A Fish Out of Water

by Mhairi Duncan (Australia)

Making a local connection China


Having stuffed myself with many a haggis over the years, I’ve never been afraid to devour oddities such as sheep’s heart, liver and lungs or to ‘go native’ and celebrate local delicacies of elsewhere. But as Lahn beamed over his shoulder, dragging me through the hordes of sea horses, cockroaches and snakes impaled on sticks, I couldn’t help but feel my stomach cramp. These were the living streets of Wangfujing, humming with tourists scuttling down its clammy, dank passages. And this was where Lahn wanted me to try a local delicacy, hǎi xīng. Starfish. I had met Lahn just hours before as we stooped to pick up a plastic bag floating in the humid city air. We had chatted briefly, laughing at our Hollywood-movie meeting and after some time, he insisted on taking me to sample some exotic Beijing fodder, all whilst he practiced English. The sickly yellow spotlights cast sharp cones down on the starfish and their exteriors were curling in the oppressive heat. Plucked from display, the vendor thrust a spear through its body. I squirmed. He plunged it into the belly of the bubbling cauldron of oil as it spat out its disapproval. My mind wandered to its natural place nestled in the balmy rock pools of sandy ruble and reef. This was a far cry from home. Holding the impaled star like a lolly, it stank pungently of the sea and rancid seaweed left to fester in the sun too long at low tide. But I had to eat it. Lahn smiled excitedly, urging me on. Tentatively, I positioned one leg between my front teeth ensuring my tongue was well back. I bit down. Nothing happened. It was solid. Re-positioning, I tried again using my back teeth when crack, the leg came away exploding and dissolving almost instantly into shards of putrid salty swill sloshing around the great cavity of my mouth. I forced it down, down, down. Four legs and a body were left. Lahn shoved the creature in my face. ‘No thanks. Bù, xièxiè! But please, you go ahead.’ ‘No way! No one in China likes this. Most people have not even tried.’ I stood, stunned, unable to comprehend why he would take me to try this - of all things - and then remember how many people I’d forced haggis upon. He looked at me and laughed. I softened, and as Wangfujing dissolved behind us the air was thick with our laughter in the warm humidity of night. Local delicacies are often peculiar, perhaps even a gimmick sometimes, but shared experiences and the kindness of strangers are local delicacies definitely worth seeking.