Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

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