What No Chinatown?

Uruguayan asadoEvery now and then an incident, an experience or a story can jolt me back to who I really am. Not a very nice person. A recent trip to Montevideo, Uruguay, did that for me. I saw a dark side of my Chinese self: the ethnocentric Chinese who thinks that Chinese food is the best in the whole wide world. And no other!

I discovered that there was no Chinatown in Montevideo! No Chinatown, no Chinese food! I mean good Chinese food! Horror of horrors! No Chinatown also means no shops that sell Chinese groceries like bean sprouts, tofu, soya sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger, noodles, OMG….. how to survive for 3 weeks in this otherwise lovely city on the shores of the Atlantic! All the above named are basic ingredients in all Chinese cuisine. If I can get hold of them, I can cook a Chinese meal. With a bit of improvisation, of course.

I now understand why some Chinese people during their first trip outside China would carry boxes of instant noodles with them. I remember my first sight of a group of Chinese in a flight from Shanghai to Melbourne a few years ago and I was amused. And again I saw this when I was sitting in the Kuala Lumpur International airport a few weeks ago. Yes, I had to smile broadly. We Chinese are so ethnocentric when it comes to our food, and it does not matter how long we have lived abroad. We have to have our own kind of food: noodles or rice with accompanying dishes of little goodies. These side dishes do not have to be complicated. In my case, a piece of dried fish or a fried egg will do. And with thin soya sauce and preferably some chillies (for my Malaysian self), I am over the moon. To my consternation, I discovered that in Montevideo, Chinese ingredients could not be easily found! Ignacio, a young Uruguyan chef and I started to be very creative and selected only dishes that we could find ingredients for. In a local supermarket in Montevideo, to my utter delight, fresh chillies and ginger were available, and so was Kikkoman thin soya sauce. A big fat chicken was also easily found. So chicken rice (kai fun) quickly materialised through efforts between me and Ignacio.Chinese food

In the three weeks in Montevideo, I realised how our Chinese-ness is determined by our love for our own cuisine. Can something as complicated as our identity be shaped by something as mundane as our food. Are we Chinese so simple after all? Maybe. No one including Sinologists have really answered the question as to who is a Chinese? With 1.4 billion Chinese in China and over 24-26 million outside the PRC (including Taiwan and Hong Kong Chinese), who are the real Chinese? And what criteria should we use to define our identity? For me, taking the simple way out, I figure it is my tummy that defines who I am. In Montevideo I was a hungry Chinese. Ethnocentric I was, but it was only my stomach.

 

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