What I Learned During My Trip

I just got home from a trip with Lime. Though there were endless comments that made each of us laugh and laugh, strange situations including one of the worst dinners we’ve ever shared, and all kinds of funny things, I’m not gonna rehash a bunch of details here. I will tell one story, though. Unfortunately, it’s a story about something that upset Lime, but it’s also something I learned from, and learned about her from, so I’m going to tell it anyway.

It was a rainy, cool day today, and we were wandering around this little tiny island outpost of the city, waiting for our bus to come. Like all of the buses we caught during the trip, this one would come just in time and we’d catch it just in time. I was munching on an ice cream bar, and Lime was drinking her prepackaged Cappucino coffee.

The town we were in, Yeosu, is near the sea, and all around there are these places that serve sashimi—raw fish—and so they have fish tanks out in the street. The fish tanks have the fish that you can choose from to eat, at least that’s the idea. We walked around, looking at different tanks and all the fish in them, and one tank in particular was quite horrifying. The water had obviously not been cleaned in a fair while, and the fish were all kind of weak-and sickly-looking.

Lime pointed out a pink spot on the lip of one fish, and when she pointed it out, I quickly noticed it was on all the fish around it. These fish, stuck in cramped quarters in these little dirty tanks, were damnably ill. Not only that: then she pointed out the eyes of a few other fish. “They’re broken,” she said, and though what she meant to say was probably something more like “ill” or “damaged” or something, she was actually absolutely right to use the word broken. After all, that’s how we would describe people in that condition.

But I didn’t register it at the time. At the time, my main reaction was about 10% made up of an awareness of the fish’s suffering, a kind of token, “poor fish,” response, and about 90%, “Good God, do people actually choose and eat fish in that condition? How disgusting! That’s an awful state to find your food in!”

She made a comment about greed and we moved away from the fishtank,both of us quite horrified. A couple of tanks later, seeing the pink spots again, she told me she’d rather not see any sickness there might be, so we wandered off to another area. It wasn’t until we talked about it later that I realized her reaction was so strong because of her compassion for what she was quite aware to be living fellow-creatures, the fish. Sure, it was also her disgust at the mindset of the people who own the fishtanks, who put the fish into the situation—their greedy and stupidity, their callousness, their lack of concern for the environment and for the pain of the animals they profit from, all combined to make her feel quite awful.

And I wondered at my own reaction, at how powerfully my relationship to the world has been shaped (or should I write, “deformed”?) by my forging (under duress) an identity as a consumer. I look at animals and see potential food, rather than living beings that can suffer or feel anxiety. As much as I value compassion, and want to cultivate it in myself, it was not my first response. I shall have to set about learning this stunning, deep, surprising compassion. It’s a beautiful thing, and feels like something I’ve lost, when I see it so clearly in someone else. It’s nice to be with someone who feels the same way about businesses and money as I often do.

One more thing: it’s a good idea to remember that when talking about units of money, Koreans default to the 10,000s decimal place, where Westerns tend to default to the 1,000s. Thus $45,000 can become $450,000 in the space of a slightly careless conversation. Which can be highly entertaining.

4 thoughts on “What I Learned During My Trip

  1. Is Lime a vegetarian? If everyone were to see the state of their dinner in its final holding pens there might be a lot more vegans/vegies out there.

    Some listless fish with sores on their mouths surely pales in comparison to the suffering of crammed and injured, thirsty and stressed pigs, cows and chickens, which we merrily eat without thought because we are not faced with the horror of their final moments.

    You say you enjoy dog soup. You do know it is prepared by stringing the live dog up to a tree or a bridge and beating it with chains, sticks and oxy-tanks, or dragging it live on a chain behind a motor cycle until the pads are torn off its feet and it is choking and strangling as it tries to keep up, or taking it to the roof of the building, tying it up and throwing bricks and chairs at it until it has all the adrenaline running through it to make it tasty, don’t you?

    Is this compassion going to be a passing fad, where you’ll finish by admitting that dinner is dinner and they’re only beasts and you’ve got to eat? Or will I see both of you down at the Hari Krishna restaurant in future?

    And don’t worry about the clarity of the tank water or the pink lips. Fish get stressed from over-handling, low oxygen levels, the wrong pH, or lack of food. Since we can’t judge any of that, nor the greed of the shop owners from the condition of the shop-front tanks, we needn’t be concerned about it. And don’t worry about the environment, most of them are probably cultured fish, not wild-caught.

  2. Mer,

    Hey, you sound angry at me. You know, the quickest way to squelch a turn of awareness is to yell at a person because the new awareness doesn’t exactly fit with their previous behaviour. Are you mad at me over what I’ve said here, about my past, or about what I may or may not do in the future? I really can’t read your tone, honestly. But I get the distinct feeling you think me a hypocrite, though I’m not sure exactly why.

    Or perhaps you’re frustrated because you’ve seen other friends reach a similar awareness before, and then seen them “turn on it” and go back to be omnivorous? Or because my sudden turn of thinking was based in part of misinformation?

    I understand you know much more about fish than I do. The pink lips thing looked to me like some kind of serious disease that was festering in every fish in the tank, but I could be wrong about that. Would the effects of stress manifest in all the fish in the tank the same way, across various species? I imagine disease might, more likely than stress-caused effects? Or am I wrong? And from a purely inquisitive point of view, does tank size have much effect? Is a medium-sized tank as good as a big one? Or the bigger the better? And I assume the runoffwater from the tanks (there is some, you can see it cascading down the fronts of the tanks) goes straight into the groundwater and maybe into the sea, bearing whatever concentrated diseases, chemicals, and toxins infest the tanks. Is that not environmentally impactive? (Honest question, again, as I know you know more than me about these things.)

    And what’s this Hari Krishna Restaurant you mentioned? I have no idea what you’re talking about. There are Hari Krishnas in Jeonju? I dont eat at restaurants too often these days, unfortunately.

    I’m not likely to become a vegetarian in the near future, you’re right. But then I’m not absolutely sure that’s a necessary thing, even when one has become aware of the fact that meat comes from animals. However, I do agree with you that penning and slaughtering methods are grossly inhumane, and yes, I’ve honestly been thinking that I will limit the kinds of meat I eat for several reasons, including those. And since our discussions about dog soup I’ve thought some about it, and I haven’t had any, even though there are dog meat restaurants all around my house. I’m not really planning on having it again, either.

    I’m still thinking through the question of whether one needs to declare outright vegetarianism in order to follow through on one’s compassion for animals. I think one can be an omnivore and still feel compassion toward that which it feeds upon; I’m not sure how much better, for example, it is to eat free-range animals, but I am certain it is better. (I’ve noticed at a local mart that they offer a choice in one’s chicken.) But more pressing, to me, I think one can escape the mindset impressed upon us to see all things as the object of our consumptive function, rather than as objects in nature, or better yet as subjects of their own. To me, however, this problem is more pressing because it affects the way we approach all things, from waste-handling to agriculture to technological applications of things like genetics, and these things could potentially cause harm to all living things on the planet, in a myriad of ways that harm everything, not just a few species that we’ve chosen to enslave.

    Given this, and our probable disagreement about which is more important (and whether both imperatives need to be followed through on) I do hope that you’re not implying that whatever I’ve written about the subject is fake or shallow or flash-in-the-pan or romanticist just because of whatever you know about my dietary past, or because of whatever differences exist between the solution you’ve found to this problem, and the solutions I am finding. It’s very hard to talk with someone about a new insight or change one is thinking about when the response is an angry one cast in judgment of what preceded the new insight or change. What’s sad about that would be that I’d lose the chance to learn from you whatever you have to offer, which I suspect is a fair bit of worthwhile knowledge. It’s good to meet people who think about these kinds of things at all—and despite what you may think, it’s not as if this is the first time I have done so, I might add—and I think we should try to learn to talk about our thoughts despite our differences, or maybe even because of them. After all, there’s more in common with 2 people who think about something and reach different conclusions than there is between people who think about something and those who never do, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. Oh, and by the way, we can judge greed by the price they charged for sashimi in those places; it was exorbitant. And damn me I’m behaving like a consumer again. Argh!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *