To my mother, food was something to savour, to relish, to study. She loved cooking. More precisely, she loved food. At the grocer, she – and only she – would first choose the very best spring onions, broccoli and green peppers. Then she picked up the meat, to be sliced thinly at home in our kitchen. As she's of Chinese descent, she would fire up the wok and throw in the food, ingredient by sizzling ingredient, each according to its cooking time, each according to its flavour.
To my father, food to him was nothing more than the drudgery of shopping, storing, preparing, eating and cleaning, all for a mere few hours of stomach satisfaction. His greatest culinary achievement would be getting the pasta boiled at just the right temperature to stick on the walls of the kitchen. Lucky for him he married a good enough cook he could leave cooking to the professionals. So much so that he and my mum together opened up a Malaysian Chinese restaurant. I still remember the times I would get off school and stop by for a stir fry take-away box for lunch and a plate of Makaronia (Greek style layers of béchamel sauce, cheese, pasta, mince meat) for dinner. Oh and of course lots of garlic and a hint of chili flakes if my mum had anything to do with it.
No one ever said that Western people like my dad cook with ovens and Chinese people like my mum cook with woks, but as a biracial child, that's the rule I came up with. It didn't help that I was growing up in a small seaside town in Cyprus called Limassol, in the middle of the Mediterranean, where other minorities were few and far between. At the time, we were the only Eurasian family I knew in the neighbourhood, probably the only one in town.
I was born, raised, educated, primed and prepped in Cyprus. But behind my fluent English, my TV Americanized brain, my Greek-Cypriot citizenship, my philosophies, my outlook on life... is a bi-product of both the proud and rich Greek and Chinese cultures. In elementary school, I excelled in reading and writing class for both English and Greek languages, yet, certain words were always pronounced with a heavy Ching-lish accent, an innocent feature of being my mother's daughter. Sandwich was “Sand-grich.” Lettuce was ‘Let-chus”.
My diet didn't always consist of stir fries or pastas though. It was "Bah Kut Tee" – or “red berry soup” the nickname I gave to the ginger chicken broth my mom would make, rich with meat and goji berries. And for special occasions, like Chinese New Year, where we were probably the only family to celebrate it, it was "hot pot" -- an annual smorgasbord of fish balls, thin flanks of beef, Chinese cabbage, and imitation crab legs that we would throw in a large eclectic pot that bobbed up and down in the soup like red buoys in the ocean. – until, in my 20s after moving to the Far East, I learned that the Chinese have very traditional dishes and foods, none of which I had recognised or heard of. It was then that I realised that my family had simply invented the hot-pot Chinese New Year; somehow, in our mixed-race family, the hard and fast traditions could be softened, bent, reshaped.
My mum tried to bridge the gap by adapting some of the Greek dishes with a hint of Malaysian Chinese influence. Lemon chicken served with saffron yellow rice. Tofu meat dishes. Sheftalia with sweet chill sauce. She somehow made it work. Which me and my sister almost always celebrated. Perhaps unconsciously, my sister and I were tired of standing out in this monoracial world, of not quite fitting in anywhere: as we couldn't look like entirely like white people, at least we could eat like them. Kind of.
Of course, I wasn't always this amorous toward my heritage. Adolescence, after all, was a decade-long culture shock. The mannerisms and customs my classmates subscribed to were radically contrary to mine and I didn't understand why I, born and raised in the same land, acted so differently.
When I was in middle school, in Cyprus, in the early 2000s, I was often singled out by other children for my almond-shaped eyes, beige complexion and jet-black hair — essentially, my Asian features. They’d ask me if was from China and got ignorant comments for not being of “pure” blood. These adolescent experiences planted within me seeds of identity-crisis, and for years I tried to water-down or suppress myself of my cultural heritage.
And so without consciously doing so, I rebelled. I neglected the Chinese songs and texts I, at the time, my mum had tried to make me memorize, and slowly the lyrics and characters drifted from my consciousness. Just like I wanted them to. She herself took this with a grain of rice. Everyone knew sophisticated European languages like English, Greek, French, and German were the way forward.
In time, such experiences made me seem to think that Western culture is superior - though they may not say as much. I would often describe something that my mum would impose on me, for example, someone's outfit, hairstyle or manner, as "so Asian", with usual negative connotations. Chinese became a secret language that I could understand in private scenarios when my mum wanted to scold me, but I would never speak.
It took living in the Far East to realize what I had done.
I've come to realize, within the past four years, that my ethnic background is a beautiful blessing in disguise. Within me is thousands of years worth of cultural knowledge.
I have learnt to re-assure people in China that I am half Malaysian “Hua Ren” (meaning of Chinese descent) and not of the ethic Malaya origin - as if that in some way makes me “one of them.” Underlining of course the deep parochial prejudices of people with different physical appearance; darker skin, distinctive customs and lower level of development, the Hua ren peoples or Han population in the mid-17th century saw them as the Other, as "barbarians".
I have learned to smile and nod politely as my mom and her family in Malaysia laugh and share stories in Hakka or Cantonese dialect. I can understand many of the words she speaks now, since deciding to take on Chinese language studies, but feel isolated by the tangible sense of kinship between my mother and the Malaysian side of my family -- a shared history, culture and understanding woven into each word they spoke.
I have learned to answer in amazement with “Of course” when my Malaysian Chinese cousins who haven’t seen me in years ask me if I can use chopsticks.
I have learned to respond with a passive aggressive “I can speak English just fine , thanks” answer when innocent English language school flyer-distributors ask me if I am interested in learning English.
I have learnt to smile at “Are those eyelashes real?” questions from people, especially women. Followed by “oh you’re so exotic” comments that often feel synonymous to being compared to an exotic breed of dog.
I have learned to sit around for hours enjoying the sun, sipping on an ice-cold Frappe, listening to Greek pop songs, attempting to blend into the sea of olive skinned, dark haired hair crowd at the latest “in” hangout spot, back in Limassol, Cyprus.
I have learned how to ignore the awkwardness when people assume that I am my Cypriot dad's young wife or mistress(!) (since there is no possible way that I could be his biological child, this is the next "logical" assumption).
I have learned to say that I am "from Cyprus and half Malaysian" -- even though I have never lived in Malaysia. People often ask me "where are you from?" – taxi drivers, waiters, random people on the subway. Who often tell me I look Chinese, but not exactly. I look Western, but not quite. I used to stubbornly answer, "from everywhere" because that’s essentially how I would feel like sometimes. Then when they finally find out, are most comfortable with “Oh, you’re a Húnxuěr” or person of mixed blood in Mandarin Chinese.
I concluded that although I hadn't ever felt like an "outsider," I will never fully experience what it's like to be an "insider." My mixed identity has forced me to navigate the world in a different way and "learn" to do a lot of things that other people don't have to learn.
Lastly, I have learned that there is no country for half-Malaysian-Chinese-Greek-Cypriot girls on this Earth. We don't have a special language in which there are special words for "always being told you need to dress as a Pocahontas at costume parties," and " I will always be the Asian girl at the Christmas Eve church service and the guai mui (foreigner) at the next Chinese New Year gathering - thus I am always slightly lost in translation.
Today, I am a foodie. I agree with my mother: food isn't just sustenance, it is a part of who you are. And for anyone who has eaten comfort food, it is a metaphor for home. Being biracial prompted me to reflect on what it was really like being this human amalgamation of different cultures and histories. I no longer live in the small town of my youth; here in Shanghai, one of the world’s biggest metropolis cities with an expanding desire for international palates I can enjoy food from all around the world within blocks of my apartment. Today I'll eat Peruvian food. Tomorrow Moroccan. The next day, who knows? Maybe I'll stay home and cook a fusion dish myself. God knows I'm getting better at it.