Like Goldfish: China Residency, Part 3

By Elizabeth Shupe (MFA 2014)

We were waiting in line for a boat tour at the water town Zhujiajiao, a beautifully preserved relic of old China with canals running through it and majestic half-moon bridges spanning the waterways. Sure, it was touristy--glittering piles of junky plastic souvenirs were everywhere you looked--but having recently hailed from Orlando, Florida, the tourist capitol of the USA (and possibly the world), I could appreciate the earnestness of this place.

It was beautiful. Willow trees lined the canals, and oarsmen steered gondola-like junks filled with sight-seers. Despite the obvious tourist bent, the place reeked of authenticity--sometimes quite literally reeked, as in the case of the stinky tofu vendor that we passed on the main street. Mostly, though, I was impressed by the deep history of the place. People had been living here for hundreds of years.

We chatted as we waited for the boat tour that the generous Mr. Xu had arranged for us. Our ever-patient guide, translator, and babysitter, Wang Yi, was bravely holding our place in line between two rather rowdy parties of tourists. Ted Schmidt (Academy professor and internationally recognized artist) was telling Elliot and me about the lovely cup of tea he had enjoyed at a canal-side café with James and Zoe, when suddenly--

“Fish!” insisted a voice behind me in heavily accented English. I ignored it.

“Fish!” I felt an urgent tap on my shoulder. I turned around. A tiny, wizened Chinese woman grinned up at me. Her smile was missing a few teeth. “Fish!” she wheezed again, holding up two water-filled plastic bags in which goldfish swam contentedly. “Four yuan.”

I rummaged for change in the bottom of my purse. “You’re not really going to buy one, are you?” Elliot asked.

“Why not?” I replied. “They’re less than a dollar. That’s nothing really.”

I gave the woman four silver RMB coins. She handed over the fish. All of them.

“Xie xie.” I said. 

She grinned like the Cheshire Cat and slipped away into the crowd.

“What are you going to do with them?” Elliot asked.

“I’ll set them free on the boat ride. Wang Yi said it’s a thing tourists do here.”

“She’s just going to catch them again and sell them to someone else,” Elliot said.

“Yeah, I know. It’s just for the fun of it.”

Looking at the fish in the plastic bag, their delicate gills wavering with each tiny breath, I thought about the fishes' view of the world. The water in that plastic bag was their whole universe. They couldn’t even imagine the scene outside--the hustle and bustle of the crowds or the wide canal filled with other fish just a few feet away.

I was similar, I thought. Before coming here, before receiving this amazing opportunity to visit China and create art here, I was just as limited as those fish in the bag. Tribeca, New York and the USA, were the bowls I swam in. I couldn’t even imagine the world outside them. And now here I was--here we all were--in an entirely different culture half a world away, a culture with different food, a different language, different art and most importantly an entirely different way of thinking.

I was overwhelmed. I was excited. I felt a yearning that I couldn’t really put into words. I was growing, little by little, like a goldfish that is set free grows into a carp. And even though I knew I would eventually be caught again and returned to my bowl (I could picture disembarking at JFK as clearly as if it had already happened), I knew that because of this journey, I would be a changed woman. And unlike the goldfish with its five-second memory, I would never forget this trip.

The boat arrived and we boarded it. The oarsman pushed away from the dock, and we serenely glided down the canal. 

Halfway through the boat ride, I let the fish go. They slipped out of the plastic bags without ceremony, and quickly they were gone, following the current. Maybe they will get caught again and sold to someone else. Maybe they will escape capture and live there fishy lives to the fullest in the wide expanse of the canal. Who knows?

Anyway, I made wishes on them as I let them go. What did I wish for?
I can’t tell you, or they won’t come true.

On May 25, four Academy students arrived in China to start a two-month residency in Shanghai and Beijing. James Adelman, Elliot Purse, Elizabeth Shupe and Zoe Sua-Kay (all members of the class of 2014) will share their experiences here throughout the summer. 


  1. Elizabeth,
    Really nice metaphor.
    Thanks for sharing the experience.

  2. My, my, Elizabeth! What a charming analogy you've woven here with delightful visuals. Well, you are an artist--I am not surprised. Only entertained delightfully. Wouldn't this tale translate into a fine Chinese/American folk story? With illustrations? Sort of Koi in nature? Hmmm. You will definitely carry the imprint of your journey the whole of your days and perhaps it will alter your art vision, or enhance it. Your troupe is a plus--James (Bond) comedic and philosophical must be a treat. You both are amazing writers as well as artists. Kudos to you all for your good fortunes intertwined. You all take me there, thank you. The "mom" of the James.