My Indonesian unitmate has been throwing very secretive and incredibly exclusive Asian parties for months now. A few precious glimpses at our kitchen, filled with laughter, have made me envious of their constant fun. Excessive amounts of spicy Asian food, shocking Korean dramas, and all-night discussions of their struggle for recognition at UCU? Hell, why can’t I be a part of this!
Alas, when your heritage is ever so boringly European, your only choice is a visit to Utrecht’s mecca for all foods Asian: Toko. It’s not hard to find this peculiar little shop, which is the source of the endless supply of instant noodles in our unit. Big red letters and Chinese characters, a continuous flow of Asians entering and leaving – it’s impossible to miss. I am not short of confidence as I enter. How many times have I ordered from Wok to Go, experiencing traditional Asian culture first hand? Hasn’t learning how to write “ni hao” – procrastination – given me all the required linguistic skills?
My assumed Asian-ness is quickly replaced by fascination for the microcosm I have stepped into. I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of colorful packages, whose existence and application are a mystery to my sandwich-and-fries mind. Then there’s the people; moving smoothly along, knowing exactly which type of dried beans or roasted coconut they need for their dinner. I wish I could do that – so far I have only been able to make the distinction between noodles and non-noodles.
No worries, I have the interdisciplinary research skills that allow me to collect information in a new environment, right? Eh, not quite. Reading academic articles on post-modernist post-feminism seems like a joke compared to how complicated my task is here. As I pass two old Japanese ladies, furiously discussing which seaweed is best for their sushi, I try to zoom in on the different foods. What am I even seeing? Is this meat, dried fruit, fish or some weird fermented black fungus? Why is it shaped like that and where does it come from? Can you even eat this?
By now I am close to breaking down in a faux-identity crisis, distrustful of anything I put in my mouth, willing to swear off that Asian snackbar that seems like heaven after a night of partying. I am longing for a simple spring roll; that seems to be the maximum of culinary diversity I can handle at a time. Instead, I find myself fighting to grasp abstract concepts like “the thousand year egg”: a black, fermented egg, soaked in lime for months. I doubt I could make an omelet out of that…
Then, suddenly, a strange zen-feeling washes over me. I remind myself not to be an ignorant European just because I reject the exquisite taste of tuna eyes and couldn’t even roll proper sushi to save my life. There will always be a barrier between cultures, but we should try stepping out of our comfort zone if we want to break it (or attend a fancy Asian dinner). Maybe I should experiment with these weird foods – I might even like them. Come on, Ivo; make the first step towards embracing the Asian community!
Needless to say, I find myself in my unit a few hours later, waiting for my order from Wok to Go. When my unit mate enters the room, I throw a packet of dried seaweed at her. “Disgusting, you can have it! Asians…” So much for embracing cultures, I guess. Now where are my noodles?
If you are more Asian-loving and tolerant than I am, drop by Toko Centraal, Achter Clarenburg 32.