'Saze?' ("What is it?") The one-word exclamation is uttered in the Sichuan dialect by an elderly Chinese woman. She is tugging on my shirt and pointing to my feet where Xiao Hua (Little Flower) looks up at me from the end of her leash.
As one of 10 foreigners teaching English in Luzhou, a Chinese city of 3 million, I'm not surprised that people find me a novelty. But add to the picture a five-pound Chihuahua, and the curiosity of the locals only multiplies. For the most part, people in China know Little Flower is a dog, but a few find her breed an enigma.
On walks around the campus of my small college, little children and new students stare in wonder at Little Flower, trotting beside me on her leash.
"Saze?" they whisper to their adult chaperons or nearby classmates.
Those who know answer with self-important authority.
"That's Little Flower, the foreigner's dog."
"Hao guai!" ("How cute!") our new admirers exclaim. Endearing smiles follow us as Little Flower prances by, seemingly aware of the attention being lavished upon her.
The well-educated of Luzhou are used to foreigners and pampered pets. But it is the poor farmers of the city who make Little Flower and me feel most at home. They live in mud houses in the hillside villages nestled behind my school. Their dank, musty homes are more than 100 years old. They have dirt floors and outhouses. Little Flower and I see them on our daily walks along the well-worn paths that weave around their agricultural livelihoods.
When Little Flower and I first began trekking through the hillsides, the residents were suspicious. But after a while, we became neighborhood regulars. Two or three times a day, Little Flower and I visit the villages. We squeeze between farmers' houses, peer into open courtyards, wind through thick bamboo groves, and negotiate neatly rowed fields. Residents wave to us, ask us questions, and invite us in for snacks. They praise my Chinese and fuss over my pet. They ask after our health and warn us to be careful on the trails.
Their concern gives me a feeling of being cared for and looked after. In a country where Little Flower and I are often looked upon as exotic, unapproachable creatures, the villagers give us a feeling of belonging.
At times, however, impish spectators delight in teasing our entranced audience.
"What, that?" I have heard some reply to their curious friends. "That's a small cat."
Demystifying Little Flower's species is even more challenging with children. My dog and I once took a one-hour bus ride to visit friends in the countryside. Passengers riding with us were quite taken by the sweet canine sleeping soundly on my lap.
"My baby," I joked with a smile.
At a roadside stop to pick up more passengers, several young boys piled on board and cautiously eyed my dog for the longest time.
"Saze?" one brave boy finally ventured.
Before I could answer, from the back of the bus a little girl brightly announced, "That's the foreigner's baby!"
Soon, another school year will begin at my small vocational college. I can already envision the first few weeks on campus, filled with new students staring at the foreign teacher and her dog. I am expecting a barrage of sazes to follow us wherever we go.
What should I do? Ignore them? Get angry? Laugh?
Or, dare I reply, "What, don't you know? This is my American mouse!"