I unwrapped the triangular-shaped dumpling from the bamboo leaf, the rice sticking to my fingers. It wasn’t a Peruvian treat, but a Zongzi, gifted to me by my Chinese student. Yes, a Chinese student in Lima, Peru, she being a fish out of water, too, swimming against the current of a new language, customs and food. Fortunately, my student’s father had hired a Chinese chef for his Peruvian office, keeping Chinese traditions alive while living on the flipside.

She gave me the zongzi to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival or 端午节 or Duānwǔ jié. As the legend goes, a Chinese poet drowned himself in a river out of despair. Balls of sticky rice were dropped into the water to keep the hungry fish from nibbling his dead feet. The holiday name, Duānwǔ jié, literally means starting on the fifth day of the fifth month, a day that is traditionally unlucky. Back in the day, folks would hang garlic on their doors to stink away evil spirits.

Not exactly a Hallmark card holiday, right up there with Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming Jie 清明节).

I was touched by the gift, because I’m tired of seeing traditions die. You can’t exactly pack the smell of temple incense, the bang of firecrackers or hundreds of years of culture in a carry-on.

In Lima, Peruvian traditions make the obituaries every day. Nike hoodies replace colorful Mayan ponchos. NY Yankee caps oust chullo wool caps with their dangling pom-poms. Traditional meals are no longer made at home, like tacu-tacu (a crunchy pancake thingy made of rice and beans), thanks to the guy on a delivery bike.

Everything dies.

Old classmates die, which keeps Facebook from dying, as it’s our global obituary section. Old mobsters die, too. Take for instance, the cast of the original Godfather, including Tessio (played by Abe Vigoda), with his acclaimed Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes” line. Died in 2016. He’s as dead, dead, dead as Sonny Corelone after getting shot with the machine gun. James Caan, who played Sonny, is dead now, too. In case you’re wondering, only four of the original cast members of The Godfather are still around.

Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire.

And of course, one horse died in the filming of the movie.

Fortunately, high school graduation is one tradition that hasn’t died.

Speaking of which, the day I was gifted with the Zongzi, was also the day of graduation at my Lima International School. After the graduates’ tassel turning ceremony, I caroused around the class open house. The event hall was transformed into what looked like a mini trade show, filled with tables covered with accolades of various students, photo montages, and treats. As parents huddled around their respective tables, I’d drop off a card and grab an empanada. They’d pull a face as they tried to place who I was, and definitely not wanting me to eat their food. I wanted to pull a face too, but my mouth was too full,, thank you very much.

I shoved another empanada in my mouth, wishing it were another zongzi–which, after thinking about it, could, be called a Chinese Tamale– as they look about the same. As folks mingled, my mind drifted to the other side of the Pacific, where MY students were graduating, where the parents knew me and had things nicer to say than, please limit yourself to one picarone, please. But then I wondered, am I dead to my former students? Am I a rotting memory in their minds, like a bloated carp or Tessio?


Well, at least I hope they remember grammar rules.

The next morning, since I couldn’t throw zongzi in a river, I wandered to the fish market in Chorrillos, an older part of Lima, Peru. It was like stepping into a watercolor painting.

Rustic and old world, there were fishing boats everywhere, some rotting, others being brought back to life with a new layer of paint. There were also fish stalls and fresh fish to bring home, which may not be the best souvenir for the tourist, but a steal of a deal for the Lima resident. For four bucks, you can get enough filets to feed a family of walruses.

Do I fear death?


But I don’t look forward to the seven-minute transition between this world and whatever comes next. Whatever I die from, I doubt it will be boredom.

And if this cat doesn’t start taking Ozempic, it may never get its seven lives.

Dragon Boat Festival isn’t the only Chinese holiday that commemorates the dead. There is also Tomb Sweeping Day. Now doesn’t that sound like fun.

Hopefully, these traditions won’t get washed away in the future.

2 thoughts on “Sleep with the Fishes

  1. Ginger,
    This is so beautiful. A pleasure to read your words – as always. I hear your voice full interest, remembrance, curiosity and a bit of sadness. It makes me want to know about Lima, Peru. How you live from day to day. This lady across the Pacific looks forward to your next post

    1. Thank you, Jan! Yes, it’s sad to go from being a respected teacher to the lady who can’t figure out the copy machines. Lima is a lot like Chicago but with tighter jeans. And, instead of bowls full of Leo Burnett apples, there’s bananas.

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