Recently, I was grading my students’ responses to a book review I had assigned. In my assignment, I had thrown in a few questions pulled from the study guide at the back of the book, without giving much thought to the answers to the pre-made questions. As I read over the responses, however, I found my students beautifully describing a concept that seemed to impact them as much as their responses impacted me. It was the idea of fish soup.
The book I assigned is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a classic ethnographic tale of two cultures clashing when a Hmong family brings their epileptic daughter to a California hospital for treatment. Throughout the book, language barriers and cultural misunderstandings threaten to overwhelm any chance the toddler has of avoiding seizures and receiving care. Woven simultaneously into the stories of American doctors and the Hmong family, is the history of the entire Hmong culture. Wars and migrations, oppressions, empires, entire centuries slip into chapters about a single doctor’s visit in California.
Early in the book, there is an anecdote about a Hmong student who is asked to give a five-minute report as part of a language class;
“His chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is [Fadiman 1997: 12].”
The book goes on to explain:
“…that Hmong have a phrase hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things.’ It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point [Fadiman 1997:13].”
Lately, perhaps because of the cold weather that drives me inside to my books and my bed where my thoughts can wander freely, I’ve been stewing my own sort of fish soup. I’ve been reminded lately of the all the stories of people I’ve encountered in my own journey; people I’ve grown up with, people I’ve met while travelling, people I know only through letters and family stories. So many times in life, we encounter another soul for even a brief moment, yet part of his or her story stays with us over the years. And though in isolation, these moments seem disparate and unrelated, they are stewing together within us our own fish soup.
In a film I watched recently set during the Holocaust, a young German girl runs out into the line of Jews being marched out of the city. She looks desperately for her friend while whispering to each man that passes by, I won’t forget you. I won’t forget you.
At times, I wish I could tell the same to the people whose stories have stuck with me. I won’t forget you. You are part of my fish soup. I would tell it to the woman in a Thai prison who hadn’t seen her daughter in years and in her place gave me a mother’s hug. I would tell it to the hardened and stoic fireman who broke down into tears while telling me of the first time he saw death on the job. I would tell it to the family in Cairo who tried to give my friend and I a ride home after we got lost in the market. I would tell it to the family in Chile that I’ve never met, but who call me their gringa niece and tell me stories of my mother. I would tell it to the children I worked with in India years ago, Shivam, Afshar Ali, Rishi. They are all grown up now, who knows where they are. I would tell it to the boy who sat across from me on a balcony in Bangkok one night when I was 17, who in many ways started it all by telling me everyone had a story to tell, even me. I won’t forget you.
There are so many moments we experience so briefly, so many different chapters in our lives that sometimes, they can seem incredibly disconnected. Where I am now looks nothing like where I was two years ago, or five years ago, or ten. Sometimes I’m not quite sure what to make of all the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, and the places I’ve been. But one thing is certain, they are all connected. We are all connected. And to me, that is a beautiful thing and a thought worth sharing.