When you’re an American living abroad, a lot of the things you thought were normal turn out to be nothing like normal. Let’s say you move to a village in Britain. It’s beautiful. It’s romantic. And you fit in as neatly as a bathtub in a tree.
Throw your assumptions out the window.
Let’s say you’re walking your dog, a lovely cluster of fluff and enthusiasm. A man with another dog stops 20 feet away and asks, “Is that a dog?”
You look down, because if he’s questioning it, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to check. Yes, she’s still a dog. A small one, but she was small when you started the walk and it didn’t make her less of a dog.
You look back up.
“Um, yes,” you say.
The man reels in his own dog, explaining that he—the dog, not the man—is snappish with other males, although he’d be fine if your dog had been a bitch.
By this point in the conversation you understand what he’s saying—bitch, female; dog, male—but even so your mind is practically spitting. Excuse me, it says, you can’t call my dog a bitch. And you can’t tell me my dog’s not a dog. I mean look at her, she’s down there wagging her tail. My cats don’t do that.
You want bitch, buddy, talk to me.
But you don’t say it. Because when you live in a village you don’t run around starting wars on a whim. Or, yeah, some people do, but their wars enter the gossip chain and circulate forever. The village keyboard has no Delete button. And whoever you just started a war with? You’ll run into them for the rest of your life. And you’re a bathtub in a tree, so you’re always thinking about cultural differences and how likely you are to find sensitivities where you don’t expect them.
If you were still living in an American city, you wouldn’t have said what you’re thinking either. You’re not completely crazy. But living in this British village colors the way you don’t say it. So you keep the vague smile that landed on your face when the man first asked if your dog was a dog and you say, “Oh. That. Female. She’s female.”
At which point, the man lets his dog approach and they gave each other a good sniff. And his dog, the one who would have been fine if your dog had been a bitch, turns bitchy himself and snaps at her. Which goes to show you something, although it’s not clear what.
The United States has its share of dog breeders, and for all you know they talk about dogs and bitches, but no one in the States ever asked if your dog was a dog, did they? Not once.
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