It happens to all of us.
While traveling either in country or abroad, there comes a point where we crave some specialty food item that comforts and soothes. We all have our favorites, be it fresh Illinois sweet corn for those in the Midwest or, for me in China, difficult-to-get Kraft macaroni-and-cheese or Kellogg’s pop tarts.
For people worldwide, a taste of home matters.
When I brought to the States a Chihuahua rescue from China, a broken-jawed, starving, toothless little thing I stumbled across on the streets of Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, I sometimes wondered if he missed the smells, sights or tastes of his native land. After 9 years living in America, did Xiao Lao-lao (Little Old) even remember his home country much at all?
The answer to that question came quite clearly while I was recently visiting my hometown for my summer vacation.
Visits to Marshall, Illinois, for Holiday
When the Chinese college I teach at dismisses for summer break, I always spend at least one month in Marshall with my mom. We enjoy our summer catch-ups: eating out, discussing in-depth local and national news reports, watching together our favorite TV programs, walking Lao-lao early mornings or late evenings and taking short road trips to nearby tourist destinations.
It was the day before our planned 6-day journey to House-on-the-Rock (Spring Green, Wisconsin) that it happened: Lao-lao got sick.
Leaving Our Little Boy Behind
Looking back, I see his illness had been creeping up on him for a few days.
We noticed his eagerness for walks started to wane. He began eating less and less.
The day before our trip, he turned to his comfy basket where he snuggled down deep into his blanket and wouldn’t move. Getting up seemed agony, and walking onto the back deck, then down the stairs to the grass to do his business, had him wobbling and swaying unsteadily on his weak legs. We began carrying him outside, setting him on the ground and watching him quickly use the toilet, then stand there shivering, waiting for us to take him back inside.
We had already scheduled him to be a week in our vet’s clinic, which kennels dogs as well. What we hadn’t scheduled was us dropping off a sick dog into their midst.
Dr. Ericka Gives Her Expertise
The morning we were leaving, we delayed our departure to the afternoon so I could have Dr. Ericka Yeley examine our ill little canine and give us her input about treatment while we were away. He had a slight fever, which she addressed by prescribing antibiotics. A blood sample was taken and sent off to the lab, the results of which would be the next day.
“Leave him here while you’re gone. We’ll take good care of him,” Ericka assured me, “Call us at any time and we’ll give you updates.”
Off we went, rather worried and eager to call the next day for his lab reports.
The results weren’t good: His liver enzymes were elevated, and he’d lost a whopping 1 pound since he last visited in March. On a 5 1/2 pound Chi, that’s a lot.
The voice of Hailey, the vet assistant, sounded somewhat bleak as she gave us this news. And Dr. Yeley likewise seemed hesitant to give us too many words of encouragement about his recovery.
Daily Reports and Our Return to Marshall
Our 6-day road trip was peppered with calls to the vet’s and worries in between sightseeing. The day before we landed back in Marshall, we heard that Lao-lao’s meds were kicking in and he was beginning to eat but not on his own. He needed to be primed first with hand-feeding but at least he was trying.
I was so anxious to pick him up that I didn’t even bother to swing home first. On our return Sunday evening, I made a straight shot from entering Marshall on Route 1 to the vet’s.
Although closed, high schooler Sara was taking care of the housed animals for the day, which she’s been hired to do as a part-time job. Pick-ups during non-business hours (such as Sundays) are usually not allowed but because we are good clients, and due to Lao-lao’s special circumstances, Dr. Ericka gave permission for our Chinese immigrant to come home.
Poor little guy was still weak and disoriented. He didn’t even recognize me once his cage was opened. After a few hand-smells and a pet, though, he knew he was going home.
He Won’t Eat!!
I was convinced once back in our care, he’d bounce back right away. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Lao-lao had no interest in food at all. His softened dry dog food was a bust. His favorite turkey and ham lunchmeat nibbles were ignored. Freshly cooked chicken tenders, cut into edible pieces for a dog with few teeth, remained in his dish.
His favorite softened dry food?
Nicely sautéed chicken tenderloins?
Favorite luncheon meat?
At the Walmart, I picked up several different brands of wet food (not cheap!) in the hopes one of them would hit the spot. All had to be blender-pureed, which I did with care and great confidence he’d lap up one of them. They certainly smelled good, at least to me!
But Lao-lao didn’t share my opinion. He barely sniffed at the food, lapped up his water and swayed his way back to his basket bed.
After using a syringe to get his liquid meds into him, I began using another syringe to feed him the pureed selections thinking that would stimulate his hunger.
Even after several feedings, he still wasn’t interested in continuing on his own.
At Wits’ End
My mom and I were giving up. Lao-lao was close to 13 years old. Maybe it was just his time to go?
This is the sad story I passed along to our Marshall Chinese restaurant owners, who are from Fujian Province.
The married couple speak little English and miss their Chinese magazines and snack foods, so I bring those with me to treat them on every visit back to Marshall.
The two sympathized with me concerning the dog before sending me home with free stir-fried favorites of mine: chicken and broccoli from the buffet, egg rolls and fried sugared donuts for my mom.
Needless to say, I wasn’t much in the mood for food as I felt so bad for our little dog. After all my efforts at feeding him had failed, I felt disheartened and hopeless.
A Taste of Home
I entered our house with my carry-out food items, the smell of which filled the entire downstairs. Chinese food odors do tend to linger for quite a long time after being placed in a room. Americanized Chinese restaurant items are no different.
As I plopped the bags on the kitchen counter, Little Old suddenly appeared in the doorway. His ears perked high. His dull eyes brightened. His nose twitched.
After 10 days of not wanting to eat much of anything, was our little guy hungry?
I picked out the tender thinly-sliced chicken, washed off the overly-salty soy sauce, shredded the meat into serving sizes suitable for a toothless dog, placed the moist mound into his dish and waited to see what would happen.
Lao-lao stumbled his way on wobbly legs to his bowl. I backed away so as not to disturb him. He sniffed the offerings, took a careful lick with his tongue, somehow managed to shove a small helping to his back gum area, managed to chew a bit and swallowed.
He paused, thinking.
It was apparent something familiar was rotating around in his canine brain, and whatever it was, he wanted more.
I have never seen our immigrant Chi go at his food as quickly or ravenously as he did that Chinese chicken. I imagine memories of a distant China, ones that included leftover meals from his previous owner, came wafting back in full swing: irresistible, tantalizing, impossible-to-ignore.
After finishing off the sizable amount I had prepared, he started in on the pureed stuff after which came a big drink of water and a dapper trot back to his basket bed. He hoisted himself up and over the rim, dug around in his blanket, snuggled deep into the bedding, gave a huge sigh of contentment and went to sleep.
It’s been a month since Lao-lao’s near-death illness, and 10 days since Chinese chicken was introduced into his diet. Since that time, I have been going down to the Chinese restaurant to pick up more stir-fried meat favorites which I’ve been freezing to chop up later for Lao-lao’s feedings. The restaurant owners love to hear my Lao-lao stories over and over again: The little Chinese immigrant who craved his native favorite– stir-fried chicken slices in soy sauce, woked up hot and fresh by the hands of those who knew best how to prepare a little taste of home.