Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lihai

This morning I took the dogs outside. When we got on the elevator, there was already a dog there, along with an old guy who looked like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride. (To be fair, an awful lot of old Chinese dudes look like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride.)

The dog was a brown poodle, male, un-neutered. Chinese people never neuter their dogs. He was half-again the size of Qizai or Mimi — but they've studied from Ma Lei, so they know how to put someone bigger in his place.

The poodle hopped over and tried to get dominant with Mimi, till she went "Yipe!" and nipped him in the ear. He responded to this rejection as all men do, by going to the back corner of the elevator and lifting his leg to pee against the wall.

I believe my response-time has been quickened and my inhibitions lowered by living in this particular part of China, because rather than standing there, mouth agape, I instantly whipped out a leg and kicked the dog, just hard enough to stop him from peeing. He only managed to make a little coin-sized mark on the wall before my foot met his butt. (I am not a proponent of kicking dogs, but I'm even less fond of allowing them to stink up a public elevator.)

I shot a glance at Wallace Shawn, who was watching the whole thing with his trademarked grinning equilibrium. Of the two logical responses to this situation — either to chastise his dog for pissing in the elevator, or to chastise me for kicking the dog — he chose neither. He just grinned dumbly. So I figured "hey, that's cool!" and grinned right back at him.

When we reached ground floor, the old man wanted to go one way, while we were going the other. His dog, of course, totally ignored him to go with us. (Neuter your male dogs, people!!!) At the structural column halfway to the door, the dog again lifted his leg before I could call out HEY! and make him stop.

We went on our little ten-minute walk, and as we were coming back toward the building, there once again was the brown poodle with Wallace Shawn. The dog once again tried to make a pass at Mimi, then at Qizai, and once again got nothing but snarls and yipes. 

(Yeah, dog, I understand. I've been there, and I feel your pain. But you really need to stop trying. The third time is definitely NOT the charm.)

The old man, still grinning, said "Your dogs are really lihai."

For my friends who don’t know, Lihai is a word in Chinese that doesn't translate very well into English. It's as multivalent as the word "pride," and can similarly be used as either a compliment or an insult. A man with a well-deserved position of high authority might be described as lihai. A cowardly, nasty man who beats his wife is also lihai. The guy who always comes up with the best ideas at office meetings is lihai. So is the snarky guy in the back cubicle who cusses everyone out for no reason. Women are almost never lihai, except my wife. She’s lihai on steroids.

But when somebody out of the blue says your dog is lihai, it’s almost always in the bad way. Dogs aren’t supposed to be lihai, in this country, unless they’re guarding your front door.

By this point, I'd had enough of Wallace Shawn's dumb loser grin, and I was feeling just a little bit lihai myself, so I unsheathed my rapier tongue. Sometimes it’s nice, but dangerous, to speak reasonably good Chinese. As I used to say of my Spanish, “I know enough to get myself into trouble — but not enough to get myself back out again."

I said harshly: "Lihai?! You think my wife's dogs are lihai?! They don't piss on the elevator, they don't piss in the hallway, and they sure don't bully other dogs. And if they did, I wouldn’t just stand there like a monkey with a smile on my face.” 

He just stood and listened, though his dumb grin had slackened a little with surprise.

Lihai, my ass! As the Chinese would say, fang ge pi lihai! (No good translation, but it basically comes out as “you say lihai, I say fart.”)

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