Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Fried hokkien prawn noodles
Book: Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)

I think about noodles a lot. And when one of my favourite Facebook groups (out of more than a few dozen which I absolutely loathe) Foodie Cuties started a thread about noodles, I just had to mention some of the noodle dishes I love. The wet, thick slurp of an udon noodle; the equally wet but irresistably chewy laghman noodle; the smoky hug of yee mee cooked over an open fire in earthen claypots; the MSG-loaded deliciousness of maggi goreng; the broad yet soft charred flavour of a flat rice noodle either in a pad see euw or char kway teow; the wide, thick rope of a biang biang noodle that curls warmly in your mouth—my ode to noodle is a long, long list that wraps around my fingers, familiar and comforting like the back of my hand, terrain that keeps revealing itself so long as I remain interested.

And so when my partner and I acquired a wok over the sluggish holiday season last year it only seemed logical to start making noodles in it. The fried hokkien prawn noodles of my youth were sadly taken for granted, easily gotten for $3 a pop from food stalls, manned by hawkers who toiled for long hours with little profit. But the move to a new country as a first-generation migrant-settler meant that these sorts of comforts were one of the first things to disappear, which points to why so many others before me often set up food businesses of their own, if only to make a crumb while attempting to feel closer to the old country from a distance.

In Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, his characters are attempting to flee the old country ravaged by war. Secret agents talk of doors: portals that open up into strange new lands, escape routes that cross borders into freedom. "Location, location, location, the estate agents say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians" early on in the book a nod to the possibilities some are allowed while others are not. I'm a privileged immigrant having moved countries by choice, even more privileged when the two countries are not that much different, in possession of a linguistic arsenal from the same colonisers. My place in the immigration game feels like a relaxed yet tenuous rope: the cultural capital I am able to tap into from being a member of the "globalised creative class" helps me blend in, but I have zero safety nets to speak of—no dole, uni degree, moneyed relatives, a parent's home. As late-capitalism looms bigger in all of our lives, these class conundrums will only keep sustaining itself, creating precedents previously unheard of as we scramble to make sense of what was previously unknown. Borders are simultaneously blurring and tightening—"[...] it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart."

Mohsin writes lyrically, a pensive tone peppering the entire book. Migrants barter with time, not goods or money, because time is all you have at the beginning when your prospects are still in the process of being negotiated. His characters Saeed and Nadia meet during a fraught time, then fall in love and leave their birth country via a paid-for secret door when war slowly descends. Stress from constant proximity and being in a foreign place sends rifts through their relationship: they are surrounded by nativists at all times, as well as other migrants who play "survival of the fittest", trying to demarcate hierarchies borne out of the same sense of desperation and insecurity.

Being blind about class assumes a false meritocracy that creates reasons for disenfranchised communities to fuck over one another. I remember—while waiting for my visa restrictions to lift—working at a food stall in an outer suburban shopping centre in 2013 with other recent arrivals my age, and while they were jealous that I could navigate public life as an "invisible migrant", I was jealous that they had a bottomless pool of money being sent to them from a distance to make life in a new home better. And while they expressed discomfort towards Aboriginal folk, I moved to create a distance from their anti-blackness, at the same time ashamed to be seen in their likeness.

Exit West's prose seems deliberately simplistic: a tale that uses magical realism to point to the tensions of our current political climate while explaining the complexities that arise out of it. Migration is akin to being in a quantum state, levels in a video game one leaps between, and where not only the air and water differs, the individual by association changes as well.