443: lunchtime jukebox

This is a little talk, I guess, about food.

It sounds funny, but it’s also about control. For me the concepts of food and control are kind of bound up. Because control means self-control, the kind where you have to stop yourself from peeking in the fridge at 3am to find something to eat, but it’s also about the amount of control you have over your life. What you want to do. What you want to eat. What you are. What you want to be. It goes without saying that most people feel good that they’re in control — of something. That they don’t feel like they’re just drifting along, carried away by some trend or another, only to find themselves washed up at the end. Because it is a scary thing, to be washed up. Hung out to dry. Helpless. One of my greatest fears is waking up one day not knowing how on earth I became what I was, and knowing that it is too late to change it. But I digress.

I talked about this because food in my house is not my own. As such, it directly impinges on the amount of control I feel I have over my life. I’ve noticed a pattern, since I came home from overseas. It doesn’t work for everybody, since I was one of the few who lost weight when I was away from home. But yet, a large part of it was due to circumstances (everyone thinks it is just about emotional upheavals, but there was also the fact that I was off steroids for a year…). A larger part, however, was being in control of your own life. Our parents think we will starve while overseas. But the cooking philosophy is so different. Perhaps student cooking is really all about subsistence food, but we cooked up yummy meals all the same, and while we sometimes resorted to packaged or canned foods, a large part of the ingredients were fresh. At least for me, little of it was processed, since my number-one killer supper food (Maggi Mee) was so expensive that I never ate it all that often. Beer was cheap, and so I never drank soft drinks (for a year! Without knowing!). When it came down to it, there were really only these few foods I didn’t mind living on. It was always mushrooms, spinach, tofu, potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, salmon (sometimes, if I was feeling rich), chicken breast, bacon, eggs, and courgette. In different variations. I made coq au vin once. I drank minimal coffee (there was no need to wake up on time). I ate when I was hungry and I didn’t when I was not. When I wanted to eat something, I had to cook it. When there was no food, I had to buy it. And yet, filled with an empty refrigerator most of the time, I always felt like I knew what I wanted to eat, what I had to cook, and whatever was in the fridge could be turned into something edible, comforting, warm.

Cut to the present date, where it’s 2.30am and I’m standing in my kitchen in Singapore. My refrigerator is never empty (ever). My larder is always filled. There is always something to drink, a ton of chocolate in different flavours and from various countries, blah blah. But there is nothing to eat. There is nothing I want to eat. Because none of it is mine. I feel constrained by the fact that none of this is my choice. How strange could it be that I am standing in front of a cupboard full of food, thinking that there is nothing to eat? But it is possible. Everything in there is canned, dried, a snack, some sauce or another. Nothing seemed appetising; everything was processed. As I realised how much I did without when I was overseas, the thought about control drifted back into my mind. That was it, you see, that I had no control over what I was buying, and therefore I couldn’t control what I could eat. I thought about eating a block of tofu for lunch once, just cold, with soya sauce and bonito flakes. It sounded clean and healthy (and probably gross to everyone else). I dreamt about it for ages. But there was no tofu in the house. There would be none still, if I didn’t go out and buy it. And yes, of course I could go out and buy it. And perhaps it begins to sound like I’m making excuses for myself. But I have no time. Why would I go all the way just to buy a block of tofu? And how weird is it to buy groceries for one, when there are five of us? It seems rebellious to even try, in a strange sort of way. A bit anti-establishment. Like I was opting out of some programme, or some community. Everything seems planned, and my job is to fit in somewhere. Even my mealtimes are not my own.

As one comes back to a house which is not truly one’s own, one has to live by whatever rules were set by those who came before. I do not own this house, nor the life I live within it (家有家规, they always say). When previously I would have breakfast at whatever time I woke up, or have lunch only when I felt hungry, the rest of my time in Singapore has been an endless repeat of “It’s already 1pm, why are you not eating?” (and then, if you wanted not to eat, as sure as the snooze button, the increasingly not-so-friendly family voice would pop up every 5 minutes to repeat the same question till you caved in and ate). It disorients me a little, which is why I prefer to stay out most of the time, where at least I can control my mealtimes, if not my food.

Isn’t it all a bit unnecessary, this musing? But the fact remains that I am still hungry, and there is a kitchen full of food, and yet there is nothing for me to eat.