Of Kimchi and other Korean freebies.

On my first trip to Brisbane some four years ago, I discovered the delight that is tucking into a piping hot smooth earthen bowl full of Kimchi stew on a cool evening. While the contents of the stew warmed my insides, the slightly cooled bowl midway through eating warmed my hands in much the same way as a mug of cocoa.

Since I am a terribly social person, I conducted a short conversation with our waitress, who also doubled up as the cashier, while dining. She had studied for a short spell in the Malaysian state of Sabah and as such, was eager to try out “Selamat Pagi” and “Terima Kasih”, Good Morning and Thank You respectively in Malay, on me. I was interested in picking up a fourth phrase since the other three I knew needed company. “What Korean do you know?” she asked when I finally asked her to teach me one more.

“An yong ha shi mi ni ka?” How are you? “Kam sa hap ni da?” Thank you. “And Kwon Sang Woo.”

She burst out laughing for the third wasn’t really a phrase at all but the name of a then-reigning thirty-something year old heartthrob in Korea.

“It seems to work better on old ladies,” I added, telling her how I had an entire conversation in a Korean grocery store with just that name. There were many “ums” and “ahs”, as though we were having a meaningfully deep conversation, and my daughter left with two free pouches of lollies. Speaking of the great generosity of Korean people, this restaurant, Madtongsan 1, located in a small arcade off Queen Street mall in the city, had already given me a complimentary mini seafood pancake and a plate of six dumplings, so the least I could do was compliment them on the food. “How do you say very tasty or excellent?”

“Chuai yah.”

I parroted her, beaming. As I paid, she gave me ten percent off and a discount card to be used towards all future visits. Who says it doesn’t pay to learn a second, third, fourth or in my case, fifth language? I’ve been back many times since, but unfortunately neither is my Korean or the discount card applicable at Madtongsan 2, their sister restaurant, located nearby.

 

 

On coming out.

If you had read my earlier post about discovering my Peranakan roots at twenty-nine years of age, you will understand why this has nothing to do with me being gay or a part-time streetwalker. I am neither, although for me, coming out publicly with my real ethnicity was fraught with as much soul-searching as had I been either.

To start with, my mother had long denied having non-Chinese ancestry. My father had asked her many a time, but each time she reacted as though he had said the most absurd thing. In her defence, her mother had nine other children and passed away suddenly when she was fourteen so she probably had no one to enlighten her on how her father was a court interpreter and lower court judge. Pre-independence, most Chinese were merchants or labourers. Apart from Malays, only Peranakan held government posts and by virtue of their mixed-ancestry and fluency in many languages, acted as intermediaries for the British with the locals.

Furthermore, from a young age I had seen other Chinese ostracise my Eurasian sisters by labelling them half-castes. This was Malaysia of the 1980s and our mother was called into their school principal’s office every so often to settle arguments with teachers that arose when they were called derogatory names. There was even a period when she resorted to teaching the principal to making chee cheong fun, a steamed rice noodle dish, at our home, in an attempt to butter up the latter so that there would be fewer of such trips. Thus I knew that in claiming to be other than what every Chinese had sceptically accepted I was, I risked social alienation. After all, with the offspring of modern-day marriages between Chinese and Malays deemed to be Malays and hence Muslims, and many Peranakan from my parents’ generation marrying non-Peranakan’s, we are a dying breed at the mercy of authorities out to peddle our unique cultural synergy to attract tourist dollars.

Me as a five year old with my mother.

 

On being one race and then another.

This seems like a physiological impossibility but let me assure you that in the realms of everyday living, it most certainly isn’t. I was a full Chinese person for the first twenty-eight years of my life and on my twenty-ninth year, became only three eighths.

So how did this happen and how did I arrive at this peculiar set of fractions? After all, most people are either half, quarter, three quarters or some indefinable combination of ethnically different genes. My sisters would be galled reading this seeing as they still think of themselves as half Chinese. We share the same mother and a different father. Already they have gone through life as islands growing up in homogenous if multicultural Malaysia where pure Malays, Chinese and Indians predominate.

Like me, they must have thought that our third aunt enjoys living in a Chinese museum, unaware that the various wooden sculptures, furniture and fixtures are reflective of our real culture. My mother and her sisters fondly refer to our third aunt as “Nyonya” and for twenty-eight years of my life, I assumed it was because she cooked curry prawns and fish for all our Chinese New Years.

I postulated it was simply a way of life she subscribed to, even though her mother, my grandmother, was also a Nyonya. As was her mother and her grandmother before her, because as I discovered belatedly, Peranakan, while recognised by the governments of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as Chinese since their respective independence from colonial masters, are a hybrid race spawned by Chinese settlers of the 1500s and local indigenous peoples and that until the last generation, only married within their own community!

That we have our own culture, language and traditional dress, was something I was oblivious to until I made the connection. Then I was rediscovering myself anew, for I had grown up only thinking myself a solid, ethnically Han Chinese person; my father in his eagerness to impress this upon me showed me the physical marks of a real Han person. He neglected to mention that one of his grandmothers was a Peranakan too, even though with my features, Chinese, Malays and Indians had queried me repeatedly from childhood about by my ethnicity; hence, how I arrived at the three eighths.