Reinventing my personal blog

19 Sep 2013

Why I'm Hosting Culture Kitchen

This is a project which has been on my mind for some time now. We’ve been planning it for a while. A part of this is a response to a worrying trend of anti-foreigner sentiment (c.f. the responses to a drive to raise funds for victims of last year’s Downtown Line accident: here and here).

The other part — which I believe to be more important — is the need for us as a nation and as a society to come around to the idea that we are not alone in this. Immigration is a touchy issue everywhere. How we choose to deal with this now will be something which has repercussions in the future. Evidently there are many schools of thought on this.

Personally, I believe the day people stop wanting to come here to live or work will be the day we should worry. That would only happen when we become verifiably a land with no opportunities whatsoever, which cannot afford our people, and our guests and newcomers, a better life.

When I was in university, my closest friends were in the Indian/ Nepali/ Pakistani (i.e. desi) contingent. Homesick, they sought out food which reminded them of home. Usman Restaurant at 238 Serangoon Road, near Mustafa/Desker Road, was one such place. It opened late, and most nights we would walk there from school or from the SMU hostel to tuck into comforting, always hot naan, roti, dal fry, haleem and other delicious Pakistani/North Indian dishes.

Anil, my university buddy from Kathmandu, and I were big fans: pretty soon, we got to that point of patronage where we had our own tab, and the workers and owner of the restaurant were on our speed dial and Facebook. We made friends.

When I went abroad for about five years, every time I returned I had to come back here. I started bringing other people there: my parents, other family members, family friends. One incident which stood out for me was in how I had brought a younger friend from China to Usman. She had barely eaten Indian food in her life, and now she was in Singapore, about to start at another local university. I saw her go from trepidation (from not knowing anything about the food nor what to order), to familiarity. It turned out that while I was away, she would return religiously with other friends from China, and also from Singapore, and she would order the food that I had ordered for her because she loved it. Eventually she began to have friends from India, too, and this was something that she now had in common with them: she really loved the cheese naan and the chicken kadai there.

Something struck me, and has stayed there ever since. When I read about Conflict Kitchen, something clicked. I realized we could synthesize — and borrow — some of the food and art as dialogue aspects, and localize it for our own context.

There were plenty of challenges. What came up often was: how do you know you’re not already preaching to the choir? The bleeding heart liberal wing, the English-speaking, the people like us, already believe in migrant rights and all of those things. What good would it do to tell these people again about diversity and inclusivity, when they already believe in them too?

The second challenge was place. We wanted to do it in a public place, and Little India was top on my list. But this is Singapore, and there are a thousand permits… so that was off the table.

Eventually we came up with a first Culture Kitchen which is, I think, simple in its objectives and easy to understand. The main premise is, quite simply, come have dinner with our migrant workers. We sold out tickets in two and a half days. We went to Little India last Sunday, and distributed free dinner invitations. (Singaporeans/expats/residents pay $5.)

Dinner invitations for migrant workers.

The response was enthusiastic, and we were fully subscribed. I am delighted to announce that we have an pretty balanced mix of Singaporeans/expats/residents and migrant workers.

What’s the objective?

I’m doing this because I’d like to help facilitate more of those moments. Moments like when a Singaporean-Chinese and a Nepali student like myself and Anil, are able to make great, lasting friendships with people from various parts of Pakistan who have chosen to make this place their home, and with each other. Moments like when the mainland Chinese friend is able to glean a closer understanding of a completely foreign culture, only by way of her time here in Singapore. All of us have just this in common: we live here. Some of us, like me, were born and brought up here. Others come for a short while for study or work. Others will do that and choose to make this place home, when the time comes. I don’t think we need to split any hairs over who is a ‘true blue Singaporean' and who isn’t: I truly believe that.

Bangladeshi workers in Little India signing up to Culture Kitchen.

I may be idealistic in that respect. Some of the undercurrents of Singapore politics disappoints me greatly. I believe that we can be welcoming of foreigners, and I also believe that we should be able to have mature political dialogue over our immigration policies. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. A few days ago I posted that I disliked the term, “Singapore for Singaporeans”. I think that if you were to replace either term with any other race, nationality, religion — it would be unacceptable. It is, to me, fascist, loaded, designed to exclude. This is not the Singapore I want. Immediately I received a torrent of online feedback, wanting to know if I would be happier with being a second class citizen in my own country. Again, this is not a zero sum game.

What would be detrimental is if we were to continue tolerating the racist and xenophobic sentiments and never call them out for fear of being termed a traitor (or an SPG, as I have been called many times in this context). What is already detrimental is agitations of the vocal minority which wants to see no foreigners here at all, or only the ‘right kinds' of foreigners. What is already detrimental is the unfortunate lack of gumption in the political establishment, which seems too bothered by the vocal minority, in dealing with the push back not by doubling down on better policy, but by apparently taking an iron-fisted approach. Closing the doors every time someone stages a protest is not the way forward.

What is the way forward? I don’t have a specific answer.

I can, however, build communities and movements. This is one of the things I know I can do well, and I want to lend my technological and organisational skills to building a movement which will stand up for a Singapore which includes. The Singapore we want to see. While I will continue to call out the xenophobes every time they emerge from the hills, I will also spend twice as much time on helping to create a counter movement which is positive in nature. I don’t have an ROI, I don’t have an end goal, I just want to bring people together.

The first Culture Kitchen will feature biryani. You will realize from the name itself that the event is titled Biryani/Beriani, for good reason. One dish, many stories, many geographical and cultural interpretations. But still a tasty dish which everybody can get behind. There will be dum biryani from Pakistan, and there will be Malay-style chicken briyani. All of it is halal. There will be peas pulao, for the vegetarians among us. I’m not sure what can happen over biryani, but I think if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

So let’s rock up on Sunday, keep calm and eat a ton of biryani, and make new friends. Thanks for the overwhelming support.