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Justin R. Anderson '14
Trinity School, New York, N.Y.
How I Stopped Being a Ghost and Started Eating Sambal
Julian, my ten-year old brother, has an irrational dislike of cheese. He will not knowingly eat anything that has cheese, and in fact the simple mention of cheese may very well throw him into a fit. Bizarrely, one of his favorite foods is pizza and he will quite happily eat any dish so long as no one mentions it contains cheese. Julian’s predilection annoys me not only because my favorite thing to eat is cheesecake, but also because it reminds me that as a kid I had an even stranger quirk: I refused to eat Asian food.
A word of background is in order. My mother is Chinese, originally from Malaysia. I straddle two cultures because I am half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. As a child, I would go to Malaysia each summer with my family to see my mother’s relatives. As a child, I did not understand why my Dad would turn heads on the street or how he had the ability to stop people in their tracks. My mother had married a foreigner and in her small hometown of Bahau, an “Orang Puteh,” (white person in Malay), was few and far between. I did not make blending in any easier by refusing to eat Asian food.
One of the most notable aspects of Malaysia is the various cuisines to be found there: Chinese, Thai, Middle Eastern, Malay, and Indian foods are all to be had in great and glorious quantity. As my mother says, Malaysian food was fusion cuisine before fusion was cool. However, while everybody in the family was eating more and more exotic dishes, I would insist on Kentucky Fried Chicken or Happy Meals, no matter how difficult or inconvenient they were to obtain. The irony is that nowadays I actively seek out hotter and spicier dishes.
What caused this change of heart? I suppose a psychologist might say that I had an epiphany one day that my refusal to eat Asian foods reflected some internal subconscious conflict or denial of my true nature. After all, this was not about happily trying to “Super Size” myself, as I played hockey and baseball, sports where speed is essential. Perhaps the true story is more prosaic; the jury is still out. One of my uncles – ironically the biggest foodie in the family – became a very devout Buddhist and a strict vegetarian. So when we stayed with him in Kuala Lumpur, we then needed to find a place that could satisfy the many different tastes and dietary requirements of twenty to thirty relatives. That was when I discovered the food court.
The food court closest to my uncle’s house was literally the size of a football field, with the sidelines and end zones packed with vendors creating every conceivable form of cuisine. This place was wild. Indians were eating next to Malays, Chinese next to Australian ex-pats. Who or what you were mattered little; what was important was what you were ordering. There were stalls serving chicken and rice, seafood, noodles, soups, pastries, vegetables, satay, and even “French” crepes. I got to know the crepes vendor well and he would even start one up as soon as he saw me approach. After two weeks, I finally started sampling small bits of all the dishes being passed around. I was not really eating Asian food, I thought – I was eating French food with a few nibbles on the side.
One summer later, the nibbles got bigger and the crepes smaller until I was finally through the looking glass.
One Chinese expression for white people is "Gwai Lo," which means “ghost man.” I am part ghost; I am part Han Chinese. In many ways, I have been caught between two worlds, American and Asian, New York and Malaysia, listening carefully always but not always understanding where I fit in. However, food has become a bridge between these two parts of myself. In food, I have come to understand myself and am now one of the family’s more adventurous eaters. Crabs in sambal (chili and shrimp paste)? Send them right in.
Yet, for some reason I still cannot get Julian to eat cheese.