The Dog Coat | By Adrienne Su
I brought a dog-fur coat home from China in 1988, after an academic year there. Off-white, soft, and substantial, it was a gift from a great-uncle I hadn’t met until he came to Shanghai to greet me. He’d spent three days on a packed train to get there, and had made the coat himself.
Although I recoiled from fur in stores, I’d never been confronted with the pelt of an animal with whom I might have shared daily life. Foxes, mink, and chinchillas were clearly worthy of consumer boycott, but this conviction had until now been more idea than feeling.
At the same time, I was being confronted with what I knew about my great-uncle, whom my mother remembers as an animal lover and Chinese-opera fan. Unlike his brother, my grandfather, he didn’t flee to Taiwan before the Communist takeover, although he was sure to pay for his landowning origins. We don’t know why he didn’t go, whether he even had the means.
Indeed, the family’s houses in Shanghai were seized, my uncle exiled to the countryside. For four decades, he did physical labor in an impoverished southwestern outpost. He never married.
In the moment the coat was presented, it didn’t occur to me to stage a one-student protest against dog fur. Instead, I thanked my uncle in my American-college Mandarin (which, no matter how well-pronounced, marked one as an outsider in Shanghai) and tried the coat on. What else was there to do? Although I couldn’t banish the phrase “the dog coat” from my mind, I didn’t find it repugnant, just disturbing. My uncle had next to nothing and wanted to give me something. Perhaps someone had used the flesh for food; the possibility somehow consoled me.
Some people will tell you, “The Chinese eat dogs,” for shock effect, or to imply an inhumane, monolithic people. But my mother’s family cherished their springer spaniel, Beauty, whom they had to leave in the care of household staff upon fleeing. Decades later, the mention of Beauty still moved my stoic grandparents.
Now, on the rare occasions when the coat comes up in conversation, I’m chilled by the righteous horror that sometimes follows. I struggle to create the context, to convey – as if it were a Chinese condition – that when a person loses everything overnight, for no reason, it’s only natural to try to rebuild, using what resources happen to be available.
After leaving China, I stored the coat in my parents’ house. I could neither wear it nor part with it. It stayed there until several years ago, when my parents moved into a retirement community and donated it, along with masses of other stuff, to Goodwill. Perhaps some unwitting person is wearing it now, oblivious to its origins, grateful to be warm.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Adrienne Su is the author of three books of poems, most recently Having None of It (Manic D Press, 2009). She is poet-in-residence at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Recent poems appear in the Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review,The New Republic, and New England Review (33.1).