Originally published at Readmoo: https://news.readmoo.com/2022/03/28/fishmonger/
“I wanted to be a flounder too, hanging out in the sand and only having to jump up when there’s something to eat.” Lin Kai-Lun wants to live comfortably, but the “Fish Divination” system he developed gave him a different fate. “I’m actually a tuna, and tunas are workaholics. Fish with dark flesh can’t stop. They have to keep swimming.”
Fishmongering is a laborious and time-consuming profession. A fishmonger works from three in the morning to one in the afternoon, buying wholesale and hollering to customers day in and day out in the fish market.
Aside from selling fish, Lin Kai-Lun is also a writer. “I started writing around 2019 or 2020, when I felt like it was time to develop a side business. I also adjusted my workload to spend time with my children.” After finishing at the market, Lin uses his free time before picking up his children or after they go to bed to write. His labors have resulted in prize-winning fiction.
Now, Lin Kai-Lun has published his first book of essays, Fishmongering: A Memoir, which foregrounds his observations of life in the fish market.
While his stories unfold immersively in lived reality, the narrator of his essays is more of a spectator. “We don’t just buy and sell fish at the market. Inevitably, we interact with people.” Lin does not speak for the people around him, but we still see the souls that he encounters. The things he notices are prosaic, but his words form the shape of a life.
“He probably bet that I would never leave the fish stall”
Selling fish is a family business that began with his grandfather. Little by little, the burden of the job fell on Lin, who had nowhere to escape. “My elders always told me, ‘Do a good job, and eventually, all this will be yours.’” A touch of helplessness in his voice, Lin notes: “Yep, and it was all debt.”
The year Lin was born, his father won the national lottery. “I always wondered if he had used up all his luck and mine with unexpected windfalls.”
When Lin was a child, his father ran a bubble tea store that brought in 700,000 New Taiwan Dollars a month. “Maybe earning money was too easy. He went gambling to pass the time.” Each bet was one or two hundred thousand dollars. Eventually, loan sharks that charged high interest came to the door. “I didn’t understand. I thought our family had plenty of money, so why did we have to deal with this?”
Lin’s father kept gambling, though his debts mounted. Without a day in the clear, the family fell into a bottomless pit. “It seems that as long as people believe they have a certain kind of luck, they will bet everything on it.” Lin saw firsthand how gamblers always try to turn their fortunes around in one throw of the dice, having forgotten that none of it would be necessary if they had not made the first bet.
His family lost the store and his parents divorced. Lin’s addicted father also gambled away his child’s life.
Lin has not had a holiday since junior high school. While his peers were having fun, he was at the stall, buying wholesale, killing fish, and calling to customers. “My father probably bet on my never leaving the fish stall.” He wanted to continue his education and teach sociology, but when he called his father to announce that he had scored the highest marks, his father asked indifferently, “Are you still coming to sell fish this afternoon?”
Lin shouldered the burdens of the fish stall and his family’s debt, thinking that if he accepted his fate and worked hard, everything would eventually get better. “But my father was still gambling.” Lin told his father that he could pay off the debts and keep him clothed and fed if he would just stop gambling. “He wouldn’t do it.” He secretly borrowed money from friends and relatives in his son’s name and spent the hard-earned savings as though it were a matter of course. “I didn’t understand. How could he treat me that way?”
Lin’s father stabbed him in the back as he was trying to carry on the family business and get his life back on track. Lin once believed that he could forgive his father endlessly, but his heart gradually grew cold. “I don’t know if he saw me as a son, or just someone he could use.”
If you can relate, why would you discriminate?
“Those of us with this kind of childhood in which our family lives were seriously deprived, all want to make up for these shortcomings without repeating them.”
Lin wants his son and daughter to become responsible for themselves, so that they can find what they love to do and live a happy life.
Does he want his children to take over the fishmongering business? Lin thinks it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but nurturing them properly is the priority.
Most fishmongers do not want their children to take over the business. In the eyes of society, fishmongering is a seemingly inferior profession. “Does being a fishmonger mean being dirty, smelly, and poor?” From Lin’s perspective, the fish market is just another kind of workplace, one requiring an understanding of subtle emotions and a familiarity with styles of transaction between different generations. The work is not at all lowly and should not be taken lightly.
“Everyone thinks fishmongers are poor, and that they sell fish because they’re uneducated,” Lin says. Although Lin himself took on the family business because he had no other option, most young fishmongers today are not lacking in education. In fact, they make the choice to sell fish after a great deal of careful thinking and planning. “Fishmongers may have a low image in society, but we are actually in a higher stratum in terms of financial capability,” said Lin, adding that fishmongers can save money quickly if they are willing to work hard. It is the traditional framework of society that has created this unfair perspective.
Are street vendors necessarily worse than white-collar workers? Lin wonders, “Isn’t this just like how we ignore the people at home who are quietly serving us and giving us their time?” Service workers aren’t lesser than anyone else, and physical labor can support a family as well as a salary based on brainpower. “We must learn to have confidence in other people’s work and to respect each person’s life choices.”
Fishmongering: A Memoir is a book that clearly demonstrates Lin’s craftsmanship. “Everything I write about is ordinary. I hope people can understand me and the identity I represent through this work.” Between the lines, we can smell the fish market, hear the exchanges between fishmongers and customers, and feel the ways in which we are bound to others. “I believe even if you’re not a fishmonger, you can still relate to the book. And if you can relate, why would you discriminate?” Lin laughs. every morning, as dawn turns the sky fish-belly white, he plants his feet on the ground and moves forward with life in the fish market.