The body coughs. the mind sneezes a dirty thought. I am seeing sickness all around me. I am sitting at a street cafe on Cat Ba island watching a dinner fish swim sideways in a fish tank. Swim is probably the wrong word. Swimming is a natural, unconscious action, like breathing and walking for us humans. What I am seeing is not natural or unconscious. It is a very active struggle, where two basic instincts are battling it out: natural movement vs survival.
The sideways straggler is not alone, but he is alone in his behaviour, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to witness. It’s like listening to the rasping bark of a dog without vocal cords. It hits a chord. The other fish have chosen to survive and found a way to move naturally in their confined space. They hover, so it looks natural enough and makes me not want to vomit my tuna sandwich on the sidewalk.
It reminds me of the bird I recently watched in a hotel lobby cage, while I waited for the hotel manager to bring me my room key. the Vietnamese have a thing for birds in cages. Some birds are small and fit their cages but many can hardly spread their wings, let alone fly from perch to perch. So they sit, in a natural state of stillness for an unnatural amount of time, day in and day out.
But this bird was not yet broken. She was still struggling to understand why she couldn’t spread her wings, which made her twitch her head and body in a way that naturally brought me to tears. An animal, any animal, in distress should cause panic in us all. I had all manner of plans to free her and in the end I did nothing except check in with her over the next few days. and I was happy when I saw she had calmed down. I knew she was broken but it seemed a better state to be in than outright panic.
Just about every restaurant in Cat Ba has a fish tank brimming with all shapes and sizes of fish and crustaceans, most of which i can only identify by general species. No one blinks an eye. it’s natural for the humans to see this. And then there are the large jars filled with snakes and starfish in a liquid that you apparently want to drink from the attached tap. I am told it’s pretty potent and meant for good bedroom antics. I don’t need to be told it’s revolting and will send me running to the adjoining bathroom.
The bigger vats with their fat stoppers remind me of high school biology classes, where we used to grimace at the frogs and foetuses in formaldehyde. Funny to have the same reaction, 20 years later, staring into the murky waters of a baby goat and goat testicles.
Bottled, pickled, caged, contained. These are states of being in Vietnam, which makes it easy to point, comment and pass judgement at its people. I can’t understand how such kind and gentle people, who will rush to bring you a fan as soon as you sit down, just to ensure your comfort, see nothing of the discomfort in other sentient beings. There is a disconnect there for me.
And yet deep down i think the only difference between this system and ours is transparency. Here it is, out in the open and, sure, part of the culture. With us, animal cruelty is openly condemned as being against our values and cultures and yet… is it really? Or are we just far enough away from the killing fields (pardon my regional reference) to not have to judge ourselves through the actions of others. “I really should cut back on red meat” seems far enough right?
Aah. The hypocrisy of democracy. and i voted yes.