Soooooo many publications covering Singapore/Southeast Asia have articles on durians, so I told myself that, after the GE madness, I’d write one too. 😜
The question of durian came up the first time my husband (then my fiancé) had dinner with my family at my grandparents’ flat. He’d just arrived in Singapore and everything was a series of introductions.
Towards the end of the meal the conversation drifted to the King of Fruits. Had he tried durian? It’s one of our favourite questions every time we meet someone new to the region, perpetuating the notoriety of this controversial fruit with every mention.
When Calum said no, my grandma got up from the table and disappeared into her room, shutting the door behind her. She re-emerged a little later, after the conversation had already moved on, fully dressed, and left the house without saying a word to anyone. About half an hour later, she returned with two Styrofoam boxes of durian, wrapped in clingfilm. She’d gone out, got on a bus, gone to a store, bought durian, then come back again, just so we could all watch him try it.
He wasn’t a fan, and it wasn’t a big deal. I’m not a durian eater, either. My mother refuses to touch the stuff, and, as a kid, I copied all her eating habits, so I never really developed a taste for that rich (omg so rich and heaty) yellow flesh. As an adult, I’m less repulsed by the durian’s pungency, and more willing to eat some in social situations, but I still never buy any myself. We’ve been married six years and our home has always been 100% durian free.
That hasn’t stopped the fruit from being a part of my life. My childhood was peppered with family members bickering about it (my granddad’s complaints about my grandmother’s bounty stinking out the fridge, my dad getting excited about locating some excellent D24) and sights of sellers expertly splitting its thorny shell with their meat cleavers to reveal the squidgy oblongs within. Even without eating it, the durian, for me, is wrapped up in a lifetime of memories of family and friends, of gatherings and jokes and squabbles.
Like many Southeast Asians, I find the Western fascination with the durian, and other regional fare, generally amusing and sometimes annoying. There’s a cheeky ‘haha silly foreigners’ schadenfreude, not to mention a slight sense of superiority, that comes from watching outsiders (okay fine, usually white people) getting freaked out by fruit.
Every once in a while, a Western publication will ‘discover’ the durian. If you’re a follower of media coverage on Southeast Asia, I’m sure you’ve seen at least one. (I’m not going to be linking any of those articles here, since it’s neither my intention nor the point of this piece to single any particular one out. But they’re super easy to find, either via Google or on YouTube.)
There’s nothing wrong with writing about durian. But many have pointed out that the way in which foreign publications write about durians (or jackfruits, or rambutans, or even pandan leaves or roti prata or soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast or tofu) has been extremely off-putting: racist, orientalist, Othering.
In these articles, the durian is a “smelly fruit” that is thorny and weird. It’s talked about in a way that no fruit common to the western English-speaking/English-reading world is talked about. (I’m sure there’s also racism and Othering in non-English publications, but since I don’t read them, I’ll confine my comments to content that I’ve seen.) It’s strange, it’s alien, it’s — oh God, here comes that word — exotic.
These pieces evoke impressions of foreignness, of a world far away where things look and smell funny, and the people like and do funny things. In these pieces, Southeast Asians’ memories and experiences with and around durian disappear… or we become as “exotic” as the fruit we consume.
I understand the need for, even the importance of, foreign correspondents introducing the unfamiliar to their audiences. Readers in their suburban kitchens halfway across the world might of course have no prior knowledge of, or any reference to, things like durians or rambutans, or the social and political histories of various countries in Southeast Asia. There will always be an element of the foreign gaze.
But what are these introductions like? Are they more like exchanges where strangers are brought face-to-face and helped to know one another, or are they more like a teacher pointing out a gorilla in a zoo enclosure to their gaping pupils?
When Southeast Asians get upset about foreign publications making much of the durian being “smelly” or “stinky”, it’s not because we all think it smells of roses — the “no durians” signs in hotels and on public transport aren’t there for nothing — but because we know how this is going to be received by audiences around the world consuming this content, and the conclusions that they might draw.
Many of us have seen how our foods and cultures have been treated by others as suspect, because these things have been previously presented to them as smelly or slimy or unorthodox (whose orthodoxy are we talking about here, anyway?) We know that this feeds into the way our homes are perceived, the attitudes we might face when we travel, and the discrimination and prejudice that Asians living in the US and UK (and elsewhere) are subjected to, even if they were born there.
It’s not just what is being said, but who is saying it, and who all this is being said to.
Is there a way to write about the unfamiliar for one’s audience without Othering the subject(s)? Of course there is. The balance between providing enough explanation to be accessible and not ‘dumbing down’ or prioritising outsider perspectives so much that it becomes patronising and orientalising isn’t always an easy one to strike. But I think it becomes easier when we remember to centre local voices and experiences as much as possible — ideally, we would have locals writing these pieces, but if that’s not the case, there should still be as much effort as possible to make sure that local voices are included and amplified.
A Mao Shan Wang might not be able to speak for itself, but there’s no shortage of people in the region for whom that durian has been a part of birthday dinners or wedding dinners, or a key ingredient in cakes and sweets and comfort food on miserable days. And through the telling of these stories, we can show that a Singaporean family gathering around durians isn’t all that different from an English family sitting down to a rhubarb crumble. (“WTF is a rhubarb,” I thought when I first moved to the UK, but there was no one to write an exoticised rhubarb story for me to read, and that was okay.)
In highlighting what’s shared underneath the details of what’s different, perhaps we might provide a path for people separated by thousands of miles to relate to one another.
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