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The Fishmonger’s Daughter

How poverty and social hierarchy in life bind us and weigh us down from moving through life.

Image by trilemedia from Pixabay

It was at the fish stall that I saw her.

My face lit up. We had recently started talking in school. I tried to catch her eyes, trying to say hi to her, amidst the throng of the bustling morning crowd.

We always went to the market early. That was when you got the best and the fresher ingredients, not the pickedovers. The market was divided into the vegetable section, fish section, and chicken section. Each section had numerous stalls with different sellers, chatting, bargaining with their customers, catching up on life, feeding, and passing each other the gossip of the town.

The market was called a wet market for a reason, the floor was constantly wet. The odor of the fish and the live chickens in the cages wafted in the air, mingled together with the clucking sounds of the livestock, and the humming of the people’s conversation. The market was a lively place, it was the beating heart of the town; yet it was also stinky, and dirty — a place where they cut open a fish, slaughtered a chicken.

The unpleasant sides of life you did not wish to witness.

In the small town, people were often named by their parents’ work. He was the pork seller’s son, she, a rubber tapper’s daughter. Working was the only way the lower income class knew how to live, to put food on the table and to fill the children’s bellies.

The only worth in life.

She was known as the fishmonger’s daughter. This I knew. But I had never seen her at the stall before.

Her father’s fish stall was my mother’s favorite fish stall. My mother had her favorite stalls for vegetables, chicken, and fish. We always visited the same stalls.

There was an unspoken pact between the seller and the customer, we were a team. You took care of me, and I took care of you. If one day my mother went to a different stall, I knew it was because the owner of her favorite stall had offended her somehow.

At first, I didn’t recognize her. Out of the school uniform, she wore a working sort of clothes, old and stained, with a plastic apron on top of it. Maybe because she was busy helping her father that she didn’t see me. But when the crowd thinned out and there were only a few of us left, she seemed resolute in not seeing me.

My mother looked at the different kinds of fish lying in their baskets, picked out a few, and handed them to the father. He weighed them on a scale, then passed the fish to her to ask her to clean them. She nodded, avoiding my eyes, squatted down, and went straight to work. Her rubber-gloved hands worked quickly with a familiarity that came with doing the same work thousands of times.

On a thick chopper block she lay the fish, with her left hand holding down the fish, her right hand with a scaling tool, she did a combing gesture on the fish's body. With every scrape, it sent the clear fish scales flying, and bouncing off in every direction. She then used a knife to slit the fish’s belly open, with her fingers she pulled out the fish’s intestines and whatnot, and discarded them in a bucket. Within minutes she was done with her work, she wrapped the fish in a sheet of plastic, then on top of that a layer of old newspaper, secured with a rubber band. She passed these to my mother quietly, and as soon as my mother took it, she turned back abruptly to her work.

I was miffed and confused by her reaction.

It was only looking back years later that I realized, it was shame that held her in, not able to look at me in my eyes. The embarrassment that she was seen doing a filthy job and humbling job, in an environment where her father barked orders at her. Our identities were no longer equal schoolmates, but one of the paying customers, and another the lowly worker who provided the service.

Was it not one of the feelings I knew the most?

There was the time I got a part-time job with a traveling fair that came to our town, in charge of manning a game station. As soon as the night started, I knew I had made a mistake. I knew so many of these people in this town, and my high school classmates were among them. The boys were snickering and making a lot of commotion around my stall, pushing that one boy they knew who was interested in me to the front. When they passed me the money I felt I couldn’t meet their eyes.

Here I was, not the proud girl who always scowled and acted cold to their teasing, but rather, they were my customers and I was to please them. Suddenly I was aware of my diminutive self.

Being poor is like a shame that clings on to you, no matter how you clean yourself, you can’t be rid of it.

It was like an indelible mark on your forehead that announced your status everywhere you went.

I saw it in the eyes of my teachers when I had to tell them, again, my mother couldn’t pay the school material fee for now, could you please give us another few week’s time.

I heard it in the family friend’s voice, when my mother asked to borrow some money so we could make it through the end of the month until we received money that my father wired back, working in another country. The disdain in her answer made me hang my head.

Or when it was monsoon season, the sky split open with torrential rain that seemed to cover the whole earth with a gray thick downpour that never ended. My mother, reluctant to drive us to school on her little motorcycle, called or asked neighbors who had cars whether they were willing to take us. When most of the time, no Good Samaritans came to the rescue, we quietly mounted the little motorcycle, donned oversized raincoats, and braved the 10-minute drive to the school.

Upon arrival, our book bags and most parts of our uniforms would be soaked. The dress clung tightly to my thighs, wet against my skin when I sat or walked, such as the humiliation of being set apart by your poverty. It felt like a film you couldn’t peel off, and at times it suffocated you.

When I walked, my drenched school shoes squeaked with a consistent reminder that I was that child who wore hand-me-downs and who ate sponsored school lunch, away from all the other children, alone in the teacher’s break room.

We didn’t talk about the incident at school the next day. Our culture was not a culture that talked about hard stuff. We resumed our old rhythm, we pretended nothing had happened. She washed off the fish smell after working in the market. I had stopped getting sponsored lunches for many years. We tried to leave a version of ourselves behind, hidden from others’ eyes. And if we happened to catch a glimpse of the sores in each other’s lives? we averted our eyes and let time roll over us, hoping it would bundle up those sores, and keep them underneath where they would never resurface and see daylight again.

And one day, time would stretch long enough for us to no longer flinch when we saw these sores that had scarred over. I hope the hardship in life has softened her heart just as it has softened mine. I hope it gave birth to grit.

I hope my friend will no longer be called the fishmonger’s daughter. Rather, she will be called by her name.

I hope she is finally free, from the identity society bestowed on her, and the shackles she was confined in.

(This article was first published on Medium, where I write often as well.)


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