The Meaning of a Giant Roast Pig
Just before New Year’s, I posted a photo of a giant roast pig on Instagram.
I paused before I did it, and at first I wasn’t exactly sure why. I had the brief thought that by Western standards, the photo might be deemed a little graphic: The head of the pig was still attached, its cheeks sliced open. But that wasn’t really the source of my reluctance — we all know pork chops once had heads.
I was hesitating, I realized, simply because a giant roast pig is so ostentatious — so flagrantly, flauntingly meaty. And I felt uneasy because I was posting such a spectacle of meat at a time when many were making resolutions to not eat any meat at all.
I’ve recently watched so many people around me become vegetarians, or sometimes vegans. They are doing so for reasons — both moral and environmental — I understand and support. But I’ve been awed by the seeming casualness with which they make these decisions. I admire them and at the same time know that this choice is one I will almost certainly never make.
I felt this tension when I ate the pig. My mom had bought it — an expensive indulgence — for the end-of-chemo party she was throwing herself at the midway point of being treated for breast cancer. In southern Chinese culture — a sphere of which my Chinese Malaysian family is a part — whole roast pigs are brought out for special occasions: weddings, funerals, festivals. My mom can recall hauling one, not yet roasted, into the jungle each year on Tomb Sweeping Day to visit her grandfather’s grave. He’s buried in the jungle because he died there after his family fled their home during World War II.
I felt the same tension a week later when, after I’d returned home to London, I went with a newly vegan friend to the farmers market. She bought mushrooms and I, feeling slightly sheepish, bought chicken breasts that I wanted to use to make Malaysian chicken rice, which I did later that night, sending a picture of the results to my mom back in Kuala Lumpur, where she asked about the quality of the chili sauce.
And I’ve felt it in the weeks since, which I’ve spent on an unabashed — or rather, slightly abashed — Malaysian food kick, newly insistent on procuring wax duck and wax sausage for Lunar New Year even as I’ve stopped picking the options with meat in them at lunchtime fast-casual restaurants.
This most recent visit was the third time I’d been to Malaysia within a 12-month period, an astonishingly frequent rate of return for someone who at times has gone years without going back. The first time was a simple trip to see family, before my mom’s diagnosis. The second was to help out after her first round of surgery — to cook, which she didn’t need any help with, and to help pick an oncologist, which she did. This latest trip was to attend the end-of-chemo party.
Confronting my mother’s mortality has had me contemplating my Malaysian-ness/Chinese-ness, as well as trying to hold on to them a little more tightly. But this, it turns out, is tricky — because I am, realistically, not that Malaysian. I’m half Caucasian; whatever baby Cantonese I once spoke is long gone. I love my family, but I’ve spent essentially my entire life in the West. When I go to Malaysia, it is familiar, but still foreign.
My connection to the food, though, feels completely authentic. Part of this stems from food’s special power as the most accessible of cultural touchstones. But part of it is that this is what I ate as a child, what I genuinely grew up with, because of who my mom is, even if she, and these dishes, originated somewhere thousands of miles away.
These are foods I feel fluent in, even if, when I try to order from the fried banana woman, I have to hold up my fingers to indicate how many I want, because I forget how to say any number larger than three in Malay. These foods are precious to me, in the way that a Thanksgiving turkey is not because, roam where I may, I could not stop being American even if I tried. But to stay a little bit Malaysian, I realize, as I contemplate a future that eventually will take place without my mom, will require an active effort of will, to ensure that what tethers me to that country doesn’t stretch until it snaps.
What I am saying is that casual conversions to veganism are white privilege.
Just kidding! I am not saying that.
I am also not saying that any of the above is a problem, exactly. The solution is to not be dogmatic, to be adults. We are all capable of understanding the difference between meaningful and meaningless meat.
What I am saying is simply that I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this tension. Such feelings transcend race and ethnicity, but I happen to be part of a generation of Asian-Americans whose parents came over (and then, in some cases, went back) after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. There is a whole cohort of people at this moment who are around my age, with parents who are getting older, who are having children of their own and contemplating what sort of relationship they’ll be able to offer these children to the distant countries their families are from, even as they contemplate what sort of future they can offer their children at all. Amid all this, food remains an important link in a connection that can sometimes feel tenuous. When I asked a friend about her New Year’s resolutions, she said one of them was to cook only Vietnamese food for the month of January.
In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2006, before the connection between diet and climate change had become so mainstream, Michael Pollan wrote about his reluctance to become fully vegetarian. To do so, he wrote, would mean losing something along the way that “I’m not prepared to dismiss as trivial”; that what seems like such a simple decision, to stop eating meat, has a way of alienating us from our histories and our traditions and the people around us. It is an unideal irony that the pull of these forces has become stronger for me even as combating climate change becomes ever more urgent.
The throughline to all of this, of course, is modernity. Modernity made our families this way, scattering them around the globe, leaving some of us feeling insecure in our roots. Modernity is why I must fly more than 6,500 miles to see my mom, leaving almost a ton of carbon dioxide behind each time I do. Modernity is why she can get first-class cancer treatment in Malaysia, at a specialist hospital where they brag about their radiotherapy machine. Modernity is why we can buy the roast pig; it is why we feel that we have to eat it, even if perhaps we should not, because not eating it would fundamentally change who we are.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.