My son got bit by a dog this evening, so we had to go in for a rabies booster shot. We were out having dinner in the garden of The Kitchen, a restaurant not far from our house that serves decent Mexican food and is located down a small alleyway with little traffic. The kids were playing hide-and-seek while we waited to order. My son ran off out the gate to hide down the alley while my daughter counted, my wife said “I’d prefer they stayed inside the garden,” I said “Eh, there’s almost no traffic down this alley,” and a second later Sol came running back inside crying, saying a dog had bitten him. One of those moments that makes parenthood such a relentless parade of demonstrations of your inadequacy rewarding and life-constituting experience. My wife and the restaurant owner ran into the alleyway to figure out what the deal was with this dog while I handled the kids. Not a deep bite, barely broke the skin in just one spot, but it hurt; I washed it off and put some ice on it.
The dog belonged to some poor neighbors down the alley. It was on a chain on the concrete stoop of a little brick hut the family uses as a kitchen/utility area. The hut gives directly onto the alley so the dog wasn’t fenced in, and it had already bitten the restaurant’s motorbike valet the week before. (He had unfortunately been in the bathroom when Sol ran out, or he would’ve stopped him.) The restaurant’s manager had demanded they keep the dog inside, which they hadn’t done. The owner was a tiny, blinking lady in her 60s or 70s who did not seem capable of understanding what the issue at hand was, which was simply this: could she prove that the dog was vaccinated for rabies? She said her husband had taken the dog in a week earlier to get vaccinated for rabies, because an announcement had gone around on the neighborhood loudspeakers instructing everyone to do that at the local Ward People’s Committee Headquarters. (Gotta love Communist public health. Seriously.) The problem was she didn’t know where the certificate of vaccination was. After twenty minutes of discussion we finally rousted her husband out to go search the house and try to dig up the paper. I say “discussion,” but I mean “threats”, largely on my wife’s part, to call the police and demand that this family pay our son’s medical bills. That seemed to be the only way to impel them into action — they just didn’t do anything until there was a threat of police action and monetary damages.
Meanwhile I had called my friend Heiman, an MD-Ph.D. who works on communicable diseases here, including rabies, to ask what he thought I should do. Since it was a stupid question, he responded patiently that if I was absolutely sure the dog was vaccinated, I didn’t need to get Sol a booster shot, but if there were any doubt whatsoever as to whether the dog was vaccinated, I should go get Sol the booster, since you don’t take a 0.001% chance on a disease that’s 100% fatal, in a country where it’s endemic. Duh. It can be helpful to have people lay these issues out clearly for you sometimes.
Anyway, as I waited for the husband to find the certificate, the old woman took my hand and led me over to the dog, explaining in simple Vietnamese: “It’s feeding pups. It’s feeding pups.” And there they were, indeed, nursing on the dog’s teats. Which explained why it was acting so aggressive. So you see, she implied, it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s not usually like this. Which, of course, pissed me off. What did I care whether the dog was usually like this or not? The only question for me was: was the dog vaccinated? Did they have proof? Either they had proof, or I had to go the doctor.
The restaurant’s manager had been extremely concerned and kind throughout the interaction, and she by now had called the police to intervene. She, obviously, couldn’t have a dangerous dog in the alleyway outside her restaurant. I went inside and ate the dinner we’d ordered, and a few minutes later the old woman dashed up to me, grabbed my hand, and began pleading. She couldn’t pay the money for my son’s medical treatment, she said. They were very poor. But she promised to kill the dog.
The restaurant manager had come over to help translate, and at this point I didn’t even know what to say. I didn’t want or need this woman’s money. The booster shot wasn’t expensive, and our insurance would cover it. The problem was that this family’s dog had already bitten the motorbike valet, they had been told to keep it indoors or fence it up, and they hadn’t done it. The point of the monetary threat was to force them to do something about the dog. But I didn’t want them to kill the dog. I wanted them to fence the dog in, to go back and get it vaccinated again but this time keep the vaccination certificate — to just deal with their responsibilities like normal citizens, keep their animals on their own property or be conscious of the consequences of letting them run out into the alleyway.
But this is the thing about these kinds of cross-cultural interactions, the thing that makes them so often horrible and tragic. You can put pressure on other people to accomplish goals that you want. But you can’t dictate to them how to go about delivering those goals. You can show them that the consequences of the dog biting a foreigner’s kid will be dire; but while you may think the logical solution is vaccination and a fence, they may think the logical solution is to kill the dog. Whatever norms their society operates under — norms which may appear crazy, perverse, brutal and counterproductive to you — will likely be repeated and intensified in their approach to meeting your demands on them. This isn’t just a problem that appears in interactions across national cultures; it happens across class cultures, between two different families, or for that matter between individuals. You try to teach someone how to do something the “right” way (your right way, anyway); they won’t do it; you finally set a target and threaten to fong the bejeezus out of them if they don’t deliver the target; and they find a way to deliver that target that’s so completely screwed up and wrong, by your lights, that you wish you’d never asked for it in the first place. Usually it somehow involves taking the whole thing out on whoever is weakest and most vulnerable inside their own system. And you find yourself thinking, it’s hopeless. The only solution is to exterminate the brutes. Which is exactly what they’re thinking too.
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