by Shayna Leng (Singapore)
Audio: "Prawn Shells," read by Shayna Leng
I have always had a complicated relationship with prawns. When I was little, I refused to eat them—little, plastic-skinned, cockroach-looking creatures! Truth be told, I was terrified by the way my aunt—a hulking six-foot mass of intimidating matriarch—would seize up the prawn, steamed in medicinal herbs, and suck the juices from its skull.
“You have no heart,” we’d say.
“I do. I just ate the prawn’s, so it’s mine now,” she’d retort, with a gnarly smile.
It is probably unsurprising that I did not touch another prawn for five years. But somewhere along the way, I bit into a morsel of springy umami and began to acquire the taste. By the time I was twelve I was consuming a copious amount of prawns: the warm, salty comfort of prawn fried rice, the golden tempura crumbling around its body. Every Chinese New Year, the steam from overflowing pots of prawns braised in their shells would caress my eyes and cheeks.
To extract a prawn from its armour, however, is no pleasant task. Its juices coat your hands. Cooked brains, veins, and guts shoot out at the inexperienced sheller. Your fingers redden, both with astaxanthin and with exhaustion. You try grabbing on to the miserable red creature, but it slips out of your grip. The scent lingers, creeps under your fingernails. The whole day after, you carry the smell of the wet kitchen into the bedroom, the office, the den.
This was an ordeal my father never let me be privy to. Every dinner, he would take it upon himself to shell prawns for my mother and me, the dead exoskeletons piling up beside his plate like a heap of mirrors. Entirely absorbed, I would thank him absentmindedly. He would grunt in response. And that was enough for us.
When I was fifteen, I went to France on an exchange. After a day of tripping over my passé composé and imparfait and futur simple, I took comfort in sitting down at my host family’s table. On the last day, they prepared me something special, they said; and then lay a huge plate of spiky red (worms? insects?) before me. My eyes brightened. Then I realised these were not prawns—no, my host family laughed, pride seasoning their voices. These were langoustines, see their little pincers?
After a brief confusion, I realised that this pile of red, shelled creatures was not merely for show. There wasn’t a sous chef in the kitchen ready to serve us the actual meat. What must have been sixty small langoustines, each the size of my pinky, lay in a mountain before me. There was nothing to do but grit my teeth and begin.
Their shells pricked my fingers, the spikes digging tauntingly into my skin. I tried to use a knife and fork: the langoustine skidded halfway across the dining table like a hyperactive toddler.
My host mother gave me an odd look as my host father hid a chuckle behind his napkin. “Have you done this before?” she asked, with a bemused smile. For a brief moment, I considered hiding the truth of my ineptitude. And then I caught a warmth lighting her eyes, that reminded me of home.
“Well,” I said, lingering over the memory. “My father always does it for me at home.”
The looks of consternation I received made me feel childish. “Oh?” A flicker of amusement in her eyes. “We only do that for babies here.” I gave a polite laugh and continued to wrestle with my langoustine.
I had never missed my father more.
It was then that I realised that love, in our family, was never about a hundred red roses or a stream of effusive hugs and kisses. In our family, love is unglamorous. It is the scary aunt painstakingly scouring three Chinese medicine shops for the right “feel” of a health-promoting fungus; tearing endless medicinal herbs into the clear broth she reduces; toiling in a stuffy kitchen with poor ventilation to boil the prawns in old clay pots. It is my father’s stinky hands, stained red with prawn juices, piling fleshy whorls into my bowl with his wooden chopsticks. It is the way the scent lingers hours after the meal, a constant—if unwelcome—reminder of every sacrifice he makes for this newly-minted adult. A grown-up child who, in his eyes, will always be his baby.
It is because this love is unglamorous, that I am assured of its being unconditional.
In Cantonese, the word for prawn is “ha”—which, the ancients thought, resembled the laughter around a family table as you dig into a feast and throw fine-dining table-manners to the wind. So prawns were taken to symbolise joy. My family believes that if you look into a prawn shell, look really hard, the patterns etched by the sea reflect some enigmatic prediction about your fortunes. (Somehow, only my aunt can read these “symbols.”)
I believe the truth is much simpler: the larger the unsightly pile on the table, the more luminescent your happiness.
Because of the pandemic, I have not been able to see my family in over a year. We are triangulated halfway across the world from each other. The tablecloth in my house is sparklingly, depressingly, clean: neither juices nor smears nor the inevitable stains that mark a noisy family dinner.
I am cooking for three, I joke—me, myself, and I. The quip rings hollow, clanging like rocks against mirrors.
Every time I tweak a prawn’s head, rip it from its armour, gently pluck its tail out of its casing: I feel a deep and unbridled sorrow. This is the agony of a heart sucked away from its home. This is the cry of a tiny shrimp that has been caught adrift in the great wide sea, too small to surmount these walls of water—unable to return.
Shayna Leng, age 17, is from Singapore and now studies there, but previously attended multiple international schools overseas. Her family currently does not reside in Singapore, and they were hence separated during the pandemic. Through her piece, Shayna hopes to shed light on the unique experience of growing up apart from one's family. In her free time, Shayna coaches debate, and enjoys helping younger students find the right words to tell their stories.
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9/24/22, 2:13 PM
Was this inspired by flights over Iceland?
9/24/22, 10:04 AM
Amazing. I love it.
9/23/22, 7:34 AM
This is just so good!!!! "The air has been poisoned' I love how you describe things! Congrats :))
9/23/22, 7:32 AM
Love the message! The way you prompt the readers to rethink over 'is anything free' is so effective and the ending is...gorgeous.
9/23/22, 7:30 AM
Gosh, Antara...this is really beautiful! I love your use of language, and the anecdotes were so effective!! Congrats so much :))
9/22/22, 9:30 PM
I love it! Especially the part where you say if humans can control the world, they can control themselves too!
Keep up the brilliant writing!
9/22/22, 5:22 PM
Poignant and so beautifully written!
9/22/22, 5:19 PM
I love the flow, this is gorgeously written! Great piece!
9/22/22, 5:17 PM
Life really is all about the little things and you wrote about them in a beautiful way!
9/22/22, 5:16 PM
This is a lovely piece, Keren-Happuch! It provokes such a magical and dreamy feeling.
9/19/22, 5:47 PM
Oh my god, the part about changing the mindset given the pre-existing beliefs drilled in by those around us... Even we often hesitate to have these conversations at times amongst friends as this topic is seldom more than a subject of twss jokes. You put it into words brilliantly!
9/17/22, 6:46 PM
this was thought-provoking! I particularly enjoyed how you connected existentialism to the topic. it provides a different perspective.