CATS - FRIEND OR FOOD (2) RACIAL SLURS AND STEREOTYPES
Everyone must eat in order to live. Most of us think that what we eat, and the way they eat it, is the normal or correct pattern. Therefore anyone who eats different things is considered odd. Until relatively recently, human societies were localised and had their own localised eating habits. In the 20th and 21st centuries, globalization has led to culinary conflicts as one culture's delicacy is another culture's taboo. To some the cat is a legitimate food source. Others find the concept of cat-eating abhorrent. Is it right for cat-loving countries to impose their cultural values on cat-eating societies?
RACIAL SLURS AND STEREOTYPES
Most readers will be familiar with tales of cat or dog carcasses found when Public Health officials raid an ethnic restaurant. Or tales that "ever since that ethnic family move into the street cats have been going missing". There is an entire genre of urban mythology built around ethnic restaurants and cat eating. This demonstrates a Western distrust of unfamiliar foods as well as racial stereotyping and is explored in The Role of the Cat In Urban Mythology. Some Asian individuals have encountered hostility and suspicion from new colleagues and new neighbours or may be asked an outright "They eat cats in your country don't they?"
These are racial stereotypes and racial slurs. It is wrong to lump together many countries, cultures and races as "Asians" (e.g. Indian subcontinent, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia) or "Orientals" (Chinese, Japanese). Too many Westerners still think of Asia as one homogeneous area and not a range of countries with different cultures. An analogy would be a Japanese person assuming that, since Spain is known for its cruel bull fights, all Europeans indulge in bull-fighting. A number of Asian and Eastern religions advocate vegetarianism. Thailand and Japan are both long-term "cat loving" countries although the standards of cat care are different from Western ideals. Cats were valued there at a time when they were being tortured and killed in Europe because of their association with witchcraft.
Viewers from a Western pet-owning culture sometimes ask whether primitive/developing societies were more realistic in their attitude towards animals or whether they were savage, heartless monsters. The concept of a "primitive" society carries a lot of cultural baggage: the notion that the "primitive" is more in touch with nature, that "primitive" societies show little regard for women or children, that "primitive" life is "nasty, brutish, and short." What exactly is a primitive society anyway? Is it a hunter/gather society, a Masai-style cattle-herding culture or simply a culture which lacks television and McDonalds? South East Asian countries cannot be called primitive by any of these "definitions". The term "primitive" is often used as a term of abuse to suggest any culture which has not adopted Western values.
Those parts of China where cats are supposedly eaten are not primitive. My Chinese colleague explained to me that some cat-eating areas are rural and poor; though considered backward by city-dwellers, they are not primitive by any modern definition. In the urban areas where cat is served, it was considered a gourmet meal. He found it odd that I accorded my pet cats the status of family members and not livestock or utility animals (ratters). If they were family members, how could I be comfortable with "owning" them as property (which I could dispose of at will) - would I feel comfortable about owning, buying and selling a child or an aunt?
Having heard so much conflicting information about pet-eating in Korea, I spoke to the Korean wife of a colleague. She was quite upset at the suggestion that all Koreans eat pet cats. She told me that cats are eaten, but mostly in rural areas since well-educated Koreans consider pet keeping a status symbol and sign of Westernisation. She stressed that the cats eaten are bred and bought for food, just like Westerners breed cattle for food - they are not pets. This parallels the fact that China has a specialised breed of dog raised specially for meat - the Mongolian Chinese Meat Dog (often crossed with imported St Bernard dogs to improve yield) - just as Westerners raise some rabbits for meat and other types of rabbit as pets. The "Chow" breed was a meat dog - "chow" means "food".
One racial slur which did the rounds of the internet was a fake letter claiming to come from Malaysia (cats are not eaten in Malaysia):
"To make use of the unwanted animal we can make pleasurable cuisine for the people. Please to arrange air shipment for cats which can be used in our culinary educations program. Will pay for no less than cats in 50 pound lots. Only alive please. Malaysia have many delicacy for eating the cat, only in the most humane way of course. I would like to share our culinary heritage with you in the overseas. In my honorary role with the martial arts, we gain great strength from the eating of the young cats. Fondestly to you …"
Another myth which has surfaced on usenet and circular emails was that it was common for restaurants in neighbouring Singapore to serve cat meat in a dish called "Mew Goo Guy Ding". The "Mew Goo Guy Ding" story has been told of Chinese restaurants around the world and is debunked on several urban legend sites.
Another circulating chain email states that a Catholic parish in America had a Vietnamese priest [Father X] who was called out late at night by an old man to give Last Rites to a pet cat who had been a cherished member of the household. While Last Rites may not be appropriate to an animal, the angry priest apparently took the cat home and had it for dinner the following day. Although several people swear to its veracity and ask for protests against the Catholic church for "permitting this disgrace", it seems an unlikely tale and a racial slur against an immigrant population in the USA.
While most accusations are aimed at those originating from Asian countries, other foreigners and their unfamiliar cuisines are also sometimes suspected of using cats and dogs. A similar racial slur is found in folksong portraying a German ("Dutchman" means "German" i.e. Deutsch) immigrant as untrustworthy and malicious (in American English, "mean" means nasty rather than miserly).
There was a jolly Dutchman, his name was Johnny Rebeck
He was a dealer in sausages and sauerkraut and speck
One day he invented a new sort of machine
And all the neighbors' cats and dogs, they never more were seen.
Oh, Mister, Mister, Johnny Rebeck, how could you be so mean?
I told you you'd be sorry you invented that machine
Now all the neighbors' cats and dogs will never more be seen
They're all ground up to sausages in Johnny Rebeck's machine
There is also a rumour that there are few cats in the town of Solvay (near Syracuse) in the USA because its large Tyrolian immigrant population eat cats; a habit that, according to the rumour, goes back to the First World War when Austrians suffered serious food shortages. It is reputed that the cats are prepared in a variety of ways, including a secret Tyrolean recipe (probably salted and smoked since surplus cats are still sometimes salted, smoked and eaten in parts of rural Switzerland). Children in the area were told not to eat a meal containing rabbit at an Austrian, Tyrolese or Piedmontese home, because the meat was really cat.
Doner kebab shops in the west (mostly run by Turkish Cypriots) are sometimes suspected of using dog or cat in the cylinder of reformatted lamb (known as "mystery meat" in Britain). There is a popular Russian joke about doner kebab/shawerma stands:
Customer: Is this meat fresh?
Cook: Of course - I personally heard it meowing yesterday.
In his 1998 travel diary “From The Holy Mountain”, William Dalrymple gives the following tale of alleged cat-eating in Jerusalem. His guide, Bishop Hagop, points out a tall man called Isa and tells Dalrymple that Isa was formerly a cook who specialized in dainty sandwiches for wedding parties. "He was famous for his special liver sandwiches and soon became the most popular caterer in the Old City. Then someone noticed that the cat population near his house kept declining every time there was a wedding: eight to ten cats went missing whenever a reception was held. News spread about this, but people kept begging him for sandwiches. In the end he couldn’t satisfy demand: the cat population ran too low and he couldn’t produce the goods." At that point Isa apparently left the catering trade. The Bishop considered Isa to have been quite humane with the cats compared to a Cypriot monk who made his cats fast during Lent.
Having been told that my refusal to condemn Asians (an inaccurate blanket term) outright for of eating cats and dogs (as opposed to condemning the avoidable cruelty) makes me a disgrace to "whites", those critics (who are primarily racist rather than being entirely concerned with animal-welfare) should consider the following acts of cruelty from "white" culture:-
1. What the West Sees, What the West Ignores
3. Where and Why Cats are Eaten
4. Recent Cases
5. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Cat Eaters
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