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NOTES FROM THE MARATHON RUNNER

Notes from: The Marathon Runner

MARCH 2006

On my way to the market at 9:30 am, I saw a big air-filled red arch across the walk path by the park, and people with running clothes & numbered squares of cloth strapped to their chests.

When I returned I grabbed my camera and went down to photograph. Stood around and watched – big speakers, blaring marching music– an announcer with a microphone declared something in Mandarin as each runner crosses the line.

There were lots of sweat-drenched runners milling about who had already finished.

There’s an ambulance parked nearby…doors open.

10:45 a.m.

Tried to take a photo and found that my battery was dead so I stood for a while longer watching the runners come in. I decided to go to apartment for a spare battery. Came back down and proceeded to take a video of people crossing the finish line along with the sound of loud march music broadcast from huge speakers.

Suddenly I saw a man lying on his back in the grass. He was very near me — arms and bare feet sticking out from under a Robin egg blue, rectangular sheet of plastic. It only took seconds to comprehend that he was dead. A small clump of medical people, one nurse in pink, four men in white lab coats were standing away from the body. The other pink nurse was taking blood pressure readings at a little makeshift stand, 20 feet away.

The man had a red flag lying across his ankles and a small red plastic bag by his feet. He was lying straight and flat on his back, face up, arms at sides, legs straight and together. I saw him clearly when the plastic sheet blew up. He was 40’s, maybe. Fit looking.

Stragglers continue to cross the finish line with him on grass 15 feet away. The music was blaring and T- shirt and flag selling continued. People are milling about in the park, crossing back and forth.

Someone shut off the generator that keeps the big red arch blown-up and it deflates. Another man is gathering up colorful flags that were posted along the finish line.

The medical staff is now sitting under squat palm, not too far from body.

Other runners had friends and family waiting at finish line – offering water, giving back rubs. No one around the dead man, no one seemed to be a friend or relative. No one is paying any attention to him now. Backs are turned…. It looks like a regular week-end in the park.

Medical staff stands up….someone important looking showed up. Medical staff sits down again, this time squeezing closer together to catch more shade from short palm.

An old ragged couple are busy collecting empty water bottle containers and boxed drink containers for recycling.

11:00 a.m.

Someone tucked the ends of the plastic sheet under the dead runner’s head so it won’t blow up anymore.

A girl with handheld megaphone is broadcasting loudly – trying to gather her bus group.

The old ragged couple choose a big shady palm to sort their trash and stomp to crush plastic bottles.

Nurses and white-coats pack up their make-shift blood pressure station and carry folded tables. They head straight for the opening in the fence and have to detour around the dead man’s feet.

The medical group has dispersed.

I notice that the dead runner’s skin is turning a deep shade of purple.

A city trash collector wanders through picking up scraps of paper, a few are quite near the body.

I am sitting on one of the exercise contraptions, kids play around me.

One old man, dressed in running clothes, sits with his back against a short palm – 10 feet from the body and facing away. He takes off his shoes.

Only a few people remain, sitting on grass.

The T-shirt/ flag-selling stand is almost packed up.

The medical staff leaves!

The old man under palm is organizing his gear, pulling long pants onto his long bare legs.

1:00 p.m.

Most people have left – a few remain sitting on a low, yellow railing.

The old man under the palm, eats his lunch.

The dead man is still lying there.

Two young Chinese girls from the business college across the street come over to chat. One has pretty good English. I keep looking over at the dead man as we talk. I point out the dead man to the Chinese girl and tell her that he died while participating in the marathon. She looks over, her face drops, eyes widen for a moment…says, “ooooh”. Then bounces right back with a smile, “but running very healthy for you”, she says, as she saws bent arms back and forth in a running motion.

I almost feel an obligation to stay until they take him away.

People are riding by on those two and three person resort bicycles – the dead man lies six feet away as they peddle by on the sidewalk.

No one looks sad, no one is paying much attention. Many people walking or riding by fail to notice, but the ones that do look as long as they can without coming to a stop.

1:12 p.m.

A little police van shows up– 4 officers – men sitting on curb across the path get up and talk to police. Lots of talk. No one looks over at the dead man. There’s a police station one and a half blocks from this spot.

I once saw a woman – shot , dead, lying in a supermarket parking lot in Santa Fe. Her ex-boyfriend had been stalking her and shot her as she was coming out of the store with her daughter.

The police and ambulance were on the scene immediately. Yellow tape went up within minutes – cordoning off a large area. Police held up big white sheets, while they recorded the crime scene, effectively keeping the operation out of sight.

Very different culture.

Now a uniformed man is taking photos of the dead man. The policemen are writing reports.

A small case of instruments appears and rubber gloves are donned. Now a crowd starts to gather because something is happening. The plastic sheet comes off.

A grandmother and little girl with hair poking straight out of her ponytails stand by the yellow metal fence, watching every move closely. It looks like the little girl is asking questions – pointing at the body. I wish I knew what the grandmother was telling her.

The man’s sleeveless athletic shirt is purple and yellow. He looks as though he believed in exercise. Someone had tied his shoelaces together and put his shoes between his feet. The shoes had miles on them. The forensic man cut off the dead man’s number, 862, and his shirt.

His skin was mottled purple and a lifeless pale color. Foam was coming from his mouth. One of the investigators grabbed his wrist and pulled the arm until the body flopped over stiffly. Legs straight out, his stiff neck held his head in the same position. Now he is stomach-down, with his face smashed hard into the grass, neck not giving at all. The rubber-gloved forensic man is finger-poking on the purple back. He conducts a gloved examination of head and back of skull (for injuries?) As the body is turned back over, blood streams from the mouth.

Bystanders crowd in. Some right up against the policeman who is writing the report, craning to look over his shoulder to read what he is writing. Police leave. Now it’s just him and me. I am under a short palm not far away. There are a few people sitting on the curb, across the path.

1:54 p.m.

It’s getting breezy and cooler. Lonely.

I am struck with a vivid feeling of the truth in the statement “you die alone”. It’s Saturday, and the park is crowded, bikes, pedestrians, buses and cars. People are cutting through the park. But the dead man is totally alone.

This man just lies there. Unaccompanied. No one crying, just curious looks—slowed walking – no one stops.

He’s lying there cold on the cold ground—while life continues on around him – in fact, life didn’t skip a beat.

I should leave but I can’t.

I am watching people’s faces as they pass, watching as it sinks in that it’s a dead body they’re looking at. His arms and feet are sticking out from under the blue plastic. I wonder what they’re thinking. Every face takes on the exact same expression — concentrated puzzlement.

The racing paraphernalia has all been hauled away, the man’s running uniform is covered. There’s just this dead body, bare armed, bare footed, under a blue plastic sheet.

No one stops.

2:21

A white and purple van pulls up and backs up near the break in the fence — as close as it can get to the body.

ZHONG GUO MIN ZHENG is printed on side.

No media ever showed up.

More talking, crowd gathers now that something is happening once again.

A man approaches the body with long lengths of a gauzy fabric and a black plastic sheet. He lays out strips of cloth on the ground, unfolds the black sheet and places it on the strips.

2:30 p.m.

Three men use squares of brown paper to protect their hands as they lift the dead man onto the plastic – one man on each arm and one lifting the feet. They fold the black sheet over the body and tie it tightly around him with the cloth strips. They lower a red coffin-shaped box (white inside) from the van, and lift him into it.

A man comes along behind, rushing now (because it looks like an afterthought) to put the dead man’s shoes and red plastic bag, into another plastic bag. He also looks at a few scraps of paper that were lying next to the man. Looking on both sides (maybe something he could use to identify the man)? Is it possible that he arrived in his running clothes and had no identification with him, and no one knows who he is?

3:22 p.m.

Ineke called and I told her about it. I choked up with unexpected emotion. She said that she saw a man die on the street by the old gate, near McDonalds, and he lay there for most of the day. They covered him but left him there. She said that Chinese people are very afraid of dead people, and believe that the soul takes a long time to find it’s way, and if you get too close it might come into you.

I’ve also learned in talking with people here that the regulations and traditions dealing with dead people are complex. Someone suggested that the authorities wait as long as possible for family members to claim the body in order to prevent complications. A dead body brings with it certain rights and responsibilities …both legal and cultural. It is not unheard of for a funeral facility to charge a family ransom for the dead body of a relative.

Maybe someone is missing this man now.

I won’t easily forget this experience — sitting in the grass near the dead runner. Keeping watch, as it were, for 3-1/2 hours.

Life kept on flowing around us, but at a distance. He was lying alone in the middle of that big empty space. We were alone together, since long before I’d moved to one of those squat palms near his body. No one paid much attention to me either.

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

DECEMBER 2005

My daughter, Sam, and I flew into Xiamen on a frigid Siberian tail wind, December 15, 2005. Ineke Gudmundsson, the Director of the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC), greeted us at the airport with flowers. “Strong ones”, she said, “so they will last”.

Although CEAC’s description of the art residency apartment, “Two bedroom, 1-1/2 bath, large studio room with work table, balcony facing the sea, washing machine, air conditioner and maid”, was accurate, Sam and I soon found cause to read between the lines.

This eight story high rise was built only five or six years ago, but our apartment appeared to have been constructed from odds and ends of older, now demolished dwellings; metal doors (one with a man/woman public toilet sign still glued to it), sinks (with ducked-taped holes that once held other faucets), and thin drapes that fluttered and danced in front of drafty windows. The deep enameled bathtub, a seemingly friendly oasis in this vast expanse of glaring linoleum, filled to one inch before the hot water ran out. A few belligerent cockroaches stalked the crackers and fruit that Ineke had cached for us.

Over the next few days, jet lag fading, Sam and I reclaimed items of furniture that had been exiled to far corners of cold rooms. We bought woven floor mats, plants and large colorful wall maps. We christened the room off the “balcony facing the sea” as The Studio.

Our first restaurant meal included grisly snails, whole octopus and boiled chicken including heads, feet and skin. The second — “vegetarian” noodles covered with a generous helping of mystery meat. My fault. I missed the bold images of dog, pig, shrimp, chicken and Santa Claus painted on the storefront window. We began to forage for stores and shops that might stock rare and treasured items like olive oil, coffee and peanut butter. Not an easy undertaking — packaged items are sometimes difficult to identify, even with added English – as in, “Meat Floss Biscuit.”

Our three weeks in China also included many morning beach walks, saunas, massages, superb dim sum; visits to the exotic island of Gulangyu; seeing old friends (from my 2004 stay in Xiamen) and meeting many new friends; hosting a dinner for Dutch art residents, featuring green chili chicken stew preceded by Tequila Sunrise cocktails: fascinating introductions to stone, bronze and metal factories; several extraordinary Christmas and New Year’s parties, brunches and beach banquets; ancient botanical gardens; McDonalds with squat toilets; ferry shuttles and life-threatening taxi rides. Each experience infused with the captivating culture of China.

And now this first unparalleled chapter has come to an end. Sam began her long journey back to Santa Fe a few hours ago. God, how I miss her.

CAGED BIRD | view from my Chinese apartment

From my position on the worn, overstuffed chair I can see outside the window and through the bars of my second story balcony to a wall of similar Chinese apartments beyond the narrow alleyway. A neighbor across the way has an identical balcony only the rusted bars of her confine support a few potted plants, and the door to their kitchen is flanked by two red Spring Festival banners with gold letters — another banner is pasted horizontally across the top. A caged bird flutter-jumps from perch to the top of the cage to perch to bottom and back again.

The woman of the house is slight, middle aged and gentle looking –neatly bobbed hair frames her round, expressionless face. Sometimes I see her sweeping the balcony floor or watering her two plants while the husband watches television at a deafening volume. A small window reveals images shouting from the screen in 1 to 2 second intervals. It is always on and he is always sitting in front of it, his presence exposed by clouds of cigarette smoke during the day and the glowing tips of cigarettes in the night.

I look up from my book as the woman appears on her deck. I begin to pay attention as she reaches for the cage. Leaning forward in my chair, I see her slide her hand through the tiny door. In one quick movement her hand appears outside the bars of her own cage and I watch as the bird catches flight.

A lovely smile animates her face as she puts her hands together and bows in the direction of the freed bird.

HOSMER VIDEO | Hearts & Bones

BECAUSE OF A COPYRIGHT DISPUTE, apparently the audio has been disabled. I’ll try to see if I can get the intact video and then post a new link. Meanwhile…here I am, December 2007, working in my Santa Fe studio:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWVOxA3XoxA

TRIP TO PORCELAIN TOWN | Fujian Province

HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS:

“My Trip to Porcelain Town”  –  Fujian Province, CHINA
__________________________________________

Colette Hosmer's, "Canned Duck," Porcelain

Colette Hosmer's, "Canned Duck," Porcelain

It’s a five-hour bus ride one way through the mountains to Porcelain Town. My friend, Li Wen, and I caught the bus at 8:30 a.m. – 36 yuan, $4.49 each. An hour later, having pulled away from Xiamen and it’s “special economic zones”, we found ourselves in the countryside, passing by villages, lovely old traditional houses, terraced vegetable plots – farmers working in fields.

The bus is packed. People are sitting in isles on little plastic stools….those without stools squat. One old guy yelled for a long time because he got off at a stop to use the toilet and someone took his seat. The old man, tiny and thin with a scarred and mangled ear, ended up squatting in the isle next to us for two hours until we reached his destination.

A television is screaming at no one in particular from it’s high mounting in front of the bus – a loud, bad kung fu fighting movie with slap stick humor. Lining the roadside are beautiful stone buildings with sloped, tiled roofs. Vegetable plots climb right up to the concrete highway. The road is an endless ribbon of concrete slab with no guardrails or shoulder — the foot-high edge sometimes drops perilously to the river below. Vegetables are growing in Jurassic-like red earth and sometimes in scrappy ditches. Small open meat stalls and vegetable sellers inch right up to the dusty dirty road. Busses and motorbikes honk by.

The girl, sitting directly in front of me threw-up for the second time. Li Wen says every bus trip someone “spits”. Man and water buffalo, lean forward as they slice through the muddy earth. Many, lovely Buddhist temples spot hillsides – farmers endlessly hoeing. Li Wen asked me if I’d ever “worked in the fields”. I said, sort of, because in the past I sometimes had my own gardens. We agreed that it was nice occasionally but not if you have to do it for your whole life.

We pass through the town of Nan An. A big river winds through cheaply constructed white tile buildings with blue glass. Large vegetable fields lay surrounded by city buildings. I am doing my best to ignore dreadful movie sounds. Girls screaming, crying, whining, screeching, feigning anger – all accompanied by karate-chop sound effects.

Pre-car stone walkways arch over small rivers. Beautiful, handmade haystacks dot the landscape near lovely, traditional compounds with their courtyards and peasant tenants. The poorest people, of course, live in these run down but elegant traditional homes. “If they had money”, Li Wen says,” they would live in the apartment buildings”.

Each village has it’s own charcoal making shop — each of these tiny mills is completely black – ground, building, people – all black. Little black holes sucking up the light – not letting any escape. Now we are passing through a relatively clean town…at least the trash is in designated piles…all the usual plastic – makes for colorful garbage. Clean fields though, and gorgeous ancient stone kilns.

I love this.

Ingenious bamboo scarecrows utilize bright plastic bags – which, when tied to the ends of poles, catch the wind, inflate and swirl.

Girl “spits” again. I have watched the contents of her stomach change as it streaks past on my window.

The first time Li Wen traveled in a vehicle he was 18 years old. He went in a bus, five hours from his village, to take a school test. He told me he was very sick, “spit many times”. He was in a bus full of other village kids who were probably also taking their first ride. I can only just imagine it. In many places you see ancient stone steps cutting straight up the sides of mountains.

Stopped again. Women board bus with baskets of snacks, drinks, and egg rolls for sale. Smells good, but we are saving our appetites for lunch in Porcelain town.

Big fan-like Feng Shui graves take up large areas of land – a quarter of the hilltop is carved out for some of them. Li Wen tells me the government says no more, but the farmers “don’t follow” and do it anyway. Rain pools on the inside of my window ledge and splashes on me — thoughts of earlier vomit.

We begin to pass large, rectangular buildings, constructed of straw mat walls with no windows and small doors. Li Wen tells me they grow mushrooms inside. We hit town. Seems large – crowded with those uninspired communist buildings. The mode of transportation is motorbike and bicycle taxi, but things are more civilized here than in other towns I’ve visited – only one passenger per bike “or police will catch you”, and each passenger must wear a helmet. The town consists of mostly porcelain shops. Can’t imagine how any one of them manages many sales per day. Li Wen says that many foreigners come here but it’s hard to imagine by the stop-in-their-tracks stares I’m getting.

Found out that the last bus back to Xiamen leaves in 20 minutes. Only choice is to stay overnight. We had lunch, visited the porcelain factory, made a deal, found a store where we bought lotion and hair gel for me, and then registered at the hotel, the front door of which is flanked by stone elephants with red ribbon bows tied to their heads.

“The Dehua CiDu Hotel is located in the Dai Yun Mountains, in the middle of the Fujian Province. “It is in the centre of the center, downtown of Dehua, the famous ceramic city in China.”

“Dear guests”, the brochure continues, “it will be a great honour for our hotel, if you choose to live here. Our well-trained staff will do our best and also wish you enjoy the comfortable and happy time here. The Cidu (Ceramic town) hotel will be your sincere friend forever!”

Our rooms, $15.00 each, have great bed pillows, duvet covers and two classically hard Chinese beds. All rooms are smoking rooms, and include bathroom with tiny tub, jet stream shower and two each; shampoo, bath foam, shower caps, combs, and toothbrushes, with toothpaste. Also slippers, shoeshine kits, green tea and an electric teapot. After locating our rooms (nothing to unpack), I suggested that we go to the bar and have a drink before dinner.

The bar was dominated by the keeper’s kid – sticking stickers in a book and watching a very loud Chinese-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants video. The bar had bottles of whiskey and brandy, but the barkeep had to call upstairs to ask if he could sell us any. A lady promptly came down with an open bottle and poured one small juice glass ¾ full for 30 yuan, $3.70. Li Wen and I shared that and I ordered a coffee as well, and got the usual instant Nescafe with dry creamer clumping on the surface.

March 12

I fell asleep in my strangely empty room about 10:30 and woke promptly at 1:30 when loud men, and at least one woman, got off the elevator and invaded the room right next to mine. The next several hours were filled with loud TV, girl squealing, loud faux mad talk, drunk men’s voices and occasional banging sounds. Every time someone lit a cigarette, which was often, the smoke wafted into my room somehow. It was awful. It finally got quiet but I woke up tired.

I gave up on the shower with spraying jets because the water arched limply as it exited the holes, and I couldn’t figure it out how to make any of it come out of the shower head.

We went down to breakfast (or up) to the 6th floor. The room was completely full – loud, several smokers, a large buffet served a typical Chinese breakfast including darkly stained, salty boiled eggs, soups, rice porridge, pickled vegetables and many unrecognizable dishes. Cold seaweed for breakfast does not appeal to me, so I stuck to the cake-like things, old boiled eggs, and a bowl of instant Nescafe.

The staff wears uniforms. Their purple coats look nice against the yellow tablecloths and red lanterns. Each woman’s hair is smartly tied-back. The young man in authority, with his black suit and tie, needs a haircut and has sticky-up hair on the back of his head where he slept on it. Suddenly the room clears and we are alone. Reminds me of typical Chinese endings — a party, dinner, banquet — suddenly and abruptly over. Sometimes with an announcement like, “Party has ended. Go home now.”

We depart the bus station – headed back to Xiamen. The loud, crazy movie begins to blare with the first revolution of the bus tires. We wind our way out of Porcelain Town as rain begins to fall.

Decades after the construction of these white-tiled buildings, they look dirty and stained. Porcelain Town appears prosperous but there are very few new buildings – unlike the mad construction that you see in other cities. The whole town seems to have been built all in one short space of time. And there is nothing much traditional until you reach the very outskirts. This is my third bus movie and I can already tell that they all tell the same story. Young men, pretty girl, kung fu fighting – weak becomes strong and overcomes evil.

Six story rectangular apartment buildings on the outskirts of town are mixed with dreary communist buildings which give way to old brick buildings which melt into very poor, but much more beautiful traditional compounds with tiled sloped roofs. There are no “yards” to speak of – just vegetable patches. Even the edges of these petroleum-smeared roads grow vegetables. Even crappy fill, in front of dirty storefronts, grow vegetables. Now the edge of the city gives way to prettier, cleaner and greener garden plots and rice paddies.

If anyone has to “spit” in this bus we’re out of luck. Can’t open the windows.

Li Wen is studying his English, using his Chinese/English dictionary that he always carries around in a plastic bag. He occasionally asks me to pronounce a word for him. We sometimes pass a sad attempt at roadside landscaping. Some Cadre’s idea…now neglected, and whatever tree or plant that survived on it’s own, is caged inside of grungy white tile planters. You come to hate the look of those dirty white tiles. They replaced centuries of meaningful culture, and deep layers of history across China with one uniform look and one collective thought.

All land in China belongs to the government. So farmers live on borrowed land, so to speak. If the government wants to build road or develop an area, the farmer gets agricultural value and the developer gets rich – along with many officials and cadres along the way. The government says they are working to fix this. An often heard slogan nowadays: Take less from the countryside, give more to the countryside”. Another is: “Building a New Socialist Countryside.”

New Movie: “Hands Up!

This one is set during the Japanese War. A Chinese peasant hides himself in the coal bin of a train that is crawling with Japanese soldiers. He pops out to kill and torture all of them – many of which wear little wire rimmed glasses, and virtually all have Hitler mustaches. The particularly stupid ones are fat and walk like clowns exaggerating clown walking.

The Japanese soldiers either laugh evilly or say “huh??” A lot.

Peasant takes over whole train…kills all Japanese soldiers, blows up train, makes Japanese bomber plane crash in the bargain. Two little Chinese boys throughout movie make Japanese look foolish over and over again. They pee in their canteens and put frogs in same. Also, there are lots of situations where the Japanese get their private parts smashed or rammed into. Donkey farts in stupid soldier’s face not once, but four times. Wasn’t funny the first time to me, but people in bus laugh at each one.

Occasionally, Li Wen’s family kills a pig at Spring Festival. I asked him to tell me about it in detail.

They take the pig to a special place that the whole village uses. “A very beautiful place with big trees. People kill animals there since ancient times. They bring the pig to this place. Someone kills it with a long knife in neck, and they drain the blood into a bucket to take home to eat. They sprinkle the blood on special yellow paper and leave the papers under the trees. They burn incense and light firecrackers. They pray (wish for protection) and they pray to respect to the Ghost. The Ghost blesses you.”

“The Ghost of what?” I say.

“The Ghost of nothing – everything – ancestors.”

They make a fire at this place for respect. Then they carry the pig back to the farm. After they scald the pig and scrape the hair off with a knife, they “take internal off”. They cook one piece of liver, and tail (with butt end attached – he drew a picture), and eat those portions, and then they invite people to share and eat lots of fresh meat. He says, Spring Festival lasts for one month so you need lots of meat. They “cook some meat in very hot wok and then much salt it to keep.” And on “shining day” they hang meat outside to dry.

At Tomb festival, when all the family goes to the tomb to show respect to the ancestors, they do much the same – kill a chicken or duck and leave blood on yellow paper. They finish up the celebration with more fireworks and incense.

THE MARKET EELS

HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS: “THE MARKET EELS” – Fujian Province, CHINA

MARKET EELS

I enter the big local market through a narrow alleyway lined with peddlers, selling everything the sea and earth can locally provide. Tomorrow is Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) and the market is teeming with shoppers. This alley eventually opens onto an intersection crammed with flower sellers, fish gutters, caged-bird traders, food-vendors and sugar cane ladies. I struggle through this wonderful, unruly bazaar and enter the covered meat market on the other side. My lungs immediately fill with the thick, rich essence of animal insides that have just recently been exposed to the outside. Bordering the aisle are long lines of tables displaying pigs, chickens, ducks and goats – all laid open, sectioned up, with various parts hung or stacked neatly, as in concentric circles of chicken gizzards that remind me of lotus blossoms.

I pass the last of the meat merchants and am confronted with three additional market lanes — two of which traffic in seafood, much of it alive. Vibrant mounds of vegetables, medicinal herbs and fruit spill down the third corridor. The road to the right will deliver me to a tank, scouted days before, brimming with robust eels. As I push through the crush of pedestrians and bicyclists, I prepare myself for the quandary that I know lies ahead.

I’ve skinned, buried, boiled and utilized beetles to process the animals that I deploy for my work, but my respect for life determined that I never killed, or had anything killed, to use as a medium for art. If they came to me already dead, so be it.

“This is the way it’s done here,” I rationalize, as I stand in front of the eel stall. “Every doomed creature in this market will meet the same fate today. If any escape the cooking pot, they will expire soon enough anyway.”

I choose ten fat eels, similar in size. A young lady skillfully extracts my selections, even as they loop around themselves and each other, and stuffs them into a red plastic bag. Starting to feel myself weaken when presented with the writhing bundle, I demonstrate to the girl that I want her to kill them. I brace myself for some kind of quick and orderly surgical procedure, when she promptly raised the bag above her head and slammed it to the floor. The eels burst forth on impact and slid across the concrete. She quickly put them back into the container, and with all her strength, heaved the sack to the ground once more. Earlier, glib justifications vanish with the shock and I feel miserable.

As I instinctively retrace my steps back to the market entrance, red bag at my side, I think about the girl’s composure. Her neutral demeanor registered neither cruelty nor sentimentality and, in fact, her method of killing the eels probably caused them the least amount of suffering. Regardless of the ache in my chest, I can’t shake the feeling that I have caught a glimpse of something fundamental and profound.

In China, Wal-Mart Super Centers offer their customers food in the form of live fish, crab, lobster, shrimp, eels, frogs and turtles. In this part of the world, they are not obliged to camouflage the process by which seafood becomes food. My first-world status sees to it that I purchase my hamburger at a disengaging distance from the slaughterhouse. I sense that I’ve lost more than I’ve gained in the bargain. In some mysterious way, that young woman, killer of eels, has a more complete understanding of life than I do.

For some months now I have been living in a culture that practices the strange custom of acknowledging death. And, my “respect for life” is in danger of deepening because of it.