Before I became a mother, I thought I’d take my child(ren) back to Malaysia for Deepavali every year. For various reasons, I haven’t made that particular trip with my daughter since she was born in 2009, although we’ve been to Malaysia three times as a family. On Deepavali day this year, I found myself once again trying to assuage my homesickness by listening to old Tamil songs on YouTube (be warned, unless you grew up watching Tamil films, you are likely to find these unbearably cheesy) and performing the meagre rituals I’ve been able to inject into our rural French lives.
There’s no way we’re waking up before dawn in autumn (especially since my husband barely goes to bed before dawn), and I’m not religious anyway, so my Deepavali involves no prayers, no altars, to trips to temples. I don’t even know where the closest Hindu temple is to where we live. Though I find the rows of oil lamps magical, I’ve so far been unable to get my act together enough to purchase these lamps, let alone clean and fill them before Deepavali. I don’t have the patience for kolam–drawing (and if I did, I’d have to risk hours of work being washed away in minutes). If I’d thought of it in advance, I could perhaps have set my daughter to work drawing spirals at our doorstep with her giant chalk, but I didn’t. I always mean to buy seeyakai in time for Deepavali for our baths, but — I think you’re getting a good idea of the extent of my planning and housekeeping skills here — I never do. We have no mango leaves to hang in our doorway, no turmeric paste on our clothes. Which leaves us with some hurried oil baths shortly before noon, dressing my daughter in a paavadai (no, I didn’t spend that much on hers), and a trip to a Tamil-owned restaurant in Limoges. This year there’s another South Asian family there, parents and three teenaged children. I suppose they, too, must have decided against slaving over a huge festive meal without a community to share the work or the feasting. I strain my ears to hear their language, their accent: are they French-speaking Tamils from Pondicherry? Are they Sri Lankan Tamils? In the end the blaring film music defeats my attempts to place this family, to know some small part of their story.
When a Facebook friend of mine posts this video, I watch it three times in a row, chuckling at the superimposition of the soul-searching, philosophical text over the preparation of a lavish meal. Petronas — the Malaysian national oil and gas company — is known for its feel-good festive TV ads featuring classic scenes of Malaysian life. Until her death in 2009, the director Yasmin Ahmad made these ads, which were widely beloved by Malaysians across ethnic groups, political loyalties, and actual feelings about Petronas. This year’s Deepavali ad. isn’t much like Ahmad’s gently funny, character-driven creations on the surface, though of course one interpretation of the image-text disjunction is that it is poking fond fun at the way every occasion in Malaysia becomes an excuse for a week-long gorging session.
But the music and the speaking voice don’t have a comic flavour, and the more I watched the ad, the more I thought about the many times I’ve seriously defended Malaysians’ relationship with food to those (both Malaysian and foreign) who see it as at best a joke. It’s easy, after all, to turn our obsession with food — our willingness to drive hours for a reputed meal, the way all conversations between Malaysians turn to food after a few minutes — into a joke. Yet there are many more serious things to say about Malaysians and food, and I’m not the first to say them.
Asians are not generally prone to hugs or to declarations of love. When I was growing up in Malaysia, most parents didn’t tell their children they loved them, or demonstrate their affection in the ways parents in the West did. When I first went to America in my teens, I was startled to learn that a popular stereotype of mothers was that they always told you you were the best, the most beautiful, the smartest. Mothers in America were known for exaggerating their children’s talents, not downplaying them (whether this is statistically accurate or not is not the subject of this essay; I’m only saying that this was a stereotype I encountered). In the eyes of a mother, her child could do no wrong. And so on and so forth: the point I’m making is that where I come from, parents are usually your harshest critics. The Asian-parent jokes are well known and endless: you score 99 on a test and your mother asks you where the missing point went; your teacher canes you for misbehaving in class and if you’re fool enough to complain to your father he says, Well you must have deserved it, bring the cane here, let me give you a few more strokes; you score 8 A1s in your SPM exam, get into Oxford University, graduate with a first-class honours degree, and when the neighbour asks your mother how you’re doing she says, Tsk, okay lah. To fend off the Evil Eye, to ensure a child’s success didn’t go to his head, for whatever reason, parents in my own parents’ generation rarely sang their children’s praises in public or in private (and yes, I know one of the Petronas ads I linked to above belies this stereotype — maybe the stereotype doesn’t apply to aging mothers in old folks’ homes?).
So what did our parents do instead? They fed us. It was food that told us they loved us, food that held families together, food that replaced everything they could not or would not say. If you were studying for an exam, your mother made you special brain-fuelling foods; if you had done well on one, your parents treated you to a meal of your choice. If you were coming home on holiday from overseas, your mother’s first question on the phone was: What do you want to eat when you arrive? The year I scored 8As in my Form Three exam, my aunt prepared a banquet in my honour, eight dishes made according to my specifications, one for each A. And yes, horror of horrors, they used food not just to celebrate, but to comfort us. A husband might comfort a sad wife by buying her her favourite hawker specialty or Nyonya kuih; even a crying toddler might be pacified with a sweet, unthinkable among most young parents I know today.
I used to be ashamed of this reliance on food. New in America, I embraced what I saw as American wisdom: using food to replace love or sympathy gave people eating disorders; hugs were healthier than sweets; telling people you loved them was better for all concerned than forcing them to eat, eat, eat more, but you’ve hardly eaten at all!
As with most things, over the course of my fourteen years in America, I gradually retreated to a middle ground. At least, most days I occupy that middle ground. But sometimes I do long for the simplicity of my childhood, when I could measure how much someone loved me by the amount of time they’d spent on the meal. There’s a lot I long for in that Petronas ad: the multilingual marketplace, the warmth of the batik-clad woman who could be my own aunt, the kitchen equipped with a properly cavernous, spattering wok and a grinding stone, the painstaking attention to detail, everything done in the old way, no ready-made mixes, no shortcuts. Most of all, though, what I want is to be fed. The groaning table, the heaping servings, the fussing over whether I’ve eaten enough or whether the food was too spicy or too bland or simply not what I’d wanted in my heart of hearts. On Deepavali day and on many other days, I want to be fed by someone who understands what feeding means.
[Images: Deepavali by druvaraj on flickr; Kolam by Slices of Light on flickr; South Indian meal set by Happy Sleepy on flickr; Deepavali feast by awhiffoflemongrass on flickr; Diwali 8 by Nathan Meijer on flickr.]