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Fishing & Family: Following a lineage of fishermen

Paul Wang

I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head: “you use too much of my Wi-Fi surfing the internet about fishing, too much of my money buying useless lures, and too much of your brain daydreaming about catching fish.” As much as I’d loathe to admit it back then, she was right: from ages 5-12, my life revolved on a short orbit around fishing. I would strategically sprinkle my mother’s credit card statement with new fishing gear when I knew she was too busy to check and, most strangely of all, genuflect constantly, praying to God for every successful fishing trip–a habit resulting in questionable looks from peers, multiple family meetings with concerned guidance counselors, and frequent trips to Kohls to replace stained or ripped pants.

As a highly self-conscious, pre-pubescent boy, my praying and subsequent consternation was a tangible sacrifice to my faltering middle-school social clout. In my convoluted and still developing brain, it was a sacrifice worth making; for, just as God miraculously blessed Peter with an abundant catch for his great faith, He rewarded me for perfect attendance to church and unwavering prayers. Looking through boxes of old memories, I see worksheet questionnaires of “my favorite hobby” or “perfect job” filled with “fishing” and “lure tester,” or even further back, paintings, sketches, and even a ceramic statue of multicolor and amorphous fish. At that time in my life, fishing existed as a passion which bordered on an innocuous addiction.

I have always shared my ardent passion for fishing with my brother, my father, and my grandfather. In fact, I feel as though I share this passion with my ancestors, who had been subsistence fishermen in China for as long as “水往下流 玉龙雪山” (water flowed down the Jade Snow Dragon Mountains), as my grandfather would say.

My grandfather, who ended that lineage by becoming an engineering professor in Northern China, would frequently show my brother and me a video he took of himself and a younger version of my father setting a net across the roaring outflow of the Songhua River Dam to catch migrating carp. The blurry lens of the camcorder easily translated the pure joy and pride of catching hundreds of flopping fish across the language barrier that usually separated his broken English and our choppy Mandarin. He would always promise that we would one day go to that outflow as a family and catch those golden fish for ourselves.

Some of my fondest memories are of times spent with my grandfather around his table in Half Moon Bay, California. Every inch of tabletop was piled precariously high with multicolor rockfish and lingcod we had all toiled to catch, which he and my father had worked hard to clean, descale, and cook. Around these aromatic feasts, he would tell far-fetched stories of fishing tales from his childhood and extract the eyes of the fish insisting that my brother and I eat them to “nurture our genius,” a non-scientific prescription from a highly esteemed scientist.

It’s hard to convey or to measure, but my brother is far more passionate about fishing than I am, which his neurologist describes as a bi-product of his autism and bipolar tendencies–a connection that frustrates me to no end. Why does his love of fishing have to be wrapped into a notion of deficit? Throughout high school, while severely depressed, my brother would text me detailed itineraries of future fishing adventures; although he was bedridden, his imagination transported him into the sandflats of Bali and the Seychelles, or the rocky coast of the South Sandwich Islands. I see his ardent desire to go fishing as one of his greatest strengths and most endearing qualities, and, unlike my grandfather’s unfulfilled adventures to the dam outflow, we intend to go on these trips.

Fishing has always played a central role in my relationship with my brother. Given that I often struggle speaking with him, our moments of deepest connection have come in the silent hours spent casting off a Maine dock for mackerel or in the urban creek near our bustling NYC apartment searching for anything that swims. I think fishing is beautiful in that way–an activity enjoyed in good company and connection.

Now in college, I find myself drawn to learning about fishing in an academic setting. This past semester, I was surprised to read about Chinese and Filipino fishermen in Monterey and the Louisiana Delta, respectively, in the late 19th century. These new immigrants pioneered industries, overcoming unrelenting racism to create vibrant communities. In Monterey, the threat and implementation of violence excluded the Chinese from several fisheries; their subsequent attempts to become squid fishermen resulted in similar ends, as their drying and processing practices led to a “miasmatic odor” that wealthy white resort owners racialized as indications of uncleanliness, which they claimed ruined the healthful aesthetic of the California coast.

In the intervening years since these events, there have been many incidents of hate crimes and racial profiling against recreational Asian fishermen across the Western world (undoubtedly tied to the uncut threads of imperialism and white supremacy). In Australia earlier this year, a disgruntled white man attacked a Korean man and his friends, rationalizing violence as an attempt to stop “those Chinese from stealing from us.” Similarly, widespread racism against Asian fishermen in Canada prompted government officials to issue a “50 commitment statement” that urged community members to stop targeting their Asian neighbors. In a recent viewing of the 2021 Netflix hit documentary Seaspiracy, I was frustrated by the film’s insinuation that Asian countries were the source of overfishing, and that Western practices of sustainability and vegetarianism were the solution. It felt that such wide-reaching public pronouncements were fueling Yellow Peril and White Savior narratives that cast Asians as an existential threat to the world’s ecosystems.

The history of anti-Asian fishing-related racism contextualizes my semi-frequent encounters with curious white fishermen who wonder if I “know the regulations” or are glad that I release my fish because “most Asians will eat anything.” These uncomfortable interactions make me question if my love for fishing is unrequited; in these moments I sometimes fear for my brother, who might not respond as obsequiously to unprompted insinuations of not-so-subtle racism. To think that someone else could take away such unfettered joy brings me great sadness.

Although I still spend most of my money on fishing and always pray before taking the first cast, I realize that fishing is much more than just a blinding passion–it embodies a complex intersection of identity, family, community, and connection. Fishing is in my bones, perennially in my brain, and will always be a central part of my life.

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