I am a pig, so what?

PIG. Hog. Swine. By any name, poor Porky has endured insults through the ages. Because it is so maligned and misrepresented as a stupid, dirty and greedy creature, being born under that sign wasn’t something I was proud of. My young self found it an absolute embarrassment.

I envied my siblings who were born under “better” signs, especially my younger sister who was born in the year of the dragon and is a high achiever since her primary school days.

It didn’t help either that over the years, the pig became the most detested animal in Malaysia. So detested that I think we can adopt the Bosnian expression “Feeling like a pig in Teheran” which means, according to Wikipedia, “being uncomfortable in a situation, presumably because a pig has no place in Islamic surroundings”. All we have to do is replace Teheran with Kuala Lumpur.

That’s why despite the Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad saying there was no ban on using the image of the pig in this Chinese New Year’s decorations in public places, no shopping mall is willing to risk offending Muslim sensitivities by displaying anything remotely porcine.

After all, there have been enough incidents involving the animal to show it’s simply not worth trying to be culturally correct this CNY.

In 2014, Cadbury Malaysia had to recall two batches of chocolate products when the Health Ministry claimed two batches of samples were tainted with porcine DNA. This led to Malay-Muslim groups calling for a nationwide boycott on all Cadbury products to wage a holy war against the company for attempting to “weaken” Muslims in Malaysia. The dust settled when the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) subsequently said there was no such contamination and that the chocolates were halal after all.

The following year, an Australian company pulled the plug on its electronic billboard Hari Raya greeting in KL because its wombat mascot was mistaken for a pig. Then in 2017, the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry seized 2,003 paint brushes made from pig bristles that were not properly labelled in a nationwide crackdown.

But Muslims aren’t the only ones who want nothing to do with the pig. The Jews also don’t consume pork and in the Bible (Leviticus 11:7) Moses and his followers are forbidden to eat swine “because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud”.

That led superstitious sailors to associate pigs with the devil because of their cloven hooves and consider the animal to be a harbinger of misfortune.

Then there are all the derogatory connotations found in the English language alone. “Greedy/lazy/dirty as a pig”, “eating like a hog” to denote a lack of table manners, “sweating like a pig”; “pig-headed”, “chauvinist pig”, et cetera.

Perhaps the animal’s small, beady eyes, barrel-shaped body and flat pink snout don’t endear people the way better-looking domesticated animals like cats, dogs, cows, horses and sheep do.

The pig’s fondness for wallowing in mud further reinforces its dirty image, even though there is a good reason for the habit: it helps the animal to regulate its body temperature and discourages parasites, says livescience.com.

Interestingly, pigs and humans have a number of similar anatomic and physiologic traits, such as organ placement (like size and function), skin similarities and some disease progression, explains the Australian Academy of Science.

According to its website, “A pig weighing around 60kg will, for example, resemble a human body in many ways. For this reason, pigs have been used in medical research for over 30 years (because) if something works in a pig, it has a higher possibility of working in a human.”

While its meat is its most well-known product, pig parts are actually ubiquitous in many non-food items and goods.

According to animalsmart.org, “no other animal provides society with a wider range of products than the hog”.

Check out the TED Talk, How pig parts make the world turn, by Christien Meindertsma, author of Pig 05049, who spent three years tracing how a single pig made its way into at least 185 non-pork products, from soap to bullets to artificial hearts. https://www.ted.com/talks/christien_meindertsma_on_pig_05049

But how did the pig become such a controversial creature? I found a fascinating explanation by Christine Mathieu in her insightful article, So what is it with the pig?

It’s a pretty long article but I urge you to read it to have a better understanding of how food taboos came about. http://www.breadwinethou.com/2015/06/22/so-what-is-it-with-the-pig/

Mathieu examines the ecological, economic, political and ritual reasons for the cultural shunning of an animal and looks at how the pig fell out of favour, going back to the ancient Egyptians to how the animal became Christendom’s “scapepig” that embodies the mortal sin of gluttony and lust.

She gives a “simple method to evaluate the relative degree of cultural defilement attached to animals: the animal name calling”.

She writes: “Let’s try it with the domesticated species: You rooster, rabbit, duck, pigeon? No, that does not work. You sheep? Yes, that’s a bit of an insult. You cow? Definitely. Donkey! That too. You dog! Yes. Bitch! Pig! Swine! Wow, we’re getting really nasty here.

“But now try this: You pork! You beef! You mutton! You horse! That actually sounds really funny.”

And indeed it is funny, uncannily so because, as Mathieu postulates, “the degree of defilement of the animal, either as a living being or food-flesh, can be correlated to human structures of economic and political power: the production of meat goes with the peasant class, the consumption of meat with the upper class”.

That is the unfortunate pig of the West. But in the East, the pig’s ritual status is much better, notes Mathieu. It is associated with good luck, wealth, vitality and family. Just how important the animal is to the Chinese can be seen in the Chinese character for family, jia, which is made up of two radicals for roof and pig.

And while it is still ridiculed for being fat and lazy, the peace-loving pig in the Chinese zodiac is one of the most likeable signs with traits of honesty, compassion, forgiveness, generosity and friendship.

Surely these are traits Malaysia and the rest of the world need more than ever in 2019 and beyond. This proud Pig says oink, oink to that!

Aunty makes the plea that pigs, like dogs, deserve a lot more respect for its usefulness to humankind. As legendary cookbook author Irma S. Rombauer observed, ‘A pig resembles a saint in that he is more honoured after death than during his lifetime.’

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