Wednesday, July 11, 2012

At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.
―Alan Alda

Friday, May 4, 2012

Losing My Religion

I wrote this story for the online publication "Ethnic Aisle." It is part of its Religion Issue.

That I grew up Roman Catholic strikes me as absurd. I am an obvious Chinese woman whose parents were born and raised in a marginalized Chinese community in Calcutta, India (now, Kolkata). Aren’t Catholics supposed to be Italian grandmas with wooden crosses in their kitchens? Or pale Irish schoolchildren lining up nervously outside church? I can’t tell if other people think my Catholic roots are strange too and they’re just being polite. Maybe the fact that seven in 10 Canadians identify as Roman Catholic or Protestant means that an Asian person claiming Christianity in multi-everything Toronto is simply ordinary.

For a long time it felt extremely ordinary to me. I was born in Toronto, attended two Catholic elementary schools in North York, and spent four years at an infamous all-girls Catholic high school in Willowdale: St. Joseph’s Morrow Park, more affectionately known as “St. Ho’s.” (Compared with what I later heard public students did in junior high, the majority of us in our hiked-up kilts were far from sexually obsessed hos.) Most importantly, though, the elders in my family seemed very Catholic. Father, mother, aunts and uncles attended church every Sunday. They happily celebrated the Catholic rites I fulfilled as a child. They all invoked Jesus or God or the Church in some lecturing way to coerce me into favourable behaviour. Like I said, extremely ordinary.

I started questioning everything when I hit my teenage years, as most people do. I also stopped attending church regularly at 17 when my parents divorced. Then, while earning my journalism degree at Ryerson University, I learned about British colonialism and how Western religions entered foreign lands aiming to convert natives. With this newfound knowledge, I quickly connected the dots about my own family and one question grew louder in my head: Why the hell are we Catholic?

I investigated by asking my dad and his sisters about their deceased parents: “Were they Catholic?” They responded that my grandmother wasn’t and that my grandfather converted on his deathbed—which appalled me since he had Alzheimer’s. “So what were they?” An aunt or two thought probably Buddhist. I asked my dad, “Why are you Catholic?” A pause. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, then finally: “As a kid, the priest gave out food and told interesting stories.” Also, all his friends were doing it, they were very poor and the Catholic schools there were much cheaper than the rest. At the time, as an impulsive 18-year-old, I blurted out, “So you were tricked into being Catholic.” He and my aunts flatly denied this because really, who wants to say they were duped into relinquishing their ancestral belief system? It’s probably not as simple as I’m making it out. But one generation of Catholics within a multi-millennial culture was enough to make me seriously reconsider my position on the matter.

I never brought it up again. I knew in my relatively traditional family, breaking the religious mold we formed over 40-plus years wouldn’t go over well. Throughout my undergrad, I attended church at least once a year, groping to find even a remote connection to the religion I was born into but that my parents weren’t. I never felt a thing. I even thought God had picked up and left because he didn’t want to be associated with a fear-inducing organization that had its own systemic problem of pedophilia and gross hypocrisy.

Now, I only attend church out of obligation. Baptisms, weddings, funerals. I can still recite all the prayers and sing all the songs and I remember all the stories. Until writing this story, I’ve never told my family where I stand religiously. They likely know I don’t care for Catholicism anymore. No one pushes me on the matter but I can feel the frowning sometimes. When I consider how the religion was pushed upon masses of people though, the thing I find most absurd about growing up Roman Catholic is my family’s frowning. At the same time, it’s extremely ordinary.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wontons

My father taught me how to make wontons as a child. I may have learned as young as five or six. We sat at the kitchen table with ground pork (mixed with oyster sauce, salt and corn starch), square wonton wrappers and a bowl of water. He held a wrapper in his left palm with one corner pointing to the wrist. After dolloping pork in the center, he wet the border of two perpendicular sides with his right hand's index finger. He folded the wet borders on to the dry ones to create a triangle, pressing edges together, the pork safely enveloped. Then he tucked the right corner underneath the left one to complete the parcel. The simple yet elegant process infatuated me.

I started making wontons myself in my post-secondary years. In the first summer of my 20s, I made a turkey version for friends because one, as a Hindu, ate no meat except poultry. My buddies devoured the turkey dumplings. In fourth-year university when I lived on my own, a classmate requested I prepare the original recipe with him because, I think, it reminded him of his mother who passed away. More recently, I taught the man I love how to wrap wontons for one of the first dinners we shared at home together. Just two weekends ago, my eldest sister served me her wontons for dinner. About her five-year-old son, she remarked, "You know Raja helped me make some?"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rice

I never realized how much I loved rice till I started dating my boyfriend. We see each other nearly every day and always at meal times. (Or maybe we're just always hungry.) If we see each other for seven straight days, I request sushi six times. Fresh raw fish is delightful, no question. But I most crave the sweet, salty, acidic, vinegar-dressed sticky rice that, pressed together into a soft white pillow, still retains every individual grain's character of slightly chewy texture. The rice sticks together but each grain stands separate and strong on its own like a marching army on the thin red line of seaweed, tuna, avocado, cucumber or whatever your sushi tongue desires.

Sometimes, fish is a mere accompaniment—not the other way around. I'm often satisfied with my sushi combo order, yet I find myself staring longingly at my boyfriend's bowl of rice, dotted with sesame seeds. I'm internally appalled at its abandonment for beef teriyaki instead. Historically regarded as poor person's food, rice is often neglected for its mistaken blandness or feared for its needless carb counts. But great sushi rice is rich man's food. Expert sushi chefs spend five years learning how to cook perfect rice and blend it with their master's tried-and-true balanced vinegar mixture to moisten, sweeten and elevate the individual grains to thousands of tiny edible gems. The gems glisten and beckon me to consume every last morsel—though it's not technically mine to consume.

"Can I have your rice?" I ask, though my plate is cleaned and the boyfriend, twice my petite size, could easily eat more.

"Yeah, sure. Go ahead," he replies sincerely.

I greedily gobble and stab my chopsticks at every last piece. Sometimes this rice isn't the same as what they use for nigiri and maki but I must have it anyway. Because leaving one grain of rice behind is an insult to poor and rich alike that I just can't tolerate.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cheese, donuts and roast beef

The cheese was as ripe as a pregnant woman in labour for 36 hours.

The donut smelled stale, like an abandoned attic filled with moldy blankets and yellowing black-and-white photos of relatives and their friends long forgotten.

The roast beef sandwich tasted as though I successfully sweated through 90 minutes of a body-bending hot yoga class.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Roast Beef Sandwich

The roast beef sandwich tasted as though I just completed 101 consecutive push-ups, beating Kat Tancock and her boyfriend at their own game.

It was that good.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mangoes: Fruit of the Gods

The mango case sat at the top of the stairs, yellow bumps flashing. I picked up one and felt the weight of a baseball. Bringing it to my upper lip, I closed my eyes, inhaled slowly and postcards of Indian beaches shuttered in my mind.

I walked to the kitchen. I got a cutting board and a cleaver. I peeled the skin. The juices smeared my fingertips and the fragrance filled my nostrils. I carefully let the peel fold into one curled strand.

The mango sat in my palm, shining like sunset light streaming through stained glass. Enclosing my fingers around its slippery body, I cut grid marks. The blade easily slid through to the seed. As I sliced against the inner stone, pieces fell on to the wood with a small plop.

I didn’t bother with a plate—or a fork. Taking a small wedge between my fingers, I dropped it on to my tongue. My teeth effortlessly pierced the golden cushion. My taste buds cheered as supple sweetness burst in my mouth. Everything went in slow motion. But after that first morsel, the view sped up like a time-capture video of clouds in the sky—except instead of white pillows moving across blue air, a hand darted in and out to steal the exotic ambrosia till it all disappeared.

After all, I did feel godlike by the end.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Your Last Meal on Death Row

There was a citywide indie arts festival when I was in Singapore. In one hallway leading to the Metro station were rows of American convicted killers' portraits paired with stark images of their last meal request.

Initiated by American photographer Jonathon Kambouris, the project made me feel unsettled and eerie. Kambouris asked the question, "How is society really served by the death penalty?"

Personally, I've always seen capital punishment as an archaic relic of societies past, forgetting that it is still legal in several United States. And after reading The New Yorker's haunting piece on whether Texas executed an innocent man earlier that fall, it's a question that sits in the back of my mind, waiting for a reasonable answer that may never come.





To see all the photos, visit www.lastmealsproject.com.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bak Kut Teh - A Soup of Home

I never met my cousin Augustus before till I visited Singapore but we bonded instantly over a shared age and love of food. He took me to the hottest club shows and the best late-night eats.

Our first early morning food adventure together was another Zouk club night.

After a Wednesday night of highly choreographed dance moves to popular 80's tracks (Mambo nights), Agus was raring to take me for bak kut teh — pork rib soup. I wasn't one to refuse.


It was also the first time I had a barley drink before (no alcohol). I didn't like but it's supposed to be very good for you.


But the soup. Oh my. The soup (bottom right corner). It's not much to look at but one whiff and I was drowning in a haze of meaty aroma that flickered with the life of a nighttime campfire. I slurped up the broth with abandon. And I wanted more. I was like the greedy little fat kid in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except instead of a river of milk chocolate, I wanted to fall into this river of bak kut teh.

What does this smell like?

I couldn't stop gobbling it up, inhaling it, wondering why it was so familiar yet so different from the original dish. Then it hit me.

It smelled like Montreal Schwartz's smoked meat.

I was home at last.