I met my first love on the side of a dusty road in the sixth ring of Beijing.
He was a scruffy guy, half-covered in dirt, with a timid but hopeful look.
I was 24 years old and less than a month into my year-long teaching stint at a private high school in China.
I had met a group of other foreign teachers, and we were headed out for dinner.
That’s when we saw him, a little ball of matted fur next to a puddle by the bus stop.
It was clear that the small pup had been abandoned.
An abandoned puppy called "PJ" (啤酒)
When he saw a man with a bicycle pass by, he chased it a few hundred yards down the road before giving up and trudging back to us.
We stood in a circle debating what to do as the puppy curled up at our feet.
“We can’t just leave him here. Look at him.”
“I don’t think we should touch him. He probably has fleas.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a dog. But a dog is a lot of responsibility.”
“So are we getting BBQ or not?”
“Oh, God, this is hurting my heart so bad.”
What happened next was a rare team effort.
One chivalrous guy friend volunteered his jacket which was used to hold the dog close to his aching heart.
Then he rode home together with the dog on the back of another friend’s motorcycle.
The rest of us went to pick up beer and barbecue.
Back at the complex where we lived, we coaxed the puppy out from under the couch and forced him into the tub.
After he emerged clean, we christened him "PJ"—short for 啤酒 (pí jiǔ) , our favorite beverage.
Because of PJ, this ragtag group of friends became a family.
Like most other dogs in China, PJ enjoyed a good deal of freedom and was almost always off-leash (despite the photo).
He showed an incredible memory—both for finding his way home after exploring, as well as for each one of us.
As I walked to class in the mornings, PJ would often run up to me and lay some dirty pawprints on my outfit.
Sometimes, when he was truly overjoyed, he would jump and turn a circle in the air, like some kind of canine figure skater going for a double axle.
Although Fred—who was the first to bring up the burden of responsibility—ultimately took on that responsibility, I still considered PJ to be a communal dog.
He was our dog.
And we all adored him.
A stray that found its way into my heart
Later on in the year, I got my own load of responsibility.
A group of students had found a stray kitten in the neighborhood next to campus.
They brought it back into the dormitories in a box and kept it as a secret pet.
When the secret kitten scratched a few students (who had to go to the hospital for shots), it was confiscated and brought over to the English department in the evening.
As I was one of the few teachers there, and no one else was volunteering, the kitten ended up coming home with me.
I had never quite been a dog person, and was even less of a cat person.
I just didn’t grow up with pets, okay?!
Although the kitten was sweet, I knew that, like all cats, it would develop a streak of crazy.
Still, I brought her milk and fish and yarn.
I’d enjoy her cuddles for awhile, but once she got too playful, I’d worry she would start clawing into me.
And yet she looked so sweet.
As I tried to convince some Chinese colleagues to adopt her, I quickly learned that dog lovers overwhelm cat lovers in China.
Dogs have become increasingly popular pets in China, with a lively market for rare breeds and custom grooming (like the dogs dyed to look like pandas below).
But the cat-obsessed cultural trend seen in the US seems to have missed China. Most cats appear to remain strays.
One Chinese colleague explained that cats are often seen as dirty and quite possibly evil.
When it became clearer and clearer that the kitten and I would not have much of a future together, especially as I would be leaving in the spring, I had to contend with the fact that most places would not treat her humanely.
Thus began the Internet research, which led me to the K.K. Animal Hospital in the Shun Yi District of Beijing.
This was a place where I could ensure that she would not be turned into dog food.
The hospital staff assured me that Shun Yi was a wealthy area with many expats.
Including those with children who loved to adopt new pets.
I was relieved the kitten was going to be in good hands.
A Bag of Ducks
There are, of course, a variety of interesting pets in China.
In outdoor markets, you’ll often find squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks scurrying around small cages.
Parakeets and other birds abound in animal stalls.
Once, when he was a leaving a bus terminal, my friend was handed two little ducklings in plastic bags.
They became pets in our apartment complex as well.
They were named Hansel and Gretel, because my friend claimed to be like the witch in the famous fairy tale.
He intended to plump them up and eat them.
We thought that PJ might try eating them too. Though he sniffed around curiously, he thankfully remained only curious.
He even kept a watchful eye over them when we took dog and ducklings to a cookout by a small lake.
Back at the complex, Hansel and Gretel were given free reign to follow trails of bread and explore their surroundings.
A month or so later, we brought them over to a farm we knew of through an acquaintance, where their presence soon made it an even happier, brighter farm.
Tragedy and Loss
This is where the story takes a turn.
You were warned.
Although pets are becoming more popular in China, these creatures still contend with an overpopulated country and a short animal lifespan.
For example, my aunt’s dog was poisoned by food tossed out of a neighbor’s house.
My grandmother’s dog was hit by a vehicle.
And poor, sweet PJ himself was eventually injured.
It was the beginning of summer vacation, and many of us were away traveling.
Fred, anxious that PJ had not returned home in 24 hours, searched the neighborhood and asked around.
Eventually, he got word that PJ had been spotted near a courtyard where we often hung out.
He had made it back to us, but we had failed to be there for him when he needed us most.
The vet discovered internal bleeding.
PJ suffered two more days, and then was put down.
Only Fred was there to see him off.
At the time, I was preparing to leave Beijing.
I was saying goodbye to favorite places, much loved friends, and extended family members I had only just gotten to know.
I returned from the countryside to the school grounds only two days after PJ died.
It was the one goodbye I didn’t get to say.
He was a wonderfully loyal and joyful dog, and we will always be glad that we brought him home with us.
Of course, truly, he was Fred’s dog. Not just his responsibility, but his best little buddy.
A few weeks before PJ died, Fred had traded in his beloved motorcycle for one with a sidecar. PJ was able to enjoy one last ride before his accident.
In my memories of China, there will always be a dog on a motorcycle.
Do you have stories about your animal adventures in China?