Every year, coming home for CNY is like an adventure tour. My dad likes to try out new plants and there’s always something fruiting, flowering and twittering in our garden and the tree/grass/weed lined road shoulder.
This year, I arrived home at 8pm to find my parents had packed takoyaki and sushi to snack on while driving to and from the airport to fetch me. Not one pack, but two each! I love Japanese food. My family, not so much. Malaysians love their local cuisines, being tasty and amalgam of several cultures and being in the centre of spices and old world spice-trade. So, they’ve been spoilt with amazing hawker food, thai, chinese, malay, indian, indonesian, western …. Japanese is both expensive and rather bland to Malaysian tastebuds.
So, I was surprised that my parents, willingly buy and consume these. Not any ordinary takoyaki with octopus, oh no. It’s unagi and abalone (real stuff, not surimi) takoyaki. Because Malaysians still want to have their own stamp on imported recipe. It’s not ham and cheese, it’s chicken and cheese coz we have to think of our muslim and hindu friends. And they love wasabi too! I know wasabi is mild and no big deal to them, since they plant and consume bird’s-eye chilli (aka cili padi, cabai burung, little bomb) which is the spiciest chilli you can find around here.
While I was contemplating the joy of dragging my parents for sashimi and tempura, mom dropped another bomb. There is a Japanese Shinto Priest living in our Birdhouse!
Now, if you’re wondering if it’s a figurine shinto priest with the hat and paper duster, bought to ornament a birdhouse hanging up on a convenient tree, I don’t blame you. This being Malaysia, there are certain definitions to be made, esp when words have acquired new meanings in the past 2 years.
It is as literal as my mom puts it. It’s a real live human of Japanese origin, living in a 3-story building specifically built to house swiftlets by the hundreds and by the thousands.
Swiftlet farming is a big thing in Malaysia now. They build the house to resemble a dark dank cave, then helpfully send invites out in bird language to call the passing avian to come live there. Lodging is free. Food is self-catered. Security from predators is guaranteed. Convenient perches suitable for short bird feet are plentiful. The birds build their nest and raise their young in there. And the little chicks grow up to meet other chicks and build their own nests right next to their Mama and Papa. That’s the idea anyway. The humans goes in once a while to remove a nest that is no longer needed (aka when the nestling has flown the nest). After all, we wouldn’t want the birds to get lazy and use hand-me-downs for the next baby. Then the nests are made into soup, dessert, cosmetics and even tim sum. So, if you think Malaysians would be ick’ed out from eating weird stuff, you’d be wrong. Sea cucumber, mantis-prawn, stingray, frog, snail, raw fish, fish maw, chicken feet, animal blood, ear, eyes, internal organs are delicacies. So, they wouldn’t think twice about eating congealed bird saliva, or what is commonly known as ‘bird’s nest’.
The Shinto Priest is actually a Psychic Researcher and a zomg! honest to goodness genuine priest who went around chanting and purify places and agricultural farms to promote health and well-being. He had the paper swish thing that reminded me of a feather duster. And an elongated pentagon shaped wooden stick. And a stone to receive ‘bad energy’ and dispel it. And a framed calligraphy that might serve as altar foci, framed like you would a picture of Christ or Buddha. We’re not quite sure what it is, I should have dad translate the kanji for me to see if I can divine it’s role in the ritual.
The research part is to see how effective the purification is, ie the Psychic research.
It was with some relish that my family tell tales of our strange ‘house’ guest. Like my brother and his friends and my dad being roped in to chant every morning and evening in Japanese. And picking up a few Japanese words. And feeling quite amused and trying not to laugh. Or my dad being assistant priest, following him around with a glass of water and a bowl of salt to purify the infertile land surrounding the birdhouse where dad hoped to turn into a profitable small farm.
Indeed, it amused and puzzled my parents why he did not want to stay at our house or at a hotel. Even though our 2-storey house has 2 empty bedrooms (with the rest of the kids not home for CNY yet). The birdhouse and my dad’s fledging farm becomes his research subject, so he’d rather stay close (or in it rather) along with the mosquitos and 2 rambunctious farm dogs. It was in the middle of no where. Well, not exactly completely isolated, since there are several kampung houses, a herd of goats, several clutches of chicken, a herd of cows and a construction of light industrial park just outside the gate. But it’s not exactly convenient to hail a cab, buy dinner or get to a shop.
My family, not speaking a word of Japanese and don’t even watch Anime, trying to communicate with our house guest is … as my dad puts it … like chicken and duck talk. Good thing he has an impressive portable pocket translation book for 6 languages, which impresses my travel-savvy parental units. And mostly got around complex concept by writting Kanji or chinese characters, which both my parents can read. So, you think inter-cultural language barrier usually ends up with just sign language to fill the gap? No, it uses written words too. Well, you could say it is unique to speakers of Chinese-languages/Taiwanese/Japanese/Korean since the writting system was derived from ancient China.
Oh! The thing is … whenever Chinese and Japanese meet, they want to compare character pronunciation. So, I did write my name in Chinese characters to see how he would translate that. So, for the record, my Nihon name is Ou Kei-Ou.
For the record, I should thank my obsession with PoT that I know where and what is Kanagawa. If he’s from Rikkai Dai, I’d thought I just got off in the wrong dimension at the airport. And the fact that my research into Shinto beliefs and practices helped to explain some of the idea our guest was trying to convey. And I can translate Tsubame to swallow, which is what the swiftlets are commonly called. Yes, so Fuji, thanks for Tsubame Gaeshi, a term I’d never thought I would ever use or hear in real life. And also to Ootori for ‘tori’ = bird.
Anyway, that’s just the first day and there are a lot more wonders that I have not mentioned or this will be a very long and convoluted digressing post. I just thought the title is too good to pass up for an article.