Some bite-sized knowledge: tapioca is a root crop that grows from its own cuttings. It is then harvested into the ingredient used in bubble tea pearls or popular Singaporean desserts such as ubi kayu and tapioca sago soup. Unlike other edible plants where the fruit or flower is most sought after, the tapioca root is its own source of growth, its end and also its beginning.
Our parents and grandparents once relied on tapioca and sweet potatoes as staples for everyday cooking. “It was easier and cheaper to throw everything into a single dish and eat it as a meal,”recalls my mother, who professes that many dishes she makes today are shaped by the food she ate as a child.To date, yong tau foo, kari ayam and the odd shepherd’s pie are some of the best dishes my mother puts on the table for the family to enjoy. Apart from the noteworthy fact that all three are one-dish meals, there is no other obvious commonality between them. Yet to me, all three make perfect sense for her—a Malay-Indian woman who chose to marry a Chinese man when she was 22—to make. Where the shepherd’s pie is concerned, she cites a heavy influence from her own mother, who used to be a cook stationed at a colonial home prior to the Japanese invasion during World War II.
I have always looked up to my older siblings, who seem to be miles more adept at juggling the two main halves of our racial make-up. The times I envy them most are when I board a taxi with an all-too-curious, often-Chinese driver whose first question is always: “Chinese or Malay?”—my golden-brown skin an indicator that ‘Tan’ is far from a fitting surname for me.
Unlike my brothers, who would probably joke around with the driver using the colloquial Mandarin they have more skilfully picked up from my dad and his side of the family, my own answer vacillates between “Mixed lah, uncle. Mum’s Malay and dad’s Chinese”, and a fuller explanation of my Islamic religious leanings.When he asks me if I know any Mandarin, my response is often a reluctant head shake, much to his chagrin—especially when he’s made it his mission to school me on what he believes he knows about Malay-Muslim culture.
“‘Kaku’ was the word they often used to describe my manner of speech, translating to‘stiff’ or in this case—‘awkward’”
At home, English is the primary language used during conversations, while I view Malay as something I simply had to study in school despite never utilising much of it in everyday life. Between Mandarin and Bahasa Melayu, my parents decided it was the lesser evil—the easier of two to learn as a child. Treasured memories of my mother bringing 10-year-old me to the library in our neighbourhood meant picking out four exciting new English reads alongside one additional book in Malay. My mother made sure that I completed the latter each time, but only out of fear that I would fail to ace the year-end examinations.
Needless to say, I have always been cognisant of how foreign I sound speaking my mother tongue—a sentiment I’ve surely been led to believe both by my own family members and the handful of Malay friends who waste no time in pointing out that they choose to speak in English for my sake. ‘Kaku’ was the word they often used to describe my manner of speech, translating to‘stiff’ or in this case—‘awkward’.
In university, I joined a theatre production crew helmed by the Malay Language Society. I recall sharing with my mother how glad I was that I finally had more opportunities to organically connect with my heritage and make new friends. She nonchalantly confessed to me that, other than her immediate family members, she had never really mixed around with other Malay folk when she was young. “I wasn’t always comfortable speaking in Malay and had always felt out of place.” Perhaps she could see parts of herself in me.
Last year, she invited her close group of Malay friends—the ones she attends fitness classes with—for a round of steamboat during Lunar New Year celebrations. “They’ve never tried hotpot before,” she explained to me, “and I want them to have a taste of what it’s like.”
It occurred to me that for half her life (and all of mine), steamboat dinners and going to bai nian every year were normalised affairs. But so had been eating meals with our hands, or opening up our house to everyone on Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Rather than being mere cultural traditions that tied me to my declared race or religious beliefs, I simply viewed them as practices that rooted me to memories of my parents and family. Reunion dinners were annual occasions my father treasured, while giving out platefuls of kuih to our immediate neighbours every Hari Raya morning was my mother’s offer of hospitality.
“I now attribute my sense of belonging to shared moments with my family, instead of the reasons behind our traditions”
A deeper dig would reveal a labyrinth of cultural acts tied to the apparent facets of my otherwise messy, meandering heritage. But as I grow older, I’ve learnt to attribute my sense of belonging to shared moments instead of the reasons behind why we actually fulfil these acts of tradition.
There is then the inevitable question of cultural erosion—the potential full stop on traditional practices that have been passed down for generations. Yet, somehow, a part of me knows that it’s the simpler things, such as planning a communal family steamboat, or the appreciative smile I’m lucky enough to witness when I go knocking on my neighbour’s door with fresh kuih, that make me so sure that they’ve become traditions that could never leave our family home.
It’s the same way I know that my siblings’ collective preference for my mother’s shepherd’s pie over any other dish will never wane. It’s also why the shared moments when we celebrate our heritage—as complex and convoluted as it is—are moments I think of fondly. Much like the tapioca, they take root in the earth, for precious memories to sprout from and grow on their own.
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