Ten Things Postgrads Want: An Ironic Manifesto

A panel of four will deliver a version of the following ironic manifesto on Thursday at the Cultural Research Network’s State of the Industry conference in Sydney. We would be delighted to hear your thoughts on these demands in advance.

Research students account for 57% of Australia’s university-based research and development. Around 50% of the teaching in universities is done by sessionals, many of whom are postgrads. Our average age is 35. We are emerging academics in our own right, and we would like that to be recognised and supported in the following ways:

  1. Match scholarships to candidature (4 years) and make part-time scholarships tax exempt.

  1. Increase flexibility in visa conditions for international postgraduates.

  2. Ensure postgrads have access to adequate facilities and resources, such as office space, printers and meeting rooms.

  1. Provide sufficient funding over the course of candidature for each RHD student to cover costs associated with the production & dissemination of our research.

  1. Improve collegiality within our departments, with both emerging and established academics, through regular disciplinary seminars and social gatherings.

  1. Provide discipline-specific and ‘generic skills’ professional training programs.

  1. Provide institutional support and guidance for pursuing non-academic careers.

  1. Offer all RHD students university-funded programs to develop teaching credentials.

  1. Establish national standards for sessional teaching, with fair and transparent remuneration.

  2. Establish short-term ‘Early Career Fellowships’ (available 0-5 years post-PhD) to bridge the gap between PhD submission and first appointment/postdoc.

What do you want?

The 17th Symposium of Australian Gastronomy

When I say I’m doing a PhD on food and identity in Melbourne, I get some fairly extreme responses from people (like the political advisor in Canberra who nearly dropped his files, spluttered and kind of shouted, “FFS! Well, then, so am I! I eat out a lot in Melbourne!”). Many people ask me how I got such a great topic, and so I point out that we choose our own topics, and I just happened to choose exceptionally well.

In fact, if you’re interested, I chose mine because I had been working on spectacular performances of national identity in my previous degree, and wanted to bring my interest in identity home, so to speak. If I was going to embark on a number of years focusing on a research topic, it felt important for it to relate to my home/family life. I didn’t want a topic that took my entire intellectual life outside the familial headspace, nor too frequently away from our suburban bliss. And so it dawned on me… food is central to my identity, as a cook, a migrant, a mother… and it clearly is to many others in Melbourne and beyond. And I’m tired of people insisting, “Aren’t we lucky in Melbourne? We’re so multicultural, just look at all our restaurants!” Sure, I thought, but how cosmopolitan are we? And can I do a PhD and keep cooking with a passion? Et voilà. A beautiful research project was born.

Given people’s responses when I tell them my topic, you can imagine their faces when I said I was off to the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. “Oh, what a terrible PhD you have. Off to eat and drink, are you?” Well, yes. Yes, there was definitely some excellent eating and drinking to do (though the Saturday night dinner at Ming’s was a let-down that I won’t bore you with here, and picnic lunches on 40C days were challenging). There is certainly no shame in eating excellent quality sustainable and ethical food, which we did a fair bit of in Adelaide. And while we enjoyed some lovely food and wine, we talked about everything from food security to frugality to food and wine festivals. As it says on the website, “More than any conference, the Symposia of Australian Gastronomy embrace participatory gastronomy in a way that nourishes the intellectual component of these events.”

One of the crucial strengths of the Symposium is the diversity of its participants, who are academics, chef and other food industry professionals, and many food ‘enthusiasts’. It seems that everyone who attends, whether they are professionally or academically involved with food or not, is deeply engaged with food as cooks, gardeners and crusaders for sustainable, ethical and delicious foodstuffs. Melbourne Uni’s ‘Knowledge Transfer’ team could learn a bit from this organic and dynamic 25-year-old Symposium.

You can see this year’s program here, and the proceedings will be published (though I’ve no idea how long this takes).

I was the first paper up on Saturday morning, and the Symposium is like Meredith – it’s a single stage event (no parallel sessions), so the house was packed. My paper was on practices of frugality between different generations and cultures in Melbourne. In my interviews, what I’ve found so far is that there seem to be as many similarities in these practices as there are differences, and they’re not easily split along cultural or generational lines. I argue that those who are most skilled at ‘doing-cooking’ (Giard 1998), who are expert at ‘good housekeeping’ (in the kitchen, at least), seem to be most likely to be contributing to ‘global good housekeeping’. I also argue that those who are good at being frugal express a sense of competence, of mastery, which gives them a remarkable sense of their own agency, which in turn enables them to further contribute to global good housekeeping. My paper was well received, with a lot of positive and interesting feedback over the ensuing two days, and I’m still basking in the praise I received from the warm and passionate Maggie Beer.

Some highlights from the other papers:

Felicity Newman spoke on ‘God or Greed? The Business of Keeping Kosher’, with some remarkable ethnographic data on the difficulties of truly keeping kosher, including a video of a woman who has two kitchens so that one can be reserved for the stringent requirements of Passover. Felicity ended with concerns about what happens to Jewish communities when they give up their kosher food cultures.

Julie McIntyre gave a great paper on ‘Wine and Political Economy in Colonial Australia’, very amusingly debunking Governor Phillip’s attempts to sober up the local population by turning their efforts to growing wine (inspired by Adam Smith). I think we can all agree more than 200 years later that more wine has not made Australians more sober…

Polly McGee wins the rock star status for the conference. Her paper, ‘Donna Hay’s Newie—the Narrative Economy of Celebrity Chefs’ was a compelling romp through the three primary modes of celebrity chefs: sex, ethnicity and/or salvation. You can imagine which of the celebs she claims are selling through sex (and the innuendo during her analysis of Nigella was priceless, leaving the audience in slightly hysterical laughter), which are selling ‘authentic’ ethnic identities (Kylie Kwong, Luke Nguyen…) and which can give you salvation through sustainable, healthy and ethical food choices (Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtall…).

Bernadette Hince took us on a deeply personal journey of a life of frugality. Belittled by her sisters for ‘meanness’, ‘miserliness’ and allegations of keeping food until it’s not safe, Bernadette chose a sympathetic audience to despair of their ‘profligate waste’. A final question to the audience was about ‘chuckers’ and ‘keepers’ – are those who buy bottled water statistically more likely to be the ‘chuckers’ of our society? An interesting methodology to explore…

The final highlight amongst the papers was Christian Reynolds, who has just completed his Honours at the University of Adelaide. Christian gave a fantastically engaging paper entitled ‘Towards an Understanding of Food’s Economic and Cultural Power in the Political Sphere’, full of entertaining asides and moments of amusing self-deprecation. His paper detailed theories of hard and soft power, applying them to the use of food as a tool for coercion, whether by proffering it or withdrawing access to it. “Who sat next to the President at the G20 Summit?” was a great question to explore the broader cultural context of meals where power is exerted, and left everyone a little unsettled about who we’d be sitting next to at that night’s banquet.

The banquet was the sumptuous affair you might have expected, prepared by Sharon Romeo and David Swain of Fino, who just won Restaurant of the Year in Adelaide’s Food Awards. Unfortunately, we didn’t get copies of the menu (unless you were quick enough to grab one of the few on each table, which I wasn’t) and I was too caught up in a stimulating conversation with Ross Kelly, who has convened two of the previous Symposia with his wife Maria, to make good notes. Hence I won’t detail the meal here for fear of misrepresenting it…

The Symposium did have its inevitable moments of tension between the so-called ‘town’ and ‘gown’ – I was asked by one food industry professional, “but do you cook?” as she claimed that academics are often too far removed from reality (and unfortunately she didn’t give me the opportunity to reassure her that I am a devoted and passionate cook, etc…). In fact, a couple of people mentioned the tired theme of academics who are too narrow and out of touch, though the academics I met over the weekend were all deeply involved in food – in their kitchens, their gardens, their children’s schools, and their offices. I hope this Symposium (and the 16 before it) has contributed to breaking down some of the assumptions people carry about those inside or outside the academy, which I believe has been one of its intentions for a long time. Those who started the Symposium in 1984 must be commended for their vision, and for their continued commitment to ethical, sustainable and delicious food, which is so essential to us all.

In the end, we were really just a room full of intelligent and passionate people who care about what we and the rest of the world grow, cook and eat. To echo this year’s organiser Roger Haden, long live the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy!

A Mongolian Feast!

Yet another wonderful opportunity to revel in developing community around food arose yesterday. My lovely mate Benj, who is working on a doco on Mongolian hip hop, invited us to join a night of feasting at his place. He invited some of his Mongolian friends, who invited their friends, plus his other mates who’ve spent time there and/or worked on the film with him – and us, the ring-ins because of our shared passion for food and community. 🙂 It was quite an interesting social experiment, really – put a bunch of strangers in a room together with food, get one group to teach the other how to make something from their culture, and add vodka. Trust me, it was a raving success!

The evening began with some of the predictable stilted moments as we all sought to find common ground. Mostly, the Aussies were busy asking the Mongolians questions about the current political situation as they’ve just had a change of government (and I won’t tell you who asked ‘does China appoint your leader?’ – duffer), as well as learning more about what brought them to Melbourne (all are students, and all intend to return to Mongolia when they finish). I realised how little I really know about their country, including how much closer the Mongolian language seems to be to Russian than it is to Chinese. Most had brought a plate to share, so after recovering from an earlier outing to yum cha with Billy, we tucked in to a variety of pickled salads, a beef noodle dish, kim chee and khuushuur (deep fried large beef dumplings). And of course, that gave us plenty more to discuss.

One interesting observation by Zula, who is studying finance at Melbourne Uni, was that the beef tastes quite different here in Australia. Upon further reflection, we agreed that it might be due to the large scale farming methods used here and the relatively unvaried diet of the animals, as opposed to the free ranging of herds in Mongolia and the diversity of grasses in their diet. Zula reckons the beef in Mongolia is gamier and, essentially, tastier. I know it made me want to taste some!

Most of us were drinking vodka, though a number of people did enjoy Stuart’s homebrew and I noted that a couple of the Australians who had lived in Mongolia stuck to wine. I should really have taken better note of that, as I suspect they had learned a lesson up there. What I understand today is that our drinking habits, usually restricted to wine and beer, are totally unsuitable when drinking vodka. One should really sip small glasses of the stuff if you’re going to have it at all, but I know I for one was impressed at how smooth it was (especially the delightful Mongolian Chinggis) and drank it rather like I do water. Ahem.

After a couple of drinks and a bit to eat, it was time to make the buuz, which are steamed dumplings. We made three fillings: beef with red onion & garlic, lamb with red onion, garlic & coriander, and another lamb with the same fillings, but with kim chee added as well. To salt the mince, Zula dissolved salt in hot water and we mixed that through, which also made the mixture more moist. At one stage, we forgot which bowl had the beef and which the lamb, and I think because it was quite cold from the fridge, it was difficult to smell the difference. I suddenly remembered that a cook should taste everything as you go along, even crazy raw stuff (thanks to Masterchef!), and that actually there is nothing crazy about raw beef anyway (and so presumably lamb, too?), so tasted for the difference. I love those visceral moments when you feel like you’re inhabiting your ‘real cook’ disposition.

The dough for the wrappers was equally straightforward, made simply of flour and water. It was then rolled into long cylinders, chopped into smallish pieces, slightly flattened and tossed into a bowl with more flour to dust it well. Next each piece is rolled quickly from the edges to make a circle, leaving the centre slightly thicker than the edges. A scoop of filling, and then to quickly fold each dumpling closed in a pretty (sometimes) little flower-like shape. Some were folded more like gyoza, which was meant to identify them as the ones with kim chee, until people got confused and just rolled them however they wanted. Fortunately, I don’t think any kids ended up with a kim chee buuz! The girls told me that one’s grandmother would usually teach you to make buuz, and the shape would be according to her habit, so would vary from family to family. This is exactly what Masa taught me years ago about Japanese dumplings, and what I learned in Vietnam about spring rolls. Standing there in the warmth of Benj’s kitchen, chatting, cooking, learning and tasting, really epitomised what I love about food – it’s such a conduit for engaging with people and their histories, and even in an unfamiliar place, it’s ultimately such a homely experience.

Once the buuz were made, they were steamed for about 15 minutes and then served. They were all very delicious, and I discovered the pleasure of adding a little pinch of kim chee or pickled cabbage and carrot to each bite rather than dipping them in a sauce. We made dozens of them, but they still disappeared very quickly.

After the buuz, the Mongolians sang some traditional songs, with a haunting sound reminiscent of throat singing, though it wasn’t actually. In response, the Aussies sang Waltzing Matilda and Botany Bay, though our mastery of the lyrics was somewhat wanting. Throughout the feasting and cooking, our three children and the three Mongolian children present ran madly around the house, stopping to grab a fistful of lollies each time they passed through the lounge room. And perhaps inspired by Benj’s filmmaking talents, they spent quite awhile ‘making a film’, but needed a camera with night vision, so moved on to finding ghosts.

I’ve often compared food with music in terms of its cultural significance, issues of authenticity, and capacity to bring people together. Last night was a brilliant example of exactly that, just as the weekends we spend with Benj and the Binks in Violet Town harvesting olives are particularly joyful as they’re centred around food and music. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a really lovely time, learned a great deal, made new friends and tasted new horizons last night.

The fragility of the scholarly identity, or ‘what the hell is my PhD about?’

So there I was, with 12,000 words I had poured out over a few weeks, after months of deepening my understanding of the literature on cosmopolitanism. When I commenced this PhD, many moons ago, I wanted to understand how our interactions with many cultures’ foodways disrupt and transform our identities. I wanted to hold ‘authenticity’ under a bare, swinging lightbulb and interrogate it until it confessed its sins, including false ones. I thought I’d start to understand why some people are heavily invested in food as community and nurturing, while others are motivated by a desire to distinguish themselves as sophisticated, knowledgeable and gourmet. I wondered how in the world I could find out what ‘really’ motivates those who are interested in food. This led me to delve into the huge body of (mostly ‘white’) cosmopolitan theory, which fortunately led me further until I discovered the wonderful diversity of writing on cosmopolitanism by those from the ‘centre’ and the ‘periphery’, men and women, across a multitude of disciplines.

And that’s where I went astray. I am undisciplined and easily influenced, so what should have been a foray became a mission which turned into a thesis plan. Cosmopolitan theory is important to my thesis, but it is not my thesis. In reviewing the literature in that one area of import, I got lost, and one of the things I most lost was my own sense of authority. As I filled my empty-pitcher head with expert theory, I totally lost my mojo. As much of the writings are sociological and anthropological, I also started to worry about my ‘sample size’, and suddenly proposed to interview dozens of households multiple times across Melbourne. Grasping for a piece of masculine authority to ‘say something important’ (and general) about Melbourne, I forgot that I began with a much more modest yet complex proposition, to map narratives of situated identity negotiations around food and foodways.

Fortunately, Ken threw me a lifeline back to the boat of me. Admittedly, his toss was forceful and I might have drowned before I could catch hold, but I’m now safely back on board. And what lovely sailing there is ahead. I love my PhD. It’s about people, and food, and stories. It resists generalising. It argues that there isn’t a simple, normative identity that either resists or replicates itself around certain foodways. Rather our interactions, our engagements with food and foodways are always a negotiation, a transformation. Sometimes we are accruing cultural capital and not much else, others we might only be accruing calories and still others we might be feeding ourselves and the world, one meal at a time. I don’t want to ‘test cosmopolitanism’ like it’s a competition (thanks, Jean, for reminding me of that). I want to map its banal instantiations, absences and desires. I certainly don’t want to speak with the cold authority of the good empiricist, but rather with the dreamy confidence of… well, me. Thank goodness I’m back. 🙂

From White Australia to Cosmopolitan Melbourne in 40 years: really?

The recent coverage of Sol Trujillo’s parting comments that Australia is a racist country, in fact, ‘backwards’, has got me thinking. Here I am, writing a paper about the ways in which Melbourne is or isn’t cosmopolitan and how I’m testing that question via Melbournians’ foodways, and Sol pops up and says he’s found the country racist.

The media have been typically inane in their coverage, and the sound bites from members of government have been similarly disappointing (in that horribly predictable sort of way). No matter what one thinks of Trujillo (and I’m sure many people have rather strong sentiments about the former CEO of Telstra), and further no matter what his motivations are for making the allegations now, as he unhappily departs, the issue remains that a Mexican-American claims he has suffered racism in this country. He may or may not be ‘right’, so to speak, in that it’s entirely possible that nobody who made him feel he was being singled out for his race in some way actuallly meant to, or harbours any racist sentiments. Then again, to suggest Australia is devoid of racism is high farce, and you may as well join the ranks of Stolen Generations deniers like Andrew Bolt immediately. Of course there’s still racism in Australia, as there is in America, China, England, and everywhere else in the world. Why would Trujillo not have felt some of that? Dismissing his claims so snottily, as have the politicians, seems permissible because he’s such a figure of power, but do we want to be those revisionists? I don’t.

Imagine if the claim was from a well-respected academic, say, Ghassan Hage, that Australia still harbours a great deal of racism. Oh, Hage has made that claim, and still is in many nuanced and polemical ways (yes, I believe you can be both nuanced and polemical). And Hage gets mixed responses, it seems. What about a woman making claims of sexism in the workplace? She’d probably be told she was imagining things, if my experience of Australian reception of such critiques is anything to go by.

Is Australia ‘racist’ and ‘backwards’? As a national imaginary, I certainly believe we are not such a place anymore. The top-down rhetoric since Hawke and Keating has been that we are a multicultural country, a tolerant nation, arms wide open. The bottom-up response certainly seems to be increasingly matching that hopeful national imaginary, though we will never be rid of division and unfortunate habits of essentialising Others, no matter who ‘we’ are. Trujillo probably rightly perceived that he was sometimes marginalised by (especially the more homogeneous white, middle class) Australians who were unaccustomed to cultural diversity in ‘their’ territory. I’m sure most of them didn’t mean anything by their behaviour – but the folks he would have been with would probably be better described as cosmopolitan capitalists than cultural cosmopolitans.

How far have we come since the White Australia policy was officially repealed in 1967 (though not operationally until about 1973)? It’s not that long ago, really. The people who supported that different national imaginary are not just still around, they’re largely running the country at the moment. Is it any wonder that the World Values Survey is finding that with generational change comes higher levels of cultural cosmopolitanism – expressed as a belief of ‘belonging to the world’. Perhaps if Trujillo sends one of his children (does he have children?) back to Australia in another five or ten years, they’ll have a different story to tell. In my 16 years in Australia, I’ve found it to be increasingly diverse and comfortable with difference, but then, maybe that’s merely a reflection of either a) I moved suburbs or b) I want to believe the cosmopolitan version of us in order to reify my own sense of myself as cosmopolitan. Hence my project of interviewing a broad cross-section of people in terms of age, ethnicity, education, income, etc is so important – to stop all these (stupid) common-sense claims about what Australia ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’. Now to write that paper…

The Great Pho Party ’09

So I’m back. Hopefully this blog will come alive again now that I’m back to focusing on food and identity full time in my PhD (after a manic year off as a worker). But on to the real story…

Last weekend, to celebrate receiving a scholarship for the rest of my PhD (yay!!), I invited about 20 of my friends and family who have been through the first couple years of my part-time student/mother/worker struggles with unfunded study. Most are fellow students, all are lovely, and most also really like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). (N.B. I know I should use diacritics, but am too lazy to go copy them and paste them here, so indulge me.) I had never made pho before, though in a cooking class in Saigon I was shown the basic method for pho bo (beef pho). As the grateful recipient of a lovely big 15L stainless steel pot for last summer solstice, what better way to use it than to make pho for loads of people? Well, you’ll see that my lovely pot wasn’t as big as it seemed…

Friday morning, Stuart and I wandered dreamily through Minh Phat (Vietnamese grocery off Victoria St, Richmond) gathering crucial ingredients, then over to a fruit shop for a few missing herbs (esp. sawtooth coriander) and finally the butcher for the meat and bones. I first asked for 4kg of shin bones and was told they didn’t have any. Weird, huh? I accepted this bizarre response and asked for 4kg of flank, which I got (and realised was A LOT of meat!). I then asked for 1.5kg of topside, whereupon the woman serving me lfinally ooked quizzically at me so that I said, “I’m making pho”. She appeared quite excited about this and thrust a bag of beef balls at me, insisting I needed them too. Sure, why not? Finally, she asked me to wait, rushed out back and dragged a huge bag of bones in, pulling four out and telling me, “for you, no charge today.” I was delighted (and she clearly was too – I guess not many Anglos pop in to get ingredients for serious quantities of pho – and I think she must originally have thought I wanted their bones for a dog?), thanked her graciously, paid for the rest (only $47 for all that!) and then Stuart and I lugged our 10kg of meaty goodness back to the car and rushed home.

Dearie me, I wish I’d started the stock earlier, but I think I had extra bone, which made up for a slightly too short cooking time… so now it’s 11:30am, guests will arrive at 7pm, and this stock wants a minimum of 6 hours…

Method & Ingredients

Remember, I was cooking for 20 (and ended up serving 25, with plenty of ingredients except the rice noodles, which ran out for the last 5 of us, but I had some dried to make up the shortfall).

4kg shin bones
4kg flank, cut into pieces about 15cm long
1.5kg topside, sliced thinly
4-5 brown onions
8-12 shallots
2-3 bulbs ginger
6 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
4 brown cardamom pods
6 cloves
1/2C salt
1/2C sugar
1/2C fish sauce (buy a good brand, which should say “Nuoc Mam Nhi” – any from Phu Quoc are great)
4kg fresh rice noodles
spring onions, finely sliced
sawtooth coriander
coriander
bean sprouts
Vietnamese basil
chilies, sliced
lemons, quartered
chili paste
hoisin
nuoc mam cham (dipping fish sauce: fish sauce, lemon, garlic, chili, sugar)

First, take your bones and soak them in warm water with lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt for about 1/2 hour. This starts to release the blood so you will get a clear stock. Then pop them into boiling water for a further 5-10 minutes, before transferring them to your stockpot full of boiling water. I put them into my 15L pot and simmered them there for about 3 hours, skimming the scum off the top frequently.

While the bones are simmering, lightly bash the cinammon, cloves, star anise and cardamom to break them into smaller pieces, then dry roast them for a few minutes in a (preferably cast iron) frypan (to release more of their oils before adding them to the stock). Put the spices into a muslin bag and drop into the stock.

Next, hold the onions, shallots and ginger over an open flame until chargrilled and set aside to cool. When cool, pull and rub the blackened skins off, cut the onions in half, and pop all of it into a muslin bag. Add these to the stock after about 2 hours.

Next, you’re going to add the flank to cook for 2-3 hours. This is when I realised I needed the bigger pot. Stuart dragged his brewing pot out for me, which is about 40L – it takes up 2 burners but does the trick. 🙂 Add the salt, sugar and fish sauce now. After 2-3 hours, pull the flank back out, pop it into a baking dish with some of the stock and leave to cool.

Once the stock has been simmering for about 6 hours (you can definitely go longer – this is a minimum), pull the bones and muslin bags out and strain it through a piece of muslin into a clean pot. (I was able to put it back into the 15L pot at this stage – and I had added some water when I went into the big pot.) Did I mention that it’s very very helpful to have a second person around when you’re making this much pho? Stuart was very helpful and appreciated!

Your stock is ready! The flank should have cooled, now you can cut it into bite-sized pieces (and I removed a lot of fat whilst doing this – very happy chooks Saturday morning!). Taste the stock and adjust seasonings if you need to with salt, sugar or fish sauce. It’s also common in Vietnam to adjust with msg or ‘pork powder’ or ‘chicken powder’, which are msg-free stock powders (Knorr is a favoured brand in Saigon). I was very happy that I had no need to add any.

As guests are ready to serve, have your flank in one bowl, the topside in another, a pot of boiling water next to the stock, and your rice noodles ready to go, as well as your array of plates of herbs, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilies, and chili paste and hoisin. I used Stuart’s brewing sieve to dip the noodles into the boiling water to heat and soften them before placing them into a bowl. Next, I added the raw sliced topside, then boiling stock, then flank pieces before handing the bowl to the grateful recipient to add their own herbs, etc. Voila!

My favourite comment of the evening may have been, “I’d pay $8.50 for this” from a Vietnamese Australian friend, though I did also appreciate, “it tastes just like real pho in Saigon”, even though much of my theoretical work thus far has been contesting notions of authenticity and its instability as a category, let alone its essentialising tendencies… I guess the point is that we all agreed it was rather delish.

I think next time, though, I might cook it for just 10 people!

Ghettos and calling the kettle black


I’m sitting in the backpacker ghetto in Sài Gòn, trying to tempt my sore tummy back into the realm of the well by tenderly offering it ‘comfort food’. I’ve tried countless fruit shakes and lassies, pumpkin wontons in coconut soup, and goat’s cheese salad so far, plus a number of plain baguettes, all to no avail. I cannot face any noodle dishes (except pho), spring rolls, grilled meats or anything I devoured in the lead up to my belly’s demise. Is this irritating? Supremely. Do I think I can fight it? Not even going to try. I accept my need for cultural succor in the midst of an otherworldy month in Southeast Asia. Here I am studying the foodways of Viêt Nam, incapable of consuming any more of them, at least for the time being. Yet this has led to what I am finding a very interesting reflection.

Normally when we travel, Stuart and I are slight food fascists – not only do we try not to eat Western food during our travels (except a selection of breakfast foods, which we indulge), we scorn the idea of traveling in a country and not wanting to eat their food. Among the many reasons for our stance on this is the idea I am working on in my thesis about food being an avenue to understanding and belonging to a culture. So we try to eat our way to understanding, so to speak. Some would say we are ‘consuming culture’, though I am increasingly at odds with that concept. Culture is not a consumable, it is an interaction. And food offers a rich opportunity for this interaction – that is, over the table.

In fact, another brief reflection on my own life that I’ve had this trip is how I don’t eat nearly as much or as well when I’m alone (which is common to many people), and I have often subsequently wondered about the legitimacy of my food interests given my propensity not to eat or to eat very simple foods when alone. I have realized that my interest in food is as much about an interest in community as it is food (though I do, of course, adore good food), and so when there is no community, no table to share with friends and family, food is no longer a primary concern.

But back to the main topic here, about me sitting in a backpacker ghetto eating Western food in Sài Gòn. What am I doing? Why am I not out there, eating more banh xeo and chatting with locals? Well, aside from being sick, I think many of us are gathered here because we need some cultural succor as well. We need linguistic and cultural familiarity, and sometimes just food we recognize. It’s all very exciting and wonderful to be challenged hourly by new foods, drinks and the environments in which they are prepared and consumed. It is also a constant de-centring – it’s destabilizing. Those who have heard me on the topic of de-centring before will know that I am in favour of this experience, and find it worthwhile in the same way that learning to write in the margins enriches any reading of our lives. But such de-centring is also unsettling, and therefore eventually quite tiring. I think then that people need a recharge, and I am trying to come to terms with my own need for this supplement. And so here I am, in the ghetto.

Now, what I want to do next is talk about other ghettos. Migrant ghettos, socioeconomic ghettos, racial ghettos – the word has been used, mostly in a derogatory fashion, for some hundreds of years. The original ghettos were the Venetian Ghettos, where Jews were forced to live from about the 14th century. The term continues to apply to minority groups who either willingly choose to live amongst ‘their own’ or who are forced to by a majority group, usually through violent means. But even when the minority group that is willingly choosing to collocate with others of their group is relatively affluent, the term ghetto carries negative connotations. We need only read some of the more racist journalists or politicians to know that they ‘don’t approve’ of these ghettos or, as we often read in Australia, ‘ethnic enclaves’. Yet these same people typically also ‘don’t approve’ of new migrants moving into ‘their’ neighbourhoods. Catch 22. I’d like to focus on migrant ghettos, and I’d like it to be clear that I’m not using that term derogatorily, just descriptively.

Melbourne has a number of migrant ghettos, including Carlton as the original Italian area (which, interestingly, is no longer ever referred to as a ghetto as far as I know, though it maintains a very high population of Italian migrants – in fact, none of the Italian neighbourhoods are called this anymore, which makes me wonder ever more about the shifting notions of race in the geopolitical sphere, where Italians are now ‘white’ though that was not always the case). Some of the better known ghettos these days include Footscray and Richmond, where the Vietnamese have settled for the last 30+ years. Footscray’s ethnic diversity is broadening as many more African migrants settle there, but Richmond’s Vietnamese character is threatened by inner-urban gentrification as the wealthy buy in to its proximity and vibrant scene (which, ironically, will disappear like the other vibrant scenes that exist wherever migrants, artists, musicians and academics cluster when they are driven out by increasing prices). But for years, Victoria Street has been “Little Saigon”, a place for the Vietnamese outside of Viêt Nam and for the non-Vietnamese who want a taste of it (often literally, when they go there entirely for the fabulous range of restaurants).

For the migrants who choose to live together then – what motivates them? Obviously, everyone is different, but I think we can draw some generalities as I did for the backpackers above. Migrants seek comfort and familiarity in a place where every time they leave their own home they are in a linguistic and cultural mist. In fact, their own home may be of such different construction and layout, the occupants a very different, often smaller constituency, the sounds outside and inside so foreign, that even to be at home is not to be entirely ‘at home’. If you don’t speak the language of your adopted country, when do you get to relax? Is it any wonder that groups that are culturally and linguistically distinct seek to live amongst ‘their own’? Interestingly, we never talk about the migrants in Melbourne as ‘expats’, do we? But let’s talk about expats.

Hm, where do expats live when they go overseas? In ‘expat communities’, you say? Right, so… ghettos. Aha. Why do they live in these ghettos? Why don’t they assimilate? Why don’t they learn the language? (English-speaking expats are particularly well known for their failure to even attempt to learn the language of their adopted countries.) Why do they insist on eating all their own foods?

So. Ghettos. They make sense. They allow people to make sense of their worlds, and to be at ease while they do so. Of course it seems best if they come out of the ghettos and interact and learn about their adopted countries, and contribute some of their own cultural knowledge to the host countries. All of this is also assuming that coming out is an option. With no language, and particularly in the case of refugee migrants, where the support services for them to have access to language classes might be very limited, it can clearly be very difficult to leave the ghetto. For women, there is another set of concerns, whether it’s a Western woman in an Islamic country or a Muslim woman in a Western country, or some other configuration where the ways of the home and host countries are directly at odds. But where these particular hurdles don’t exist or can be overcome, surely we will all be better off if we make forays out of the ghettos until it becomes comfortable.

I think I’m feeling well enough for a short wander to the Ben Thanh Market, where I can practice some language and have a bowl of pho for lunch.

Even holidays need a weekend…


Our first tour, and hopefully our last, ends tonight. It has been amazingly full – of people, activities, learning and a sense of being overly protected. We have been spoiled, delighted, irritated and stimulated, usually all at the same time. So, a few highlights…

Cambodia (actually Kampuchea) is a remarkable country of friendly, resilient people who have endured a great deal yet still carry on with broad smiles and a proud sense of their long history. The Champa kingdom that extended so many kilometres south of Angkor was a marvel of ingenuity and creativity, yet only remains as the minority Cham people in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta region of Viet Nam. They’re the only followers of Islam in the area, as far as we have worked out. The Cham reign ended as the Vietnamese just kept pushing south from their original homeland in the north until they had their current long skinny dragon-shaped country to themselves (‘they’ being some 90% Viet and 10% another 53 ethnic groups). Of course, they also endured 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and carry a strong sense of that influence even now, particularly in the north, and the final purge of the Chinese took place in 1978 in Hanoi, when the Communists forced them out. There’s still a sizable population of ethnic Chinese (Hoa) in Saigon, though that city boasts a stronger Khmer influence culturally.

Back to travel banalities, though, a highlight of the cruise on the Mekong Pandaw was the morning they took us to the floating market at Cai Be (in Viet Nam) and then conceded to let the intrepid amongst the group (ie six of us out of some 40-odd) actually stay ashore for a couple of hours to wander around the market onshore. The floating market serves as a sort of wholesale market, whilst retail takes place ashore. And what a glorious early morning marketing scene it was! The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables (think cassava, coriander and Chinese cabbages flanked by bananas, betel nuts and bitter melon) was matched only by the extensive selection of fish (eels escaping their oversized containers next to skinned frogs still hopping limply next to unskinned wide-eyed fellow prisoners of circumstance) – the fish section, by the way, that didn’t smell at all because all the fish were still alive. Of course, the cages of rats for somebody’s dinner were less of a highlight, but interesting in that exotically appalling sort of way. A divine breakfast of pho at one of the stalls-cum-cafes followed by our first Vietnamese coffee (ca phe – and excuse the utter lack of diacritics here as I am too lazy a the moment to cut and paste) topped off our idea of the perfect morning. And then it was back to travelling in the ‘safety and comfort’ of a horde of lovely people who made up for the stifling environment of this style of travel by sharing their fascinating, long and adventurous oral histories with us as we all wiled away the heat of the afternoon up on the sundeck.

Along with all the fascinating tidbits learned about these glorious ancient cultures by wandering amongst their foodstuffs and basking in their collective warmth has been the dark side we’ve witnessed in places like Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S-21) in Phnom Penh, the high school converted to a place of torture for opponents of the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was intellectuals or their own party cadre they were torturing, the place is a scene of horror that reminds one of how dangerous people can be when power and fear intermingle in large doses. The nearby killing fields at Cheung Ek were peaceful in comparison, even with the tower of skulls imposing its intensely physical memorial in the centre. Approximately 2 million people died in the mere four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, in a country that only had about 7.5 million at the time, by execution, starvation and disease. How how how does the world stand by while these atrocities take place in our midst? How can we learn from our horrible mistakes of apathy and save future victims all around the globe from similar acts of genocide? I only wish I could begin to answer the questions of which so many of us are full.

The Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon hold their own horror, as we confronted the reality that living in tiny airless spaces deep underground was actually more appealing than attempting to survive the defoliated landscape above. While our American comrades have struggled to come to terms with their presence in this beautiful country that was so deeply damaged by their government’s actions (and ours, and both of mine, and who are ‘they’ and ‘we’… ?), the Vietnamese we’ve encountered have continually reiterated what a vibrant and dynamic country they are, and how no animosity lingers to hold them back in their drive towards peace and prosperity. Uncle Ho reigns supreme and I can easily accept him as the hero to lead us all out of the darkness of colonialism, imperialism and violence, even if only as a symbolic figurehead of idealism.

Sitting now in the sublimely colonial surrounds of the divine Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, one can understand the appeal of being the ruling class. Conversely, in such luxury lurks a cold divide from everything local, and sheltering in the cold divide is power’s old friend, fear. In the not knowing, in the protective gestures, and in the home-away-from-home creature comforts is where I sense that which seems most destructive – the fear to engage. If you strip back all this protection, these buffers and masks, people will quickly discover that there is nothing to fear, and that there is much to be learned. Tomorrow, when the others depart, I look forward to slipping out of the silk robes and into something a little more comfortable.

Unbalanced approach to the solstice

Balance is not something one should seek too earnestly; equilibrium is statis. Yet in a brief period of equilibrium, one has a moment to feel calm, just before it all shifts again into intense growth, dormancy or some other organic, dynamic response to the world.

Today I am conscious that I am at work, at Melbourne Uni, in front of a screen in a mouse-maze cubicled windowless environment where the air is rife with paint fumes and the horizon is obscured. Only two days ago I felt uncertain whether I was in India, Singapore, Sydney, Canberra, camping in the bush or driving/flying/waiting somewhere between them all. Limbo lurking. The last six weeks have been outrageously unbalanced, even for me. I therefore find myself somewhat unbalanced as well, as in passionately mad. Racing thoughts and viscous verbosity are not helping. Nor is my highly caffeinated state. Thank the goddess the most unbalanced day is only a week away…

So last week I spent some time in UnAustralia. What a maddening, exciting, depressing, horrifying and fun place it is. The dramatically dubbed Melbourne Massive formed a delegation of nine (okay, 11 when Tom & Susanna were around) at the CSAA conference in Canberra, the site of UnAustralia. As per some others’ comments (see Michael, Glen, Mel G, Mel C, and Graham) the papers were a mixed bag of reflexive & un, challenging & not, interesting & dull. John Frow’s final keynote was a definite highlight, which should have been the keynote in Parliament the night before, no offense Professor Ranciere, but John was political and incisive in the most ‘resolutely rational’ ways. Another key moment for me was the panel put on by the Asian Australian Research Network (AARN), who worked on hybridity, identity, politicians, food and art in truly interesting and engaging ways. Hats off to Simon Choo’s work on food and identity in relation to the transnational flow story of the man who just wanted durian ice cream before he died.

I don’t really want to dwell on the conference, but then, nor do I wish to delve into the intense social critique in which the Melbourne Massive engaged for five days running. I think good work was done by all and all our worlds have been usefully complicated just that little bit more. I certainly enjoyed the many pub conversations of the week. May I suggest some optimal follow up reading: Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi come instantly to mind. 😉

A quick recap then: car politics, rogue emails, grassy knolls & feral possums got my shoe, group membership and mob mentality, OD’d on dismal food, J. Frow’s wine, shiteful Irish pub and sterile Civic, Motel Girls at the Garden of Australian Dreams, abstraction and Australian Parliament, bedbugs, academic engagement and a broken fan. Hit it.

Today is the third of nine end of year/xmas do’s in 13 days. Let madness reign.

Making meaning in Kolkata


I think it’s a good thing that the internet access in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta for those who missed the name change in 2001) was rather poor, because I wouldn’t have said anything sensible on the first day or two. It seems rather difficult to speak sense when you’re having trouble making sense of your environment. What is so very fitting about this dilemma is that I went to Kolkata to give a paper on cosmopolitanism, in which I argue for the Raymond Williams theory that one must make meaning of things to feel a sense of belonging to them. How true this is when contextualised so graphically…

I landed at about 1am and was fortunate to have a grad student from Jadavpur University pick me up (the lovely Deep). Of course, I wasn’t aware this was arranged, and so organised a pre-paid taxi before stalking determinedly, sans eye contact, out the door towards the cabs (I’d been to India before, you see). A tap on my shoulder and “Are you Tammi?” changed my entire arrival into a stress-free event. (Except for the two pedestrians we saw lying by the side of the road on the way to the uni, who had just been run down by a large truck in the smoggy haze of early morning, which set me on edge in cabs, but more especially, when crossing roads, for the rest of the visit.) Thank goodness Deep picked me up, because the uni gate was locked, the grounds looked haunted at night, and the directions were not as straightforward as they might have seemed on a sterile screen in Melbourne. To bed.

I won’t detail everything here from breakfast to bed, but I will share some highlights. The first day was a ‘free’ day, as the conference began the next morning. So Murray (the only other Australian presenter) and I headed off after breakfast without a map, guidebook or a clue except I remembered from eight years ago that Park Street was in the centre, New Market was meant to be a good one, and College Street was lined with piles of books. Near College Street, which was indeed lined with the same books of my memory, but with the amusing signs to let you know what each stall was selling (eg. English Lit – and then piles of Engineering texts), I stopped to buy some peyanji, a sort of onion and garlic fritter with lots of spice, from an old woman frying them on the street. By the time she actually served me, we had attracted a crowd of about 30 people circled around us. Murray and I were picturing headlines “Giant red-headed foreigner eats peyanji near College Street!” – because apparently it’s news. We later wandered through the New Market, where I insisted we pop into the meat market, being the food-obsessed, self-conscious adventurer that I am. What I recall is a blur of chicken feet, blood, feathers, semi-naked men crouched on concrete platforms amongst animal parts and rivers of blood, and a stench of bile, shit and fear. It makes me nauseous again sitting here in a comfortably middle class home in Singapore just to think of it. We exited stage left. I felt like a failure, but suspect I would have felt worse if I’d vomited in there.

I didn’t mention the cab ride to the centre, which was the really difficult bit. I cannot describe Kolkata traffic except to say the drivers know the dimensions of their cars, the location of their horns and the strength of their brakes better than any cabbies in the world. And pedestrians manage to flow between cars that are no more than a body’s width apart at any time, and if anybody were to thwart the system and hesitate, it would be fatal. I’ll add a short video of this later. The mad driving, coupled with the chaos of people, rubble and rubbish outside, was my initial taste of how little meaning I could make of any of this. And I found it extremely off-putting and alienating that day. But then comes the night…

Four of the uni’s grad students, Deep, Momo, Priyanka and Simon, took me out to feast on the streets that night. It started with phuchka, which is a deep fried orb-shaped cup made from atta flour and semolina into which is placed a ball of potato and veg filling, then the cup is half filled with a spiced tamarind water. Omigoditwassogoodwehadtohavethree. Next, into a cab to a Muslim area for beef kebab rolls that taught me not all chapati are created equal – these were the fluffiest, chewy chapatis I’ve ever had. Onto mishti doi, a delicious sweet curd, and roshogolla, spongy little balls in syrup. Not finished yet, we ventured across Park Circus for haleem, a chunky beef stew that is a Ramadan specialty for breaking the fast, and finished off across the road with kulfi, a sort of iced cream with sultanas and nuts in it. Sated, we went back to Momo’s for a chat and then to bed back at uni by 9:30, an amazing feat given it felt like we’d been all over Kolkata.

The next three days were the conference, Food: Representation, Ideology and Politics. My paper was in the first parallel session on the first day after the plenaries. It went very well and sparked a great conversation about cosmopolitanism, as well as the crucial question, why does food carry this burden of meaning? Also, why do ‘elites’ feel a need to insist upon their cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism – what’s at stake here, how does it contribute to the construction of a hopeful national imaginary, and what symbolic violence might it also do? I’ll be working on those questions, thinking about the ‘essential’ nature of food and the senses, memory and imagination, as well as considering the role of affect in relation to the sensory experiences with food. I also need to work on ideas about ‘authenticity’, which may be so problematic I can’t even use it; ‘ethnic’, which is a word applied to ‘the other’; and of course, cosmopolitan as a philosophical construct and multiculturalism as quotidian.

The final night in Kolkata, I found out (thank you Anindya!!) about a restaurant called “Kewpies”, who call themselves “purveyors of authentic Bengali cuisine”. So I dragged Ira (who did her PhD at LaTrobe and teaches at Delhi University) and Vidya (a divine classical singer, academic and bossy Indian woman) down a dark, smelly alley to where the place is secreted. And there we had the most divine thalis (sort of set meals, with dal, roti, chutney, fritters, papadum, rice and the dishes we added, including chingri malai, prawns in coconut sauce, bhekti paturi, fish in a mustard paste steamed in a banana leaf, mangsho kosha, mutton curry, and doi begun, eggplant in a sauce/curry). It was all finished with mushti doi and a cream-based soft biscuit, as well as paan, which I tried for the first time. It’s a bit hard to chew such a large folded leaf in your mouth, but tasty and apparently a good digestif. On the way to this beautiful Bengali feast, our cab was actually rear-ended by a small car, which promptly drove on. I don’t think the cab was even dinted (they’re tough), and everyone just sort of carried on as though these things happen all the time, which I suspect they do. I sort of felt like maybe it was a bit of luck to have the minor bingle, like it needed to happen before I left (statistically speaking), it happened at slow speed, and the gods were appeased.

Let me return briefly to meaning. In the space of four short days, I went from a sort of brain cloud reaction to the chaos of Kolkata, to someone able to begin to make partial meaning. Some of that meaning is troubling for obvious reasons – how can a place have such a privileged middle class in the face of stark poverty and crumbling infrastructure? But many of those same people, the intelligentsia of Bengal, are passionate, revolutionary, feminist, often Marxist and always leftist, and are doing their ‘everyday’ bit to find meaning and work within the contraints of a very challenging environment. Their students adore them, and they, in turn, shower attention and respect on their students, who are arguably even more self-assured than Americans. The intellectual passion and comradery I encountered in my four days was breathtaking and refreshing. I’m going to keep arguing for knowledge as a way to engender belonging.