by Sean Wai Keung
My pan is heating. My vegetables have already been cut into thin strips. As I prepare my rice, a dozen tiny warning lights go off in my heart: this isn’t how I normally do things.
I unmute myself. “Is this OK?” I ask. And a voice from another screen in another kitchen in another part of the country tells me that it is.
Before today, the idea of an online cook-and-write-along would have seemed interesting but ultimately a bit daft. After all, one of the beautiful things about cooking together is being able to bounce off each others rhythms, communally experience the changes in smell and temperature of the kitchen, the act of witness of creation in a very physical sense in tandem with someone else. Only last year, I took part in a different performative cooking event for which people had travelled from all over the UK to attend. Yet here I was now, panicking that my rice would burn, and the only way I could ask if it was OK is by turning away from said rice and towards my laptop and manually unmuting myself.
This event is part of “A Month of Sunsets”, a series of online performances organised by Neep & Okra Kitchen, a food and hospitality project based in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. Led by artist and chef Kawther Luay as a way to mark Ramadan, each Saturday a small group of people gets together over video chat to prepare a meal. At certain times during the recipe-of-the-week, co-host Lynnda Wardle offers out a writing prompt and participants are encouraged to respond. This simple formula, featuring two different types of creativity and a wide-range of perspectives and responses to food and community from all over Scotland, would feel very different in a more traditional performance space.
Do I miss the ability to more easily ask for help with my rice? In the moment, yes. As I worry about whether or not I should stir or not-stir I am reminded of the poem Potato Soup by Daniel Nyikos, in which the speaker seeks to root themselves through cooking a family recipe only to ultimately fail. And yet, much like how in Potato Soup the failure of the recipe masks the warmth of connecting with family around the world, A Month of Sunsets has given me a different form of access. Here I am together with people I possibly wouldn’t have been able to share a kitchen with IRL, people who live far away and/or lead busy lives of work or childcare. And yet through the online space, tonight I’m able to hear their voices, listen to their stories, and cook with them.
After the event finishes, I plate up the dish we have cooked together, upside down rice. And as I close my laptop and take my first spoonful, I still feel connected.
I am watching fifteen-or-so mini-performances from a variety of self-identifying BAME voices. Some of them are funny. Others, provocative. But all share a particular quality of freedom-of-voice that I’m not sure I can explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced something similar. When spaces are created specifically for the under-represented, when they are asked to contribute and told that they will be listened to, it creates an aura. People feel more free to speak up and speak out, safe in the knowledge that there are others ‘in the room’ who have a higher chance of understanding their perspective and/or not judging them for it.
This is a special edition of Speakin’ Weird, a spoken word event normally held IRL at Spin in Aberdeen, and not normally reserved for Writers of Colour. Being in Glasgow, I’ve unfortunately not yet been able to attend one of their live editions, but as a Writer of Colour myself the idea of a space set aside just for voices from that perspective, even if it’s online, is exciting.
Nasim Asl, the host for the night, speaks with warmth between each act and helps to punctuate the various emotional journeys of the performances. People type encouragement and celebration in the chat box, from simple ‘<3’ symbols to full quotes or moments they enjoy. A mixture of people watch alongside me, some with their cameras off and so in a way identity-less, others with their cameras on and visibly smiling or nodding or applauding in silence.
As we get to the end of the night an announcement is made. Someone from the audience has asked if there would be time for them to contribute a small performance. They only planned on being a witness but had felt empowered enough by the space that they wanted to share their art as well. “YES” come the typed replies on chat, alongside a flurry of “<3”s.
Later that night I try to think about the last event or performative space I had attended which featured that same freedom-of-voice aura. In truth, it could have just been on my end. Having an audience experiencing performances but being unable to physically see any of them means that for all I know, some did not feel the same way. Perhaps some were just having it on in the background while they ate or worked. Others may have been on another tab, scrolling through social media or checking their emails. But even if that was the case, the beauty of the event was that the perspectives of others didn’t really matter from where I was sitting. After all, I still felt engaged by it. And I know that there were others in attendance who felt similarly engaged as well, even if I perhaps couldn’t see them in a physical sense. Some even felt engaged enough to feel comfortable spontaneously sharing. And I loved every second of it.
I found out recently that there have been some non-COVID related health problems in my immediate family. With them being in England, and me in Glasgow, and with travel restrictions and all the fears associated with the label ‘high risk’, I realistically have very little chance of seeing them soon. On top of this there are then also other fears that are perhaps a little more specific to them. The pandemic has unearthed a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the UK, with racially provoked incidents against ethnically Chinese people rocketing. Then there is the language barrier issue with certain family members, where lockdown has added further isolation on top of the pre-existing isolation that comes from not being fluent in the local language. And then there are the daily news reports from Hong Kong, the country of our collective familial roots.
As such, when I tune into The Hong Kong Shuffle, an event featuring performances from both the UK and Hong Kong, I feel a particular yearning for a connection not normally as readily available. During the event, performances are intermingled with wider discussions featuring perspectives of those both currently in Hong Kong and those no longer there. The National Security Law comes up a lot, as do issues including self-censorship and the role of words and art. It’s a heavy discussion. And yet it’s also a discussion I couldn’t have with my own family, for fear of upsetting them, or close friends who perhaps don’t have the same level of investment in the issue, for fear of burdening them.
Afterwards, when I log off, I think about the strangeness and the closeness of the world. I think of how my family, normally a few hours Southwards, feel so far away, and yet for a set amount of time I still managed to connect with strangers time-zones away. I think of the word ‘isolation’ and all its various contexts – not just aloneness, but also inability and out-of-place-ness. ‘Isolation’ as a safety device as well as ‘isolation’ as enforcement. ‘Isolation’ as a time-frame wherein the future is unpredictable and memories of the past grow increasingly distant. I do feel isolated like that right now, admittedly. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t also feel isolated in a myriad other ways before these last few months. And just like back then, just like always, the importance of art in creating and maintaining connections beyond isolation continues to be an invaluable source of warmth and joy to me.