We are what we eat

AROUND the end of 2014, 26-year-old visualiser Lim Sheng Feiyan felt there was too much negativity in Malaysia that was spreading like cancer.

“There were devastating occurrences one after another, it felt like we’ve been through far too much. Many Malaysians used social media as a platform to rant,” said Lim, fondly known as Faye.

She felt as though there were no solutions other than contributing to the already negative remarks. Malaysians, she said, had become keyboard warriors rather than problem solvers.

It came to a point where Lim asked herself if there was anything she could do to show that “this country is not as useless and hopeless as it seems”. She asked herself, “What is the one thing that all Malaysians can relate to and love so much?”.

The obvious answer was food.

“Food has always been the gesture of peace that has allowed us to sit, eat and enjoy each other’s company despite our differences. Our Malaysian food is a symbol of our unity,” she said.

That’s how The Rojak Projek was “cooked up”.

It is a visual campaign featuring the portraits of 60 Malaysians illustrated with yummy Malaysian food along with their vision for Malaysia. The campaign tagline is “Hungry for a Better Malaysia”.

In 2015, it organised three rojak parties and took black-and-white photographs of those who attended. Later, the team superimposed Malaysian food on the portraits.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project, according to Lim, was controlling themselves from eating the food!

“It is hard to resist, but we know if we eat it, there goes our artwork!” she said.

The message of The Rojak Projek, according to Lim, The Rojak Projek co-founder, is that “our diversity is in a whole plate of yumminess that compliments each other instead of one that competes with each other!”

“After all, it is not a plate of divided ingredients but a united dish when you put them all together. It’s just like us. We are all so different and yet so unique and truth be told, it’s never the same without each other,” she said.

“Malaysia tak sama, kalau kita tak bersama. (Malaysia is not the same if we are not together).”

“What have you learnt about Malaysia and Malaysians from doing the project?” I asked.

Lim got The Rojak Projek team to respond.

“I learn that what I know about my own country, Malaysia, barely scratches the surface of the depth of beauty and culture that she is completely filled with!” said 26-year-old Rachel Lee, The Rojak Projek co-founder.

“I fall in love with Malaysia over and over again as we continue to discover and understand her further. I learn that Malaysians can never lose the fondness of Malaysia no matter how much they say they find no hope here. Bring up the topic of food and there you go, love, even just for that split second!”

“Just when you think you know Malaysia in and out it surprises you with more things and to find that out through food,” said 21-year-old Jannah Sani.

“I’ve found out that all of us have the same dream and vision, no matter where we come from, we just want to feel united and we all just want to see Malaysia as a whole succeed and embrace everything that Malaysia has to offer from the people to the food.”

“Being a part of The Rojak Projek has taught me to always turn back to the positives of our country even in tough times,” said 25-year-old Tabitha Xavier.

“Sure, there are times where we’re tempted to whine and groan about our country, but really when you stop and look around, there’s beauty in everything!

“The food, the people, the hospitality, THE FOOD (I mean, what beats Malaysian food lah)! And when you really think about it, there is so much to be thankful for and so much more Malaysia to be embraced!”

“Working with this amazing bunch of rojaks has really showed how we Malaysians can really just look past colour, culture and belief and just embrace each other as Malaysians.”

Just to sprinkle some reality into the young idealism of The Rojak Projek team, I asked: “(Halal/not halal) food also divides Malaysians, don’t you agree?”

“It is people who divide people,” Lim said.

“Back to reality. Yes, not everybody can eat everything, obviously, but I got to hand it to Malay­sians who are clever and creative in problem solving and making a good market out of that situation.”

For example, she said, not everyone can eat siew mai because it contains pork.

“So make a version that is ‘halal’ with the right meat and guess what, you will notice that there’s a growing market. It’s about giving opportunity for others to experience something. Make good experiences, not problems,” she said.

“Yes, to a certain extent I agree,” said Lee, the co-founder. “But then again, many things divide the diversity of people just because it’s the easy way out and it’s comfortable.

“When more people respond in that way, more power is given to segregation and what we want to do is to stop giving power to that environment and kick-start the conversation of uniting our diversity.”

It was refreshing meeting with young idealistic Malaysians like Lim and Lee. With them, there’s hope for a “rojak” Malaysia where all cultures and religions are respected and not tolerated.

Selamat Hari Merdeka to my fellow Peninsular Malaysians!

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , columnist


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