Friday, April 2, 2010

Back to the Future (An explanation, Part I)

I started this blog a year ago this month without a clear idea of where it would go.  I had kind of stumbled onto the world of blogs through my interest in cooking and good food.  While listening to NPR several years ago, I heard about Chocolate & Zucchini and checked it out.  The writing and the recipes instantly appealed to me.  I wondered if there were blogs dealing with Vietnam and Vietnamese food. Soon I was reading Wandering Chopsticks and Gastronomy on a regular basis. What impressed me then, and continues to do so, is the distinct voice and vision of each writer. 

People are often surprised that a bulé/londo is writing a blog about Indonesian (and other Southeast Asian) food. In fact, upon hearing the name Javaholic, most people assume the blog is about coffee. I only realized this after the Foodbuzz Festival last year when people would look at my name tag and start telling me about great coffee shops I should try. I then explained the nature of my blog.

Why a blog about Southeast Asian food? Now, that's a little more difficult to explain. Although my hometown, Sacramento, was recognized by Time magazine as America's most ethnically diverse city a few years back, the Sacramento of my youth was a fairly segregated city. It may have had an ethnically diverse population, but the different groups lived in separate neighborhoods for the most part. The suburban area that I grew up in was almost entirely white. I think even when I was in high school (I graduated in 1974), there were no more than a handful of students of other races attending the school.

Imagine, then, coming to this city, to this high school, as a Chinese teenage girl from Ipoh, Malaya in 1963. That is what Peggy, the girl in the picture at the top of the post, did. She left behind her family in Malaya (for it was not yet Malaysia) to live with our family for a year as an AFS student attending an American high school. She was 17 years old, a senior in high school.  This was before the world was a global village. She couldn't even call her family on the telephone, let alone email or Skype them. Her decision to fly across the ocean (and how horrendous that flight must have been) to live with a strange family while cut off from her own awes me when I think about it now.

At the time, I was seven years old and I didn't think it was particularly remarkable that this girl from another country across the world was living with us for a year. It always seemed kind of natural that my sister, Kathy, would somehow have this friend who would live with us. Girls.

My family, of course, had no real appreciation of the sort of cultural and especially dietary adjustment that Peggy faced.  I'm sure my parents and sister were aware that Peggy faced a lot of cultural challenges, but I don't think they could realize the enormity of the dietary change.  My mother was, and is still, a very good cook.  However, in 1963, her cooking very much reflected an east coast, Irish-American upbringing.  She also had to cook for a fussy little seven year-old who wouldn't dream of eating anything "strange."  Two pounds of rice would last our family of five for a month.  Contrast this  with Peggy's Ipoh, one of the culinary strongholds of Malaysia.  (It just so happens that Rasa Malaysia has just had an interesting guest post on Ipoh's food scene; just reading that makes me hungry.)
Peggy's stay with us had a remarkable effect on our family. As a result of her stay, my father, who was a professor of psychology at the local university, applied for a Ford Foundation grant to teach in Malaysia for a year. His only previous experience overseas had been as a private in the army in India during WW II, an experience he did not look back on fondly. 

In July of 1965, our family sailed on the P & O liner Orsova from San Fransisco to Singapore.   Working with Dr. Ruth Wong, who was the dean of the newly founded Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya, my father helped set up the first counseling program in Malaysia. Working in a foreign culture with highly qualified and interested colleagues was a tremendous personal and professional experience for him. The exposure to the vibrant culture and ethnic dynamics of the newly independent Malaysia, which was still dealing with internal threats of a communist insurgency and the troubles with Indonesia, was also a great experience for the rest of the family.  It was here that my affinity for Southeast Asia started.

(To be continued.)


  1. WOW! That is too cool! Thank you for the shout out and thank you for sharing the story behind your passion for Southeast Asia. I love the place too. Can't wait to read the rest.

  2. Great historical perspective! Do you still keep in touch with Peggy?

  3. Cathy,
    Thank you for your wonderful blog and showing the way. I should have also mentioned how impressed I am with the photos you take on scene. I don't know how you manage it.

    Kim and Hong,
    It was your nudge that got me thinking I had some "splaining" to do. The rest of the story needs the context of this background.
    Unfortunately, our family has lost contact with Peggy. I met up with her and her daughter in KL for dinner one night in 1985, but I don't think anyone has heard from her since. I believe the rest of her family has emigrated to Toronto.

  4. What a great background story. Can't wait to read more.

    We had only been in America for about six months when my maternal grandfather died. I remember how devastated my mom was and there was hardly any contact. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive as well as the fact that my family in Vietnam didn't even own a phone. We'd send care packages hoping they were completely confiscated. My mom felt so disconnected from her family. And this was 1980. I can't imagine what it'd be like in the 60s.

  5. WC,

    Yes, we often forget how much the world has changed in a relatively short time. Several years ago my wife and I were in Malaysia and I decided to revisit Pulau Bidong, where I had lived and worked in 1981. We had to hire a private boat to take us there from another nearby island. About half way there, miles from anywhere, the pilot throttled down the outboards so he could answer his cell phone! The contrast between that and what happened there in the late 70s/early 80s stunned me.

  6. You have such an interesting journey. I can't wait to read the rest.

    Tuty @Scentofspice

  7. Oops! Meant we hoped care packages weren't completely confiscated.

    Were the refugee camps still there during your revisit? I heard the Malaysian government had torn them all down?

  8. WC,
    I believe Bidong was closed as a camp in the early 90s. It's now a turtle sanctuary. I'm not sure if the buildings were razed, or if they were scavenged for their materials, but vegetation has grown over all that remains. It would be very difficult for anyone who had never been there to believe that at one time tens of thousands of people lived on the island. Two caretakers were living there when we visited.


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