ALL OVER Asia, in wet markets and at street food stalls, they can be found lurking in corners, darting out to pick through rotting onions, yellow outer cabbage leaves, limp, gnarled carrots and other unsellable, perishable foodstuff dumped in smelly rubbish bins. As a young girl I never paused to observe the scavengers, almost neighbours, in my hometown of Malacca. I had already internalised the social politeness that makes me avert my eyes before another’s shame. Beggars insist on being acknowledged. You gain merit when you drop coins into their empty bowls. But these fugitive figures who kept their heads down as if to focus on their scramble for discarded leaves and roots were rendered invisible so as to spare them the degradation of their poverty.
At eight I lost a home that held haunches of Sheffield ham, the best in the British Commonwealth, fresh eggs, fish, chicken, kai lan, kangkong and many other kinds of greens. For years grandfather’s farmer tenants had presented his sons, including my father, with bulging burlap bags of hairy rambutans so fresh their skins almost snapped off when peeled, mangosteen, langsat, duku, small perfumed pineapples, combs of bananas and other tropical fruit. After father declared himself bankrupt, having been caught in a fraudulent investment scheme, we entered years of hunger. Evening meals with never enough rice to fill us; some soup and bits of gristle and skin falling off bony parts of pork or chicken were our daily sustenance. The memory of sudden physical emptiness remains a vivid provocation that years of later surfeit and banquets cannot dull. Before eight I do not remember giving any thought to food. It was always present, like mother, father and home. That first evening, having to vacate our house and soon to have our mother mysteriously abandon us, hunger arrived in my body, a visitant that, invading abdomen, arms, legs and head, left me light-headed, overtaken by lassitude, feeling fragile and skeletally defined.
I was to remain hungry for many years. So it is now easy for me, unlike millions of other people, to lose weight. I simply stop eating, inviting hunger back into my body and the flesh drops away, like those years of ham haunches and ripe fruit sacks, through a trapdoor to the past. This intimate acquaintance with hunger is dangerous, leading to my present osteoporosis and perhaps anorexia nervosa farther down the road, and I have had to tempt myself back to the seductions of fat, salt, sweet, creamy, smooth, crunchy, spiced and aromatic, to the multiple orgiastic bursts in mouth, nose, ear to regain the robust roundness of health. These two extremes of hunger and satiety represent also the psyche of the United States, where I now live. As with me, the national preoccupation with food appears paramount, hung out to dry and desiccated between the poles of (over)abundance and starvation. The poor in the US, however, unlike my early waifish self, do not usually go hungry. The American poor fill up instead with cheap carbohydrates the land produces in enormous quantities: silos, containers, freight cars, trailer trucks and warehouses are loaded with corn, wheat and potatoes. The fat-marbled meat patties of McDonald’s golden arches symbolise the cornucopia that transforms the majority of poor Americans into groaning obesity. In the country of Hollywood and beautiful people, diabetes and strokes accompany avoirdupois, sagging bottoms and jiggling bellies, particularly in the inner cities, the Midwest and the rural south.
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