Food Breaking Through Migration Barriers
Ku Chai Kueh (Garlic Chive Cake)
“I’d find my great-grandmother in the centre of the kitchen floor.
Her small body arched over a large green bowl
the one my father inherited and still uses.
Her hand would emerge from hot, steaming, glutinous rice dough
only to be plunged into it again.
Hands reddened from the heat
seemed to not feel the pain.
A natural instinct of knowing how and where to fold
a familiar act that neither hand nor dough were opposed to.
No words were spoken as I would squat beside her
We would delicately form the kuehs,
her hands guiding mine,
filling it with chives that had been lovingly grown in her garden.
As the lid was lifted from the trays we had placed the kuehs in,
steam would rise to the ceiling.
She would coat each kueh with garlicy liquid gold and hand me one.
That silky, chewy texture,
that sweet and salty pungent garlic filling,
created moments of pure contentment.
Our happy eyes would meet
and the cultural, generational and language barriers between us
would no longer exist”
To one who comes from a diasporic family with ties to China, Vietnam and Thailand, this was a familiar scene. My childhood memories consist of seeing the kitchen bench being overtaken by ingredients, everyone sprawling across the dining table and into the lounge with our allocated stations, each of us in charge of a task to bring the meal together. The kitchen and lounge would turn into an amalgam of scents, the sound of sizzling oil, lively chatter, until our hard work equated into drool-worthy feasts. My life consisted of many shared meals like this, but these moments were more than just about the food.
For me, a first-born generation Chinese-Australian – different foods, new cultures, ingredients, cooking, dishes and habits of eating intertwined. We have a long history of migration, and food has been one of the ways we’ve traced and celebrated our ancestral lineage. To really understand the deeper meaning between food and diaspora, I believe one must have lived it. With this in mind, I will attempt to portray the role food has played in my life through these words. Though, evident in my existence and connection to my family, words limit communication and may only do so again here.
Food was, and still is, such an important part of our identity, a vestige of the mother culture to a migrant family finding their space on a foreign land. I’m now based in Berlin, and within the bridge between myself and my loved ones, lies food. In an attempt to express why, we’re going to have to begin with the origins of my family.
My ancestors are Teochew people from the Guangdong province in China. They were villagers who left their homes in order to escape the communist regime, as well as for economic motives, and settled in foreign countries not far from China. In turn, both my parents were born Chinese-Teochew minorities; my father in Vietnam and my mother in Thailand. My father is one of nine children and my mother is one of fourteen. Food was never taken for granted with limited resources to fill hungry bellies, it was essential that everyone pitched in to ensure all survived. From tending to the garden, to working long hours in order to afford ingredients, to cooking and cleaning – all tasks surrounding food were to be fulfilled. This instilled traditions of the family functioning as an entity and was carried on in Australia.
In parallel to what my ancestors had done for my grandparents, and their children in turn, my parents also built new lives for themselves, their respective families, and then for the three children they had together. Through arduous long hours at work and a commitment to creating a better life, my parents created a very comfortable environment for my siblings and I to learn about the world in. We were raised in a manner that combined our ancestors’ traditions alongside newly learnt westernised norms.
To my parents’ content, most of my childhood was spent willingly visiting my grandparents every Sunday and sharing meals with my aunts, uncles and cousins on a regular basis. The kids would run around the garden as the adults tended to it, we played with the ducks and chickens not knowing they would one day become our next meal, running around the kitchen and between the grown-up’s legs whilst being handed morsels of food. Our family prospered in the Melbourne Asian communities and were able to live out a lot of our cultural traditions that connected us to our parents’ and grandparents’ homelands. Gathering around the kitchen and dining tables, a fusion of our diverse cultures bathed us in warm flavours and aromas of spices enticing our senses. We would switch between four languages as we all encouraged one another to ‘sit, sit’. Eating began when the eldest said ‘Jia’ (eat in Teochew), and the chopsticks and spoons would all cross over one another as the food was piled into each other’s bowls of rice. This is representative of our family; depending on your age, you would serve food to the younger ones, your elders or both before you helped yourself. It is a symbol of consideration, respect and love.
As time passed, these occasions slowly lessened. The ingredients that filled our fridges, the dishes that were requested and the way we ate began to transition. I still remember wanting to eat Nem Chua Bò (pungent cured fermented beef) in public, and my mother telling us not to as people would laugh at us. So, I had to salivate all the way home before I could rip off the cellophane, and white gaze, that obstructed me from my stinky, sweet, sour and salty treat. In an act to assimilate, the food given to us in our lunchboxes also slowly changed, ensuring that we would not be ridiculed for cultural differences.
With little awareness of my family’s past in my younger years, I regret how I did not embrace more traditions and cultural elements they tried to instil within me. I was ignorant of the hardship my father’s family had endured as refugees who fled the communist regimes twice. Didn’t consider that the gender roles imposed onto my mother had stripped her of her ability to flourish in ways she used to dream of. They sheltered us from the trauma because they wanted us to live an existence that had only previously lived in their imaginations. My upbringing and socialisation created complex divides between me and them – and many conflicts. Like any parent, ours wanted to give us the world and they did what they thought was the best for us, little knowing the identity crises within the western perspective it would forge within me, which I adopted and was dominated by.
Despite all my family’s efforts to be the good Aussie migrants, we still suffered many forms of racism. I began to admire everything that was non-Asian as I internalised racism, and I wanted so badly to feel like I belonged among my peers. As we moved from Melbourne to the Gold Coast, a predominantly white city, I was committed to distancing myself from my Asianess in order to adhere to the nation-state’s constructs that placed whiteness as the superior. I began to question many aspects that surrounded my family and my role within it. There were parts of my culture that I found easy to lose – firstly, how I dressed and looked, because I knew if I wanted to blend in and be part of a larger mainstream culture, the things that were the most visible were the ones I had to let go.
As I became more ‘western’, I challenged traditional family structures of colourism, age hierarchy and gender. Food from my heritage, however, was something I never wanted to reject. Mealtime allowed the cultural, generational and language barriers to be broken. Despite my childish tantrums and teenage rebellion, we always ate together. We ate the dishes lovingly prepared by my parents that united and divided us at the same time. Withstanding our inability to appreciate them, our meal-time traditions were the hardest to give up and my parents were adamant in ensuring that these remnants of their maternal roots would not disappear.
Now, I only wish that I had allowed my parents to have passed on more to us than food. As this is all I have, I will never underestimate the power of cuisines of homelands. As I have been an Australian expat for over eight years, the dishes I crave for the most are from my Asian heritage. The same ones that filled the homes of my families and restaurants we’d frequent. It is the comfort food that will forever tie me to the entity my family continues to be. No matter where I reside, ingredients, cooking techniques and dishes will be of great significance that no words can articulate; simply filling me with love and conquering the loneliest of days.
It really is amazing how food feeds the soul; where they long for the tastes, smells and practices accustomed to them. It’s somewhat of an obsession. In my family, we would talk about food as soon as we woke up, during meals and after meals, all the while planning where and when to get the items that would satiate our cravings. People at the hundreds would fill these community shopping centres, and I’d be stuck waiting with the trolley as my parents would greet many unfamiliar faces with great affection whilst trying to gather all the ingredients we had set out to get. Once home, my parents would meticulously prepare each element that went into a dish, they would teach us whilst sharing stories of their past. I would listen with intent in hopes to know more about them, and myself. Some processes could take hours or even days. These intermediaries of time are moments I cherish most, now that oceans lie between my family and I. A bowl of rice could capture the essence of our culture, which is perhaps why I’d always been fascinated by this simple ingredient. Not only the grain itself, but the abundance of forms it takes and its entrenched value and symbolism in our culture. There are over 40,000 varieties of rice which can be made into flour, noodles and paper, and be used for a myriad of other purposes.
From mueh (rice porridge) teamed with an array of home-made pickled elements, to Ku Chai Kueh, bánh khọt, and mango sticky rice – rice is an essential element to most of the meals I made and enjoyed with my family. This is why I named my food project ‘Rice is Life’. The project’s aim is to connect us to memory, family and place. As rice is a grain that can take on many forms and is a staple in many cultures, it acts as a way to connect individuals and societies. Individual meals, much like people, are memorable. Through sharing my deep appreciation for rice, I hope to reshape the diners view of a culture. Rice is Life is an act of celebrating trans-culturalism and delightfully smashing constructs that placed our cultures as inferior.
Furthermore, Rice is Life has been a tool that I’ve used to reflect on my family and foster deeper connections with my parents. There are many dishes from my childhood that I do not know the name of, or the origins. My conversations online with my parents and visits back to Australia predominantly consist of discovering names of ingredients in three languages, cooking and documenting recipes. My parents often say that if we do not do this, our family history will be lost forever. I completely agree with them. Not only because the ingredients and dishes are attached to a certain person, place, time and memory, but because it is a tool our family uses to connect to one another. Food encompasses so much more than nourishment in my family. A shared meal is more than individual ingredients and tastes, it’s a celebration of our resilience, existence, journeys and collective love for something. Being able to sit around a table to share food with people is an all senses experience that ties together culture and friendship, breaks down barriers, bringing with it a certain level of intimacy; a catalyst for connection. It has taught me how to care for others and be grateful for what I have.
*** The author Vicky Truong is community organiser based in Berlin. She regularly organises safer space workshops raising awareness about racism. Learn more about her work @vicky_hongli .