[Blog] Fish Heads in the Far East: Remembering what’s important

By Josh Martin Chiayi, Taiwan—My 90 cc scooter (which I fondly nicknamed, “Scoot Scoot Riot”) howled in protest as we made the steep ascent along the winding mountain roads in Taiwan. By noon Marty, Yanik (my two fellow ESL teachers) and I had reached our campsite for the weekend. That evening, as the sun set over the mountains, and without an agenda to occupy our time, we strolled through the campgrounds. We passed a group of six Taiwanese men who invited us to join them for dinner and some Tsingtao Beer. Though strangers, in no time at all we were laughing and joking around the campfire like old friends (even if neither side spoke the other’s language well). The parade of food was simple and delicious. They generously treated us to every type of local cuisine imaginable. At the end of the meal one of our new friends offered me a plate with a massive fish head on it, its beady eye staring up at me. I have never been a fan of seafood to start with (especially the kind that can look you in the eye), so I politely declined. Upon doing so I was informed that to be offered a fish head was a show of great respect and friendship within Taiwanese culture. The honour outweighed my distaste. Reluctantly, I accepted and proceeded to eat the vile thing. To this day, however, I’m not entirely sure if it really was a gesture of friendship or if they just wanted to see if I would actually eat it. Finally, when the food had all been eaten, the guitar came out and the singing began. In a country obsessed with Karaoke, our hosts showed no inhibitions. Before long, we were singing and dancing around the fire, the fish head sloshing around my belly full of cheap beer.

The simple, spontaneous, informal

Our mountaintop dance party taught me an important lesson in the value of simple gatherings. The simple, the spontaneous, the informal—these are the key ingredients to the best get-togethers. I’d much rather share a six-pack of cheap beer with friends around a campfire than attend a stuffy dinner party with hors d’oeuvres and fine china any day of the week. Weddings are a good example. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on these events. And so much work goes into the superficial elements of the gathering—the food, the décor, the ambiance—that the real reasons for celebrating are at risk of getting crushed into a corner. When I think of the best weddings I’ve been to, I couldn’t tell you what the flowers were like, if the cake was any good or if I liked the bride’s dress. What I remember is laughing and dancing like an idiot with my friends. Likewise, looking back at our mountaintop party, I don’t remember what I was wearing or if the food they served us was overcooked. I remember the good company and the experience of being guilted into eating a fish head. In the end, experiences have a longer shelf life in our minds than material stuff. For the full-length version of this story and more than fifty others, check out my book: Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in Balance from Life's Absurd Moments.