Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fish Heads High in the Sky

In one of the posts in my series of stories about Xiaoxin, a young lady from Sichuan I met in Shanghai, I mentioned that we ate at a restaurant atop of the Jin Mao Tower. One of the dishes we ordered was a large fish served whole. It did not fit with the themes I wished to emphasize in the earlier stories so I am presenting the story about the fish here. I think it highlights not only how Xiaoxin and I came from different cultures, but also how logically accepting something does not mean that more "visceral" parts of the mind accept it as well.

After we had nearly finished the delicious fish Xiaoxin said, "It's your last night in China. You should take the fish head and enjoy it." I knew that many in China considered the head the best part of a fish. In fact, there are popular dishes comprised only of fish heads. However, my interest in exploring new foods had only taken me so far at the time, and my still Western view of fish heads meant that eating one would be a challenge. I could also see from Xiaoxin's eyes that the fish head had much appeal to her. So I said, "I'm sure I couldn't enjoy the fish head as much as you. Please, I want you to have it." Xiaoxin still insisted that I should have the fish head, but even just thinking about eating it made my stomach feel queasy. Fortunately, after much discussion she finally accepted my "gracious" offer to take the fish head for herself.

As I began to enjoy the other dishes I heard a strange slurping noise coming from her direction. I turned my head and saw Xiaoxin had the entire fish head up to her mouth and was sucking in whatever it is that can be found within a fish's head. I swiftly turned my head away and did my best to control the intense nausea sweeping over me. Logically, I thought it was fine for someone to eat fish head, so I had not expected such a visceral reaction. As I tried to recover I saw a non-Chinese lady sitting on the other side of the room. It appeared she had witnessed the recent episode and was fully appreciating the moment.

I sat there looking away for a few more minutes as Xiaoxin finished savoring the fish head in a way I had never known a fish head could be savored. Fortunately, the fish head had her full attention, and she never appeared to notice my reaction. Especially after having heard her childhood stories about her desire to eat fish, I was happy she was able to so thoroughly enjoy it. I was also happy that my nausea did not reach full fruition.

Since that night over six years ago, my aversion to fish heads has disappeared. In fact, I have tried a variety of fish head dishes including a ginger soup in Taipei. Despite my change of tastes, I think I could still be gracious enough to let Xiaoxin enjoy the fish head.

Or maybe I would order two.

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