Immigrant pseudo-eels and bio-xenophobia
I have spent 60-70% of my time in the last year translating a book on pesticide use in China. In the course of this project, I’ve learned a lot of truly thrilling new vocabulary — y’know, like acetylcholine esterase and teratogenicity — but today I stumbled upon something truly worth sharing: the family Synbranchidae, 合鳃鱼科 (hesaiyu ke), also known as SWAMP EELS which is a misnomer as they aren’t actually eels at all. Why do I care? Because while trying to figure out how to translate this into English, I ran across this:
It caught my eye not only for its sensationalism, but for its fairly prominent use of the word “Asian” in describing the eel. “Deadly ASIAN swamp eels are slithering across America…”
My interest piqued, I did a quick search to see what else I could find out about Synbranchidae, and found this article from a Florida newspaper, the fourth result for “swamp eels” in google. The article is a few years old, and also fairly sensationalist, loaded with references to the foreign heritage of these eels:
They’re referred to as “immigrants” —
These slimy, beady-eyed immigrants are slithering toward the Everglades.
And immigrants are implicated in their release —
Nico says it is also possible that swamp eels were released on purpose by folks who like to eat eels. Considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, swamp eels occasionally are sold at markets in Miami.
They are referred to as “aliens” in every sense —
Biologist Leo Nico, a burly man in his 40s, is talking about the Asian swamp eel, South Florida’s newest — and some say most threatening — alien resident ever.
In its destructive potential, this monster is every bit as scary as the villain from that sci-fi flick Alien. That monster was make believe. The Asian swamp eel is several ugly feet of absolute fact.
They are ascribed to a number of countries —
Collins, who studies DNA, recently discovered that the Snake Creek eels originate from Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian stock.
Some live in Asian tropical jungles. Others live in China highlands.
Honestly, I dislike the influence of invasive species as much as the next girl, but the creepy emphasis on Asian origin is what is going to stick in the minds of the general public after reading this piece. The eel is characterized in such a way that it won’t occur to them that flushing their beta fish would make them part of the problem. In sort, the only take-away message, for lack of a less personified term, is a xenophobic fear of foreign organisms.
Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine had a great bit on this same issue, focusing on media coverage of Africanized bees paralleling stereotypes of African Americans:
They’re originally from southern and eastern Africa. Dr. Warrick Care brought some to Brazil and tried to mate them with the European bee, the kind that we’re used to. But they got loose and moved to the southern United States… The main difference between a traditional honey bee and an Africanized bee is the bee’s aggressiveness.
Turns out bio-xenophobia is a real term, or at least, someone else beat me to it.
Just to be clear, I do not support introduction of invasive plant and animal species, and if something practical can be done to prevent/remove these species, I would generally support it. What I do object to is the ‘orientalization’ of things like eels in an attempt to convince the public that they are a problem.