I had never given much thought to my cultural identity when I was younger. Sure there were other things that defined me; I was a talented public speaker, an ok student, a terrible (but enthusiastic) ballerina, and a little bit of a clown. My Malaysian-ness never really made the list.
Why would it? Everyone else around me was Malaysian too. I saw Malaysian food the same way. To 9-year old Mallini, curry laksa was WAY less interesting than spaghetti bolognese or fish & chips. Those foods were exciting. Exotic. Even when I started to dabble in cooking, I wanted to learn how to make roast chicken and macarons. I couldn’t have cared less about learning the recipe for my mum’s crab curry.
All that changed when I went to university. Looking back I realize that I was very, very homesick. I just refused to let myself deal with it because that would have meant acknowledging I was homesick (RE: weak). Silly ol’ me. Having a meal plan just added to the problem. I found most of what was offered a complete culture shock in terms of texture, taste and variety and with every meal I just missed Malaysian food more and more. This coupled with stress led to me surviving on cake and bread (the two things I would happily eat) almost exclusively, which THEN lead to my Fresher’s 15 (side note, don’t make my mistakes – learn how to hack your meal plan here).
Isolating myself from the Malaysian society didn’t help things either. To be fair, I did have a solid reason for doing this. Forcing myself away (at least for my first semester) from what was familiar in the Malaysian community ensured that I made the diverse group of friends I have come to know and love today. All the same, the more I pushed myself and suppressed the homesickness, the more out of touch with my Malaysian cultural identity I felt.
By the time I came home for break I was a couple of pounds heavier than before and mispronouncing my own name. I had heard it said back to me differently so many times that, not wanting to be difficult, I just rolled with it till it stuck. A healthy dose of Asian fat-shaming and suddenly feeling out of touch with the people around me made me feel very self-conscious.
The Malaysian food I craved was suddenly too spicy for my newly reduced spice-tolerance to handle. So while I would happily gorge on the food I had so terribly missed, it would leave me feeling a little sick and too embarrassed to tell anyone about it for fear of being deemed ‘not Malaysian enough’. What little I understood about my cultural identity suddenly vanished, and was replaced by a, frankly quite scary, sense of displacement. That was the point where I decided I need to re-evaluate what made me, me.
It started with the little things. I knew not cooking for myself in Scotland was making me miserable, and the few times I had cooked myself dinner improved my mood dramatically. I decided I would go to the dining hall for breakfast, but would cook my own lunches and dinners.
I started learning how to make some Malaysian classics with the help of my family and websites like Rasa Malaysia. I got to control what was going into the dishes I was making, throwing in more vegetables and adjusting how spicy things were as I pleased. Recipe scavenging gave me something to talk about with my mum, grandmother and aunts who in turn were more than happy to pass down family recipes.
By the time I got back to Scotland, I could incorporate more food from home into my diet which made me much healthier and happier. I even got really involved with my university’s Malaysian society, and ended up cooking for their all-you-could-eat Malaysian buffet for the four years I was there. All those wonderfully diverse friends I made? They were incredibly supportive and more than happy to try the things I cooked for them.
Dinner parties became a regular occurrence at my place, and we got to talking about the similarities and differences between our home cuisines. I was getting better and better at cooking, and by the time I got to third year, I was grinding my own spice pastes and experimenting with Scottish-Malaysian fusion dishes. At the end of the day, cooking made me so incredibly happy and gave me a way to stay rooted to where I came from.
I graduated from St. Andrews about 2 months ago and will be moving to a brand new Scottish city for my masters. There’s going to be lots of new people to meet, new cultures to explore and new foods to try. It’s going to be a busy year with all this stuff to do, but I’m so excited for all of it and completely unafraid of losing myself again.
I know now that whenever I feel lost, my cultural identity is simply waiting for me to find it in my rice cooker or at the bottom of my sambal belacan jar. And while mincing the garlic to make myself one of the many dishes my culture has to offer, I’ll feel at home again.