I am waiting for the short grain brown rice to cook. It takes longer than white rice. Sometimes I feel like brown rice is on “Pacific time.” Sometimes I feel like a short grain brown rice islander.
As I wait, I salt and pepper two fillets of local mahi-mahi. I bought them at Whole Foods because they were on sale. I usually don’t buy local fish at Whole Foods because it is so expensive. I am always tempted, though. Local fish porn on ice. Cleaned, filleted. Because the mahi-mahi was on sale yesterday, I gave in. When the two fillets were weighed, wrapped, and priced, I was still surprised by how expensive it was. Even on sale.
Growing up, my parents cooked American cuisine several times a week. I remember “Casserole Wednesdays.” I hated Wednesdays. My favorite days as a child were always when dad cooked fresh local fish for dinner. Grilled, baked, poached in coconut milk. White rice, vegetables, and fish. All of our family around the table and it was perfect. No matter how bad my day was, the world was made perfect.
When I began attending St. Anthony’s Catholic Middle School on Guam, my mom packed me a lunch of Canned Tuna Fish Sandwich (white bread, Best Foods Mayonnaise, sweet relish) and Tropical Punch Caprisun. Five days a week.
I still remember the first time my mom brought home the Chicken of the Sea canned tuna brand. It freaked me out. Did all the chickens on island finally learn how to swim? Sometimes I feel like a Chicken of the Sea Islander.
The first time my parents took me to the McDonald’s on Guam, I ordered a Filet-o-Fish. Even though I have gone through many McDonald’s phases in my life (my Happy Meal phase, my Quarter-pounder phase, my Big Mac phase, etc), I always return to my Filet-o-Fish. Extra tartar sauce. I shall always be a Filet-o-Fish Islander.
Across the Pacific islands, the connection between native peoples and native fish is being severed. Industrial fishing fleets from Asia, the US, and Europe, are depleting fishing grounds by overfishing using massive nets. Fisheries throughout the Pacific have severely declined and many have collapsed. Islanders are struggling to catch fish. Traditional fishing grounds have been destroyed, reef fish are disappearing, and pelagic fish are further and further away. The fish that islanders once caught are now caught by foreign fishing fleets, shipped, canned, labeled, and shipped back to the islands to be sold in grocery stores. Open canned fish, mix with mayonnaise, serve with white bread. A side of BPA and mercury.
Fish is a traditional protein in the Pacific. Our ancestors developed an intimate relationship with the native fish. The fish became an integral part of our families, our stories, our identities, and our bodies. In Chamorro, the word for fish is “Guihan,” very similar to the name of our island: “Guåhan.”
After my family moved to California, we ate frozen fish instead of fresh fish. It was strange to see frozen fish filets in plastic wrap, stuffed with other wrapped filets in a larger plastic bag, sold in a large store: Costco. Fish from all over the world, in plastic. My dad still cooked the frozen fish and added canned coconut milk and made it taste delicious. I close my eyes and smell the coconut milk and the fish and, for a moment, I am closer to home. Sometimes I feel like a frozen fish diasporic islander.
Pacific writer Vilsoni Hereniko recently told me a story about when his family would go fishing, they would catch many fish to eat for lunch and for dinner. As time passed, however, there were fewer and fewer fish. So, when all there was to eat was a can of sardines, they fed from the can, oldest to youngest child. Vilsoni was the youngest—sometimes he hardly even got a bite.
I may be misremembering that story, but I’m thinking about it tonight in terms of generations—what if, two generations from now, there are no fresh fish for our descendants to eat? What if there are only industrially farmed, canned, or GMO fish? What happens when a people is fully severed from their primary, ancestral source of protein?
Protein, a macronutrient composed of amino acids, is an important part of every organ, tissue, and cell of our body. Without protein, our muscles and bodies atrophy.
“Protein” comes from the Greek word “proteios,” meaning: “primary.” How will switching to a new source of protein affect our bodies?
I want to enjoy this mahi-mahi tonight because I fear, someday soon, the last fresh fish will be torn from the ocean and its people and served as “Tonight’s Special” at a hotel restaurant. A foreign body will devour the last native fish.
The brown rice is ready. I add the rice to a pan and sauté it with onions, garlic, ginger and turmeric, and some local home pressed coconut milk. Then I heat up another pan and add some coconut oil. I feel nervous about cooking the mahi-mahi. I feel lucky. And hungry. I place the fish carefully in the hot pan. I’m excited to make dinner for my partner; I want her to feel special. Having the fresh fish tonight feels special. I don’t want to ruin it.