February 23, 2007

Love petai, love Malaysia?

(Draft title - For the love of petai)

I have never quite understood why anyone could love petai. When I asked a petai lover why she loved this smelly bean, her response was, "Because it is smelly".

Refusing to accept that, I tried to prod for more answers in exchange for petai and got a lengthier response, "Because it is smelly, bitter, pungent, and it has got `sting'!" Needless to say, I still couldn't quite make sense of her love for petai and laid this stinky bean to rest.

However, it found its way into my lunch conversation recently as having a rather important role in forging national identity. As soon as petai was served, my friend remarked delightedly, "Oh, I love petai!" To which her guest, Dr Ali (not his real name or gender) smiled approvingly and said to her, "ah ... Malaysianised".

I was not too sure what he meant by that. Or rather, I was trying to make sense of his remark beyond equating Malaysians with Malays, as if everyone else is not really Malaysian. Wasn't my friend Malaysian in the first place?

Born and bred in Malaysia, just like Dr Ali and I. Except that she is an ethnic Chinese. And I don't even like petai. I suppose that makes me less Malaysian, at least in the eyes of Dr Ali, who for some reason also looked at me every time he mentioned western culture in the course of our conversation. I felt I was pigeonholed into a twilight zone between being an immigrant in Malaysia and a wannabe westerner; neither option was appealing.

Perhaps that was just a freaky encounter. But then I caught the now infamous RTM1 Fenomena Seni discussion on whether Yasmin Ahmad's movies, Sepet and Gubra, corrupt Malay Muslim culture. In it, one of the guest speakers, Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, said openly that "Malaysia belongs to the Malays".

She's so Malaysian she must be eating petai by the truckloads. I was left to wonder really; how many Malaysians have this view and why nothing was done to reprimand her and the station with all the talk about there being laws against instigating racial unrest.

The British Nationalist Party (BNP) in the UK which "stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people" is widely condemned by their mainstream media as a racist party and enjoys minimal support in the UK.

The BNP does not regard non-white people as being British, even if they have been born in the UK and are British citizens. It is quite interesting when a political party uses similar rhetoric about racial superiority (with keris brandishing members at that) on our own shores, and no one seems to be batting an eye-lid in our mainstream media. What does it mean to be Malaysian? I can't say that I know, nor do I want to define it for everyone. We're all heading somewhere whether we do anything about it or not, but what we do or don't do will play a part in shaping this direction.

It was encouraging to see members of the public calling in during the Fenomena Seni discussion in support of the movies as also the many articles in the media condemning the discussion. After all, apathy can be the worst thing to have in the face of injustice.

It would be a shame when efforts to instil patriotism among Malaysians go to waste because of the ideas of some who think of others as lesser than they are. Not to mention it doing nothing to foster unity among ourselves. If we don't talk about our nation's progress in terms of ALL Malaysians, any talk of patriotism will hold no meaning; like making just about anyone understand the love for petai.

The writer is a psychologist by day and a singer-songwriter on other days. She likes to pay her bills on time.

Published in The Sun Thu, 18 May 2006 (http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=14144)

1 comment:

Chong Wu Ling said...

Talking about food preference and nationality, I have a personal experience to share. Since few years back, I cannot really take spicy food as I have some kind of stomach problem. Therefore, I normally take Chinese food, Western food or occasionally, Japanese food. Needless to say, if one lives in Malaysia but could not take spicy food, that means he/she could not take most of the so-called “Malaysian” food. I also seldom eat at mamak stores like what most Malaysians do as there are not much non-spicy foods for me to choose.

My former employer, who is an American, enjoys most of our local food especially Malay and Indian dishes. Whenever we had meals together at restaurants or cafeteria in hotels, she would take those local dishes while I would normally order Western food that was not spicy. My former employer, who is a humourous person, once made a remark that she felt she was having meals with a foreigner when we ate together because I could not take most Malaysian food. She felt she was more “Malaysianised” than me. Of course I know she was just joking and did not mean it.

Personally, I do not think our food preference should be definitely related to our nationality or ethnic background. It is actually a very personal preference, just like our preferences in music, literature, etc. Therefore, I will not care about other people’s remarks on my food preference (and preferences in other areas). What bothers me sometimes is that I find a bit inconvenient to look for non-spicy food in certain places in the country. But overall, I am still happy as I can get various good non-spicy foods in Malaysia. I believe one of the uniqueness of our country is its abundances and varieties of food.

Just my two cents.