Where did spring go, where did the sakura blossoms disappear to? We’ve barely scraped past the starting point of May, and summer already has its sweaty grip on Tokyo. Today is a blistering 28 degrees, and I do mean hot enough to make my scalp sweat and my neck burn. I came to Japan to escape the tropical heat, and so here I am indoors and away from the blue skies, with a glass of mugi-cha in hand.
Today is one of my rare days off which fall on a Saturday. Working in retail means that I almost invariably work weekends, talking to an endless stream of customers with bullet train mouths. I mean this in the nicest way possible: save for the one or two who have squinted at my name tag and said, ah, you’re not Japanese… the customers at the store have generally been quite pleasant (or at least not unpleasant) to deal with.
So I am slowly settling into the daily grind of working life in Japanese retail, complete with scheduling uncertainties and lots of meaningless apologising. My working hours mean that my nights end later than most, and you might see me on the train with my head bent over a smartphone furiously catching up on the internet.
The relatively late start, however, means that I can have more leisurely mornings. Technically speaking, I should be spending some part of my morning putting on a full face of ‘natural’ makeup as required by my company dress code manual – to which I say, nay! I bite my thumb at thee! Since my (very nice) manager is your average Japanese dude and almost certainly has no clue as to whether I have makeup on or not, I tend to go without, and spend my mornings on breakfast instead.
Last Sunday morning, we woke up early to prepare for our all-day open house – there’d be stir-fried meehoon and turmeric cabbage on the home-cooked front. Dad came home pushing a trolley heaving with stock pots filled to the brim with mutton curry, fried chicken and gallons of chicken curry from Kari Guys in Lucky Garden*, as well as packets of nasi lemak and roti canai.
Me: There’s so much food…
Dad: You think we got five, ten people coming ah. A lot of people coming you know.
Me: Dad, there are 250 pieces of chicken. Do you have 200 people coming?
Dad: You think people only eat one piece is it.
Me: Dad! There’s so much other food!
Dad: Better to have more.
When you’re having an open house, the old adage ‘less is more,’ isn’t. More is more is more. Speaking of which, I often hear this gem at the buffet table: “it’s ok. No problem one. This kind of thing, only eat once a year one.” (The speaker is often shovelling their nth scoop of curry onto their plate as they say this.) You’ll hear this at every event which occasions a feast: Chinese New Year reunion dinners and the accompanying 200 open houses, Ramadan, Deepavali, full moon dinners, weddings. It’s technically true, I suppose. These events only occur once a year. Each. Continue reading
In China the Lunar New Year is referred to as the Spring Festival because it heralds the coming of spring. No such luck in tropical Malaysia, where the weather all year ranges between ‘hot’ and ‘Jesus fucking Christ on a stick it’s hot.’ Around Chinese New Year it’s always blazing, and this week has therefore been blisteringly hot, hot enough that even KL denizens – not just me – are complaining about the heat. Thank goodness for air-conditioning, harbinger of climate change and vice that will eventually rip apart the ozone layer – to which we say, sod that. It feels like a sauna in this town. Any port in a storm…
This year was the first year we didn’t return to Raub for the annual reunion dinner. My sister and I dodged many bullets there, including the inevitable “you lost/gained weight is it” and “got boyfriend or not” type questions. Because of my interest in Japan, my uncle will sometimes harangue me about what the Japanese soldiers did to the Chinese in Malaya. (Trust me, I know…) The only thing I can actually do – short of answering back – is smile and nod. But compared to many Chinese families, I think my extended relatives are generally less nosy. Relatively speaking.
Ever since I began studying Japanese at university, I’ve become accustomed to the inevitable barrage of
questions well-meaning advice from aunties and uncles: wah, you studying Japanese is it. SOAS? What is SOAS? Oriental and African Studies ah. You studying African is it. Why you study Japanese in London? You going to be teacher is it? Oh, you moving to Tokyo. Work there is it. Very clean hor, Japan. Very nice there. The people very polite hor. They ah, bow to you all the time. But the men ah, aiya. Tsk tsk. Better don’t marry a Japanese man. They treat their women like what kind only. Later you have to walk behind them. But ah, the food very good. The shoo-shi ah, wuuuahhhh. Best, man, I tell you.
Chinese New Year is all about this: smile, and nod. Rinse, and repeat. Continue reading
This space has been a little quiet, though I assure you my headspace has been anything but. It’s been a strangely eventful few weeks – my grandmother’s hip surgery, a brief sojourn to Bandung where I ate some bloody amazing porridge, a whole lot of writing. Not all the writing has been especially good, but what they say about the practice is extremely true – the more you write, the easier it gets. The words begin to spill in small spurts, rather than agonising trickles.
Anyway: I’m mighty excited about a new project I began a few days ago – it’s a weekly newsletter featuring excellent long form writing (and interesting finds generally) across an eclectic range of subjects. Furochan Reads will feature essays on food, of course, but I’ll also share writing on art, sex, gender issues, politics, fashion, literature, film, science – anything that has caught my fancy. I never was good at focusing on just one subject.
Sometime last week, Dave Chang of Momofuku fame declared ramen dead (in the States). You can read his diatribe in its entirety over at Lucky Peach, but he makes several ludicrous claims there, including, “Access to instantaneous information from the Internet has killed innovation in ramen,” “Ramen was always a fringe pursuit in Japan” and, most absurd of all, “Ramen is not supposed to be about shared experiences; ramen is food for those who don’t want to be part of the mainstream.”
This is, of course, a whole crock of horse shit. Continue reading
We’re exactly halfway through the first month of 2015 – where did the past two weeks disappear to – and that realisation alone was enough to frighten me into writing. I tell people I don’t believe in New Year resolutions, because some arbitrary calendar year transition shouldn’t be the driving force behind the changes in your life. Nevertheless, on January 1st, I pulled out my brush pen and a piece of paper, and scrawled down a list of things I wanted to do. Not for 2015! Just, you know, because. That’s what I told myself while I wrote use actual camera more often and make travel zines. Write more.
For the next two weeks I did everything but those things: read Infinite Jest, binge-watched anime, made Romesco sauce (which is the bomb), wandered around malls in Singapore wanting desperately to smash everything with a sledgehammer.
Yesterday marked the third time I’ve been to Kobe now. Kobe doesn’t have Osaka’s energy or Kyoto’s ultra-traditional atmosphere, but it is quietly wonderful in its own way. For me, it’s less about areas like Harbourland and Kitanozaka, and more about wandering around old shopping streets and back alleys, the areas with local businesses and places that are none of my business. (ヒプスターでごめんなさい)
For instance, Motoko, one of the main old shopping streets running under the train tracks between Motomachi Station and Kobe Station, has so much going for it. Tiny independent bars and cafes begin showing their faces, and there are stores stacked to the ceiling with old records starting at Y50 a pop.
Lately, I have had the luxury of having time to write. I have not written as much as I could have done these three weeks (one can never write or read enough) but it is a peculiarly destructive (mentally speaking) and draining process at times to extract one’s memories and commit them to a document on your screen. Most afternoons my thoughts remain clunky paragraphs with ill-formed sentences, or simply make themselves scarce the moment I begin typing. Very occasionally do words spill out so quickly my fingers can barely keep up, and afterwards I am found wailing at friends online about how overwhelming one’s own childhood traumas can be. It is a slow and cathartic struggle.
Reading for pleasure, which for the past four years took a back seat to learning Japanese and churning out undergraduate essays, has also been on the agenda this month. One of the books I’ve been dipping into is Choice Cuts, an anthology of food writing in which I found a delightful love poem by Haitian poet Émile Roumer consisting entirely of culinary metaphors. You can read it in its entirety here, though this translation uses ‘bum’ rather than the more – to my mind – charming and old-fashioned ‘bottom’ which appears in the anthology. In any case, I wondered upon reading: what would a Malaysian culinary love poem sound like?
When I was thirteen I decided I wanted to die at 30. Back then 30 seemed so terrifyingly old, so incomprehensibly far away; I also thought it would encourage me towards a life better lived. I told this to a friend some years later, still only half-jesting, and she said, well, we’d better hang out more then. We’ve only got twelve more years left.
Ten years later I’m now 23, having arrived at that number a little over a month ago. Suddenly 30 is now too strangely young for death, and just beyond the horizon of seven more years 30 is a reminder of how I viewed my own existence then: a curious mix of flippancy and fear, and a vague sense of hope that all this angst and misery would fade away once the right words fell into place.
In many ways this has not changed, though the intense unhappiness I used to know so intimately surfaces only occasionally these days. These days it is easier to feel anchored to the world knowing – as in, being absolutely certain – that I am not as alone as often as I think. Instant messaging helps in that regard, being my sole lifeline to friends scattered around the globe. These days I am on my phone half the day feverishly type-talking to them, hoping that we can be secure in each other against months and years.
I don’t really get Christmas. It mostly feels like an excuse for everyone to buy stuff and make all kinds of food that normally don’t get eaten, like turkey and cranberry sauce. I haven’t made it, probably never will. Turkey tastes blah, cranberries are more tart than McGonagall on a bad day and I still haven’t quite managed to get behind pairing meat with fruit sauces. But then again my only experiences of Christmas growing up consisted of 2 very long letters to Santa – whose handwriting mirrored dad’s perfectly, hm – and watching Home Alone 3. For all the jokes I made about being クリぼっち on Christmas Day (and only for a few hours really) it is pretty much just another winter day.
Yesterday on Christmas Eve I stayed at home recovering from food poisoning. I skipped out on a party I made mulled wine and 3 litres of eggnog for – which apparently went down very well, so my Festive Credentials are still intact – and instead ate porridge and watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks with my sister. We hadn’t watched it in over a decade so we thought this would be a good idea. But as it turns out, when you’re a kid, the wartime context and the genderfail completely flies over your heads. To name just one example, there was a sequence in the film where the kids enter a nursery and Carrie immediately gravitates towards the dolls and cuddles them while Charles starts playing with trains. My sister and I agreed that we could never sit through this film again.