By Violet Leong Kleijn
I adore films without any real intrigue: films where nothing much really happens, where the focus lies on a feeling or experience. When I watched Japanese-Singaporean Ramen Shop from 2018 for the first time, it was as if it were speaking directly to me. After losing his father, a man raised in Japan visits Singapore in order to learn about his late mother. By discovering and cooking Singaporean and mainland Chinese dishes, he makes connections with family members he would otherwise continue to be estranged from. Albeit different in several ways, this story reminded me of my own experience as a mixed-race person living in a country other than my mother’s. Undoubtedly, a central part of any culture revolves around taking the time to gather around and share a meal with a community, whether it be with friends or family. So why is food especially important to people who live in a cultural diaspora?
Oftentimes, cultures that date back to ancient times have brought forth certain food-centered practices and traditions that are standing strong even to this day. For people who may have never visited their parents’ home countries, or who may not have had the mother tongue of their family passed on to them, food can be a treasure chest for learning about the past. When people cannot communicate with words, it is still possible to invoke thousands of years of history and belonging by opening up a pomegranate, picking some berries, or drinking tea. These are all reminders of something that is larger than the sole individual. As I recite a prayer before enjoying some newly baked bread, I am reminded of the fact that I live more similarly to my ancestors than one would think – at least during a few moments each day.
My mother passed on her recipes to me so I would never forget what home tastes like. Whenever I taste certain spices and types of produce I am taken miles upon miles away to where I – perhaps as a concept – was born. I was born eons ago, on the other side of the world, and the universe speaks these words every time I eat a meal, or brew tea, or wash my hair with rice water, lest I waste anything precious. That is one of many reasons I am so glad to be a part of a culturally diverse city; I don’t have to choose which one part of my heritage I want to dedicate my time and energy to. I can visit a Jewish grocery store one day, and a Chinese one the next. So, the next time someone is excited about a dish or from their culture, remember that it may be one of their most accessible ways to stay connected to themselves.
By Violet Leong Kleijn
Illustration: Merle Ecker