A middle-aged server with harsh facial features turned his gaze upon me. I held up the menu to signal him to back off, while I scanned it the fourth time for a sign of familiarity in the unfamiliar “Cambodian rice noodle or egg noodle soup.”
Fellow Singaporeans on Yelp, an online review site, told about a taste of home that could be coaxed out of this seemingly foreign dish. The noodles of a Sino-Cambodian restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, said Natalie L., was “secretly mee pok.” One need only ask for the linguine-like egg noodles, and the soup to be served separately, not forgetting to add the chilli sauce provided on every table, to create the elusive (in New York City and some say United States) mee pok tah.
People who live abroad are known to practise traditions from home to create familiar situations in new and unfamiliar environments. Overseas Singaporeans in New York City are no different, except that they adapt from the “others” to remember Singapore. These Singaporeans hold fluid ideas of the Singapore identity, which allows them to re-interpret its meanings and practices, thus keeping it alive even in new times and spaces. This is unlike subscribing to rigid rules of classifications, such as “Chinese eats rice,” or “Eskimos live in igloos,” which limits an identity’s presence to very specific, usually local conditions.
There is no Singaporean in New York City running a restaurant specialising in Singapore-style hawker foods. The most obvious alternatives for a taste of Singapore, because of shared histories, are the Malaysian-owned restaurants. Singaporeans turn to these establishments, although they also appropriate their foods — adding sweet soya sauce to chicken rice, and demanding for cut red chillies for hor fun — to build a home away from home.
Even the Singapore Consulate in New York City relies on Malaysian-owned restaurants to construct Singapore’s nationalism. When the consulate organises the annual National Day reception to inspire a sense of nationhood amongst its citizens abroad, it caters dishes like satay, chicken rice, and Hokkien mee from these restaurants.
To those who believe that only cultures from within a nation can truly inspire national identity, a nationalism constructed by the “outsiders” will seem unreal or inauthentic.
But this wrongly assumes the singularity of the Singapore identity.
National identity, some believe, is a sense of belonging shared amongst the nation’s entire population, but is in fact a personal construct based on the individual’s social experiences. In other words, there is not one but many meanings to being a Singaporean.
For the Singaporeans in New York City, or in anywhere abroad, an invaluable aspect of the Singapore identity they often felt indebted to is the nation’s historical connection with cultures from all over. It enables them to recognise themselves in “others,” and most importantly, to feel recognised despite being away from home.
When the Teochews emigrated from South China to Southeast Asia in the 19th century, they spread their culinary gospels to Singapore as well as Indochina. When one of them from Cambodia opened the said restaurant in New York City in the 1970s, it became an outpost of home for the Teochews, Cambodians, and, I would find out first hand, a notable number of Singaporean immigrants.
I had trouble asking for the changes that would transform “Cambodian noodles” into mee pok tah. “FLAT egg noodles,” I said at first. The server furrowed his brows. I pinched my fingers to gesture “flat”, but the furrow only sank deeper. I desperately did not want to end up with mee kia, which was easily available, so I blurted, “Mee pok!”
The stern-looking man suddenly turned bright-eyed and exclaimed, “Singapore!”