My alarm woke me up earlier than I was used to, but on this day I needed to wake up with the fishes to check out the local fish market. Live eels, snakes, frogs, fowl, and much more, the wet market–as English speakers called it–was always an eye-opening experience for me in China. A lifetime, land-locked Minnesotan, I was in foreign territory within this foreign country.
Come join me as I offer you another fillet of life here in China. I do warn you though, this one can get a little icky.
The wet market was just three blocks from my apartment here in old downtown Zhuhai. It may have been early in the morning, but activity outside the market is peaking:
Entering is like walking into a big flea market—-a large, open area with concrete floors and florescent lighting. Rows of tables with shallow basins filled with seafood that people are dickering and bickering across, passing bills from dry hand to wet, slimy hand. It’s very busy and lively. Besides water basins, there’s also the tables for the butchers, preparing their product for waiting customers: chopping off fish heads, steaks of the larger fish, and scaling the heck out of the small ones. A slow hand will mean customers will drift to the next booth. This necessity for speed amps up the ambiance within this arena even more.
Walking through, I saw other people at work: a woman squatting in the catcher position, dressing eel-like creatures:
An older woman took catfish one by one and ended their lives in the humane fashion of beating their skulls with a wood mallet. See this for yourself:
Besides eel-like creatures and catfish, I see on the tables: halibut, plenty of shrimp and crab, large grouper, and actual eels. This one had leapt out of its container:
Walking through the rows of the wet market, the scene is a stimulating environment of people, animal, and commerce. Here’s a video of the floor:
As I ventured on back, seafood seemed to be replaced with land animals. Baskets of frogs the size of your hand were there for the taking:
Bags of two to three foot snakes and small turtles sat atop bins of water-snakes that, too, were trying to jump ship.
Then in its own cage I came upon the kingpin of all the snakes: a cobra, and a big one too:
But it was still active:
My Australian colleague later told me they can spit, too. Yeesh, watch out.
Among the more docile creatures were soft-shell turtles. Their penetrable shells allowed for humans to poke a hole to tie a string through. Then I watched as the turtles futilely try to walk away—slowly of course. I felt bad for the poor guys.
Then after seeing a guy pick up live frogs and whip them into a bucket as indifferently as if they were plastic, toy ones, a crack in armor had me realize the cruelty—if you wish to call it that—that takes place here. Yet there seemed a hypocrisy in me in saying that animals deserve to be treated well while intending on buying some to eat for later. If I eat and pay for animals, then they are a commodity to me. And to treat them as such—like this guy—is simply being consistent and efficient, right?
On one hand, the apathetic toad-tosser unveiled the truth that eating meat means ending life, and that we tend to do a good job in the West of masking and ignoring what goes on behind the menu. But on the other, I know there can also be a tie between eating and harvesting meat and an increased respect for the life which provided it. I see this most regularly from hunters back in Minnesota, where the act of seeking them out heightens the appreciation for the lovely animals.
It also hit me that humans have their own inherent animal hierarchy: we value mammals more than reptiles, and reptiles more than insects. The closer animals get to resembling us determines where our ideas of cruelty begins.
Related, we have this window of edibility in American culture. If our intimacy with a species is low, we want nothing to do with them: eating insects and reptiles is considered exotic, daring, and gross. If our intimacy is high, it becomes a moral issue as eating dogs and horses is “wrong”. But in the middle is the Goldilocks region: just right. So we mow down on these mammals and birds.
Speaking of, my last leg of the market was to see the furry and the feathered. Just outside the east side of the market was an alley for small storage-like units. I watched one young man open up his and reveal what he had inside:
Walking along this alley were cages of ducks, geese, and funny-looking fowl that I hadn’t seen before. Most of them packed like sardines. The scene was straight out of the evening news when they do a story on the Avian Bird Flu. I heard a goat crying as it was bled for slaughter and saw another recently deceased one being torched to rid it of all its hair.
They don’t leave much room to appreciate these animals in this market. But it is an interesting slice of life here in Zhuhai. Here’s a clip of this alley if you wish:
I went back inside the market to buy some seafood. I went vanilla and settled on some shrimp and crab. Maybe next time I’d go for the frogs and snakes. Later that evening with my friend Jordan, his Chinese fiancé Carla, and her friend Meizhu we dined. The ladies prepared it; Jordan and I watched. It tasted great. The potato plate was hearty and reminded me of home cookin’. Another plate offered curry to its vegetables. The shrimp were juicy as was the flaky crab:
It was a great way to finish the day. Seeing the results of all the labor and commerce from the fishing boat to the market to the kitchen helped add depth and appreciation to the meal.
Visiting the market was one part fascinating and invigorating, one part troubling, and one part thought-provoking. I decided that as long as I keep eating meat, the best thing I can do to respect the sacrifice of the animal is to use its energy and nourishment to live a productive life of my own.
Here’s to you living out yours,
p.s. If you want bonus footage, your wish is granted: