Love Can Look Like So Many Things
The dog that saved me, the dog I couldn’t save
When I was five, a kid from my neighborhood was bitten by a street dog, infected with rabies, and spent a month paralyzed in bed before he drowned from his saliva. His doting parents, who continued to share his meals despite his illness, contracted rabies through infected body fluids. They died a few weeks later, leaving his grandparents penniless, ostracized, and heartbroken.
At least, that’s how the well-rehearsed story goes. Rabies has the highest mortality rate — 99.9% — of any known disease. In the decade before my birth, almost 60,000 people died from rabies in China, nearly all from encounters with rabid dogs. When my parents were growing up, less than 1% of dogs in China were vaccinated. Street dogs, then, were at best farmhands, at worst pests, and to some, food. Only in 2020 did China’s Ministry of Agriculture officially designate dogs as “companion animals” instead of “livestock.”
So you can only imagine my mother’s shock when, a month after emigrating to the U.S., she felt a small, furry creature nuzzling at her ankle while taking out the trash. She let out a scream and scurried back inside. My father gave her a cursory look, “just don’t feed it, it’ll go away.”
File that under “obvious foreshadowing.” From the other side of the screen door, I saw a dark, long, wooly puppy with upright ears no more than 15 inches tall. It had made itself a home in the hollow among the garbage cans. It sat upright, straight-backed, head tilted, in curious defiance. I happened to be 11 years old and also treading the newly delicate balance between unquestioning obedience and calculated rebellion. So when my parents were getting ready for bed, I bolted to the fridge, grabbed a piece of leftover meat, and — being careful not to contract rabies — flung it out the back door.
That year, my mother and I had arrived on American soil to meet my father, the three of us crammed ourselves into a single-story home with two other migrant families in a questionable neighborhood. We rented the cheapest bedroom in the middle of the house, which meant sharing a front door with Family One, a back door with Family Two, and a bathroom with whichever family wasn’t using…