If I had to keep track of the most common Malay words and phrases I hear and use, this is at the top of that list by a lot. "Sudah" means "already" and "makan" means eat. When I get to Cheshire Home in the afternoons around 12:30, the first thing I hear is not "apa khabar?" or "how are you?" but instead "Sarah, sudah makan?" At this point in the day, the answer is not yet, or "belum". So, I head to eat lunch right away. I leave the office and walk through a breezeway where staff and residents are sitting to hear variations of, "Makan, Sarah!" Even as I enter the kitchen and grab my plate, I hear, "Sarah, makan!" At first, and even some days still I think to myself, clearly that is what I am doing, I am going to eat right now! I get my food and sit at the table with a mix of staff and some residents. Usually, we talk about what we are eating. "Makan ayam, Sarah!" (eat chicken, Sarah) "Sedap-can" (it is delicious- right?) "Manis" or "Masin" (sweet or salty) It shouldn't be a surprise, then that I am most confident in talking about food in Malay.
So I eat my lunch, head back into the office to prepare to teach the language lesson for the day, then emerge around 2:00 back into the living space. Today for example, there was porridge made from green peas... so so delicious! "Makan bubur, Sarah!" So, I grabbed myself a bowl and ate some porridge. Around 4:00, I noticed a box of bananas, a bowl, and some flour, which can only mean one thing: pisang jamput jamput (that spelling is approximate as I have been told about 15 times what these things are called, only to butcher the word when I try to say it back) "pisang" is banana. The cooks at Cheshire know the way to my heart. There was a day when I was sitting in the office listening for the phones when one of the aunties came in to tell me that these little bites of banana heaven were waiting outside. So today, I pulled up a stool and started helping to peel bananas. "Saya boleh tolong!" or "I can help!"
I find it easier to talk to people over food. Conversations begin with me naming foods I know, talking about how much I love them, but them slowly turn into more. While I don't always understand everything, sharing stories and emotions seems a lot more natural when you are communally peeling bananas.
The question is never "kau lapar?" or "are you hungary?" but instead a more straightforward "sudah makan?", "have you eaten?" Sometimes I get asked this at like 3:00 in the afternoon, and I haven't quite figured out the appropriate response... Have I eaten? Recently? Not really. Is it meal time? Also no. Could I eat something right now? Maybe, whatcha got??
Tonight as I sat with Mrs. Soong, she asked me if I had eaten. I told her about the marathon eating that was today at Cheshire and that I wasn't really hungry for dinner. She still gave me a piece of cake and offered me some bread.
Here, food is just tied to well-being. There is never a bad time to eat, and always, food can bring a group of people together. Sharing the food you are cooking is a language of love, and offering someone food is a way to show that you care. Showing love through food, there's a practice I can say I've gotten on board with.