QUESTIONS OF HOME, QUESTIONS
In Australia, Kuala Lumpur is often symbolic for the entirety of Malaysia – the Petronas Towers, endless lines of traffic, a city metropolis. But this is not the Malaysia I know. I know the reddy-brown water of the Rajang River, the back streets of Bintangor, which I always thought amusing because it sounded like bing tang guo, ‘frozen sweets’, the quaint wooden house in Sarikei where an old lady charged my mother an extra ringgit to cut my hair because it was so long and thick. My Malaysia is dirt roads, free roaming chickens, the clearest of clear night skies, and perhaps most importantly, a unique cacophony of food.
It is this food I carry around with me today, I my apartment in inner city Brisbane. My freezer is stuffed full of kong biang, though they taste best when fetched straight from the oven. We’re that weird family that buys several kilograms of it to take home, mainly because we don’t trust my sister not to have eaten most of it before we even get on a plane back to Australia. Kaya toast is almost a staple in my diet, and I prefer peanut butter and kaya on bread rather than peanut butter and jam. Pek tin yok, or eight herb soup, was a staple during the colder winter months, when my sister and I still lived at home. My love for food from Sarawak is possibly my only true connection to my parents’ homes.
Many of my earlier memories of Malaysia are tied to food. Ever a fruit fiend, I discovered starfruit and dragonfruit in stalls by the road. I devoured satay sticks by the dozen at a party in Penang, loved the simply prepared fern at my auntie’s house in Sarikei, and endured hours in a car that stank of durian. I drank sugar cane juice from a plastic bag, and had to fight my sister for that last pork bun. But food also taught me that Malaysia wasn’t really my home. I could try as hard as I liked, but I didn’t really belong – however much I loved the hustle and bustle of the markets, and the serenity of the countryside.
It was a blow, softened only by my youth. I was seven, and my sister five. I think we may have been in Kuching. It was the first time I’d seen chickens wrapped in newspaper, the first time I’d smelled the saltiness of openly cured fish. It was the first time our mother had told us, “don’t speak when you get out of the car”, before we ventured into the markets. “Even though you can speak Mandarin, they will know you’re not from here”. Dutifully, we kept our mouths shut.
Here, in Australia, my otherness isn’t so apparent, but the reactions are there all the same. There are people who are surprised that I can speak English, and others who are surprised when I can speak Mandarin. After struggling through attempts to pronounce my name and the inevitable “so where are you really from?”, it often seems a great let down when my answer contains the word “Malaysia”. Many people in Australia, I have found, do not know very much about Malaysia at all, and then the conversation dies, or peters off into another, more accessible topic.
If I am foreign in Malaysia, and foreign in Australia, then who am I, really?
I imagine I will be wrestling with this question for years to come, even though I know there will never be a concrete answer. For me, and other first generation Australian born Chinese, Malaysian or otherwise, the issues we face are not those of our parents’. Integration and assimilation are not at the forefront of our minds, but concepts of identity continue to be complicated. We have to learn to negotiate the expectations of two opposing cultures, and this becomes increasingly difficult with the onset of puberty, and the perceived relaxation of rules where our friends are concerned. Stereotypes are used as schoolyard taunts, and it is no wonder many end up picking a ‘side’ in their early schooling years. Saturdays are filled with obligatory Chinese lessons, which at the time, seem like a waste of perfectly good Saturday mornings.
But I can truly say I would be a different person if my parents hadn’t instilled Malaysian-Chinese culture into my life. I wouldn’t have done my grade two school project on orang-utans, and I don’t think I would be as enchanted by folk tales, myths, and legends. Learning to read and write Chinese is an exercise in etymology, and this has bled into my love for English.
I have been told that my ability to live within the interstices of Western and Eastern cultures is a gift. This may be true, but the world has yet to move on from strict delineations of binaries. It is easier to distinguish between black and white than it is between shades of grey – and it was the world that told me I was different, that I didn’t quite fit. I never wanted pale skin or blue eyes or blonde hair, but I was never Asian enough for the Asians, and never Australian enough for the Australians.
I didn’t realise the importance of food on my cultural identity until I moved out of home. The need to make my own breakfast, lunch, and dinner meant that I turned to easier, Western options. I’d need to make an hour and a half round trip to my parents’ in order to get that little taste of home.
The relative dearth of Malaysian restaurants and eateries in Brisbane is upsetting, especially considering the number of Malaysian and Singaporean people I’ve met during my time in the retail and hospitality industries. Many traditionally Malaysian foods are lumped into the “Asian” category, and cannibalised in order to be more appealing to Western palates. Ironically, Australia claims to be a multicultural country, but it still (whether subconsciously or not) exoticises Asian foods. I remember goji berries making their emergence in health food stores as the “next superfood”, and being just slightly amused when I realised they were my favourite part of mum’s traditional chicken soup.
There are particular foods and dishes I can only name in foochow, my parents’ native dialect, and this makes it difficult to find recipes to replicate. Even then, there is a slim chance it will taste the way I want it to taste – there is nothing quite like freshly made noodles, and broth prepared in a small, humid stall complete with the to and fro of family banter.
A tiny place near our family home that makes kampua, kolo mee, and dian mian ngu opened last year. My father has already made friends with the owner, and I’m pretty sure my parents would eat there every second day if they could. A small but important part of Sarawak has come to them, and they are able to share this with my sister and I without an eight hour flight and a half hour car ride. I imagine they’re chasing a piece of home – a place where they can speak their native dialect and eat delicious food. There is not much more one could ask for, in a country that is not truly their own.
I live in a hybrid world. It is a world where I enjoy congee mixed with Vegemite, where I switch between Chinese and English without even thinking. It is a world that is ever developing, ever changing. I don’t know what might come next, because it is uncharted territory. I know it will be difficult, and I might never truly fit in, or resolve the two clashing cultures in which I have been raised. My idea of home is ever changing – at times, frighteningly so – and I have almost no control over where it will take me next. My Australia might not be my friends’ Australia, but it is one I have built for myself.
Until then, I will have those kong biang in my freezer – little hard baked circles of dough that will always remind me of family, regardless of the place they decide to call home.
Yen-Rong Wong is a 21 year old student in Brisbane who is sick of people mispronouncing her name. She is currently attempting to write an Honours thesis, with a view to focus on Southeast Asian Australian female fiction in further academic study. She also has a keen interest in science communication, which will probably please her parents somewhat as they weren’t too pleased with her transition from ‘aspiring scientist’ to ‘aspiring English Literature academic.'