We get there just before 4:00 to meet the boat as it’s coming in. There is already a small crowd of Chinese people waiting. Everyone looks clean and fresh and the parking lot is full of new sedans, so I guess none of them are Dong’ao locals. We aren’t, either, but we’re barely dressed in swimsuits and cover-ups. We’re going snorkeling after this, and then we’ll take the fish up to the cabin. We want a tuna big enough to make sushi and grill the leftovers.
I watch an old man toss an empty liquor bottle–the local stuff I’ve often seen but never drank–into the ocean, followed by a plastic cup. He looks at it for a moment, bobbing on the surface, then he walks away.
I watch the crew of the ship. Only one man looks Chinese. He is bigger and paler then anyone else on the boat. He’s handsome in a rugged kind of way. I imagine he knows all about boats and the ocean and fish and weather, all very practical and good to know. Hemingway would probably like him. He is obviously in charge. The others are much darker, younger, thinner–almost gaunt. They scuttle over the boat and the dock in heavy rubber boots, but their pants are thin and loose on their thin legs. I’ve read articles about slavery in the Asian fishing industry. Are these guys employed legally, healthily, gainfully, happily? They are talking and laughing with their boss. They are smiling. Do slaves smile?
The crew notices me and they elbow each other and point at me with their chins and their eyebrows. I smile at them, even though I know they’ve taken off my tunic with their eyes. One of them chirps “Hello” in English, in a high, tight voice that belies his bravado. I’m feeling generous and I know I’m safe, so I say, “Hiiiii” back to him. I allow myself the lilt, like I’m flirting or talking to a kid. The men laugh and put their heads together in a huddle. I assume men all over say the same disgusting things about women, especially women who don’t look anything like their mothers or sisters, but I’m on the shore, in the daylight, surrounded by respectable people, within sight of my husband who looks big and strong. I’m not wearing pants, but I feel like I can afford to be friendly.
The men hitch the orange tubs of fish and ice to a pulley and this way move their catch from the boat up onto the dock. Other men tip the heavy tubs into crates and the cold water, pink with blood runs down the concrete of the dock back toward the ocean. A man tosses a puffer fish onto the concrete. It’s garbage, but I watch it gasp for air and the crowd gasps. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself and I don’t want to get in the way, but I want to grab that fish up and toss him back in the ocean before he drowns on the shore. I imagine trying to get a hold of his slippery tail while avoiding his prickly body and trying to carry him back to the water. A mother runs over there, with her son, and picks up the fish. I’m so glad that sh’s going to save him and she tosses him off the dock, but she doesn’t aim and the fish lands in another orange tub full of fish and pink, icy water, back on the boat. She shrugs at her son. Later, more puffer fish will be tossed onto the concrete and the fishermen will kick them or step on them indifferently. In between assaults, their flanks will heave as they die in a long panic. The little boy who watched his mother fail to save the first fish will watch the men in their big boots kick the others and he will cautiously toe at them with his sandals until the adults warn him off. I want to save the fish and show the boy, but I imagine this happens every day at 4:00 so what difference will it make? I hate myself for being cynical, but I don’t move.
A woman walks along the front of the crowd to where I am standing and watching and she stops right in front of me so that I can only see the hair on the back of her head and nothing else. Her husband comes to stand behind her. “If you want that fish, talk to that man. If you want that fish, talk to that man,” he says. She wanders across the path of the orange tubs as they swing from the boat to the crates. Her daughter tries to follow her, but the father catches her by the arm just before she collides with a floating tub. Now comes the son, with a poodle tucked under his arm like a handbag, and the grandfather behind him. The heavy tubs swing around them and the pink water flows past their feet but they are unperturbed. Nothing bad can ever happen to them.
J waves me over. I haven’t been paying attention to him, or N—, or F—-, but they’ve already chosen and paid for a tuna. A big one, and it only cost NT$400. Later, N— will take the fish and a knife down to the driveway, and when he comes back he’ll have big strips of red meat ready to cut into sushi, and a bag of bones and skin for miso soup. The sushi is delicious, fresh and firm, but it makes me nauseous. I can’t stop thinking about the pink water and the puffer fish, but I don’t stop eating.