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Space, the final frontier ... allegedly. Perhaps. Maybe?
Space—for the longest time—to me was something else that happens to other people. You see gallant, commanding, dashing Captain Picard nodding grimly and hmm’ing at the right moment. Kelvin-universe Kirk swashbuckles and swaggers his way through the movies, his blue eyes twinkling dreamily. Janeway leans in her seat in a dignified manner, braving the Delta Quadrant. Captain Sisko manages the Space Station out during a war magnificently. You see these examples? These are very cool, amazing people that you don’t ever think about what they eat, much less function in a mundane, human manner. Really? You might say. I can already hear someone reading this essay point out that Captain Sisko loves his jambalaya, Picard his Earl Grey tea, and someone else sending me a Youtube supercut of every time O’Brien klutzily does something with a "got’em" voice accompanying it. What does being human have to do with anything?
Science fiction only stops at our collective imagination. But this genre is popularized by generations who were affected by the biggest military conflict in the 20th century. As a consequence, most of it is still limited by outdated ideas from many yesteryears ago. Space exploration, colonizing a planet, intergalactic wars—these are all tried and true tropes of the genre. You know, colonialism, but with a fresh coat of paint. It is time we imagined alternatives and POVs. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the tireless PoC writers, who along with their more aware white counterparts who have been challenging the collective imagination. But, I believe there is still room to explore through, let’s say, food.
A Southeast Asian talking about food? Groundbreaking. But, consider the fact that the predominant North American, i.e. science fiction, culture does not care about food except as a prestige item or something you make fun of. Food means a lot for us. When someone puts food on the table it becomes something precious, a relief. Thank (insert deity/swear word here) we are still alive. When Malaysia announced their first astronaut, the esteemed cartoonist Lat drew the poor man trying to enjoy durian while his coworkers looked at him in abject horror. There has always been a cold war between Indonesian and Malaysian netizens over which country originated favorites like satay, nasi goreng, or rendang. Heck, who could forget the time Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the ever-elusive Brunei Twitter users joined forces to condemn British chef John Torode for asking a contestant to make rendang, a beloved regional stew in Maritime Southeast Asia, into something crispy? Hell, the universal greeting in all eleven countries in the region is “Have you eaten?”
Food is a Big Deal for us.
Which means, it would be something of a consideration when we do get to space.
Smarter people than me have talked about the importance of a safe environment for PoCs when they are integrated in previously white dominated spaces. There are many ways to achieve this. "Listen and validate PoCs," many white allies say, but safe spaces are more than that. Safe spaces mean places where we can be whoever we are without mockery or insults. Many Asians of all stripes living in Europe and North America have been relentlessly ridiculed and made fun of for just enjoying “food from home”. To add insult to injury, not only are Southeast Asian food made fun of, we are also mocked for being the “Jungle Asians”. It does not matter if you are a SEA Chinese or Indian diaspora or part of the indigenous tribes, you are lumped in as the “primitive” Asian cousins. Then, after suffering all that indignity, some fancy chef (often white) would “discover” our cuisine and sell it at an extremely high price. Ask how many of us have found an overpriced hipster bar serving tiny plates of our food. Way too many.
“But Stephani,” I hear you say, "There are already SEAns in Space! What about our counterparts in Star Trek?" Maybe you are thinking of Michelle Yeoh who played Captain Georgiou and later, her Mirror Universe self? Or are you thinking of Ensign Samanthan Rutherford, voiced by Eugene Cordero? They are both pretty good representations. However, there is a missed opportunity here. There is no way Captain Georgiou—who was raised in Langkawi—does not miss freshly charred ikan bakar. How would she feel about the replicator-made kopi peng? What about Rutherford? Does he start his morning eating garlic fried rice with fried tocino? Does he ever share a bowl of halo-halo with the Warp Core Four*? Does this man ever crave bagoong in his rice and is frustrated because the replicator can never get the flavor right? I am glad that they exist but there could be more to them. I also understand that the TV series has limitations so they could only work with what they have.** But these are some things they could have added to make these characters—and their identities—more fleshed out.
The human experience is diverse and far-reaching. Let it be reflected in what we get to see and write. There is more to life than just gorgeous swashbuckling space captains saving the day or seeing lights. What about a human chef trying to adapt to an unfamiliar planet with unfamiliar produce? How would witch doctors and shamans cook up their potions in unfamiliar settings? How would a family replicate their heirloom recipe when they are displaced to a different planet? How would you grow the plants native to our region on a different planet?
Food is never just food. It’s memory, it’s love, it’s loss, it’s sadness, and it’s nourishment. Do you think we’d accept some generic replicator-made gray gruel? Hell no! Our elders and ancestors have been through hell and back. They would never let anyone rob them of those small joys in life! If Vietnamese immigrants in the present managed to contribute to Southern and Texan cuisine, who’s to say our future counterparts wouldn’t do the same? Star Trek and most science fiction media are slowly getting better at this, but the subject could be further explored. If this is really the better future, why couldn’t we see our representations eat the food from home? Better yet, why couldn’t they share it with their friends? And if this was the bad future and humans took to space to find a better place to live, what would they cherish in a troubled and turbulent time? What would bring a sense of home for interstellar refugees? What are they cooking or not? What would they eat when they find their new homelands? Food is part of our experience as humans. Food matters.
Let’s get back to the original question. What would going to space mean for Southeast Asians? That future will accommodate us. That future would be a brighter one where all of us can thrive and dream of going out into our universe in many ways in a world where the earth is also beautiful, revived, and thriving. The stars would not just be things we stare at night time. Stars would become our new homes. Some of us would be earth-bound, keeping to ancestral traditions but many of us would brave the celestial skies to find adventures and—perhaps—love. Some of us would find happiness in another planet and incorporate new things and traditions into our lives. Some of us would adorn ourselves in traditional tattoos marking our maturity and our adventures. Others are free to be dark-skinned or curly-haired without being accused of being unprofessional. We would be able to finally be polyglots the way we had always been without mockery from the dominant culture or forced to adhere to only the one way of being. We would crack terrible multilingual puns (e.g: “the most problematic tea is masala*** chai”) that would make people groan in agony. We would not hesitate to help out, but we won’t tolerate any nonsense thrown our way, humans, or aliens. All of us would keep a piece of home, be it a small ancestral altar, a hand-woven prayer mat, various offerings for the ancestors, little knick-knacks in their room and, of course, food.
Cooking and eating is a big part of many of our cultures. I don’t see how it would be different in the future. If we are a member of an exploratory spaceship, the ship’s kitchen would be well stocked with nước chấm, kecap (both manis and asin), bagoong, sambal, tamarind paste, and many other spices that would be stored amongst other food such as natto, blue cheese, and surstromming. We would make sure that there would be electric burners to cook food with and share them with the rest of the crew. The arboretum would grow staples like garlic, shallots, ginger as well as mangosteens, jackfruit, and the contentious durian. (Good luck to whoever passes under that tree!) You could go all the way to space but you won't get rid of your craving for your grandma’s tempe mendoan.
But above all else, we would be human. Achingly flawed and wonderful humans. We are part of the universe as much as the universe is a part of us.
Space the final frontier? Nah, humans are the final frontier.
* A nickname for the group of the four main characters of Star Trek: Lower Decks coined by the show’s fans.
** Mike Mcmahan, why did you cut Rutherford saying “Putang Ina”?
*** Masala(h) being the Malay/Indonesian word for Troubles/Problems.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Lyle and Yank for being my beta readers.