BEIJING—Before I bought the snakehead—the presumed snakehead—I wanted to make sure. “Qing wen,” I said in my broken proto-Mandarin. Excuse me …. The guy at the fish counter wheeled and called over his partner, a young woman, for help.
“Zhe shi shenme yu?” I asked her. What kind of fish is this?—or, given my language skills: Thees—a what-kind feesh?
“Heiyu,” she said.
What fish? I’d been working my way up to this moment all summer—or for three years, depending on when I started counting. It was June of 2002 when the papers reported that snakeheads, the land-walking unstoppable killers from the Orient, had shown up in a pond in Maryland, two counties over from where I was living.
As government biologists prepared to slaughter everything in the pond, I published an essay defending the snakeheads—admiring their can-do spirit and arguing that we were projecting our feelings about humans’ own record of interspecies murder onto the fish. A year or so later, in a bookstore, I picked up a history of the snakehead frenzy and discovered that the author had cited my piece. So long, Channa argus. Happy ending, if you weren’t a fish.
Then, this past June, I was in a restaurant on a side street in Gejiu. Gejiu is a little city in Yunnan Province, down south by Vietnam.
It was late, by local standards, and we were the only customers. My wife had been tied up with business while I watched the live unveiling of the 2008 Beijing Olympic motto on national TV: Tong Yi Ge Shi Jie, Tong Yi Ge Meng Sheng—“One World, One Dream.”
This restaurant was open; it looked clean and had a bit of décor. A waterfall ran down a sheet of glass into a slightly raised, pebble-lined pool.
Two-thirds of the way through dinner, my wife let out a scream. A moment later, I heard a slapping thud behind me. I turned. Something was writhing on the floor of the dining room, maybe eight feet away. It was dark and thick, the size of my forearm. A trail of water showed on the pebbles of the near corner of the pool.
Snakehead? I thought. Snakehead, snakehead ….
Three staffers converged on it—cautiously, from behind—and got it back into the water. My wife told me how it happened: how the head poked over the edge and then the whole thing came slithering, in horror-movie slow motion.
I had to know. In China, though, nobody sees much reason to meet an English speaker halfway—and why would you, if you can already communicate with a billion people without English? Over here, I function more or less like an autistic and speech-impaired toddler. My crowning linguistic achievement is that when I’m in Beijing, I can get a taxi home to the apartment—well, not to the apartment, but to the vicinity of the apartment. The Canadian embassy. From there, I point: hang a left at the Pizza Hut, etc.
So I begged my wife to ask the staff shenme yu. “Wuyu,” they told her. Wuyu—I needed a follow-up. The snakeheads came to Maryland because someone wanted to eat them. “Hao chi bu hao chi?” I ventured. Good or not good to eat?
“Hao chi.” Good to eat. At the hotel, I checked wuyu on my dictionary software: “snakehead.” Wu: dark, crow; yu: fish. The Dark Fish. Wuyu hao chi.
I was going to eat one. One world, one dream. I was going to eat me a snakehead.
But I never got the chance. It was formal banquets and set menus from then on out, from Gejiu to Kaiyuan to Kunming. Despite the province’s considerable culinary delights—stir-fried bacon, fresh corn pancakes, golden-fried slices of sheep’s-milk cheese (an obscure regional delicacy, they explained, like tofu but made with milk)—I flew back to Beijing, and then to New York, with an unsatisfied hunger.
And then, not many weeks later, the snakeheads were in Flushing Meadows, across the Van Wyck from my apartment. This would not do. I had seen one of these things from two or three yards away. They were taunting me.
This is an ancient human urge, when we find some formidable and implacable presence in the animal kingdom: We want to eat it. I studied photos online and began to rummage through the freezer cases of downtown Flushing: croaker, mackerel, eel. No wuyu.
Life in the paycheck-to-paycheck jet set does, however, have advantages. A few more weeks, plus 131¼2 hours in coach, and I was here again. And a few days after that, I was in the grocery section of the Oriental Kenzo department store, eyeing the tanks at the fish counter.
Heiyu she’d said? There were two of them, sharing a tank with a carp. They had the long, heavy heads, the dorsal and ventral fins that stretched all the way down the tail. They were a bronze-y tan, with big dark spots like a jaguar’s rosettes.
“Bu shi wuyu?” I asked. Not wuyu?
“Heiyu,” she said. I gabbled something out: This not wuyu? I want buy wuyu. You have wuyu?
She bustled around the counter to another tank, where a bunch of harmless-looking striped fish were hovering, torpid or dead, belly up. “Wuyu,” she said, reaching for one.
The heiyu might be wrong, but they weren’t that wrong. No, no. No want wuyu, sorry. Who did I trust, my eyes or my crummy Mandarin? I pointed to the smaller of the maybe snakeheads. This one.
She called her partner back over. This one. He stuck a hand into the tank.
He wouldn’t go after a real snakehead so casually, would he? Oh, well, I’d have a fresh something-or-other for dinner. He grabbed for the fish.
With one quick, hard lunge, the fish swam free. He grabbed again. It jerked free again. And again.
On maybe the half-dozenth try, he got it and spiked it to the floor to stun it. It thrashed, unstunned. He grabbed something and started clubbing at it. It thrashed. He clubbed. It thrashed. He clubbed and clubbed. It stopped.
He passed it to the woman. Its skin had darkened to a blackish shade. A splat of fresh red blood lay on the white floor tiles.
She weighed the fish and printed a label and asked me a question. I swiped my finger vertically along my belly, international pantomime for “Disembowel it, yes, please.” She scaled and gutted it and handed it to me. It was doubled over to fit into the bag, its blood pooling on the translucent plastic, the outer bag stretching open from the size of the thing. I studied the characters on the label: Oh, hei meaning “black.” That one I know. A Dark Fish, after all.
Back home, I checked heiyu in the dictionary to settle it: “n. snakeheaded fish, snakehead.” Meanwhile wuyu, it seems, can also refer to the humble striped mullet. I curled the snakehead into the steamer basket and splashed it with a little cooking wine. Ginger slices and shredded scallions, inside it and on top. Salt, pepper. The usual, except I couldn’t find any black beans in the kitchen. A drop of soy sauce, then.
It came out fine. The meat was a little tough, like monkfish, due to the density of the muscle or some shortcoming of cooking technique. Down toward the tail, it was tender and moist. Maybe the next one I’ll stew.