Rendang Outrage, or Why I Write Poetry

If you haven’t already heard about what happened, look up the words “Masterchef UK”, “Rendang”, and “Zaleha” on Youtube. Zaleha Kadir Olpin, a Malaysian chef, was eliminated from Masterchef UK after serving “judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace a beloved Malaysian dish, Ayam Rendang.

Zaleha explained to the judges what this dish meant to her: it was her childhood favorite and she used to save up her pocket money to buy it from a special stall outside of her school. She had a lot of pride over the prepared dish, and you can just see her joy draining quickly as the judges tell her that her dish cannot be eaten because the chicken is not crispy.

Meanwhile, I was in a student dorm in the 14th arrondissement of Paris at 3 AM, burning with anger. All the postcolonial theories I had studied failed to encapsulate what I was feeling, and all I wanted to do was to scream at and punch a white man, any white man. So I sat myself down and do what I usually do to cope — I wrote a poem. I did not rationalize how I feel. I did not write any well thought out sentences. I did not commit to one train of thought.

Postcoloniality is an emotional experience. Discrimination and racism, experienced in pods, some emotionally processed, some internalized, some taken for granted — they are filed in the subconscious straightaway. But it only takes a trigger to set the linkages between all these experiences on spontaneous fire. The ignorance of the judges on Masterchef UK caused an explosion of memories that just kept coming.

Here are some of the flashbacks:

When I was an exchange student in the US, I found seaweed snacks at an Asian supermarket and bought a bunch because they were my childhood favorites. My host parents cringed at the food when I got them to try it. My host brother called it disgusting. I brought some to school to share with friends in an effort to share my culture. People pinch a small piece and made a whole fuss about trying it, like those damn Buzzfeed videos of Americans trying food from Asia.

*

My parents studied in the UK and developed a coping mechanism of dealing with British snobbishness. Like the Malaysian students studying there today, they leaned onto the small Malaysian community. They also demonized white people; they told me that white peopleonly shower once a month. Their psychological shells did not prevent them from being publicly spat at by an old white dude though.

*

I was visited by some white American friends in Malaysia. They wanted to see “how I lived.” They wanted me to take them to all the “authentic” food places, so I tried my best. They wanted me to order for them, “get what you usually get for a Malaysian lunch,” so I did. Even after I pressed for preferences, they left the choices to me. When the food came, they took a few bites and would eat no more. They also kept commenting on how “cheap” everything was.

*

And then there were random bits and pieces of emotions, images, voices, that were incoherent. An unexplainable annoyance when a white friend commented on something I said as being “so Asian.” My nervousness when I pulled out kimchi from my fridge in the student shared kitchen, hoping people would forgive the smell. Not being able to engage in a conversation about race because — well, what is a debate to people are traumatic personal experiences to me and; being a non-native English speaker, I still find difficulty conveying emotions in English text. My white theatre teacher making me articulate “red leather, yellow leather”; my frustration at realizing that my tongue cannot move the way my American audience demands it to.

Poetry, then, was the only means to address my need to speak, very loudly. I knew when I wrote the first word that I could leave it at that; I knew when I wrote the first line that I could rearrange the words or break them apart to best express my violent thoughts. I knew when I wrote a stanza that I could delete it quickly if I want to and start over; I knew when I wrote my Rendang poem, I had just produced something that carries meaning for my fellow Malaysians.

At that point, the response to the controversy has been just insult and jest — emotional responses. We’ve dealt with political scandals, racial politics, and our painful history the same way. Everyone knew how problematic the judges were, but everyone knew it through experience. We are a developing country with a less developed vocabulary for our postcolonial consciousness. Just as I felt when I penned that piece of poetry, we felt that the sum of our experiences with colonialism and neocolonialism was distilled into this one interaction, but we still didn’t quite know how to break it up and analyze all the reasons it was hurtful. But our collective trauma had been validated by a collective outrage, and it had to be expressed somewhere.

We made memes.

We posted insults on Masterchef UK’s page.

We complained to one another how stupid those “white-trash” judges were.

We wrote poetry.

The need to articulate pain was immediate. Hence, the mode of expression had to be immediate as well, and non-judgmental. Poetry could accommodate the linguistic heritage of almost all the languages spoken in Malaysia. It asserts no fixed form, no logical flow, no structure. It meets me halfway in my hybrid epistemologies. In poetry, I don’t need to seek the approval of an imaginary white man (or woman) policing my language. Of course, one can argue that prose can be manipulated to one’s will as well, but poetry carries associations of conciseness, sentimentality, sensuality etc. — all the delicious things that a postcolonial subject can use to convey something extremely personal and everyday.

But is it necessary for Malaysians to take a step back and think about why they are so angry, and so united in their anger? And is the place to do so in poetry as well? I would answer “definitely” to both questions. See, we have a tendency to be complacent after the hype of a controversy is over. Remember all the political scandals we went keyboard-warrior-crazy about? 1 billion USD? Murder? Blackouts? Our political problems are horrific, but we cannot deny that our colonial past has dictated our present. A lot of the conflict, say, how we classify different races, is colonial legacy. Hence, this moment of conflict between Zaleha, the Malaysian, and the judges, the British Empire, is extremely symbolic. Once again, the colonized is seeking approval from the colonizer, who is completely ignorant about Malaysian food. Once again, the colonizer is blind towards the hybridity and the richness of Southeast Asian identities, manifested also in Torode’s tweet, “Maybe Rendang is Indonesian.”  Once again, the colonizer is dismissive towards our demands for respect (Masterchef UK is now claiming that the judges did not say that Rendang should be crispy). Once again, the colonizers try to take away the pride we have — or what is left of it after hundreds of years of exploitation.

Malaysians, please do not be complacent about this.

When I shared my “It is more than just Rendang” poem on my Facebook account, I did not expect the resonance it generated. Currently, it has been shared more than 100 times. It might seem like a small number, but the point is, people responded to it. It is short, so it asks for little time commitment. It is straightforward, because it poured spontaneously from my heart into my fingers into words onto a screen. It is fierce. I cussed, because I had to, and I could. The poem reads like a Facebook comment, a tweet, or a meme to me. If I wrote a long form essay, I would not have reached as many people. In fact, I will bet that this piece will have a smaller audience than that of my poem.

So poetry is the best way to express postcolonial frustrations. At the very least, it provides a catalyst for conversation, or even awareness. In fact, it is the medium I use to express emotional reactions of any kind; instead of a traditional journal, I carry a blank-page notebook around to scribble words, phrases, stanzas, and sometimes they turn out to be beautiful pieces of art. Be it heartbreak, homesickness, boredom, anger, or desire, poetry does not discriminate, and it lets emotion grow like dandelions in the soil I call the page.

 

Painting by Chang Fee Ming, “What about Me”

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