By Tricia J. Capistrano
Although we’re full Filipino, when I was growing up in Manila, my family was often invited by a Chinese Filipino family for a celebratory lauriat. My grandfather worked for Mr. Yao Shiong Shio, a successful Chinese Filipino businessman. And during Mr. and Mrs. Yao’s birthdays, they generously invited my grandparents, my parents, my sister Cecille and me, my aunt and uncle, and my cousins to join their family banquet.
A large section of the restaurant was reserved for the party. Each family or group of friends had their own table. After a short prayer and welcoming words from the hosts, the waiters promptly began the 10 courses by filling bowls with soup and putting it in front of each guest. Sometimes there was shark’s fin soup or birds’ nest soup. I liked the soups’ gluey constitution and savory flavor. Almost always, there was also sweet corn and egg drop soup for us children. I often finished my serving pretty quickly. Sometimes I would even have two. But when the other courses were served–onyx colored century eggs, ‘rubber band’ noodles, sautéed spinach with long black mushrooms in oyster sauce–my mom would slice small portions and put them on Cecille’s and my plates. She gave us the look. We knew better than to complain. At home my mom always told us that we had to try new foods before we refused.
As I write about this memory on a subway seat on New York City’s A train, my mouth waters. It’s been a while since I had those flavors. I wonder who of my friends in New York I can ask to invite my husband, Tony, and me to a Chinese banquet.
I moved to the city in the mid ’90s to attend grad school. I met Tony, a doctoral student, and we decided to stay in Manhattan. Tony is Caucasian and grew up in Michigan. He was only exposed to Asian food as an adult. He and I were invited to a lauriat once while we were visiting Manila but that was about 15 years ago. We haven’t been to one since.
It was only last month, while re-reading Amitav Ghosh’s “The River of Smoke” that I learned that birds’ nest soup is made of swiftlet saliva. All these years I thought it was kind of chicken soup. “The River of Smoke” is the second book in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, “The Sea of Poppies,” “The River of Smoke” and “The Flood of Fire.” ‘Ibis’ is the name of the fictional slave ship owned by a British slave and opium financier, Benjamin Burnham.
In “The River of Smoke,” Amitav Ghosh writes about a night in the 1840s when five lascars escaped the Ibis in the middle of a typhoon. When they miraculously found land, the lascars–four Indian men and a half Chinese, half Indian man–found themselves in the island of Great Nicobar, close to Thailand, where swiftlets circled the skies. Swiftlets use their gummy saliva to make nests for their young. When exposed to air, the saliva hardens. In the book, the escapees joined the locals in harvesting the nests from caves and sold them to Chinese chefs. Because the nests were in high demand in China, the escapees were able to afford passages to Singapore and eventually to Hong Kong.
In the early 90s, while in our teens, my sister, Cecille, and I, with our mom, flew from Manila to Hong Kong to join our dad during the last few days of a business trip. During my dad’s hours off work, we took a ferry to nearby Kowloon Island to visit a museum. The following day a friend of my parents drove us up steep roads so we could see Victoria Peak, the highest point of Hong Kong, where the city’s wealthiest families live. The view was impressive but my favorite memories of our Hong Kong trip were going to a restaurant that served Peking Duck four ways. I loved the crunchy duck filled pancake with spring onions, hoisin sauce, and shrimp crackers–and then the next day waking up early so Cecille and I would be the first in line when the Esprit store opened.
Coincidentally, the store was located in the basement of the hotel where we were staying. It was also final sale weekend; the discounts were up to 75 percent off. I have read Mr. Ghosh’s trilogy four times now. “The Sea of Poppies” is set in India. “The River of Smoke” is set in the Ibis while it crosses the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. And the third, “The Flood of Fire” follows the characters from Canton to Hong Kong. I follow current events and consider myself well-read but somehow it escaped me that that the city that my sister and I thought of as a food and shopping haven, so close to where we grew up was founded because British businessmen lobbied their government to start a war against the Chinese using soldiers from India, so the British could have a market for opium.
Ironically, when I finished the trilogy, I was in withdrawal. I re-read the books immediately. I wanted so much to return to that world that enraptured my consciousness. I missed reading about the fascinating lives of Zachary Reid, Deeti Singh, and Seth Bahramji Modi. I missed hearing the mix of languages — many of the characters spoke in Urdu, English, and Chinese. When I lived in Manila, my friends and I regularly spoke in Taglish, sometimes with a spattering of our parents’ dialects Capangpangan or Bisaya. It was frowned upon by our teachers. In school, we were only supposed to speak all Tagalog or all English, but there was something about mixing languages that made the daily banter more fun.
In the second book, “The River of Smoke,” there were LONG letters from Robin Chinnery, a mestizo painter to his British horticulturalist friend, Paulette Lambert. And in the “The Flood of Fire,” journal entries by Neel Rattan Halder, a ship owner’s secretary. I was impatient and wanted to find out what happened to the other characters so I skipped them. During my second and third readings of the novels, however, I found that the letters and diary entries contained details that made the novel even more intriguing. It made the novel richer, just like how soups and stews taste richer the next day.
When I finally felt I had exhausted the trilogy, I read Mr. Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace,” a historical novel about what happened to King Thibaw of Burma and his daughters after they were escorted by the British out of their home. It was heartbreaking. I loved it too. It made me long to hear more stories by Asians and Asian Americans.
I then read a review about Peter Ho Davies’s latest novel in the New York Times and requested it right away from the New York Public Library web site. “The Fortunes” follows the lives of Chinese Americans from the 1850s to the present. I then saw a woman on the subway reading Ruth Ozeki’s rainbow striped book “A Tale for the Time Being” and borrowed it as well. In Ozeki’s novel I met Haruki, a conflicted Japanese fighter pilot in during World War II. I remembered my great grandfather. While talking to my elderly aunts, I learned that my great grandfather left his family and hid in the mountains from Japanese soldiers because he helped American soldiers during the war. It was stirring to hear another side of the story.
A good friend recommended Min Jin Lee’s “Free Food For Millionaires.” I was so engrossed reading about the familial challenges of the Korean American New Yorkers (they’re much like ours!) that I remained oblivious for an hour and a half that I had stepped onto the wrong train on what I thought was my ride home.
I found “The Peach Blossom Fan,” by K’ung Shang-jen in a New York City bookstore shelf featuring books from the New York Review Books Classics. I have a hard time reading plays (there are too many spaces in between lines) but I pushed myself and finished it at 3 a.m. one Saturday while my husband and son were sleeping. The sleepless night was worth it even if I was upset by the unhappy conclusion. I wondered, as what the introduction suggested, if I have been conditioned too, too much by Disney’s happy endings.
The piles of books next to my bed continue to grow but since reading the Ibis trilogy, I found that books by Western writers that I bought and intended to read and gifts from friends are now at the bottom. Growing up in the Philippines in the ’70s and ‘80s — a former Spanish and U.S. colony–I was exposed to so many stories by and about Westerners. When I was a child, during dinner my dad would recite lines from Aristotle, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and even South Pacific! During Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, I remember that we didn’t have much local fiction to choose from in bookstores. Many Filipino writers were in exile or imprisoned. I repeatedly read Mother Goose children’s stories, “Paddington Bear,” “Little House in the Big Woods,” all 52 Nancy Drew books, Jane Austen, Jeffrey Archer, and Sidney Sheldon. It was only when I moved to the U.S. in the late 90s that I discovered books by writers from other post-colonial nations.
Reading fiction by Amitav Ghosh, Peter Ho Davies, Ruth Ozeki, K’ung Shang-jen, Min Jin Lee, and my fellow Filipino transplants Gina Apostol and Miguel Syjuco was for me like having a spoonful of champorado with fried salted fish on top–after not having had it for 20 years — rich, bitter, sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy–wonderful.
For the next few years at least, I resolve to read Asian and Asian American literature exclusively.
When I told Tony, now a writer and a professor of Communications, about this resolution he was offended. I think he felt that I was disparaging white writers. Tony and I have been married 18 years now. He is the only Caucasian I seriously dated when I moved to New York. And one of the reasons why I fell in love with him immediately is because he read Harper’s, the first magazine I was exposed to in the U.S. whose words occupied more space than pictures.
I told him I knew it sounds exclusionary but I said I felt a NEED to do this. I have been exposed so much to history and literature about the West. I want to read more stories, watch movies, be exposed to ideas and the history of Asia. I am Asian. In New York City, people put me in that category. “Soy sauce, soy sauce!” a man once jeered while I was walking in the Village. But, I feel inadequately Asian because there are so many stories about us that I don’t know.
I am not sure what I will find, or what reading books by all Asian writers will do to me. Will I change? Does it even matter? I have this yearning to know. Amitav Ghosh served me a slice. How could I refuse to partake of the banquet?
Tricia J. Capistrano’s articles have appeared in Newsweek, Mr.BellersNeighborhood.com, and the Philippine Star. She is the author of “Dingding, Ningning, Singsing and Other Fun Tagalog Words.” She wrote this essay in commemoration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May.
Copyright © 2017 The FilAm
Originally published at thefilam.net.