tastier. In fact, that seemed like the riskier of the two dishes, taste-wise. “But it doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “It’s about the experience.” We flagged the waitress down and pointed at the dog meat picture on the menu.
It was served in a flaming pot with peppers and a few other vegetables. We dug in and were pleasantly surprised. Some of the pieces were too fatty and stuck to the bone, but many were tender and tasty — most comparable to beef, we decided, with perhaps a hint of mutton flavor as well. Stirred together with some rice and pepper sauce, it was quite a treat. Christina insisted it was “delicious.” I was having a bit of trouble suppressing the thought that “This is a dog I’m eating,” which was thrilling on one level but also slightly sickening. That surprised me. Considering how much I hate dogs, it should have been nothing but a joy to eat one. I was annoyed at myself for feeling even slightly conflicted.
But soon enough that small bout of cognitive dissonance passed, and I kept eating until the last scrap was gone from the pot. Between the dog meat and the heaping pile of river snails, we were stuffed — our stomachs bloated and our fingers and faces greasy. We kissed afterward and Christina said she could taste the dog meat on my lips, which made us laugh maniacally. Such romance! We poured water over our fingers and wiped them clean with some tissues I had stashed in my bag, then concluded with a triumphant cigarette, proud of our debauchery.
An hour later, after another trip to McDonald’s for a McFlurry, we settled into our bunks on the sleeper bus back to Guangzhou and catalogued the contents of our stomachs: pig brain for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch, dog meat and river snails for dinner, and more McDonald’s for dessert. Quite the successful day! I even had a small chunk of dog meat still lodged in my back teeth, a keepsake for the journey home. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, we took our sleeping pills, Christina slipped on her sleep mask, I inserted my earplugs, and we fell asleep holding hands — or trying to anyway, as the bus lurched along the highway back to Guangzhou, the engine roaring under our tired heads, another small piece of reality confirmed.