Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Sambal Keeps This Globetrotter Grounded

"I've always loved sambal, whether served with my favourite nasi lemak, spread on a slice of Gardenia white bread, or plain neat," writer and editorial consultant Brenda Benedict writes in her new book, Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick.

But it wasn't until she became a travelling expat wife that she was hard-pressed to make it on her own.

Sambal, that spicy, sometimes pungent condiment many in Southeast Asia are familiar with, became a balm for her homesickness, but on some days that pang needed something more potent.

"It was midwinter in Frankfurt," she recalls, "I had been horribly homesick and I was desperately seeking an avenue to vent. She pitched the idea for "a column about being a Malaysian abroad and trying to reconcile my 'Malaysianness' with an alien environment."

Her first "Sambal on the Side" column was published in the Weekender section of The Star on 18 February 2006 and has been a staple in the newspaper ever since.

A selection of her columns are now in this compilation, published by MPH Group Publishing.

"Neither expatriate mobility training nor travel guides adequately prepared me for the mundane matters of rooting and uprooting, and they tended to focus more on the 'what' and not the 'how'," says Brenda. "So, I had to immerse myself mindfully into a 'discomfort zone', resulting in a fortnightly dispatch home of yet another occasion of having 'been-there-and-muddled-through-that.'"

“These days whenever someone asks me how the Germans are, I usually say, ‘They’re like M&Ms. Once you bite through that shell, they’re really quite sweet!’”

And what a lot of muddling she's done: riding with leather-clad bikers in the U.S., separating rubbish in Germany, and haggling with "hugging taxi" drivers in Vietnam. Her unvarnished accounts of life on the go are sassy and at times spicy, like the taste of home she craves every now and then.

Each chapter has a mix of "everything": travelogue, factbook, memoir, introspection and maybe a couple of other things I can't find words for. Complex, like the condiment this collection is associated with, and more like sambal than one would think.

Although the book covers several countries: the United States, Germany and Vietnam, I seem to detect a special affection for Germany, her "second home", in the related pieces. The husband, I understand, is German.

“Many people often say that Washington, D.C. does not reflect the real America. They are correct to a certain extent.”

There's a certain familiarity and warmth when she relates, among other things, her quest to spike the shenanigans of some poo-some pigeons, encounters with "Denglish" (German-English) words, and her failure to spook her German friends with ghost stories - and failing because, apparently, Germans "don't have" ghost stories. But weren't the Brothers Grimm Germans?

As Brenda puts it, with regard to the latter: "This is a piece that I enjoyed writing, and I chose to feature it here because there couldn't be a starker clash of cultures than how the paranormal is dealt with in Malaysia and in my second home, Germany.

"I had written this in conjunction with Halloween, a day that still isn't much of a big deal Germany and where many still dismiss it as more of a commercial import from the U.S."

Like Christmas, maybe?

“During my initial days in Hanoi, it was a matter of trial and error in figuring out [which mobile street vendor] sold what. I also learnt that tinkling bells don’t always announce icy sweet treats.”

But it's not all from The Star At least one unpublished story - one about African music that will make you want to check out the names. "What I loved most were the rich and melodious harmonies that I feel only singers of African descent have been blessed to deliver with such élan," Brenda gushes.

Another unpublished piece highlights a few adventures she's shared with her husband, and it left me wishing their marriage would be long and interesting in good ways. Sounds like somebody's dream life.

The "kick", meanwhile, comes from short notes appended to each story, which explain why they were written and whether her perspectives have changed since then.

"As I revisited my columns, it became evident how my initial tenor on some subjects has either changed (or remained) or been adapted or moderated," says Brenda.

Evidently, Brenda's penchant for languages, curiosity for cultures, and sense of humour have served her well. Over time, she realised that rooting and uprooting require patience and fortitude, and the ability to laugh and let go when things go spectacularly wrong.

And: "I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have recounting them."

Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian writer and editorial consultant who has travelled, worked and lived in different continents. She has been a columnist with The Star since 2006. Her first book, Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick, will be available at all major bookstores.

The author herself is scheduled to be in Malaysia on 21 May at MPH Bookstore @ NU Sentral, 2:30pm, to launch the book and meet readers. Keep watching this space for updates.

Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick
A Malaysian's Take On Living Abroad

Brenda Benedict
MPH Group Publishing (April 2016)
322 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-330-4

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