The last plane trip that we took from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur in 1963 was uneventful, thank goodness. On the first try, Long Island duck was about to be served when the pilot came out of the cockpit asking “does anyone have a mirror?” A little nonplused, one of our volunteers handed him a mirror from her purse. We later found that he was trying to look at the engine to see if a bird had gotten into an engine. It must have, for the plane turned around and headed back to Hong Kong. My seatmate said “look, they are dumping the gas.” I asked “do you see our duck also? – and the baggage – for if they dump the baggage, I will be in deep trouble.” We didn’t complain for we got to stay another day in Hong Kong.
In training at Northern Illinois University, we had to pass psychological tests (another story). In small groups we had to have a psychologist. Lyn (Dwyer) Jacoby reports that in her group, they had this guy who was fixated on sex. He kept asking “don’t you think that you will have problems about sex?”
She thought that he was just a prurient jerk. Anyway, her group decided one day before he arrived that we were not going to indulge him (except one little goody-two-shoes who felt we should always cooperate) and so every time he would say “but don’t you think sex will be a problem?” We would all say “Oh no, we’re worried about food.” Turns out, of course, we were right!
We arrived in KL at night with smiles pasted on our faces for we were met not only by the Peace Corps Malaya staff, but also the press. Being only the 4th group to go to Malaya, we were still a curiosity and got good coverage in the newspaper.
We were taken to the dorms at the Technical College where we took over the rooms from the students who had recently left on semester break. We survived the shock of the quick trip to the Asian toilet before going to bed.
The next morning started with a “gee whiz” when I looked out my window and saw a long fence covered with hundreds of orchids. Just think of the number of high school proms in the U.S. that could have been beautified by them; but here in Malaya they were so common that they were hardly noticed.
Breakfast, however, was another culture shock. In the mess hall, there were many picnic-like tables, each big enough for perhaps eight students. Each table for eight contained about 16 soft boiled eggs and an enormous basin, very much the size of, and looking like, an enamel wash basin. The basin was packed sky high with rice. I was only used to rice being part of a pudding. There were also eight bowls of clear broth with things of unknown origin that floated. Sorry, but not my way to start a day. Most volunteers lost complete interest in food. I wondered if I would have to starve for 21 months. It was perhaps the lowest point of my Peace Corps career. Oh no, the lowest was the day President Kennedy was shot.
Two things saved me that first day. One of the volunteers found a banana vendor outside the college gate. About 40 volunteers swarmed the cart and, in about 5 minutes, a happy vendor had no more bananas. He hardly knew what hit him. We certainly learned the Malay word for banana that day – pisang
The other wonderful happening that first day was a reception that we attended given by the American Ambassador. The volunteers soon found out which was the door to the kitchen. As the waiters came out, the food on the trays disappeared – as fast as a strong-suctioned vacuum sweeper could have done. Lyn Dwyer reminded me about the drinks which came around on silver trays and we understand that they were made with wiskey. “Many of us, with uneducated palates thought that meant bourbon. We took our first swigs of scotch and about choked. Quite a few of us watered the plants in the room with it.” We wondered if they survived or died. If they died, thank goodness they waited until we left. Lyn also reminded me about the story about the wife of the ambassador who, having done her own shopping, came it, placed the bag on the table and gave instructions to the servant to put the things together for canapés. The guests arrived and out came the server with a tray holding crackers with cheese spread and, in the middle of each, a suppository looking very muck like a porcupine.
Later, it was wonderful to find that some of the best food in the world can be found in Malaya, representing the food culture of its three major races – Malay (45%) and Chinese (45%). The remaining 10% were Indians – mostly Tamils and Sikhs.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about another meal that same week. In a Tamil Indian restaurant, as I sat down, the waiter flopped a banana leaf on the table in front of me. I looked at that leaf, wondered what it was and what it was for. Shortly, he slopped a ladle full of rice and a ladle full of curry on the leaf. I don’t remember having ordered anything but I must have. I sat there befuddled. What was I to do? I looked around and saw others eating with their fingers. My appetite disappeared – much like the air in a punctured balloon. I slowly moved the rice and curry around on the leaf with my fingers, looking for a place to hide it. There was no place, so, with my fingers I ate as much as I could, paid my bill, and left. It wasn’t till later that I found out that one was supposed to eat using only the right hand. The left, and sinister hand, was for another use. Oops, here I am talking about the toilet again. For future finger-eating meals, I learned to sit on my left hand so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
Three of us volunteers were assigned to teach at the Maktab Peguruan Bahasa (MTC) in Kuala Lumpur and close to the University. This was the college for preparing teachers. Kent Keith, a volunteer from another volunteer group, was the librarian; Mary Holm was assigned as an English teacher; and I, as a second assignment, was to teach music half-time for 6 months while Mr. Ashcroft returned to England on home leave.
The principal, Mr. Lee, and his wife invited the three of us to Tea, with a capital T. It was a proper Tea, except that, instead of being a British Tea, it was a Chinese Tea. All of the food was Malaysian – heavy on Chinese. It was beautifully arranged and served by Mrs. Lee and we were on our best behavior. Among the many delicacies, there were won-tons, po-pien (egg-rolls), preserved ginger, sien mui (dried salted plums), and kropok (shrimp crackers). At our request, the Lees explained all of the array. They came to something that they called “hundred-year-old-eggs”. Already I didn’t like it.
Wikipedia defines these by saying, in part, “… made by preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. After the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavor or taste…”
Mr. Lee’s insisted that I try it because it was a delicacy and he thought I would like it. With a forced smile, it went down. It came back up. After a couple of more swallows, I was able to keep it down. My smile must have given the impression that I liked it for he insisted that I have another. This time I placed it between two pieces of preserved ginger and swallowed it whole. With a great effort, I had not embarrassed either myself or the Peace Corps.
I learned an important lesson that still serves me well. Eat before you ask what it is. Because of this, I have learned to like things that I probably would not have had I known what they were – things such as goat, and frogs – not frog legs, frogs. Whether or not I would have liked these eggs before I knew their name, I don’t know. My Chinese wife loved them. I still don’t like them.
It didn’t take me long to adjust to the local diet and I believed that I didn’t even miss western food – that is, until A & W opened a root beer stand downtown. It was hard living on $90 a month (housing was provided free), especially in the city. Volunteers in the ulu (boondocks) had no problem since they had few temptations such as restaurants, movies, etc. Therefore, I had to save money all month to have one hamburger. I couldn’t even drink the root beer. In order to have the one hamburger each month, I usually had more dinners with nothing but chepati and dal (bread and lentils). Chepati and dal cost about 7 cents compared to pratha and dal which cost 9 cents. I even cut down from 6 to 3 the number of fried bananas (pisang goring) I had almost daily. This probably saved another 5 cents.
I must have felt guilty eating my hamburger for I was always on the look-out hoping that my friends would not see me in my monthly moment of weakness. We Peace Corps volunteer were supposed to live on the economy and live like the locals. Believe me, none of my local friends ate at the A & W Root Beer stand.
Lyn and I violated the dictum to live on the economy by going to the one fancy restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, the Coq D’Or. It was a couple of days before the end of our Peace Corps tour when we were preparing to leave the county. In walks Ollie Poponoe with his wife. He was the deputy in the Peace Corps office. We were caught eating our Kobe beef, but at that point, who cared? We didn’t like him anyway, and liked his wife even less. Lyn and her husband returned to the Coq D’Or in 1998 and reports that the food was awful It was probably awful in 1965 too – but it was western.
Gau Choy Fa (Garlic Chives)
Friends were always taking me to try new foods and new restaurants. There was a particularly wonderful outdoor restaurant by the river, open to the air but with a tin corrugated roof and a dirt floor. I do not remember its name. Unfortunately, it was torn down to make way for a flyover (overpass). The cats and dogs that wandered around were hardly noticed except by me; however, the taste of the food overcame any concerns that I had. I remember a wonderful dish of duck and gau choy fa –Sieu Ngap (as I remember) with gau choy fa. You can’t believe how wonderful it was. Steamed with a lightly thickened sauce it had a vaguely sweet taste. The most memorable thing that I remember was the wonderful slightly garlic taste provided by the green vegetable. Finally, a vegetable that was green that I not only liked, but loved it. A first! I memorized it, adding it to my very small Chinese vocabulary. I planned to use those words again.
I lived in a Tamil Indian neighborhood on Jalan Brickfields that had a row of about 6 outdoor restaurants on the main street. Every Malaysian ethnic food was represented – Malay, Indian and Chinese. The street was commonly known as glutton row. Seldom did I eat at these because they were out of my price range. One evening I decided to splurge and I went to one of the Chinese stalls. Using my newly memorized Chinese word, I ordered a dish with gau choy fa. The waiter didn’t “bat an eye” and I was proud of myself. I should have remembered the old adage “pride goeth before a fall” for when my meal came, I got cauliflower. While I thought I was speaking Chinese the waiter thought that I was speaking English. Cauliflower was very expensive and, since it is a cold weather plant, had to be flown in, and in this case, from New Zealand. Foiled again.
Sharing food can often be a catalyst for making good friends. Along with the food, the setting and atmosphere are conducive to good conversation that accompany the food and can make even the simplest meal memorable. Taking time to sit and enjoy the small talk, the laughter and warmth that can be shared with others at a meal can be magical. Often it contributes to making friends of mere acquaintances.
I look back and find that most of my close friends were either Chinese or Indians. Try as I might, it was difficult to develop lasting relationships with Malays. The main reason was probably that the inherent nature of my jobs meant that I came in contact more with well educated Malaysians who were fluent in English. At that time, it was Chinese and Indians. No doubt that it would have been helped had I been fluent in their language.
I believe that not being able to share food with them was another problem. Eating with Chinese and Indian friends, both at restaurants or at their homes, was a common occurrence; however, I was seldom invited to eat with the Malays. The only times that I remember being in a Malay home was for a wedding and even that was outdoors. Also, Malays would almost never come to my flat. I don’t know why. It may have been shyness; however, the reason could have been related to Islamic dietary laws. Muslims are not supposed to eat pork, or eat from pans and dishes which may have been in contact with pork, unless the offending pans and dishes have been washed 7 times. I certainly didn’t wash mine 7 times – but I never cooked pork – or much of anything. This was a problem that I was never to solve. I remember the time that my Peace Corps friend, Lyn Dwyer, brought all of her empty Spam cans to my house for disposal so that her neighbors in the ulu (country) would not know that she ate pork.