Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Maggi goreng
Book: Always Another Country (Sisonke Msimang)

I didn't know what home meant or stood for till later in my life. Growing up, I was constantly uncomfortable in my body—I never could come up with a reason for why I existed, in a house that was filled with equal parts expectation, ignorance, distance and anxiety. Mostly left alone to my own devices both at home and at school (the latter a consequence of the former), social cues and etiquette were learnt through trial-and-error, each misstep a gradual formation towards a warped sense of self. In kindergarten, I was locked in a broom closet as punishment for destroying my classmates' paintings with my bare hands (through pure curiosity? malice? I'll never know). At eight, I was gripped by a senseless desire to figure out what would happen if I went to a house next to my primary school and ceaselessly press its doorbell, while still in uniform. It's not difficult to guess what happened next.

All of these things can be chalked down to childish mischief, but because they were all committed alone, it alienated me further from my peers. More solo deviances would continue to occur in the years to come, which I now understand was the result of a bored and troubled mind. My parents responded by pretending the incidents never happened, even if all of that eventually became both a cause and effect of mental illness, even if I couldn't get out of bed to attend most of my last year of high school. Maybe they never did happen.

For many, nationality and family are often sure markers of Home. The latter, for me, was non-existent in its constant denial, misinformation and silence; things I consider emotional abuse now. The former was tenuous at best: because I couldn't fit in to a society that prided conformity and a linear narrative, I was involuntarily forced out to its edges with no foreseeable future in sight, even if I did belong to a Chinese dominant majority with its attendant privileges. But my discovery of the punk subculture saved me (I wrote about it briefly in #003), providing me with the skills and wherewithal to hack my way through to try and find a home somewhere else—whether that be in Bandung, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, London or Sydney, funds saved through months of hunger and hard work, then continued to be used sparingly through tactics such as squatting, hitchhiking and dumpster diving. The lucky result of this is that I now know Home is in my body.

As such, reading Sisonke Msimang's memoir Always Another Country made me think about the concept again. Her life is nowhere the same as mine, but the quest to discover Home is omnipresent. The child of South African freedom fighters, her life is constantly in flux, as she spends most of her developing years in various parts of the world, stateless and in exile. When she finally returns to South Africa post-apartheid, it's for the first time, as both a native daughter and a stranger. Lines like "I am acutely aware of the dissonance between being of a place by virtue of physiological heritage and being from a place by virtue of memory and experience" tells of grappling with her sense of self as she tries to reconcile her romanticisation of home with its reality. Msimang writes honestly with razor-sharp insight, her prose conjuring vivid mental images of pieces of her life, as she navigates issues surrounding race, womanhood, class and love either in Canada, Zambia, Australia or South Africa. She details memories of family, racism, sexual abuse and an abusive romantic relationship with a candidness that is heartfelt, while reckoning with often-elided complexities that arise from difficult circumstances. Of Australia, she writes, "How do you welcome people to your country when they have already taken it?" And: "History here is always ever-present and also on the verge of disappearing." 

For Msimang, she eventually contends with the fact that Home is not a place or what your passport says but in her body too, as no one place ever feels correct or true; it's what one makes of their surroundings while trying their utmost to fulfill responsibilities to themselves and their communities. In that sense, maggi goreng feels like that, albeit in a more abstract way. It was one of the first dishes I had in my travels to neighbouring Malaysia as a young adult, the mamaks similar to the ones in Singapore, but grittier and, to an immature mind, more real. New friends would be made over 24-hour mamak meals, as we stayed up all night joking, discussing music and theory next to a festering gutter. It still feels romantic.

Incidentally, and via different memories, my partner loves maggi goreng as well. Comparing many online recipes before attempting to make it in our now very-seasoned wok, he showed me how one day, and now I know how to make it too. $5 worth of ingredients can feed the both of us for days.

Home is a luxury, a metaphor, an ever-fleeting concept and a concrete reality all at once. As I prepare to move again, my interpretation of home will continue to evolve, as I find more ways to feel comfortable inside myself.