One of the first questions Vietnamese people, especially men, ask a foreigner is ‘Can you eat dog meat?
A direct translation from Vietnamese, the question is not so much asking whether the person ‘likes’ dog meat as whether they can handle it. After all, the consumption of dog meat is not just about how apparently ‘delicious’ it is, as the fact people see it as a ‘manly’ food, imparting virility to the consumer. In other words, if you can’t eat dog meat, you’re not a man.
At certain times of the lunar month, the consumption of dog meat is considered lucky, which may explain why women sometimes eat it. And of course, it could after all be true that to some people dog meat is actually ‘ngon’.
This can cause a dilemma for westerners in Vietnam, particularly the English. Napoleon called England ‘a nation of shop-keepers’, but most Europeans nowadays know it a nation of dog lovers.
Just about every household in rural England has a pet dog or two. There are popular TV shows devoted to dogs, magazines about the animals with nationwide readerships, and an annual competition for the best-behaved and best-looking dogs called ‘Crufts’, which is actually more like a national institution.
Queen Elizabeth’s dogs, of the Corgi breed, are more famous than some members of the Royal Family. Households that have no pet dogs often still have portraits of dogs hanging on the walls, and porcelain statues of pooches by the fireplace.
So an Englishman presented with a platter of dog meat at a Vietnamese table may find himself conflicted. On the one hand, the English are excessively polite: the words ‘sorry’, ‘please’, ‘excuse me’, ‘thank you’ form the foundation of their everyday vocabulary. He will firstly not wish to offend anyone by refusing. The Englishman abroad – of a certain type, anyway – is furthermore motivated by the adage ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, to the point where he often brings Rome to Rochester.
English culture, however parochial it may sometimes seem, is a blend of foreign influences, from the Fish and Chips invented in London by Portuguese and Irish immigrants, to the tea imported from colonies in Africa and India. The current national dish, an Indian curry called ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ was invented in Birmingham. When overseas, naturally, like a modern TE Lawrence, he wants to try ‘new things’.
On the other hand, this plate of dog meat, while looking like, variously, cooked ham, salami, and curried chicken, in fact has ‘Fido’ written all over it. What’s more, to the Englishman’s nose, that cooked ham smells a lot like the odour coming off a pooch when it’s been out in the rain for a while: somewhat unappetising.
And although not as superstitious as in the past, and certainly no believer in animal spirits, the idea of a dog having a ‘personality’ is hard-wired into his brain. He remembers Spot, Woof, even Tintin’s Snowy, not to mention the American dogs he grew up watching on TV: Goofy, The Littlest Hobo, the lovable Beethoven…
And then he forgets all of that and pops a slice of salami in his mouth. Xin mời.