US Embassy

This is Trump’s regime
A neocolonialist bureau in a
Post-colonial city
The grey building with its well-manicured grass
Has its guards stand tall with
Cartoon moustaches that are
Anything but funny

They make you feel so small
First they spit orders into your face to
Empty yourself bare
You feel like a child who
Ate her homework
And stumbled into the headmistress’ office with a bad stomachache

Then they make you stand in silence
Even as you try to make conversation with the
Equally nervous person behind you who’s
Going to visit their daughter for the first time in 3 years or the
Hopeful student who just got into this university in Iowa or
That one in Arkansas

“Sir how old were you when you left Tehran”
“My parents are sponsoring me”
“Husband is in Philippines, ma’am”
“Virtual key accounts manager”
“Housewife”
“Sir it’s a one number question can you just answer me straight”
“Until I was eighteen ma’am”

Accents
Interrogated by some voice on TV with no soul
And we were not allowed to look, our knees
Trembling like we were waiting in line at the
Site of an execution
After all capital punishment is still a thing in
Free America

“NYU?”
“History major”
“Your visa is approved ma’am”
Such ease in my privilege I thought I moved worlds and
Tried to keep my relief in check because there were still many
Before me and after

All these words rehearsed in nervous minds and robotic ones
The white people at the counters had nuclear missiles to blow our hopes dry
And turn our hearts into a giant
Wasteland that was once
An American dream

I wanted to punch Uncle Sam and scream
I hate America
Or burn down a McDonald’s while
Showing my middle finger to Trump
But I kept silent with my head down
And as I walked out I saw a woman in a burqa
And I have never been aware of
Privilege as such

 

Artwork by Yeo Tze Yang, “I Could Live in Hope”, 2015

Grandfather’s God

Written by Mhraf Worku

 

——-the frankincense burnt.
the priests, with my Grandfather’s God heavy on their shoulders,
bent, and wafted the smoke amongst those of us
on our knees.

——–there are three, my grandfather had told my mother
——–who had then told me:
——–the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.

somewhere in the vast sky,
father and son waited
and somewhere in between the gliding smoke
the spirit existed.

———the frankincense burnt.

& when the suffocating sweetness of the smoke
sensually glided into my nose, grasping me hard by
my throat
—–it must be God, I thought.
—-
—-the frankincense burnt.

& all over me were necks bent,
heads full of black hair covered
in white paint.
& as the smoke burnt, stinging my eyes
i closed my eyes,
—-and prayed to a God that was not mine.

 

Artwork by Paul Gauguin, “Vision after the Sermon” 1888

Alphabet for the Second Language

Why can’t I reach fully legitimacy with
My tongue
A slow and inflexible muscle
Uttering words and spitting
Contorting to make sounds and imitate accents I was not born into

A for access,
Access to picture books first
Access to academic journals second
And then B for blocked
Blocked from accessing emotions
And putting them into English words. E for English, E for Easy. English is not Easy

N for native tongue
I have no proper native tongue. A jumble of 5 or 6 languages we don’t even classify
C for classification
C for colonial tendencies. To demarcate my skin Colour as Chinese. Ching Chong. Chinoise. Exotic. Chopstick violence sticking into tender blond hair.

C for cheongsam
My mother’s wedding dress. My grandmother’s wedding dress. My great-grandmother’s wedding dress. Maybe, my wedding dress.
Tight fitting and threatens to suffocate my ability to speak. S for submissiveness. T for threats by my father to slap my face he marches over after I— I—
Cursed.
C for consumption. C for cultural appreciation. E for excuses to put it on and shed it off after.
While I still tremble with fear when I hear the words Asian girl.
Asian girl takes Big Black Cock. Young Asian Teenager Sucks Math Professor off.

D for Decolonize. Making null scars in my lineage. Reading writers who render words inaccessible to my mother. She wants me home. I hear it in the Telephone. T for technology to say “I miss you” in a wordless language

V for vehemence. Anger you cannot explain. What language? Where are the words to properly justify. Use arguments for and against. Cite statistics. BE COHERENT!

—the urge to cry when I am asked to defend my hatred towards white people. For what is there left to say

F is for Forget. Forgiveness. To let go of grudges, our people’s coping mechanism
But R for Reality
That stings your cheeks long after and never goes away
Seeing it in their ease, asking why you’re not born into it.
Why you are not beautiful. Why you feel offended. Why this sensitivity like a flu that won’t go away.

P for pain. P for pronunciation.
For my V’s and W’s, my T’s and Th’s. Their stares.
I have not spoken with ease for years. Like the story of a man obsessed with imitating the steps of the ravens, and forgets how to walk
Except I did not choose this.

T for tired. T for try and try again. T for trapped. I have no choice
But to keep writing. L for listen.
P for please, please listen.

 

 

Image by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, “Index: The Studio at 3 Wesley Place, in the Dark (IV), and Illuminated by an Explosion nearby (VI)”, 1982. 

study abroad

PARIS, FRANCE
chocolat viennois.
white cream drowning out the aztec
mouth
full but swallow a small sip
of the history of the modern world in a kleine cup
just until you’re sick
and then one more.


BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
chocolate squares
stacked in the corner store
small enough to be pilfered
by the college student behind the counter.
cut
like dark little congolese hands.
congealing on your palms thick
on your tongue 
like fresh blood.

 

AMMAN, JORDAN
knafeh. cheesy
to the point of cliché,
or statistic. 
freshly knifed
and arranged like plots of land
up for grabs at a campus party.

 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
tiny vial of karak. bitter
this ‘kadak 
zindagi’ and
dark as the ‘immigrant’ but
deluding sweet, hot as the desert sun
or glass windows high up
or optimism perhaps
or the kindness of the driver in a sweaty
taxi at some exit.

 

VIENNA, AUSTRIA
sachertorte.
the sticky rhyme with “retort”
the foreignness of the waiter who talks back
in a slow shout.
you understand.
you just didn’t hear.
later your cheeks are dough
stung
with teary rum in the metro.

 

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
biryani. a pot
of luxury 
labelled specially
on the menu in invisible ink
as ‘home’
cooked by a plump nepali man hidden behind
a door: insignias of your childhood, pride pins of your culture
tacked on the wall in the middle of europe.
what beautiful decorations!
the foreignness dissolves in one spoonful
and a sigh. the ache in your chest
and in the small well of the nepali man’s back
evaporates in the steam of the pot.

 

BARCELONA, SPAIN
paella.
today, in a large pan for sharing.
imagine yesterday, hot on the tongue
and piping like privilege.
the south american continent somewhere like a slice of bread
ready for the touch of a knife. cut
and spread the shrimp soft pink like a tongue
once bled from a continent buttered up
with a colonial language.
i do not speak it.
i do not know.
these words are so beautiful
and i am their bile and their bastard.

 

Painting by Youqing Wang, “Bread with Cherry Preserve and Butter”

Rendang Outrage, or Why I Write Poetry

If you haven’t already heard about what happened, look up the words “Masterchef UK”, “Rendang”, and “Zaleha” on Youtube. Zaleha Kadir Olpin, a Malaysian chef, was eliminated from Masterchef UK after serving “judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace a beloved Malaysian dish, Ayam Rendang.

Zaleha explained to the judges what this dish meant to her: it was her childhood favorite and she used to save up her pocket money to buy it from a special stall outside of her school. She had a lot of pride over the prepared dish, and you can just see her joy draining quickly as the judges tell her that her dish cannot be eaten because the chicken is not crispy.

Meanwhile, I was in a student dorm in the 14th arrondissement of Paris at 3 AM, burning with anger. All the postcolonial theories I had studied failed to encapsulate what I was feeling, and all I wanted to do was to scream at and punch a white man, any white man. So I sat myself down and do what I usually do to cope — I wrote a poem. I did not rationalize how I feel. I did not write any well thought out sentences. I did not commit to one train of thought.

Postcoloniality is an emotional experience. Discrimination and racism, experienced in pods, some emotionally processed, some internalized, some taken for granted — they are filed in the subconscious straightaway. But it only takes a trigger to set the linkages between all these experiences on spontaneous fire. The ignorance of the judges on Masterchef UK caused an explosion of memories that just kept coming.

Here are some of the flashbacks:

When I was an exchange student in the US, I found seaweed snacks at an Asian supermarket and bought a bunch because they were my childhood favorites. My host parents cringed at the food when I got them to try it. My host brother called it disgusting. I brought some to school to share with friends in an effort to share my culture. People pinch a small piece and made a whole fuss about trying it, like those damn Buzzfeed videos of Americans trying food from Asia.

*

My parents studied in the UK and developed a coping mechanism of dealing with British snobbishness. Like the Malaysian students studying there today, they leaned onto the small Malaysian community. They also demonized white people; they told me that white peopleonly shower once a month. Their psychological shells did not prevent them from being publicly spat at by an old white dude though.

*

I was visited by some white American friends in Malaysia. They wanted to see “how I lived.” They wanted me to take them to all the “authentic” food places, so I tried my best. They wanted me to order for them, “get what you usually get for a Malaysian lunch,” so I did. Even after I pressed for preferences, they left the choices to me. When the food came, they took a few bites and would eat no more. They also kept commenting on how “cheap” everything was.

*

And then there were random bits and pieces of emotions, images, voices, that were incoherent. An unexplainable annoyance when a white friend commented on something I said as being “so Asian.” My nervousness when I pulled out kimchi from my fridge in the student shared kitchen, hoping people would forgive the smell. Not being able to engage in a conversation about race because — well, what is a debate to people are traumatic personal experiences to me and; being a non-native English speaker, I still find difficulty conveying emotions in English text. My white theatre teacher making me articulate “red leather, yellow leather”; my frustration at realizing that my tongue cannot move the way my American audience demands it to.

Poetry, then, was the only means to address my need to speak, very loudly. I knew when I wrote the first word that I could leave it at that; I knew when I wrote the first line that I could rearrange the words or break them apart to best express my violent thoughts. I knew when I wrote a stanza that I could delete it quickly if I want to and start over; I knew when I wrote my Rendang poem, I had just produced something that carries meaning for my fellow Malaysians.

At that point, the response to the controversy has been just insult and jest — emotional responses. We’ve dealt with political scandals, racial politics, and our painful history the same way. Everyone knew how problematic the judges were, but everyone knew it through experience. We are a developing country with a less developed vocabulary for our postcolonial consciousness. Just as I felt when I penned that piece of poetry, we felt that the sum of our experiences with colonialism and neocolonialism was distilled into this one interaction, but we still didn’t quite know how to break it up and analyze all the reasons it was hurtful. But our collective trauma had been validated by a collective outrage, and it had to be expressed somewhere.

We made memes.

We posted insults on Masterchef UK’s page.

We complained to one another how stupid those “white-trash” judges were.

We wrote poetry.

The need to articulate pain was immediate. Hence, the mode of expression had to be immediate as well, and non-judgmental. Poetry could accommodate the linguistic heritage of almost all the languages spoken in Malaysia. It asserts no fixed form, no logical flow, no structure. It meets me halfway in my hybrid epistemologies. In poetry, I don’t need to seek the approval of an imaginary white man (or woman) policing my language. Of course, one can argue that prose can be manipulated to one’s will as well, but poetry carries associations of conciseness, sentimentality, sensuality etc. — all the delicious things that a postcolonial subject can use to convey something extremely personal and everyday.

But is it necessary for Malaysians to take a step back and think about why they are so angry, and so united in their anger? And is the place to do so in poetry as well? I would answer “definitely” to both questions. See, we have a tendency to be complacent after the hype of a controversy is over. Remember all the political scandals we went keyboard-warrior-crazy about? 1 billion USD? Murder? Blackouts? Our political problems are horrific, but we cannot deny that our colonial past has dictated our present. A lot of the conflict, say, how we classify different races, is colonial legacy. Hence, this moment of conflict between Zaleha, the Malaysian, and the judges, the British Empire, is extremely symbolic. Once again, the colonized is seeking approval from the colonizer, who is completely ignorant about Malaysian food. Once again, the colonizer is blind towards the hybridity and the richness of Southeast Asian identities, manifested also in Torode’s tweet, “Maybe Rendang is Indonesian.”  Once again, the colonizer is dismissive towards our demands for respect (Masterchef UK is now claiming that the judges did not say that Rendang should be crispy). Once again, the colonizers try to take away the pride we have — or what is left of it after hundreds of years of exploitation.

Malaysians, please do not be complacent about this.

When I shared my “It is more than just Rendang” poem on my Facebook account, I did not expect the resonance it generated. Currently, it has been shared more than 100 times. It might seem like a small number, but the point is, people responded to it. It is short, so it asks for little time commitment. It is straightforward, because it poured spontaneously from my heart into my fingers into words onto a screen. It is fierce. I cussed, because I had to, and I could. The poem reads like a Facebook comment, a tweet, or a meme to me. If I wrote a long form essay, I would not have reached as many people. In fact, I will bet that this piece will have a smaller audience than that of my poem.

So poetry is the best way to express postcolonial frustrations. At the very least, it provides a catalyst for conversation, or even awareness. In fact, it is the medium I use to express emotional reactions of any kind; instead of a traditional journal, I carry a blank-page notebook around to scribble words, phrases, stanzas, and sometimes they turn out to be beautiful pieces of art. Be it heartbreak, homesickness, boredom, anger, or desire, poetry does not discriminate, and it lets emotion grow like dandelions in the soil I call the page.

 

Painting by Chang Fee Ming, “What about Me”

Only in Poetry, I have power

No more white gaze on my agile tongue speaking a fifth language with an
ACCENT.

No more white gaze on the “cheaper” countries in the world, people subjected to
A VALUE SYSTEM
Of more than and less than
That they have no control over whatsoever.

No more white gaze on my mother’s eyes on my face they can pierce through your
BULLSHIT
Your jokes about their smallness relative to your lifeless ones have expired.

No more white gaze on my flavorful food if you have ordered it on the streets on your cheap vacation you had better
FINISH IT
Or think twice before you want to steal a taste of the
SUBALTERN

No more white gaze on my face I don’t need your subconscious qualifiers
The only reason you started to think some women of color as
BEAUTIFUL
Is because they still have
BIG EYES AND THIN NOSES

No more white gaze on the quaint colonial buildings my government calls
HERITAGE
They are relics of history yes but I take they are also
TROPHIES
You come back to admire when you tour the colonies
YOU SICK FUCKS

Oh just because you’re not British or White Americans you think I am not talking about you?
Your skin color shares the same guilt
You liked globalization, don’t you? So swallow the
GLOBALIZATION OF RACIAL POLITICS

You have no idea how your fellow white people have left legacies
That MADE US WORSHIP YOU regardless of where you came from
Your basic features called for immediate reverence
Your economic power forced us to smile submissively while your travel hosts laugh in our faces on TV
Your countries are great countries, where my people try all their lives to run to

I AM NOT APOLOGETIC TO WHITE GUILT
So if you feel offended by this
Try living everyday believing you’re of the inferior kind, and that you don’t matter
Or don’t
Because you will never understand.

 

Painting by Syed Thajudeen, “Springmood (Odissi)

It is more than just Rendang

It is more than just Rendang
It is more than just Rendang
It is the varied spices our ancestors first mastered and then labored for
It is the reserved sweetness of our women, smiling uncomfortably as the white official stretches his hand out for a handshake
It is the banana leaf it is served on, our connection with our land

It is Zaleha’s face of pride, serving a nationally loved dish at a British show
(Because that is how you measure achievement
You need the white man’s approval)
It is her hopeful look transitioning into one on the verge of tears, her pride being crushed at the few words
It is her British accent, fully assimilated, like the rest of us who shed our Malaysian lah’s and linguistic colors like a moth sheds its cocoon
(It’s a rite of passage to tell the world, you made it in the West)
It is her trying to shake the comments off afterwards, the bruising of ancestral pride
Feeling once again, destroyed at the monstrous hands of the British Empire

It is my stress on the Malaysian in Malaysian-Chinese
It is my smirk when a European tells me they have good food
It is my effort to recall how to speak in a Malaysian accent when my white friends ask me to “show it”
It is my growling stomach when I crave something homemade at 3am in Paris
It is my mother’s laughter at the white man’s ignorance and the internet memes
(We’ve learnt to deal with humiliation and oppression with humor)
Like our food, we survived and evolved

So, dear white people who told us it was just Rendang
Shut the fuck up.
We defend it like it is a life or death issue
Because if there’s any pride left of a nation newly postcolonial and battered with racial politics and bruised with corruption
It is in our everyday possessions, legacies, philosophies
It is in the mundane
Like the soft, non-crispy, lovingly made Rendang

 

Painting by Chuah Thean Teng, “Festival Day”