This story took place in the second semester of my third
year at elementary school. As for the Hsing-lung grocery store,
it had been there since I was five. During the post-Second
World War period, the store played an important role in taking
our tribe from barter economy to money economy. This store
provided for our tribespeople’s most immediate needs—daily
necessities such as axes, scythes, aluminum cooking pots, etc.
Yet behind the transaction of these daily consumer goods was
the transformation of the people’s value system.
During the season of the flying fish when the breezy south
westerly wind began to blow across the island, the frogs in the
nearby taro field began to croak all night long. As the wind
gained strength, their croaking intensified, and the quality of our
sleep would suffer. However, this music from the croaking frogs provided a ready clue to their whereabouts as the more experienced
among the young tribesmen went on their nocturnal hunting
trips. On the moonless, pitch-dark nights, the gas lamps1 they carried flickered like giant fireflies floating around the taro
field. They came with only one purpose: to catch frogs. The
fact that the Han Chinese immigrants to the island found frogs a
gastronomic delight also made us aware that our highly cherished
season of the flying fish coincided with the mating, croaking,
and breeding season of the frogs.
From our ancestors we have inherited a saying that whoever
among us eats frogs is a “low-level human being.” My parents
also told me that the frog’s ugly appearance excluded it
from the category of edible food in our culture. Besides, with
the rich variety of fish in the sea, eating frogs was considered a
sign of “mental deficiency” among our tribesmen. Anyway, all
the negative terms used in the Tau tradition in connection with
frogs and the eating of frogs (such as “ugly-looking frogs” and
“low-level human beings”) explain why I never eat them. Of
course there are many other peoples who feel quite differently
about frogs. One has to be careful with negative comments about
eating frogs if one doesn’t wish to insult other inhabitants of
Taiwan and make oneself unpopular. Still, a teacher of the
Plains tribe labeled my tribe as a bunch of “idiots” just because
we refused to eat what he considered nutritious “food.”
Obviously, different tribes have different ideas about what is
“ugly” or what constitutes “nutritional value.” Simply put, the
greater the exposure to civilization, the greater importance a race or an individual will attach to the nutritional value of food. On
the other hand, those that are not “civilized,” such as my tribe,
are more concerned about the aesthetic as well as the cultural
value of the food. For example, while sailfish and swordfish are
the choicest sashimi material in Japanese restaurants, and sea
slug and halibut are most favored by the French and the
Japanese, my tribe finds them too ugly to be used as foods.
Another example is Tilapia. Raised in a fish pond rather than
caught in the sea, it is regarded as “garbage fish,” and hence
inedible. So the story goes.
The frogs were croaking throughout the night, keeping
awake a couple of my classmates who didn’t bother to do their
homework. That night, my father was out catching flying fish,
and I was on the roofed platform, working on my math problems
by the light of the kerosene lamp. The south-southwest wind
brought air saturated with saltiness and the heavy smell of flying
fish. The wind also carried snatches of the men’s excited conversation
about the celebration of a bumper catch. The clear
moonlight attracted neighborhood women to the yard of their
next-door neighbors, where they animatedly exchanged ideas
about paradise, their emotions following the rise and fall of the
waves in anticipation of signs of their children’s fathers returning
with boats full of fish.
“Hey, come down here!”
“What’s up?” I asked. The pale-yellow light of the
kerosene lamp on my classmates’ faces illumined their boyish
innocence and their bright eyes with a touch of excitement. In
the exquisite night, dots of ships and boats bobbed up and down
with the waves like a dream. Wafting toward us were songs celebrating
their triumphant return with an abundant catch. Under
the night sky, the singing seemed like a deeply-felt paean offered to the sea god. Yet, on that night, it didn’t lure us to the beach to
welcome the fishing boats, or to weave dreams under the soft
moonlight. Just then I heard a voice saying: “Hey, come down!
You aren’t that bright, anyway! No need to study that hard.” It
was one of my classmates, the mischievous Jijimeta.
“Right, you aren’t that bright, anyway! Come down!”
Jijimeta’s “followers” joined in the banter. I was well aware that
I was not the smartest kid in class. As a matter of fact, on my
first day at a Han Chinese school, my “Junior Grandpa” (my
grandpa’s youngest brother) had even warned me: “Don’t you
learn to be smart at a Han Chinese school!”
“What’s up?” I asked the boys.
“Let’s go and steal the frogs from the Hsing-lung Grocery,”
somebody said with a small but crisp voice,...