While we were in a small alley off the main tourist neighbourhood in Osaka; we found an Uyghur restaurant. The Uyghurs are residents of Xinjiang, a Western province of China. Many years back, I had a friend from there. Those days I used to spend time in Chengdu. My friend was a double minority. She was a Kazakh from Xinjiang who was studying at the nationalities university in Chengdu. We would sometimes head to a Tibetan cafe for salty tea or buy naan from street vendors from Xinjiang and talk about her home for hours. Around the mid-2000s, she left China for higher studies, and we lost contact.
My friend’s home was the extreme North of Xinjiang, near where the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Xinjiang meet. Just look at the number of international borders that Xinjiang has. Kind of gives you an idea of how much the culture is influenced by and in turn influenced the neighbours.
Anyways back to the Uyghur cafe in Osaka. We ate the Xinjiang staple, the big pan chicken (大盘鸡, da pan ji) while the Uzbek singer Ziyoda’s rendition of Bollywood songs played in the background. If I had not defected to be a South East Asian, I would have perhaps become a Central Asian.
Ziyoda singing 1980s Indian disco hits. These songs remain popular in Russia and Central Asia.
This is one street food that I always look for when I am in Taiwan. The stinky tofu (臭豆腐 / chòudòufu) is fermented tofu. I still vividly remember the ”aroma”, the first time I encountered this dish in a back street in Shenzhen almost 20 years back. A street vendor was deep frying stinky tofu and there was a short queue of people waiting for their turn to grab the stuff. They are still sold by street vendors in China, Taiwan and once I even found it in Johor in Malaysia. I like the version where it is deep fried and garnished with some sauce and pickled vegetables.
One of my favorite eating places is a small shop that serves only one dish, the indian curry. The chef is from Japan. She moved to Vietnam to learn Vietnamese food and somewhere along the way got interested in Indian curry.
To find the place, head into the Japanese town of Saigon.
Once in a while, I get modestly interested in what this large tech company is doing. I type in the web address and before I can see anything on the web I get prompted for my email. Irritated, I close the prompt. I type in a question on the chat assistance box. Again I get asked for personal details. I close the web and listen to some music.
Most shoes sold by big brands in South East Asia are not designed for local climes. They feel too hot. And if you get stuck in a flood, they take days to dry out. Today I found this pair in Saigon made by a local company called Một (one in Vietnamese). I like such simple design. I bought them for 30 USD. It is nice to see more and more locally designed and manufactured stuff. Let us see if this pair can stand up to my daily 8 kilometers walk routine.
I was in Jakarta to watch an Afghan movie. The movie had Indonesian subtitles but maybe because of some similar words in Dari and Urdu, and perhaps because the family life and issues facing the youth are somewhat identical in South Asia and Afghanistan, I could make sense of the movie. The movie is about a young Afghan girl who is getting ready to go to a law school. Her plans are thrown astray because of a romance with a young Iranian immigrant and the resulting complications. I will recommend the movies as it gives us a glimpse into urban Afghanistan where people are enjoying the normal life.
The mini-theatre when they had the showing is in the same building as a bookshop I often like to visit in Jakarta. I love the Aksara bookshop as it always has a decent selection of translated novels or anthologies by local writers. This time I got talking to one of their staff who loves reading too. The only thing more joyful for me than finding a new bookstore is finding a bookstore owner or staff who loves reading also. It always reminds me of bookstores of bygone days in our Rangoon or Calcutta, where all you need is to tell them what you are feeling like - perhaps you are missing Tibet or just had a heartbreak. The owner, without even looking up, will tell you that the perfect book to cure your heart is on the second floor, the third book on the fourth shelf on the wall to your left. Such astute bookseller could give you insights into the local lives and compare it with popular literature, not to mention recommendations about local authors to check out. More than the books, it was a joy to talk to the owners as perhaps more than any other person in that city, they have seen the change in the intellectual fiber of the city.
Below are the books that I picked up from Aksara.
Last year in Jakarta, I bought a story collection called “Monsoon Tiger And Other Stories” by Rain Chudori. I like stories where people remember their cities. As I kid, I wanted to be a kid in all countries. So I try to live my younger days in another country via such stories. This time I found a guidebook on Jakarta by the same author. The destinations are based on the places that the author is fond of. Some of these places are also where something significant happened in her life.
The next book is a collection of stories from a magazine called Jurnal Perempuan. The four stories that I have read so far are about women in unique situations and how they deal with it
a woman in a loveless marriage just getting into an affair,
another woman who has left her sex-work to get into a monogamous relationship with a married man,
a woman who reflects on symmetry and the human body as she has lost a part of her body to cancer
and a girl who works as a domestic help in Singapore. She accidentally breaks her employer’s favorite porcelain spoon. The story talks about the loss of agency that such employees face and how even sneaking out of the house to buy a replacement spoon can be a daunting task.
The last book introduces lesser-known authors, beyond the more accessible Java island. So far, I have only read one story from this book. It is a story set in Jakarta where a kind religious preacher opens his house to two drunkards. Rather than forcing them to reform, he gives them the space to change themselves. The end of the story has a twist where the reformed duo takes on a path that often shocks the more open-minded religious teachers.