There’s one big fib they teach you in primary school. It’s a case of twisted biology: that you can get to the heart through the stomach and tongue. It’s the lesson at the core of the great Australian bring-your-ethnic-food-to-class day; that formative mess of share-plates and finger food.
For hungry student and hurried educator alike, food is always the go-to metaphor for multiculturalism. It’s a wonderfully elemental tactic, rooted in instinct and alimentary canal, this idea that tolerance can be bred around the picnic table, the unfamiliar made palatable via palate. It’s also a bit of an oversimplification; not untrue, but just prone to hypocrisy.
Sydney prides itself on the diversity of its food culture. Ethnic food, in its ready availability and high quality, is a selling point on the Destination NSW website. But it’s also something of a forgotten gift — absorbed by most but not explicitly appreciated. Think for example how the modern Broadsheet-bohemia of the inner-city rests on a bedrock of early immigration. The shiny pop-ups and micro-dumpling bars are the fruit of a few hardy souls who sold food in the face of a pretty unfriendly marketplace — and we just sort of forgot about it.
For all the Harmony Days and school-hall buffets, there remains a certain disjoint between the theory of food-as-bringer-together and its practice. It’s the cognitive dissonance of the person who proclaims to ‘love’ Asian food but balks at Asian faces in their child’s classroom. How can you enjoy the food but cringe at how the sausage gets made?
Apinya runs a Thai takeaway down the St Peters side of King Street. Her story, when she tells it, is a rejoinder to mine.
Apinya came to Sydney in 1988 and the presence of food, prepared and consumed, smoothed the way. “Coming over,” she tells me, “wasn’t too bad an experience.” Her aunt had owned a restaurant in Thailand and by 1990 had one in Newtown. She gave Apinya a job, and it helped her settle down.
For Apinya, the migrant restaurateur experience has been relatively idyllic; the intersection of food and race largely untroubled. Most of her customers are white Australian — office workers and young locals — and she tells me that they are overwhelmingly warm and friendly.
“Most people are polite, they enjoy my food, they smile, they get to know me. When people taste my food, they’re happy. They come back and they refer to me as family, as their sister or auntie. There was a lady — she’s now moved to Gosford — but she would call me up and tell me that I was like her sister.”
I ask her if her experience of immigrating would have been harder if she didn’t have the restaurant. She’s not so sure.
Though she knows she doesn’t speak for everyone, Apinya denies she has experienced racism as a restaurateur, even in the early 1980s. “I’m very lucky,” she smiles.
It’s the others who weren’t so fortunate. “Before I opened my restaurant here, there were a lot of Thai people who lived down the road. I saw so many shops open and disappear. Three months and then they were gone. They said it was because the locals didn’t like Asians. Everybody knew.”
Apinya’s partner is white. Her friends say this is why their shop survived. Nowadays though, she points out that most diners actually want to see ethnic faces. It’s a question of authenticity: if it’s a Korean restaurant you want to see a Korean face; a Chinese restaurant, a Chinese face.
For Apinya, the harmony day narrative rings true. Her experience, with two children born and raised in Sydney, is that their food has only ever been appreciated, a source of pride in the playground.
Apinya’s story is the fable we’re all told, but it too often gets elided. We brand the cheap Newtown Thai scene as a part of the student experience, we don’t attribute it to a very unique quirk of immigration.
It’s a selective blindness where certain ethnic foods are accepted, and in the process lose their ethnicity. It’s a dissonance where the exploded, one-of-every-colour approach to food is acceptable, but any en-masse bloc of a single cuisine becomes a ghetto. Ethnic food is fine as long as it’s pleasantly anthologised — the shopfronts as distinct as possible, as slim and crushed together as terrace houses.