Forgotten in Translation: How Women Contribute in Knowledge?

My interactions with the women of Kampung Periuk Malaysia reflects the dominance of the “way of knowing” as a challenging discourse and practice.

The Urban Biodiversity Initiative (UBI), I quote “is an independent collective for urban ecology research, conservative and environmental education. We are a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia”. 

They made a collaborative event in the early 2023 with Buku Jalanan Chow Kit (BJCK) titled “Kampung Periuk ke Universiti Malaya”. This Sunday fun day of walk aimed to discover and learn about the history and people of Kampung Periuk with the Chow Kit community through a walk-through medical garden, food demonstration, and networking with lunch.

“This is one dissemination of our work on urban farming with BJCK.” Said Anushkaa as event coordinator.

The tour of “Kampung Periuk ke Universiti Malaya

Half day tour located in Rimba Ilmu, Malaya University invited around 9 mothers from Kampung Periuk who joined BJCK to join a program; and gained interest for 24 individuals from the public to join it. 

This collaboration had three main activities; namely cooking with mothers, guided walk, and discussion. However, cooking with mothers and guided walk were activities carried out simultaneously. As a volunteer, I helped in cooking with mothers’ activity.

(Picture 1: Lepat ubi/Doc by Theresia)

(Picture 1: Lepat ubi/Doc by Theresia)

Cooking with mothers started from 7.30 am to 11am before lunch. After a short introduction from 9 mothers, who turned out to be migrants from Indonesia, we started the cooking preparation. 

Understanding that the committee needed to be ready at 7am, mothers brought some snacks, which are curry puffs; onde-onde (Indonesia’s name) or kuih bom in Malaysian. The differences are the filling in onde-onde will be mung bean while coconut flesh with melaka sugar will be in kuih bom.

During the preparation of three main dishes – gulai ayam, ulam ubi and ulam – one dessert – lepat ubi, and one drink – combination butterfly peas and lemon, the disrupting the hierarchy of knowledge was starting and it started with me. 

(Picture 2 Lunch menu/Doc by Theresia)

(Picture 2 Lunch menu/Doc by Theresia)

The dominance of the “way of knowing” embodied in nations, and as Kothari (2005) said, it narrowly focused into neoliberal economic development paradigms. In this space, the narratives or viewpoints of minorities group ‘should’ be are ‘rendered legitimate’ by those with power, such as language. 

In Malaysia, the top three ethnicities use four main languages to communicate depending on ethnicity: Melayu, Mandarin, Indian, and English. On the contrary, Indonesia mainly only use Bahasa Indonesia despite having many ethnic groups.

The dominance development forces Malaysia to become more familiar with English than other languages. However, mothers from Kampung Periuk are more comfortable using mixed language. 

While cooking the cuisine, mothers would be talking or shouting to one another to ask help or only gossiping. They used a combination language between Indonesia and Malaysian. Some of them would change to Javanese after knew my ethnicity. 

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This moment was contradictory with participants who some of them had blond hair, blue eyes, and curly hair. Taking interest to activities, they started to talk with broken English with mothers but was only to say hi. 

And, for me, a lack of knowledge of the Malaysian language made me unable to understand the names of dishes. Hear my questions, some mothers laughed at me before translate it to Indonesia’s dishes.

Furthermore, I experienced the exchange of knowledge within cooking activities. Using mixed language, mothers would instruct other mothers to cut, wash, peel, and clean ingredients. A short conversation came like this

“It needs more salt” 

“Where is the salt?”

And suddenly, one mother answered, 

“Yes, I do not understand why Malaysian salt is not salty”

“Do you think salt becomes sweet now?” and everybody laughed.

“I added salt. Taste it,”

“Yeah, it is enough,”

“Ouch, too salty now,”

“Ahh, no, it is not salty,”

In some moment, mothers will called me and asked to help them. “You should learn to make this,” they said while taught me to fold banana leaves to make lepat ubi

Sometimes they will correct me when I fold it in a different way. On other hand, they would cheer on me and praise me by saying “you learned so fast.” 

This process made me aware that their intimacy with the kitchen could possibly become a tool to transfer knowledge. Yet, it does not come from dominance science but one of them is the power of feeling.  

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Another moment was during gulai ayam cooking. They prepared ten packages of coconut milk and started to pour it on chicken broth. After four oversized packages, I shouted “again?” because I thought it already enough but then one mother answer me

“YES! Do you not see the amount of chicken? We will feed more than 20 people. The ratio should be 1:1, so add more,” she said to the other mother, who was already ready to pour another package.

The “disrupting the hierarchy of the knowledge” process not only occurred in cooking with mothers’ activity but also during guided walk in Rimba Ilmu’s garden and discussion. Unfortunately, I didn’t join the guided walk but I heard a story from another volunteer.

“It is interesting, and the mother from Kampung Periuk explained many details about the medical plants here. She said they usually use it in Indonesia to cure some diseases. And they know a lof of things I’ve never heard of before. I was an alumnus of the forestry department, but I don’t know. WOW.”

 After discussion I also walked back with participants and one of them said

“It is a good way to escape from my daily activities. Come back to nature, they said. And I love the activities with mothers. I don’t think I learned about this before, they know almost all plants here, not only by name but also the functions.”

Reflexive process through the mothers from Kampung Periuk

Reading Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner during my trip back to my home was like reflecting my experience with UBI-my. I not only spent my time becoming a volunteer but was also trapped in disrupting the hierarchy of the knowledge process. 

“We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it the food we order and the ingredients we buy. Then we separate. We bring the haul back to our dorm rooms or our suburban kitchens, and we re-create the dish that couldn’t be made without our journey. What we’re looking for isn’t available at a Trade Joe’s. H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they’ll find something they can’t find anywhere else.” (Crying in H Mart– Michelle Zauner)

The space with mothers from Kampung Periuk reflects on the dominance of the “way of knowing” as a challenging discourse and practice. In feminist movements, it also concerns the creation of space to engage the voice of the subaltern community, including women. 

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It becomes essential as a realization of how the mainstreams course overarching concern to gender inequality issues. The application of national or/and international policy often disconnects with women and minorities groups’ needs. On the contrary, “Kampung Periuk ke Universiti Malaya” initiators offered alternative perspectives. 

“We want to give a space for them (mothers from Kampung Periuk) because we know they have a lot of knowledge on this. We also want to public realize that knowledge of medical plants does not only come from books or academia. Mothers who are immigrants from Indonesia know about it better than anyone because they live with it. They use it as their daily routine, ” said Thary, one of the initiators.

Furthermore, for me, I interpreted this space as “making” connections for immigrants who live as women between Indonesia and Malaysia. Similarity between two countries bring food/ plants/ cooking as translation of immigrants’ situation. The voice of mothers from their knowledge and practices offers to lessen the gap of disconnection of identity and roots caused by their lives in Malaysia. 

Theresia Pratiwi Elingsetyo Sanubari

Doctoral student in the Food Studies Department. Currently conducting research related to the consequences of modernization on food habits which are influenced by the shift in the distribution of gender roles in the household. Enjoys traveling, climbing mountains, trying new foods, and fangirling.
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