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Sugar, Five Spice and Everything Nice : Food and Identity.

chinese food, chopsticks, girl, hand, fork, biracial, asian and white, south african heritage

My first essay for 'Alphabet of Other', a collection of essays tackling the specific prejudices and unique experiences faced by people of colour from my experiences as a biracial, East Asian woman. It explores what it feels like to be a minority or biracial person who often ticks 'other' than black or white. 'Othering' is a term that not only refers to racism (but ofcourse includes it) but bias, xenophobia, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, propaganda and anything otherwise considered innocuous that is actually extremely harmful and just shy of full-blown hate. The difference with 'othering' is that, unlike racism, it is perpetuated by and between people of colour too.

F is for 'Food and Identity'

Green carpets that smell of five spice and sesame oil. Those horrible green carpets that I mapped the exact pattern of and forever imprinted in my memory while sitting at the glass dining table, chewing thoughtfully. Chewing. That was the sound of dinner during my childhood. My family were big fans of a mouthful of silence during dinner. Once the rice cooker pinged we gorged happily and generously with no need to say anything. Family gatherings, though, at my grandparents’ braais were different. Hot evenings passed filled with chatter while we waited for the chicken to finish. The sound of each of us trying to get a word in, over the mixed smells of smoke and garage grease, seated on plastic chairs in a circle, eating sweets from the tuck shop up the road…

"Full or not, a plate of food is a commitment to the end."

We thoroughly enjoyed our food around that wooden carved table with a round glass top and spinning serving plate. Sometimes we would play a game exclusive to this type of table where a soup spoon is placed upon the edge of the spinning plate with the handle pointing out. The plate is spun and whoever it lands on must take a bite of food from the dishes left. We would do this until all the food was done. 'Waste' was a four letter word. To this day if I eat out with my older brothers from my dad's first marriage, they all polish their plates clean. Full or not, a plate of food is a commitment to the end. Takeaway containers for who? I loved this spin the plate game, but I didn't like all the food on the plate all the time.

"Unlike my family I was a 'picky eater'; a deadly sin in an East Asian family."

Peking duck and hoisin sauce pancakes, spring onion cakes, any saucy dish with beef and veg, pak choi fried in soy sauce, congee with shredded pork, zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves)... Give me these any day any time. Unlike my family, though, I was a 'picky eater'. A deadly sin in an East Asian family- of origin or originally. I was not a fan of anything besides the usual cuts of beef, pork, chicken, duck. Chicken feet, beef tripe, pork intestine... They got no love from me.

Then to the disbelief of my parents, around the age of 11 years old I developed a seafood intolerance. Devastating news that excluded my taste buds from dishes like fresh, live-cooked lobster and king prawns bought directly from the fishermen and fried in heaps of garlic butter and herbs, stir-fried baby octopus, whole steamed fish in ginger, garlic and soy sauce (a Cantonese specialty) and fresh oysters with lemon juice and Tabasco on family trips to Knysna. That was okay with me though, the last one actually, as the memory of my first oyster encounter still scars me to this day. I was offered it, and upon chewing the sea mollusc was told it was alive still and that I was meant to simply swallow it. I spat it out immediately. One comfort of mine in this debacle occurred in my adulthood when someone casually told me that oysters don't feel pain… I sure hope so.

"We overate while avoiding eye contact with the dog's pleading eyes."

Over at my gran’s we balanced paper plates of boerewors, potato salad, pasta salads with raisins (eww), coleslaw, garlic bread (if someone brought), generously spiced chicken pieces, texan steaks from Spar and pork chops with crispy fat (the only way we make it) on our laps. We overate while avoiding eye contact with the dog's pleading eyes and leftovers were welcome - some went to the dog, some went home with us wrapped in whatever we could find. The most experimental we got was introducing a packet of Angel Kisses (bacon and cherries on a stick) (heaven, truly), oepsies or Kassler chops. To this day, nothing really changed except the location as my grandparents moved out of the family home into their own smaller one, the dogs (a Rottweiler, Duke, and Border Collie mix, Ruby) and the frequency of our meetings. But when we do meet up, it’s a voracious gathering I usually arrive late at and that often goes on too late for my gran’s liking, ending with her sending us off eagerly but just as eagerly awaiting the next one.

"A child at home at a braai in Milnerton, or at a restaurant in Cyrildene's Chinatown."

As for my poor East Asian father: he still refuses to accept my intolerance, he tells me every time it comes up that it's 'all in the mind'. It's so delusional, it's borderline hilarious. But that's how a Taiwanese father is expected to deal with the news that his mixed race daughter is allergic to the best kind of food in the world. Food intolerances are, after all, a made-up Western malady. It's okay though, there are plenty of things my dad makes that I can still eat and when he comes to visit on the odd occasion I am in Jo'burg from Cape Town, he makes them. It's the same every time: soya sauce braised chicken and eggs and stir fried rice. He may not believe I'm allergic to seafood but he doesn't try to make me eat it anymore. He has accepted the strangeness of this being he created, someone who lives in two worlds but neither.

Someone who is both but none. A child conceived in Taiwan and born just legal in South Africa in August 1994. A child at home at a braai in Milnerton, or at a restaurant in Cyrildene's Chinatown. One who took many years to embrace and love her Taiwanese heritage despite being mocked and teased even to this day for it. One who has given up on being accepted as white enough or Asian enough. One who is now deeply comforted and at home with the smell of sesame oil and five spice or car oil and wood smoke, the sound of chewing as well as babbling, the feel of a chopstick full of rice and a forkful of potato salad, and the taste of crispy chops just as much as home cooked soy-sauce boiled eggs.


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