We should all be honoured guests at the Malaysian table

MARCH 31 — A friend tweeted how it annoyed her to read writing about Asian food that was obviously written for the “white gaze.”

Yet the thing is while food is very much intrinsically linked to culture, it can be grating to see how Asian food as a whole is just lumped together as one collective thing — the way Americans somehow think Asian Americans are all Chinese.

My sister is married to an American and her mother-in-law, a very nice Caucasian nurse, is still convinced she is Chinese.

There is little nuance to the understanding of Asian culture and the many meanings of the word Asian — but a lot of that also has to do with us giving foreigners a free pass for too long.

Oh, let the white people think we all have lucky cat figurines and have little altars in our homes for good luck.

Having foreigners think that is one thing but the blithe ignorance about anyone who isn’t Malay, Chinese or Indian in Malaysia among Malaysians is, for all those “lain-lains” quite infuriating.

It’s one thing, when it’s that annoying old man barking at me asking if I’m Malay or Chinese as my landlady’s dogs follow me to the train station and I cuttingly answer “I”m Sabahan.”

It’s another thing when other Sabahans are constantly stopped by police and asked to brandish their ICs, interrogated as they “look Myanmarese” just because of their thick tribal accents.

Being othered in your own country, even when you’re technically “sons of the soil” still grates and sometimes I wonder how, still, too many Malaysians either are oblivious or dismissive.

It is disturbing how frequently false accusations of restaurants serving pork keep popping up, with one going viral just a few days ago.

What non-Muslims do fear is that eventually pork and alcohol might just end up being outlawed just to assure people they won’t consume them by accident.

That threat is ever present, what with the new restrictions on alcohol sales, as though it is not alreadt difficult to obtain one in the first place.

Whenever cases of swine flu pop up, calls to close down pig farms get louder and louder and yet when bird flu and mad cow were a problem, there weren’t petitions to get Malaysians to stop eating chicken or beef — or be deprived of the choice to consume them.

The columnist opined that Malaysia has resources, and talent a-plenty but the problem lies really in the fact that after so many years, not everyone has a seat at the table and some chairs take more space than they should. — Reuters pic
The columnist opined that Malaysia has resources, and talent a-plenty but the problem lies really in the fact that after so many years, not everyone has a seat at the table and some chairs take more space than they should. — Reuters pic

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Even when it comes down to it, there isn’t even proper respect for people’s dietary restrictions or prohibitions.

Ask any Hindu person who has been invited to a gathering and told to just ignore the beef dishes on the table, or the vegetarians who get maybe one vegetarian option on the menu at an event.

When it comes to food, really, the solution isn’t to try and create one magical dish made from an ingredient contributed by each ethnicity (coincidentally most of the plot from the Disney movie Raya).

There really just needs to be space at the table. There needs to be trust, there needs to be accountability, there needs to be care for all the diners at this shared table of ours.

At this table, there should also not be coercion — no jealousy or indignation should some decide to head to the bar for a tipple or head off for some Korean BBQ.

The problem also lies here in that thinking there is only one host, and everyone else are guests. Yet it is the hosts who are eating well while the guests are given little choice or mistreated when deviating from the host’s preferred menu.

If Malaysia was a dinner party it would be a sad one; it shouldn’t even be a dinner party but a shared meal, like those in community longhouses.

Our country has resources, and talent a-plenty but the problem lies really in the fact that after so many years, not everyone has a seat at the table and some chairs take more space than they should.

What is also certain is that we need leaders less obsessed with keeping their own rice bowls filled while ignoring cries of those begging for even a few grains of rice.

Until then I would appreciate people learning the prices of pork and realising that no sane person would substitute the much cheaper chicken for it; perhaps the comms ministry should get into that with a new campaign: “Itu Bukan Babi”. (No that’s not pork).

Perhaps that’s how we start — learning about each other’s food, as a gateway to starting to truly learn how others live and maybe I won’t get another damn question about whether my people still live on trees.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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