How four tiny legs expand my horizons

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As a middle-aged single woman teaching English in a small, out-of-the-way Chinese college, I had never given parenthood much thought. Yet here I am, the doting mother of a tiny Chihuahua puppy who is opening up to me the doors of parenthood in ways I never imagined possible.

While rather a daring venture for me, a foreigner, to have a dog in China, it wasn't a totally outlandish idea. Unlike 10 years ago, owning a small pet is now becoming more acceptable among the Chinese. In fact, small dogs are everywhere in my city, Luzhou. They are walked in the parks, taken along on shopping trips in purses and baskets, and carried onto buses for journeys across town.

If the Chinese can have a dog, I thought, why can't I?

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So after receiving permission from my college to have a pet, I began some serious investigation into dog ownership. I researched breeds on the Internet. I found the best veterinarian in the area. I calculated the cost of food and supplies. After a month of preparatory work, I was ready to take the three-hour bus ride to Sichuan's capital city, Chengdu, where I was told the best selection of dogs could be found.

All along the way, I had been overly confident that my well-researched expertise would easily find me the happy, healthy puppy I wanted. In actuality, I had no idea what this first step into dog ownership was about to do to my life.

The dog-selling world of Chengdu had been quite an experience, mostly filled with shady characters and seedy pet shop establishments that housed overpriced animals in desperate need of a caring home. My own puppy purchase was one made out of pure emotion. When that tiny, shivering, 8-week-old Chihuahua was dumped into my hands, my maternal instincts took over and all common sense went out the window. In the midst of barking, yapping critters, I handed over my 300 yuan (US$36) to a man I did not trust, for a dog I felt would not live very long.

So great were my doubts of her survival that I did not even consider a name for her. She refused to eat anything for two days and only slept in my hotel room, wrapped up in a winter scarf as I had nothing else to offer her. It wasn't until the bus ride back to Luzhou that she finally began to stir. For the first time, I felt her wiggle. Her tail wagged enthusiastically. She scrambled up to my shoulder and began chewing on my ear.

"What kind of dog is that?" asked the man sitting across from me.

"She's a little Chihuahua," I replied.

"Ah! Hao ban (How great)!" he said, giving me a thumbs-up. "Good name."

The man had misunderstood. So much the breed had sounded like Chinese that he thought my answer was the dog's name. I would have corrected him, but suddenly realized how suitable his mistake had been in naming this little creature now affectionately licking my face. Thus Xiao Qi Hua (shee-ow chee hwah), Little Awakening Flower, found her way into my heart.

I must admit, being a first-time dog owner has been quite a challenging experience. I have had to deal with crying fits, feeding schedules, potty training, and behavior problems. I've had to be strict when I wanted to be loving, and patient when I wanted to be reprimanding. Having a puppy seems so much like having a small child that I now somewhat understand the difficulties parents must face in raising children. But at the same time, I am also getting a sense of the parental joys that override all those troublesome moments.

When Little Qi (as she is called) and I go for our daily walks through the parks along the Yangtze River, it is no longer the foreigner who is drawing all the attention. After Little Qi's head pops up over her carrying basket, there is no end to the fuss people make over her. Roadside sellers, the elderly, teahouse patrons, small children, and young couples gather around to peer and coo at my friendly little puppy. I've watched her being passed gently from hand to hand, her affectionate spirit driv- ing the sourness from an old man's face or lightening the heart of a child beggar. Even within myself, I find my irritation and impatience with certain Chinese customs and habits dissipate in her presence.

I do not know what it is she possesses that affects us so, but I am finding that Little Awakening Flower, like a small child, seems to awaken within us a sense of our importance in the world. That whatever age we are, or appearance we have, or social status we hold, we are all equally worthy of being noticed and loved.

To some people Little Qi is just a dog, but to me she will always be the little one who is awakening me to the wonderment of parenthood.

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