Sunday, 11 March 2007

I Am The Eggwoman

In primary school I was once the object of that delightfully Arthur Tunstall-esque taunt, “Ching-chong Chinaman”, complete with traditional accompanying facial expression (fingers pulling up the corners of the eyes, front teeth poking out in an exaggerated overbite). Far from being upset, I think the only response it elicited from me was a disdainful snort, because:

a) I’m not Chinese;
b) I don’t look Chinese; and
c) There’s nothing wrong with being or looking Chinese anyway.

Also, the chigger brat was at least two years younger than I and therefore beneath my consideration. My point is, the only reason his obviously rarely-used cerebral cogs screeched into action to produce that childish gem of wit was because he discovered I am, in fact, a boiled egg.

That’s right – part white and part yellow, all wrapped up in a pale exterior. That’s the metaphor I came up with to describe my cultural affinities after I first heard the term ‘banana’: a humorous and sometimes derogatory epithet applied to Orientals who feel more affinity with Occidental culture.

My dad is Kadazan, which makes me half Kadazan (or more accurately, 15/32 parts Kadazan, 1/32 parts Chinese and 16/32 parts assorted British descent – you figure it out). I was born and grew up in Sabah, in a kampung (village) where everyone is a relation of some sort. Those days were the stuff of rosy-tinted nostalgia, when children and dogs roamed at will, and herds of recalcitrant water buffaloes ate our banana trees down to the ground; when the jungle grew up to our back perimeter but we were never allowed exploring because of wild boars; when our gardener chopping the heads off brown cobras that had slithered into our gutters was an exciting but not uncommon occurrence; when a long-cut through the padi fields to our grandparents’ house was a leech-and-barbwire adventure.

Now I live in Australia in a normal suburban house and the last time I visited Sabah was almost two years ago. My Eurasian features seem to have become indiscernible to all but the most careful observers, and the language I once spoke as fluently as English (Malay) has vanished, leaving only vestiges of utterances and wisps of comprehension in the recesses of my memory. It’s a crying shame I never learnt Kadazan and can’t understand a word.

We grew up eating ‘Asian’ style, serving ourselves from a variety of dishes in the centre of the table: food like small, whole fried fish, the eyes of which I would gleefully pop out and swallow down, or chicken curry which my sister would always fish around in for the tiny, bite-sized heart.

The legacy of those early foods is me self-consciously prowling around Asian food shops looking for treats Mr. Lonie mostly wrinkles his nose at, and imagining the owners and customers wondering which place this honky was looking for when she accidentally wandered in here. I like pork and chicken floss. I like slices of green mango dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and sugar. I like salty plums. I like fresh pomelo with salty plum spices. I like fresh lime drinks. I like Milo with condensed milk and ice. I like glutinous rice cakes. I like dried cuttlefish. I like coconut jam. I like the small sweet discs with the ever-amusing name ‘Haw Flakes’ which we, in our childish innocence, sacrilegiously pretended were communion wafers. I like dozens of other things I haven’t had for years, but are linked inextricably in my memories with the place that will always have a claim to the title ‘home’.

Now I rarely have the time, money or inclination to eat out, and I usually cook Western style food. On our last trip back to Sabah, a taxi driver asked me if I thought of myself as Malaysian or Australian, and I said Australian. Perhaps if my Malay were better I might have added that I’m an Australian who appreciates proper satay! And proper roti canai! And proper mee goreng! It’s just not quite the same here.

Our family name, a fairly recent concept to Kadazan nomenclature, was made up by my grandfather who knew how to bend with the wind blowing during the last years of British rule. He modified it from my dad’s Kadazan name, and instead named my father after an English king, and my great-great-great grandfather from China. Our name sounds honky enough but I am constantly spelling it for people who promptly go ahead and spell it the wrong way anyway.

Now, with names that could otherwise be straight from Old Blighty, I’ve gifted (or saddled) my children with a Kadazan middle name to commemorate their cultural heritage. The names are what some might politely call unusual or exotic, (and what those more ignorant might less politely call weird or unpronounceable), so I hope my children don’t resent me after they’ve had to spell them to careless people for years!

There are so many things about being an egg which I take for granted, and I forget other people just see a white girl banging on about Asians being obsessed with food, or rolling her eyes and groaning about ‘Asian Dad*’, or asking personal questions that are inappropriate in Western society, and think I’m shockingly un-PC. Then when I see their wary expressions I have to quickly explain that no, I’m not a racist social retard.

There is an old Kadazan joke that when God fashioned the people of the earth out of ontological dough and put them in the oven to bake, those nearest the flames were burnt black – these were the Africans and South Asians. Those furthest away were pale and undercooked – these became the Europeans. Everyone else fell somewhere in between, but one people turned out a perfectly cooked, golden-brown. These, of course, were the Kadazan.

So if I say things about my family that you think are cringe-worthy, remember: I may be on the underdone side, but I’m not half-baked.


*A sociopathic condition my eggy friend and I identified several years ago. This condition typically manifests in a demanding obsession with filial piety, the asking of inappropriately personal questions to anyone including the newest of acquaintances, and a petulance borne of an overly indulgent upbringing.


Nellie said...

A fascinating and exotic-sounding childhood in the wilds of Sabah, Lonie.
And I thought mine was wild and feral growing up in a house on the side of Mt Wellington!!

Can you come to my place and cook me a proper satay? or mee goreng?

Lonie Polony said...

:( Can't cook. Just eat.

Food Kitty said...

Lonie, are you in Tassie? For some reason i thought you were - the chigger thing i think. Anyway, only asking because chinese grocer in Moonah does v good roti chanai - it is a solid roll of pastry that you slice across then pat out then cook - very flaky/puffy/yummy, so therefore I am sure low in fat...

Lonie Polony said...

Some of the time, Foodkitty, some of the time.

I thought stuffing my face as often as possible when I was last in Sabah would make me sick of roti canai for a good few years...but it didn't :-(

killmeplz said...

Hi there, stumbled on your blog, i'm a 3/4 kadazan, dad is a eurasian/kadazan while mum is a penampang kadazan.

In our land we were once mighty (politically), even in our kampungs, but now it's a different matter entirely, we are now effectively a minority in our homeland but now we have kadazans in Australia and this is wonderful news. Reading your blog makes me proud, most people in your situation would dismiss their kadazan heritage.

Good luck to you and your kids in australia, tell them to not forget their heritage, should you + family decide to come back for a visit and looking for a nightcap in KK, my house is available, my food might not be much but it's yours for the duration, my car although not in prinstine condition would ferry you around. Kang ku da?


Lonie Polony said...

Hi killmeplz, what a lovely offer! You've really warmed the cockles of my heart (though your sobriquet is quite disturbing...)

MED said...

Interesting blog :) and I wanted to say hi to a fellow Kadazan. I get a lot of people speaking to me in Chinese too, but not so much in Malaysia. Funny: a lot of Chinese from China believe completely that I am one of them :p and some even talk my ear off for not being able to speak a single Chinese dialect and if it happens to be my unlucky day, people give me the evil eye for "pretending" to be non-Chinese. I really feel like a victim sometimes :p.