In the market near your flat, the fish are still partially alive when you buy them. The yellow-aproned woman calls you over, gesturing to the croaker, the red snapper—“so fresh! I’ll give it to you for 35 dollars!”—with blood on their gelatinous eyes, their snouts, leaking or twitching all over the ice or in a tank. You see a fish trying to escape from its bucket, a shiny thing popping out, firm and muscular. You think: that looks good. Fresh. You pay and the woman glints the scales off with a cleaver, binds it in clear plastic, presents to you your wet salty change. All the way home in your hand the unexpected spasm; the white shock of movement. But it is a mistake to buy this fish.
You don’t see it, but the fish, alive still, is stressed. Its anxiety—lactic acid, ammonia—is flooding into the flesh, souring the meat. This is the fish that that you and I eat a lot of the time. Stressed fish on the grill, flipped twice to get that gritty char. Disturbed fish, chilled chiu chow style. Anxious fish with lemon and capers. Pan-fried; roasted; suffocated to death.
The reason why raw fish tastes so much better in Japan, according to my partner, is all to do with the way they kill it: with a spike plunged into the hindbrain. Ikejime, which is what it’s called, is also a much more humane way. Immediate brain death. Then, a long, silver needle through its spine. The fish relaxes. The blood is drained. A stilled, humble ritual.
The bonus: delicious, bloodless flesh.
Rituals. I once met someone who hated them, who claimed she did not engage in any. “And don’t try to trick me into doing one,” she said threateningly. Okay. But every so often she would say something like “I love my coffee in the morning” or I’ll see her handing out her business card to people in a professional setting with the exact same gesture, two hands and a slight head bow, and I’ll want to point it out. But I keep quiet. Whatever works for her.
My grandma calls. She’s espousing some new ritual that she insists I have to follow, otherwise the darkness will come, and she won’t be able to help me anymore.
“What darkness?” I say. But she doesn’t answer me.
“You’re not a child anymore,” she replies, “you have to take care of yourself.” Then (almost in the same breath): “I’m still the adult in this relationship, so you have to listen to me.”
To appease her, I stick four leeks into the soil of my plant pot by the door, where we also keep our disinfectant and hand sanitizer and UV light phone sterilizer. Stuck high up on the doorframe is a small mezuzah, green and blue. Sometimes Paul remembers to touch it as he walks in and out. Our doorway. So many contradictions. I can barely remember which superstition is mine.
A game: can you guess correctly how many people are coming down or up in the lift?
Paul and I are at a hotel bar in Kowloon. Everything is clear, translucent, including the bartops and tables and elevators, which glide up and down, exposing its contents to our nosy gaze.
We make arbitrary rules. If you guess the right number of people in a shuttle, of course, ten points. Women wearing black shirts: two points. Little boys running cars on the railings: five points. Strollers: minus two points. I start to feel vaguely uncomfortable with the way that we’re objectifying these people who are just leaving their hotel rooms to get to dinner or going up for the night, but I can’t stop. There’s something infinitely thrilling about seeing the flash of metal and then either this teaser of shoes or the tops of people’s heads. And in a hotel bar, no less—that interstitial space between home and away. It is exactly the right kind of anxiety.
Emails, so many emails. In the morning, at least 20 or 30. All spam. Listings of sun-soaked penthouses in areas that I once thought about moving to, sales of independent designer clothing I never could afford, dozens of tomato varieties flown in from Italy. Piedmont garlic, silvery white, is HKD85 per bundle. A large melon, HKD180 for one. Of course I know it tastes better than the waterlogged, almost tasteless HKD20 one I haul back, arms and back all sweaty, from the market. But it’s not like one day I’ll wake up and think: I deserve more. Who do these people think I am, anyway?
There are, also, emails about why Hong Kong is “still the greatest city on earth,” updates on newly opened bars and restaurants, photographs of blanched white asparagus looking like dismembered colorless fingers. All this pointless, useless information.
But still I read them all, every single one, feeling a strange sense of satisfaction as I swipe them out of my inbox. Until tomorrow.
Another ritual: every five minutes I pick up my phone and scroll the timelines, my eyes growing glassy with equal parts indifference and horror.
My sister FaceTimes me, laughing. At first when I pick up that’s all it is: seconds of her mouth wide open and gleeful. Her teeth look like pixelated garlic cloves. “There’s a curse,” she says. “Grandma found a dead crab in the cabinet. Now we’re exorcising the storage room.”
She flips the camera around, and I see my parents already on their knees with rags, sage bundles, incense, my mother holding a small Walkman that plays Buddhist chants. I see my dad shovelling shoes and vacuum-packed winter jackets whole into a ravenous black bin liner. They look moody. “Hey! Stop calling your sister, it’s bad luck,” my mother yells, and my sister whispers “oops” and hangs up.
Bad luck for whom, I think. Later, my parents send me a picture of it when it’s all done, with the caption “like the renovation?” and a winky smiley face emoji.
One time I saw blue swimmer crabs on sale at the local supermarket, their heads split open and inert with crowns of orange-gold.
My grandmother called as I was putting them in the fridge, and hearing the crush of plastic, of heavy claw and head, asked what I was doing. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she said. “You must steam the crab now. It’s for your own good.”
It was four hours until dinner. Paul loves my grandmother but refuses to ritualize her charms, the little spells, the flip of paper that somehow erases you from the eyes of ghouls. I, however, had not yet learned to draw a line in the sand, however limp.
Later, after Paul and I feasted on these crabs—which were also good cold, tender when marinated in Shaoxing wine—I Google “how to prepare and cook crab properly.” And to my surprise realized my grandma was right this time. After a crab dies, it immediately starts to release toxins from its body. You are meant to either eat it right away or cook it and eat it cold, later. In this instance, death itself is the stressor.
“Would you prefer the good news or the bad news first?”
I’ve always wondered what kind of person asks this question. Either way—good, bad, bad, good—it’s like micro dosing on poison. There’s a saying in Cantonese, 好壞, which a friend told me about once. Good bad, it means, as if neither are inextricable from the other. Or maybe it means a good kind of bad, or it’s a confusing descriptive. The good-bad woman. The good-bad wolf.
The person asking this question is Paul; I think he is being kind.
“Just tell me both at the same time.”
I snatch the phone from his hand, impatient with his diplomacy. The screen glimmers. I become slick with anxiety. There have been arrests, warnings, people shutting down their Twitter accounts.
“There’s no good news here, Paul.”
He rests his hand on my head, pushes his thumbs in exactly the right lumps, realizing his mistake when I swat him away. He looks sad; good-bad.
“I know. I’m sorry. I just thought it’d be nice to believe that there was.”
What is it that people say? Meditation is preparation for death? It should be “ritual is preparation for life.” Without them, we’re all just bloated fish.
For example: Paul, my partner, is American. He loves the fall. But we live here, where there is no pageantry of leaves, of color, where we are; the foliage simply curls into husks, inconspicuous. Being away from home is not easy for him. And so, a ritual: we schlep to the American grocery store, and we buy torso-sized boxes of cereal and cider and canned pumpkin and gummies limned with sugar that he plops surreptitiously into his mouth on the taxi ride home, which horrifies me.
For example: I feel increasingly terrified living here, but still I insist on grasping at connections, introducing myself to the women in oil-slick boots at the fish market, the man drying citrus peels into browning old flowers, the young couple who sell CBD oils and cups that look like craggy hilltops. I write and write and write about this place. As if to touch myself to the ground, to soil, like a marathon runner bending their heels to the earth before springing into escape.
A new law is passed into the night. I scroll. My parents, having scrubbed that room with solvent, are now applying long tongues of white where the crab was found. And on and on and on.
Life is mutable. Life is mutable. Life is mutable. Life is mutable. Life is mutable. Life is mutable.
The night the law is passed, I think I can’t sleep, but then I am weightless in the sky.
Hand me that spike, I say to Paul in my dream. That one, over there.
He’s standing by a wall of ikejime spikes lined up vertically like billiard cues. He looks to where I point, plucks the sharpest and shiniest one off its hook. But where’s the fish? He asks.
Here, I say, and taking the instrument dig it into the back of my skull, feeling the blood pour out like a river, a fluid mountain, warm and satin. Instant clarity, and I want nothing more. My brain falls out into clumps, and with a needle I stitch it onto this blanket of blood, an heirloom for my future children to wear when they dream in a foreign place far from here, where they will have been raised not on the water typing on the floors of my grandma’s flat—she always left the window open—but in a hollow place that Paul and I will make anew, remembering not our old individual rituals, but the good bad, or the bad good, together, choked up on our ceilings and walls and doorways like spells to push us into a new life.
Ysabelle Cheung is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Their writing has been published in Catapult and Jellyfish Review (forthcoming).