Cosmopolitan cities vs. cosmopolitan sensibilities

This interesting essay appeared in yesterday’s Straits Times. I think it captures very well the difference between living in a cosmopolitan city – where many different cuisines are available, and developing cosmopolitan sensibilities – an individual’s acceptance of and desire for (foods of) varied cultures. Looking back to the article I posted earlier on cosmopolitan food culture in San Francisco, it seems that hybrid practices – where influences from different sources combine to create new dishes and cuisines, is yet a different kind of development.

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STRAITS TIMES
July 29, 2007

Feeling alien among Asians
By Colin Goh

TWO weeks ago, the Wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Flushing, in New York City’s borough of Queens.

Flushing is perhaps best known to the rest of the world as the site of the US Open, although we didn’t move there for the tennis. If there was any particular attraction, it was probably the food. (At this point, my friends may register their total lack of surprise.)

Flushing is home to New York’s largest ethnic Chinese community, and is the second largest Chinatown in the United States.

Here, I can get mee pok with ter kua (pig’s liver) and other porcine spare parts at 2am, laksa with hum, char kway teow (also with hum), mee siam (alas, sans hum), Hainanese chicken rice, and even Peking duck sold at $1 a slice. There are also many Indians, Koreans and Malaysians, and of course, their respective eateries.

Surrounded by fellow Asians, we should have felt right at home. But…

The first hint that we were different came just after we’d moved in and went to the Indian restaurant at the end of our street specialising in dosa and vada, which we know as ‘thosai’ and ‘vadai’. In Singapore, I’d have thosai at least once a week in Ghim Moh, and I was thrilled I could now get it every day, even in New York.

But when we stepped inside, everyone, both staff and customers, turned and stared at us like we were Martians. And when we sat at a table by the window, we also noticed that whenever Chinese people walked by, they’d do a double take.

The owner later told us we were the first Chinese ever to step into the place, even though the neighbourhood teemed with Chinese people.

Similarly, we never, ever saw an Indian family come for dim sum at the Cantonese restaurant or zhajiang mian at the Taiwanese cafe either. It seemed strange to us, as Singaporeans, that despite the mixed community, there was so little cross-makan traffic. Had we crossed some invisible boundary?

We had come expecting familiarity, only to find we were aliens even to fellow Asians, which somehow accentuated our feelings of difference.

This was reinforced when we came home one evening to find our next door neighbour – a Chinese man – standing outside his house, bare-shirted and thwatting his leg, I suppose, to stimulate circulation.

This was the first time we’d met. We’d always suspected Chinese people were staying next door because they’d paved over their entire garden with concrete. But what confirmed it was the very first thing he said to us, as he thwatted away.

Not ‘hello’, not ‘nihao’, but (thwat, thwat), ‘Zu duo shao qian (How much is your rent?)’. And here, I’d thought Singaporeans were gauche for always asking each other which district they lived in back home.

The Wife and I looked at each other, and after an awkward pause, we told him. It seemed rude not to, especially on a first encounter. He was incredulous. ‘For one room?’ he ejaculated, thwat, thwat.

No, two. ‘Two?’ he frowned. ‘Why do you need two rooms?’ We explained we needed an office as we often work from home. He didn’t seem to understand this concept.

We learnt that he was a construction worker from Shandong, and one of six tenants in the house, every room of which had been rented out, including the living room, apparently a common practice in Flushing.

‘Rent me your other room,’ he said, thwatilly. ‘My lease runs out next month.’ We hesitated, and he added, ‘The place is too large for you!’ The Wife politely said our landlord wouldn’t allow us to sublet. ‘Just say I’m your brother!’ he persisted, completely serious. We laughed nervously and changed the subject, but he seemed to have lost interest in chatting.

When we asked if he’d ever been to the Indian restaurant at the end of the street, he shook his head. ‘Indian curry is funny,’ he said. ‘Not like Chinese curry.’

Before leaving, he asked where we were from. Taiwan? Hong Kong? Singapore, we said. ‘Ah, waidi ren,’ he said, thwat. ‘Foreigners.’ Well, that sealed it. With a thwat, no less.

Singaporeans often debate whether we can have a national identity, or if all we can ever be is an agglomeration of fragmented communities. We also talk of having to preserve our mother tongues and cultures.

After our experience here, I’m convinced we already have a national identity, even if it’s by exclusion. Chinese Singaporeans can never truly be Chinese Chinese. I’m also not sure we should try too hard to be so.

I may have my mother’s tongue, but I want it to taste more than just one kind of curry.

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