The Taste of Home by Tash Aw
Acouple of years ago, I was at the end of a long book tour in Italy and found myself in Padua, a city I was visiting for the first time. That period was one of discovery for me. I’d visited Italy before but my reading tour had taken me to places I’d never been to and, in some cases, never heard of. In Rovereto, I admired the austere Austrian influences on the architecture; in Rimini, I walked along rows of colourful umbrellas on the beach and watched elegant Italian families at the end of their holidays, when summer seemed to have dragged on too long and everyone was exhausted by the heat; in Lucera, the skies were constantly lit by lightning storms that cut the internet and sometimes the electricity, transforming my trullo into a hermit’s cave.
I’d written a small book, a miniature memoir of my family, intended to be read only by
friends and family in Malaysia. But that year in Italy, bodies of migrants were washing up every day on the shores of Lampedusa and the country was gripped by a crisis of conscience. Suddenly, I found myself travelling across Italy to talk about my book, to explain, I soon realised, what it meant to be a) an immigrant, and b) Chinese, to audiences that seemed baffled by both identities — identities that to me seemed so simple, so fundamental to my existence.
I was asked questions about Italy’s Chinese immigrant population, a community of which I had very little knowledge. Why don’t the Chinese like Italian food? Why is it so difficult to understand the Chinese? Time and time again I struggled to understand why they were asking me, an ethnic-Chinese Malaysian with no cultural links to the Chinese in Italy. Almost always, the questions came back to food, as if that could explain everything. More than once, wanting to express solidarity across cultures, members of the audience would say, “Well, you have noodles, we have pasta. That means we are the same. Marco Polo made us friends!”
The readings and lectures exhausted me. I started to get frustrated with the base-level nature of some of the questions but mainly with myself. Once, I snapped at a journalist who asked, “But what exactly do the Chinese want?’” I was tired, most of all, of explaining who I was. I thought of my British and American friends who wrote clever novels about love and sex in London or New York. They didn’t get asked to explain what underwear they wore, or why they liked oral sex. I couldn’t imagine any audience in Tokyo asking, “So why do the British like ass-fucking?” I didn’t want to answer any more questions about food or Asian customs.
Feeling flat and unsociable, I arrived in Padua at the end of my tour. I’d planned three days at the end of the trip to do some sightseeing and enjoy Italy as a tourist, but now I lacked my usual enthusiasm for discovery and engaging with locals. It was my birthday the following day; the idea of spending it alone, in a picturesque city, reading, walking, sleeping, had seemed like the most splendid and luxurious idea, but now it seemed like the worst plan in the history of holidays. It was early October and the nights were starting to be tinged with a freshness that announced the colder months ahead.
Nothing makes loneliness more acute than when surrounded by beauty: all your insecurities are compounded by the perfection around you. In the vast upper hall of the Palazzo della Ragione, I felt dwarfed and invisible despite the throng of people around me. Downstairs, in the market, the locals enjoyed their careful daily pleasures: coffee and cornetti; vegetables from their favourite greengrocer. Everyone knew everyone. Wandering around the Prato della Valle at night, when every detail of the oval square seemed flawless, I passed lovers young and old, walking arm in arm, sharing private jokes that made their happiness seem eternal.
I decided to give myself a birthday treat by going to a fancy restaurant, but everywhere was full. It was 9:30, 10 o’clock; I was running out of options. Then I passed a Chinese restaurant, the only one I’d seen in town since I arrived. Breaking my rule of never visiting Chinese restaurants in Europe, I went in. It was full of Italians who looked over their shoulders to check out what I was ordering. When my food arrived, people turned and pointed at the dishes.
I can’t remember now what I had. All I can remember is the conversation with the people who worked there, all of whom were Chinese. It was the mid-autumn festival period, as it always is during my birthday. I asked if they had tang yuan, the kind of dessert traditionally eaten during the season. The waitress said no, they didn’t, because none of their customers liked it. The chefs had to change the taste of the food to suit the Italian palate, she explained. “That’s probably why you didn’t like your meal.”
She looked at the uneaten food on the table. Her Mandarin was heavy with southern inflections, the tones I’d grown up with.
“It was a nice birthday meal, anyway,” I said. “Your birthday?” she cried. “Why didn’t you say?”
She persuaded me to join the waiters’ table at the back of the dining room. The restaurant was nearly empty by now and I sat with the staff for a second dinner. The cooks prepared homestyle dishes, hearty meals that I imagined their Italian customers found either too spicy or too bland. People around me kept serving me food. “You’re too thin, you should eat. It’s your birthday, you should eat.” Someone opened a bottle of cognac and we toasted everything we could think of: festivals, birthdays, family in China, life in Italy, unexpected meetings.
I looked up and saw some Italians looking through the window at us, and wondered if they were asking themselves the same kind of questions I’d been asked all week. What are those people doing? What are they eating, do you think? But then someone poured me another cognac, and then there was music, and everyone was singing an old Tsai Chin song. I knew the lyrics by heart, and didn’t hesitate to join in the chorus.