This story was originally published on Allora, Viterbo and in In Brief Mag, ‘Edible’.
A wriggling, splashing fish is thrust towards my face. The man holding the net grins at me with crooked yellow teeth and says something in his melodic language.
“He wants to know if it’s ok,” translates a local into English.
“Uh… yes.” I smile at the man and nod vigorously. He slams the beam back over the wooden fish tanks that hang off the houseboat and into the murky river.
I’m with my father and his business associates in Yunfu, China. It’s a muggy rural town with banana trees and huge walls of greenery lining the dirt streets. The houseboat belongs to a local family who serve lunch in their living room.
A huge silver bowl and ladle is brought out quickly by a lady with long streaks of grey in her black hair. Inside the bowl are floating pieces of the fish that was flapping around in my face five minutes earlier.
She serves me first before moving around the table. Bobbing to the surface of my bowl is the whiskered face of the fish, eyes milky white and mouth gaping open.
The table stares at me expectantly. As the guest, I receive the delicacies of the dish and must pull the flesh off the face, dig out the eyes, and suck out the brain.
The fish head isn’t even that bad; the previous week in Foshan I was encouraged to eat slimy grey sea worms and various pieces of offal. As I didn’t relish spending the next few days perched over the toilet seat, I managed to decline without offending anyone.
Whenever I’m at a restaurant, I have to contain my reactions over a basket full of live snakes, a tank of scorpions, or a giant caged crocodile, in case my gracious hosts decide to order them for me. When I began digging enthusiastically into the pile of leafy green vegetables, they shook their head in bafflement and went straight for the ‘good bits’.
This is why I travel. I have to encounter different ideas of hospitality and generosity, reconcile them with my own and embrace them. Every meal and every encounter from the moment I leave the hotel room to the moment I return is a test of character, a challenge I delight in overcoming, or sometimes delight in failing to overcome.
I try not to wrinkle my nose, I take a deep breath, and I pick up my chopsticks.