For me, to know things is to love them–with a little dog by my side.
This year was a slow homebody kind of year. Raising a puppy results in the shrinking of your orbit, partially because you have to be within an arm’s length of the inevitable toileting accident. But it also taught me that I had never really before seen the 20-minute walk radius around my neighbourhood. I’d moved into my flat with Mo in early 2018, a month before we got married; I was dazzled by the proximity of the train station, the proximity of my new husband, the complications of having a house to tend to, but the actual stretch of sidewalk and grass and multi-purpose hall around my block I had walked past with my ears stoppered with music and eyes eagerly tracing the windows of my flat, seeing if the lights were on. After getting a dog in March this year I now know every microgeographical turn with absolute intimacy.
This year was the year I learned how to live not just in my house but in my neighbourhood. I learned to witness the actual infrastructure of my day-to-day world. There are all the grassy verges that sprout snails and the corpses of dead birds and rats and half-eaten chicken bones that send Chai into dazzled, drunk-in-love sniffing. The bushes, tipped with ixora flowers, harbouring dog pee, are also deserving of a good snout-first wallow. The sandy banks under the big trees where Chai has to be watched or he will pick the muddiest part to roll around ecstatically in. Then the playgrounds with all the slides I’ve stomped up on and smirked at my earthbound dog, who scrabbles sadly at the bottom as I look unto him like a god; the spongy foam grounds that buoy us as we chase each other at midnight; the multi-storey car park where we walk circles in when it rains; and the rooftop gardens where Chai crashes into the green bins to nose hopefully at the detritus of teen hangout parties. There are the kindergartens and senior activity centers we stroll by, three times a day, every day. When I walk Chai past the infant-care center and the teachers catch us through the windows they will smile and wave and turn the babies to see us, as if Chai is the sun and the kids want a tan; I will heave Chai up and he will look in unimpressed as the teacher fetches a children’s book and spells D O G, DOG.
But beyond the physical infrastructure there are also the other animals that inhabit this space. Chai is exceedingly friendly; the neighbourhood cats–three fat overlords that lounge underneath the neighbouring block in cardboard boxes–less so. When I have him off-leash during our midnight pee runs I have to circle warily around the feline territory that they have claimed for their own. Once he set off after a cat, who yowled and transformed into a furry lightning bolt, and left me yelling his name in the night. (He came back; he doesn’t go far. I’m his meal ticket and he knows it.) The birds, especially the slow ponderous pigeons, are always good for a chase. Chai has excellent comic timing: he will bound for them; they will fly away; he will, without fail, turn to look at me with an expression of grave offense. How do the sky dogs fly? Snails, sniffed at but ignored after a singular attempt to eat one. Ants, which cling to the warm places between his paw-pads. After rain, the long millipedes that my aunt calls the huo che chong, the train-worms.
And of course other dogs. How Chai worships the other dogs! For one year I had lived in this neighbourhood and never known my neighbours’ names. I still don’t know their names but for dang sure I know their dogs’ names. Casper and his pom-pom tail, who leaps and twirls at the end of his leash. Donna, the old dame with the white snout, who entertains Chai benevolently for a few minutes before wandering off to do her own thing. Da Niu the white poodlesomething mix who wrestles with Chai non-stop in the night. Josie the sweet black dog, always bedecked and beribboned and shy. Kung Fu the impeccable terrier, and Ellie the mad runs-in-circles pup, and Mango the big sweet Golden Retriever, and Bosco, and Yogi, and all the other dogs, named and unnamed, that Chai knows and, without qualification, adores. The last time I knew my neighbours I was a child calling “auntie!” as the woman next door walked by on the way home or hiding whenever the karang guni man rolled past his trolley. But now every day I talk to someone comfortably as Chai pees in the middle distance. I know them, a little. I know their dogs. This is the sweetness of walking him, of the knowledge of half the people I share my lift with, of everyday community.
Then there are the older folks–and the kids. These interactions always have unexpected outcomes. On Christmas, Chai chased a little girl in an Elsa costume and made her cry. (She was all excited smiles before that and got a shock when her racing away from him prompted him into playful action. I grabbed him quick. Sorry, little Elsa!) I have given many tiny children a treat to give him, delivered via their small plump palms, and watched as they squatted by him to pet him on his flank. Once a kid whacked him on the rump three times in quick, hard succession and the mother pulled him away, not because he was hitting a dog but because the dog might bite in response. (It hurt me to see this, and made me so angry; Chai is so good-natured, the violence so undeserved.) And there are the other, older people who love him, too. An uncle with his hand in a brace who tells me about the time he was on TV. Another fragile older man who walks slowly with a walking stick. The woman who sends the mail, and sends Chai into a paroxysm of delight. And Auntie Rosalind, who has watched Chai grow from puppyhood, whose every encounter with him prompts memories of her old, now-dead dog.
To walk Chai is also to be attentive to weather and light and time and routine. It rained for an entire week recently and he was miserable and damp and bad-smelling and I had to take him out for five minute walks whenever there was a break in the clouds. He’d come back wet-bellied and relieved, and lie down with his chin on the floor as I towelled his paws dry. On glorious mornings where the wind is virginal we’d sit on benches and drink the sky. On afternoons too hot we avoid the pavements and wind back and forth through shadowed void decks, rounding migrant men taking naps by their construction sites. And every morning, without fail: and every evening, without fail: he has to be walked. No matter if I’d slept at three the night before or that one awful month where my grandmother was ill and passed away. No matter if my eyes were swollen with tears or if I had a deadline at midnight or if I was so angry I could hardly speak, getting Chai meant that I had committed to him, to spending at least an hour out of the house, in motion, in engagement with the wider world.
This year, a homebody year, a year where I grew to know my neighbourhood. And for me, to know things is to love them, with a little dog by my side, independent and irrepressible and so quick to transform thought-desire-anticipation into action: who sees bird and thinks chase, who sees dog and thinks friend. This was my year, a year of walks, where walking a dog made me at home.