Durians and Southeast Asians

And the question has been thrown to me once again last Sunday, January 24, 2016. Why Durian Writer? Two things: I come from Davao, a city outside the Philippine capital which is known to cultivate the best varieties of Durian in the country. Second, I am a writer (among many other things that I do).

For a long time, the Durian fruit has a significant meaning to me. Back in my hometown, I would know that it’s the start of the Durian season when I wake up to that strong pungent sweet smell wafting in my bedroom. Outside, three Durian trees stand in between coconut and mangosteen trees which seem to bear fruits in the same season, like trying to steal attention from the king of all fruits.

The Durian trees at home were planted around the same time we moved out from Bangkal to Bago Aplaya, a village located near the northwestern part of Davao Gulf. Hence, they grew up with me, from the time they were nothing but delicate seedlings to full-fledged trees that bear Cha Nee fruits our neighbours and guests would look forward to receive every year. The trees grew up listening to the music I play on the piano, to the water I fed them whenever mother would ask me to save the seedlings from wilting during El Nino, and sometimes to the tobacco puffs I blew secretly in my teens. They say we grow the best tasting durians in the city, that mother would send frozen Durian meat to our relatives in Canada. Who doesn’t like free durian when in other parts of world, or even just in Manila, one kilo could reach P500 a kilo? The best things are free.

To the untrained eye, Chanee, Monthong, Umali, Gan Ja, among others, look the same. They are all durian, a pungent-smelling fruit. Hence, it would be easy to spot a non-Davao resident, for he doesn’t know which durian he wants to buy at Magsaysay Park. They will tell the vendor to choose in their behalf, as long as it’s the best tasting, the one with a flash that’s as rich as an icing of a cake, and seeds not too big that it’s almost a rip off.

On Sunday, I attended a gathering of bloggers based in Malang, Indonesia, a country where I learned that many people have difficulty understanding why Southeast Asians tend to look the same: brown-skinned and flat-nosed. Very often, I get that kind of reactions Nay experienced in Manila. Often mistaken as a Manileño, people speak to him in Tagalog (he’s Burmese). Mukha lang kasi siyang taga-rito, or in English, it looks like he’s just from here. In Indonesian, kirain dia orang sini saja.

Just from here. I wonder what that means. Why is there a saja/lang at the end of the sentence? Does it mean that to be a local resident means to possess an inferior status than a foreigner? Does it mean that when you’re a local resident, you don’t get the same kind of hospitality people give to Caucasians?

The man who opened the shell of our puyat Durian at Magsaysay Park in 2013 told my Indonesian friends Adi and Dwi that the key to distinguish one variety from another is to take a peek into the fruit’s flesh. Chanee has a yellow and sweet flesh, Monthong is creamy yellow and sweet, while Arancillo is fellow, firm and creamy. Likewise, to know another Southeast Asian’s nationality is perhaps by looking inside. By learning his country’s history. By exploring his world views. Not through his looks, and definitely not through the colour of his skin, and the shape of his nose.

Malaysian. Indonesian. Singaporean. Burmese. Vietnamese. Whatever. We are like Durians, we look the same, but are unique in our own ways, inside.

Durian photo courtesy of Angelo Juan Ramos



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