The following series of three posts is taken from an essay I wrote for a collection of essays by various Malaysian-connected writers coming out in Malaysia sometime soon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Malaysian Independence from British rule.
Part 1 - The meal that made me cry
I stared down at my plate. There was one soggy piece of toast on it, drowned in a pool of orangey-brown baked beans. I looked around me at the crowded dining hall. The girls were all taller and bigger and heavier and stronger than me, all tucking in to their lunch of baked beans on toast, all laughing and chatting. There were a few black faces but otherwise, they were all Caucasian, pale skinned and robust. I was the only South East Asian, skinny and small and caramel-toned. It was my first day at boarding school in the UK. It was 1975 and I was twelve.
The morning had been a tumble of classes and new friends as I trailed behind my new classmates to change rooms for each new lesson. In Malaysia, we had the same teacher for most subjects and any specialist teacher who taught us came to our classroom while we stayed put. This new pattern of packing up my pencils and books after each class and fighting my way through the chaotic corridors to find the next lesson confused me. Several times, I got lost, like a new recruit left behind by her platoon, and stood bewildered as girls hurried past me.
By lunchtime, I was exhausted and disorientated. My legs felt cold in the navy school kilt and my arms felt tightly constrained in a long-sleeved sweater. My knee-high socks prickled my shins. Lunch would help me feel better, I thought. I always liked break-time at school in Kuala Lumpur. My friends and I bought curry laksa at the canteen, the spicy soup ladled out of huge steaming vats into a bowl of noodles, beansprouts, soya and chicken. Sometimes, I brought in fried rice and would eat it lukewarm from the tupperware. Friends would bring in soy sauce noodles and vegetables. But here in this rowdy English place, lunch had not turned out how I had expected. I stared down at the baked beans and toast on my plate.
I looked up at the clock on the wall. It was just after 1pm. I looked at the strange, noisy, pale girls around me. It struck me that I had five years here. Five long years of baked beans on toast. Five years without curry laksa. Or stir-fried vegetables. Or soy sauce chicken or grilled satay or beef rendang or nasi lemak. Or anything that I knew as food. Real food. I burst into tears. The girls sitting at my table fell silent, staring at me uncomfortably. A sixth-former said, “She’s just homesick. She’ll be all right.” And they left me alone to sob despairingly over my baked beans.
Later, when I was older, I realised that this was probably not an uncommon experience for Malaysians going to study abroad - especially back in the ’70s and ’80s. These days, in the 21st century, even the remotest part of the UK will probably have a Malaysian restaurant or at least an eatery that can do a decent curry. Back then, England was still emerging uncomfortably from its post-war troubles and coming to grips with the loss of its empire. It had been used to exporting its culture and habits and food across the world and it would be some decades yet before a new generation would return from the hippy trail with bottles of fish sauce and chilli belacan and recipes for Thai green curry and satay. Back then, curry was a strange concoction involving a plain curry sauce, pineapple and raisins. To my horror, they also mixed curry powder with sweet salad cream to make a weird cold dish called Coronation Chicken.
For five years, I learnt to eat potatoes with everything. Roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, buttered potatoes, jacket potatoes, sauteed potatoes, chips, mash, potato salad. The were lots of interesting things you could do with potatoes. But none of them turned the spud into rice. Every now and then, though, we would have rice. Aaah, rice. Those were my favourite meals. Except that the rice would come with that pineapply-raisiny curry and I’d have to spend ages picking out the bits of fruit. Or with chicken fricassee, a mix of shredded chicken in what tasted like Campbell’s cream of chicken condensed soup - which was marginally better than pineapply curry in that I could pretend it was chicken a la king.
When I went to university, it was like a liberation after prison….
To be continued next Friday (06 July 2007)…
Photo: thanks to Johnnie Shannon on flickr.com