You’re not a fish, how do you know a fish’s happiness?

Wood carvings, Cancun

Two weeks ago, my kids had their spring break and our family went to Cancun together as the kids love the beach and snorkeling. We visited Chichen Itza, swam in a cenote, toured Isla Mujeres in a golf cart, drove a speedboat and snorkeled, and the kids swam with dolphins. We had a great time. Though we skipped the Sea World when we were in San Diego last summer as a protest against their whale shows, this time, my husband and I let the kids swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery because they “really, really wanted to.”

The ticket girl tried to persuade me to participate in the program too, but I told her that on principle I don’t like intelligent animals such as dolphins being kept in captivity and used for entertainment. She assured me that the program was very educational and meant to teach people about dolphins. Then she smiled and said, “These dolphins are born in the facility and they’re very happy here.”

I refrained from the urge of asking her, “You’re not one of the dolphins, how did you know that they’re happy?” A question inspired by the famous debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi that took place more than two thousand years ago. My kids were jumping up and down, excited, and my husband was busy paying for the vouchers of our lunch buffet at the facility. I didn’t want to appear to be unkind.

And there was always a tiny tiny possibility that she would ask back, “You’re not one of the dolphins either, how do you know that they’re not happy?”

Rhetoric aside and dolphins aside, the debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi contains one big philosophical wisdom on life. Whenever I feel the temptation to judge someone harshly, I make myself remember the debate about a fish’s happiness. When Trump won the elections, I was shocked and baffled. So I read and listened to a lot of stories and arguments of his supporters. I’m still baffled but I feel I have a better understanding of the matter.

After all life is not about confrontation, but about conversations.

As for the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery in Cancun, maybe they’re happy there. But I’m pretty sure that they would be much happier in the open ocean, being with their own kind, blowing bubble rings and riding waves.


The debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。」

     Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam.
Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.”
Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?”
Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?”
Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!”
Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy.
“I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”

(Based on translation by Thomas Merton, The Way of Zhuang Tzu, New Directions Books, 1965)

Featured image: Cancun

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com

2 thoughts on “You’re not a fish, how do you know a fish’s happiness?”

  1. I visited Chichen Itza in 1980 when I was visiting a girlfriend in Belize. I just looked through all the pictures I took back in the day from that visit with an actual non-digital camera and found not one. Maybe a site like this just needs to be experienced with nothing more than memories [the old style ones–the ones stored in the gray matter between our ears].

    We had traveled up on a bus and spent a night in some place I can barely remember now near by and then traveled up to the site the next day.

    I remember walking up the narrow stairway to the top.

    An amazing place.

    I for one would love to see some pictures from your visit there if you have any.

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