One dark, grey and thoroughly depressing Sunday afternoon, after a heavy bout of soju-swilling in the tight confines of the apartment, Min Jung suggested we go out for lunch. I could tell she wanted to dress up and point her tits at other people. She liked flaunting her beauty, particularly at people she hated, and she hated most Korean people – especially the ones that reminded her of her parents. Sometimes she got a look in her eye that said that for whatever reason she wasn’t entirely happy but that she was feeling confident in herself, and just wanted to dress up nice and let people know that she was hot. Also, I think she liked showing people that she had a foreigner for a boyfriend – not because she was proud, necessarily, but because she liked to rebel. Probably there was no great difference in her mind between wearing a skirt that barely covered her snatch and holding my hand in public.
“What you want eat?” she asked.
“You,” I replied with a stupid grin, but she didn’t get it.
“Do you know boshintang?” She thought for a while, trying to gather the English words. “… Dog meat soup?”
I laughed, then stopped. She was serious. “Huh?”
“Dog meat soup. Do you know?”
“Really? Yeah, I guess. I’ve heard of it…”
“Did you eat?”
“No, I’ve not tried it.”
“It famous Korean food. Very tradition.”
“So I’ve heard…”
“You want eat?”
I thought about it. On the surface, it really didn’t seem like the worst idea. Why was it worse to eat dog than, say, pig or cow? Just because my Western heritage caused me some affinity for dogs didn’t make them any more valuable an animal than those we considered food in the West. Perhaps I was being ethnocentric and close-minded in my unreasonable championing of one sentient being over another. Hell, there were vegetarians and vegans around the globe who’d call me a savage just for eating beef.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll try it.”
We took a taxi from outside the fire station and travelled through the city for a while until we were in an area of countryside. The land was flat, with few trees around and only the mountains and grey, identical tower blocks in the distance. Farmland stretched out in every direction – fields of yellow and green, growing mostly rice. Every now and then a little road would split a field, and old people in conical hats on bikes would cycle back and forth. Strangely, it didn’t feel that far from the city. Daegu always felt like a village that had grown too big too fast – a ramshackle cluster of giant, ugly buildings that had sprung from the dung heaps of a farm, with its inhabitants maintaining the exact same mountainfolk behaviour they had before 7-Eleven and Starbucks had invaded.
We stopped outside a little building surrounded by yellow mud walls and grey slate roof. There were expensive cars stopped all along the road, a few bushes and trees separating them from the fields. Min Jung paid the driver and we stepped out.
As soon as I put my foot on the dust at the side of the road I wanted to get back in the car. The hairs on the back of my neck rose and shivers shot up and down my spine as I was assaulted by the most repugnant of sounds and smells.
The sound of a dog slowly dying is something that should never be heard. It is a sound far worse than any midnight howl or terrified yelp – a high-pitched screech that strikes some primal nerve, uniting human and beast in a shared memory; the realisation that we are all living beings and should never be subject to such barbaric savagery. These wretched beasts were being dragged slowly to their demise.
I felt like my eardrums were about to burst and start bleeding. The jarring screech just rose and fell, but remained in the air. There were three dogs, I think, dying. I couldn’t tell what was happening but they were in unspeakable agony. That was a sound I had imagined hearing if a person were tied down and tortured mercilessly for hours – a helpless, hopeless and utterly sorrowful expression of pain.
What struck me aside from the sound was the smell of death and pain lingering in the air. It was the stench of dog faeces and some strange odour I could only describe as that of departing life mixed with the ever present reek of kimchi-fart, Hyundai-generated pollution and the fertiliser that swept in off the fields.
What kind of depraved savage could eat in a place like this? What monster could listen to their dinner die the worst kind of death, talking with their kin, swilling soju, and waiting for a good old family meal? I felt sick imagining the scum inside. I was at the gates of hell, and hell was a dog farm.
“Babe, I’m not ok with this…” I said sheepishly.
She laughed and walked inside as the taxi pulled a U-turn and sped off back towards the city, leaving us in this place of death. “Come on.”
I slowly followed, looking around in disgust. I kept expecting to see, well, anything… Human corpses rotting on the ground, blood spilling from cracked kimchi pots made of dried dog shit, old men and women cannibalising each other, babies being raped to death… Nothing would have surprised me. The sounds and smells of the dog farm were a fair warning for any horror.
All I could see was chicken wire everywhere to keep the dogs from escaping, were they ever to get out of their tiny cages, which were stacked in piles above thousands of chunks of dried shit. The dogs were thankfully around back, out of sight. I don’t think I could have stood to see their suffering in addition to hearing and smelling it.
Inside, the place was no different from any Korean restaurant. Families sat around tiny tables, cross-legged on the floor – the men with their cheap suit jackets to one side, revealing sweaty pit-stains and potbellies protruding from between the buttons on their tacky shirts, ties swung over their shoulders and looks of gross satisfaction on their stuffed faces as they listened to the sounds of the dogs dying as the meat already began to rot in their gut… Women covering their snatches with cheap knock-off handbags as their skirts rose over their hips, trying to maintain their dignity while coughing and spluttering bits of food back onto the table without noticing, never mind trying to cover their mouths… Their children running amuck amid the sounds and smells of death, ignorant of the suffering of anything but themselves as they played their violent games… A beautiful family dinner at the dog farm.
They all turned and stared at me, of course, as I stood awkwardly behind Min Jung, who was asking the proprietor for a table. I looked at my feet and tried to block out the sound, which had not diminished since we entered the building. I was wondering how to back out and go somewhere else. I didn’t want these primitives to have my money, or rather Min Jung’s money. I was broke.
Min Jung took off her shoes and walked over to a table in one corner of the room and carefully sat down, placing her handbag over her snatch, which was otherwise left utterly exposed by the combination of short skirt and sitting cross-legged. I walked around and sat with my back to the wall, which I hated because it meant I had to sit and be stared at by the natives. Also, it meant I had to look back in their direction and watch their foul table manners as they spat and coughed at each other, and fingered their food with their dirty, unwashed hands.
“I so hungry!” Min Jung cried, then giggled and clapped her hands inanely. “Boshintang! Dogmeatsoup!”
“Why you always sad? Just eat.”
“You can’t hear that?” I asked.
“That!” I shouted. “Dogs being killed!”
She stopped and listened, smiling the whole time – unaware of any suffering. “You eat pig, right?”
“Not when I can hear them die.”
“They are not die. They are make ready to die. They die quiet.”
I said I didn’t understand.
“They make dog ready to eat many time. Dog is…” She stopped and searched for the right word. “Hanging. They hanging the dog to eat.”
“You don’t see anything wrong with that?”
“It make dog taste good.”
“But they’re torturing an innocent animal. They’re hanging it to make it taste better. That’s stupid.”
“You stupid.” Min Jung looked annoyed for the first time since she first suggested dog meat soup. “Why you never want do Korean culture? It better than England culture.”
“I’m not from England, you fucking whore!”
“Fuck you! In Korea England and Scotland same. We no say different.”
“That’s because you’re all fucking idiots.”
“At least we don’t eat dogs like a bunch of primitive degenerate pigfuckers!”
“Korea food number one food!”
I stopped and stared at her. Jesus, she was stupid. Was this the same girl I’d met in Japan? The girl who’d known Korea’s flaws? She was no different than the rest of the drones – an ignorant nationalist savage.
“I’m not eating any goddamn dog meat,” I said.
“Fine, you don’t eating any. I eat all dog meat soup!”
“I hope you choke.”
“I said, ‘Give me the keys, I’m going home.’”
Min Jung laughed and tossed the apartment keys at me. “I know you no have money. No taxi! Nice time walking!”
She made a scrunched up face of childish contempt at me as I stood up and walked towards the door. Naturally, every Korean in the building turned and stared at me as I left, either too mentally degenerate to realise that staring isn’t even polite in their own culture or too vicious to care.
As I looked back at Min Jung I realised that she hadn’t expected me to actually leave. Eating alone in Korea is a terribly shameful thing. She was probably hoping I’d come back. She didn’t think I was dumb enough to walk all the way back into the city, but she was wrong.