Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hungry in Guangzhou

Shih-LiGuangzhou has intimidated me from the moment I arrived. I feel out of place buying a common lunch of soupy noodles although the food and restaurant setting are familiar. Cantopop alternating with Mandarin chart-toppers on the radio cuts through the hustle bustle sounds. A press of hungry office workers crowds the counter. The people wend their way between plastic chairs and tables. The smell, the heat, the bodies, the noise and the oily floor don't faze me. I'm smooth, I'm cool, I tell myself.

The clatter echoes around the tiled walls. I make my approach and say, "May I order, please?" The man looks at me in disdain and answers in Cantonese. He's asking me impatiently to tell him the type of noodle I want and what I want with them. I can understand that much. Boiling soup in a stainless steel cauldron hisses and gurgles, laughing at my discomfort.

The choices are laid out on the counter. I recognise liver, minced pork, meat balls, intestines, tripe and two types of vegetable, green and white. The glass case holding the noodles has a menu of Chinese characters reminding me of my illiteracy. I point at the balled-up yellow noodles. Those. I swing my finger around the assortment of meats. Everything. I point at the liver and waggle my index finger. "Everything but that," I say.

He shrugs and gives me the sideways glance I am so used to by now in this crowded city. A look I am convinced says, I have no time for the likes of you. Maybe it is just my imagination. Look, I want to say, I understand you and I hate liver but the words in Cantonese stay silent on my cowardly tongue. Perhaps it is just my insecurity in this place chock-a-block full of Chinese people who look like me. They speak Cantonese and rapid fire Mandarin. I just can't keep up.

I look for a place to sit. I smile at the pretty woman sitting across me who holds a straw in her tall glass of coffee. When the steam from my bowl fogs up my glasses, she disappears and I can't tell if she smiled back. I push my glasses up on my forehead and I can see the liver slices in there, slightly pinkish with little holes. I slide the bamboo chopsticks out of the paper envelope and snap them apart smartly. See, I know how to do this. I flex my fingers and the chopsticks meet at the tip without crossing. Watch me, I can use my chopsticks with grace. I fish out a slice of liver, dip it in soy sauce and put it into my mouth. Look, I'm not afraid of half-cooked liver. I gag a little. The texture is awful, like rotten meat and I hate it. I try to swallow without grimacing. Hello, I am Chinese like you. Hello, look at me, but the noodle seller ignores me and laughs with another customer. The pretty woman looks away pointedly.

Here, where my surname was sown, I am an impostor. Why doesn't my blood quicken in recognition of my ancestral homeland? I slurp the soup. It's good and I wonder about MSG.

On the three-hour flight back to Kuala Lumpur, I work some more, crunching numbers on the laptop. I'm dead tired but I've earned my right to feel good about a very successful working trip. It is night when I touchdown and I'm dying for a hot drink. I find an all-nighter, an Indian Muslim restaurant, and I pile a plate full of rice, tandoori chicken and pappadoms. How much, I ask the dark-skinned man standing at the end of the steel buffet counter. Six-fifty, he says. Drink, he asks?

Cham peng, I say. Two little Chinese words and the man who does not look like me knows exactly what I want. He brings me an iced drink that is milk tea mixed with coffee. I laugh with relief, knowing that here I am home.

My blood doesn't quicken here either. Perhaps it's the MSG in the tandoori.


Kat said...

I love this story. Makes me feel -yes I know that feeling. We are Malaysians - not Chinese , Indian or Malay, no matter how much we look like 'the other".

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful story. I like it that it was witty while being able to grate on our emotions.
I wonder myself occasionally - where is home? For nowhere seems quite right.
It is an emotion i believe many malaysian chinese experience at some point in their life or more regularly. It is one emotion we have to deal with and rise above for really home is a vague place for the likes of us.
- my humble, emotional opinion-

sholee said...

I really enjoy this story and I agree we are Malaysians. As what our PM calls it '1Malaysia'

kalaimathy said...

the kind of story we Malaysians need at the moment. It just goes to show how Malaysian we are, our every cell cries out , but sadly the authorities label us as our ethnic which spells a distant relationship altogether.

Anonymous said...

Sounds very personal and familiar. I think we all have experienced different versions of the same event.

Best part of the story is, I think, is it goes to show you don't need too much of a plot to get a point across.

Jasmine said...

Nice one! i enjoyed reading this piece too.. its like we have our own branded identity as Malaysians... :) but just that others dont know about our 'Malaysian' identity..we need to build up on creating a proper branding for our country n examples given in this article.. pretty neat stuff -