Stir-fry Children

I guess I am what you call a ‘mixed kid’, or in other words, a multicultural kid. Each of the generations of my mother’s side have grown up in different countries, and on my father’s, can be traced all the way back to Scotland and England. If my genes could be laid out visually, I feel like they would somewhat resemble the vast differences in dishes at an international food festival.  My mum calls my sister and me ‘stir-frys’ due to our mixed heritage. I am still trying to figure out if she means that in a good or a bad way. Being a ‘stir-fry’ kid made me different in school. My two best friends when I was three, had blonde straight hair and blue eyes. Their everyday lunch boxes comprised of ham sandwiches, a juice box and a small packet of Smiths Salt Chips. I was fair, like my European father, but my hair was a dark curly mess that took the form of the pyramids of Egypt during humid days, thanks to my mother. A daily lunch for me was a traditional Indian rice and curry, I was naïve to the world of potato chips. My first encounter with a non-Indian packed lunch was when I started Montessori and mum wasn’t there to make my meals. I remember unzipping my blue freezer bag only to be horrified to see a ham sandwich peeking at me through the Tupperware container. I refused to eat it. I sat there on the blue mat in the playroom at school, with the utmost despair. I could hear the laughter of all my friends on the playground outside. They had finished their juice boxes and ham sandwiches. Meanwhile I was being guarded by my teacher, who wouldn’t let me play on the swings until I finished my ham sandwich. I cried in protest. It was the worst day of my three-year-old life. Spice and rice ran in my blood.

Figure 1: An Indian Dinner, Personal Collection 2019

My life growing up was divided between the continent of Singapore, where my mother’s family lived, and Australia, where my Dad’s family lived. Like my stir-fry genes, I grew up experiencing both cultures to the extreme. I learnt how to turn “on” the relevant cultural gene group depending on which side of the family I was with. It was a hidden talent my sister and I self-developed, necessary for survival in our family. 

My first real memory of Singapore was probably my third or fourth trip, around the age of five. It was in my Aunty’s house, along the East Coast of the continent. I stood outside the front door in the open garage, while my mum took my pink Velcro sandals off so I could go inside. I remember thinking how strange my Aunty’s house and her neighbour’s houses looked in comparison to ours at home. The front door was placed on either the right or left side, while the rest of the façade was filled with a huge roof to floor window and fly screen. It was a scorching hot day, humidity was through the roof, and the pyramids of Egypt had found my curly hair again. I subconsciously stretched my neck in search of relief from the Fremantle Doctor, but to my utmost disappointment, realised that the Doctor doesn’t travel this far. I observed the front yard, taking note of the unusual amount of open windows this house had. There was no wind, the air was still and thick. I felt suffocated by the humidity. A soft diffusion of spices found my senses and I knew my grandma was making samosas in the kitchen for chaya (afternoon tea). In a hurry to feel the divine comforts of air-conditioned air on a hot day, I toddled off inside. However, instead of an intense wall of refrigerated air, I felt nothing. I stood in the living room in confusion. My five year-old-self didn’t quite understand where the air-conditioning had gone and why this was the case. I channelled Winnie the Pooh and took this mystery upon myself to solve. Do people here live like this? With all the windows open and one ceiling fan providing comfort? My mother, aunty and grandma didn’t seem to take notice of the heat, this appeared normal for them. I nibbled on my samosa, lost in the richness of spice I was infused with. Fifty percent of my stir-fry genes were very happy right now. A fresh round of samosas had landed on the centrepiece. Trying to decide if I was still hungry or merely being greedy, it suddenly came to my attention that the heat from outside was unnoticeable for me too. I was actually quite comfortable in my Aunty’s space, perhaps I didn’t need the air-conditioning after all. I continued stuffing my face.

I have come to realise since, that the openness of the main living areas to the outside, were cleverly constructed to avoid any direct beams from the sun. I’ve noticed that everything is designed for people and based on their then current way of living. In Perth, our houses grew from the traditional English design in the nineteenth century, but perhaps we are only just realising that current suburban designs no longer work for our climate. So while I sit in the air-conditioned comfort of my family home, eating my favourite sandwich, I ask myself, why do we have to rely so much on internal heating and cooling factors? And how does Singapore achieve this so well with their houses? Truth be told, I’m not sure, but this is a damn good ham sandwich.