Ying Ying is the author of Starting with Max: How a Wise Stray Dog Gave Me Strength and Inspiration. She lived in Hong Kong for many years, before moving to Australia in 1999. She wrote two books in Chinese before writing Starting with Max, her first book in English. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences with Max?
A: There are several reasons why I decided to write a book about my experiences with Max.
I think the fundamental reason was my realization of how much I had been transformed by a mere animal. Before I met Max at the RSPCA, I had had little interest in animals, not to mention love for a dog. I had been quite a self-focusing arrogant human who had thought that animals were not important.
But my experience with Max led me to a deep understanding of human-dog relationships. He changed my thinking and feeling about animals, and he brought out the best in me. I became so much different that I thought I should keep a record of my story with Max for myself.
When Max turned 13, I witnessed my best friend getting old and weak. His endurance of physical pain and persistence to continue to live an active and joyous life touched my heart deeply, unlike any other feelings that I had had before.
I was contemplative, sitting beside my elderly Max, in silence, but having a mind full of words to describe my experiences with my dog. So I thought I must make my words a book, to be shared with dog lovers. The thought of other dog lovers coming to know Max through his story made me determined to write.
I must also highlight that I wrote my book because of Max. On the first page of it, Max is described as “more than a dog.” To me, and also to those who knew him well, he was not just an ordinary pet. He was my great helper and I owed my happy new Australian life to him. My book was written with him as my inspiration, and for him as my most faithful friend, trainer and teacher.
Q: You write, “From the earliest days, both my husband and my daughter were amazed by my newfound devotion to Max and the way he had helped me adjust to our new life in Australia.” Can you say more about how he helped you deal with living in a new country?
A: In many ways Max helped me live a new happy life in Australia. Looking back, I think it was crucial that we adopted him right in the beginning of our move to Sydney. I started my Australian life with one more member to take care of, finding myself unprepared and reluctant.
But this challenge gave me no time to pity myself for the loss of career or disconnection from my Chinese family in Hong Kong; and I had to take up the task thrown at me without hesitation. Because it was a living thing that I had to deal with, not a job which I might just quit when there was no satisfaction, I did not have an option.
So from the start, I was pushed along by the important responsibility of caring for Max. That made me tenacious and persistent, for I knew if I only did it half-heartedly, I would bring regret to myself, might even create misery for the dog and my family as well. Max became part of the inescapable set-up of my new life and gave me a good reason to learn and unlearn, rethink and start truly anew.
At the same time, Max was a major input for fun and happiness in my otherwise quite stressful and mundane new life. In the midst of my busy schedules, he could always make me smile and laugh, distracting me from my own self-consciousness.
It is lovely to live with a dog who loves you faithfully; but it requires a special dog to uplift a frustrated soul. Max was highly smart and intelligent, loved to be trained and learned fast; but he was also playful, having a sense of humour, very sweet and gentle.
What I found most amazing was his extraordinary sensitivity towards human feelings. It was astonishing how much he understood me, shown by his exceptional obedient behaviours and unfailing love.
The time spent alone with Max became my healing moments; it was not just to get rid of any negative feelings, but to strengthen and inspire me; so that my mind was broadened and my heart filled with joy.
And of course, being physically active is essential to a good life. Max made me get up and out, no matter what. I had been often sick before we moved to Australia, but I became physically fit and strong due to the training with Max.
The daily outings with Max also brought me new friendship with dog lovers who, without our dogs, would only be strangers to me. We could connect easily and my life was getting more and more interesting. My newly found passion for animals gave me another aspect of the meaning of life.
In short, a wise stray dog became a life force for me at a time when I was most frustrated and vulnerable. He helped me by showing what he was, getting close to me and teaching me how to live a simple joyful life with him.
Q: In the book, you discuss “dog consciousness.” How well were you able to figure out Max’s thoughts? And vice versa?
A: I believe that only the dog owner can figure out well what his/her dog wants or doesn’t want, likes or dislikes, and what is going on in the dog’s mind. We know our dogs by sharing our lives with them. Through careful observations and experiments, we have become certain of their “consciousness.”
As I hadn’t had any experience with dogs before I met Max, I paid a lot of attention to his facial expressions, body language and behaviours.
I learnt from trial and error to find out that he actually had a mind of his own and a heart filled with feelings, just like humans. Judging from his very expressive eyes, ears and mouth, I was sure that he didn’t operate with only mechanical instincts governed by physics and chemistry.
To answer your question, I dare say that I could figure out Max’s thoughts very well. He also tried his best to let me know his thoughts and feelings. Because dogs are consistent in how they express themselves, it is not difficult to understand your own pet after a while.
I like to give you two examples. To show me how much he didn’t want me to go away, he climbed into my suitcase when I opened it to pack for a trip. His miserable look and his pleading eyes told me his thoughts: “I sit here so that you can’t pack. Please don’t go away again, and if you have to, please bring me along.” There was no mistaking how he felt.
On another occasion, after my husband had left for his business trip, Max led me to our bedroom and I found his beloved plastic bone on my husband’s pillow. After a few times, I figured out that he was trying to show me his love for my husband by offering his best gift, hoping that my husband might be touched and wouldn’t go away again.
On the other hand, I also think Max could understand me well. Of course I mean simple thoughts like, “It’s raining heavily outside. We should wait until the rain becomes less to go to the park.”
I did talk to Max about what I thought—I thought aloud when I was with him. He could understand the words, “rain,” “outside,” “wait” and “park”; and the rest he could easily guess from my expressions and movements. His ears were exceptionally smart, able to detect clearly the different sounds in a sentence; and he had a very good memory of words that he had heard before.
I tried to be very expressive, using simple words, my eyes, mouth, head, hands and body to communicate with him. Because he was always in a waiting position, i.e. waiting for instructions and activities to happen, he listened and watched me all the time.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have started giving talks about human-animal relationships in Australia and Hong Kong. Relating to my experience with Max, I want to explain how companion animals, especially dogs, can help us live a more meaningful and rewarding life; and that they are able to transform us by their unconditional love.
I want to raise the awareness of welfare for dogs, especially in Asia where they are largely treated with little respect. It is my wish to share what Max taught me with other animal lovers.
At the same time I have started writing a novel based on my mother’s life story. It is a story of the struggle of the Chinese who fled the civil war in China and went to Hong Kong after the end of the war with Japan in 1946. I like to depict the mixed sentiments of the Chinese during those years, and how their predicament led them to settle in different parts of the world.
The idea of writing a novel developed while I was talking to my elderly mother in Hong Kong. I became very interested in what the older generation went through during the turbulent periods in China and Hong Kong. I hope to create a book which shows the impacts brought by historical events on individuals.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think the reader should know that Starting with Max is not just another book about a lovely dog. It is also about how a migrant struggling to come to terms with her new identity was greatly helped by her dog in pursuing meanings in her new life.
In trying to understand her dog and all that is related to him, the author reflects on significant concepts such as love, beauty, aging and mortality. The reader will feel the contemplative mood of the author in her storytelling. So the book is as philosophical as it is narrative.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb