What Buying Vegetables Taught Me About Privilege
Yogyakarta is a relatively small town. While there are now more commercial establishments there than ever before, it’s still just as easy to find traditional marketplaces to satisfy daily needs - but as a college student I'd like to pretend that I don't have time to go and buy apples and lettuce in the markets on the far side of the highway. If I go to the nearest supermarket instead, it doesn't matter how long I immerse myself in the kind of crowds I despise, as long as it’s air-conditioned and beamed with lights that mess with my perception of time passing outside. I love how leisurely it is to put everything in a trolley or a shopping basket - sometimes making my arms feel ultra-powerful - and get lost among labeled aisles. Besides, I don't have to haggle until either the vendor dies or I do. It’s not that I’m completely incapable of finding a bargain; in any case, I define the real achievement as finding the best goods at the best price, even if it is only relative to where I bought them.
There's certain thoughtfulness in looking over a rack of water spinach or cauliflower next to a stand full of carrots, or white tofu loaded into a plastic bag beside the salted fishes. For somebody who has been constantly battling her clinical depression and anxiety disorder for years, there's something so contemplative in an activity as mundane as grocery shopping. I got to go out and feed myself, create something out of these products, and the life cycle doesn't stop - it actually carries on...and on. The image of how these ingredients will later transform is so clear to me that it extends almost to my tastebuds. The colors scream very vividly that if, just in case, I start dissociating in public, I don't need to use a clinical technique to ground myself, or do an urgent reality check. Look at these tiny red strawberries! Hey, they have fresh aubergines, too! Everything looks so alive it that makes me want to keep being.
My shopping habits (specifically, shopping for fruits and vegetables) didn't just start to develop when I first moved to this town for college. I had gone grocery shopping countless times back home, be it alone or with my mother or other family members – but living on my own solidified the habit as a ritual that now feels empirically existential. With only slightly disturbed composure, and minor adaptation to new places, I started exploring which parts of town would provide me with the ideal options: not too far from my rented place, preferably near campus, and not just “not too pricey”, but not pricey at all.
I'm the only one of my parents’ children who is genuinely fond of vegetables. As a suburban kid, I would literally eat anything edible, partly because my father passed down that gene-specific preference (hypothetically), but mostly because vegetables were nutritious, affordable, and continuous. Chicken and lamb and beef and seafood - we had this custom of calling it all "fish" regardless of which animal the meat might have come from - were once-in-a-while dishes, no matter how unappealing or unsavory vegetables could be sometimes. (Once, we ate some boiled greens that grew on the sidewalk like bushes - pluchea indica, (L.) - and they smelled so good, but didn't taste of much at all. The plant is supposed to reduce body odor, or so we were told.)
After all this time, the love of vegetables has become a part of myself that I treasure, a singular way of keeping myself alive whilst remaining financially practical. And finding my own vegetables to digest with my own informed mouth is another responsibility to unpack, another trick to master.
I still giggle at how Indonesia is cherished for being an agrarian country as well as a maritime one, because I came from a community that makes this possible. I guess the joke is intended more for myself than to be at the expense of “vernacular praise” of the country; I know the agrarian jargon thing was what the New Order propagandized back in the day, but the younger me used to be proud nonetheless. My father was a farmer (still is, in fact, though he doesn't work much now), and I remember when he let me play along in his field, albeit only during harvest time while my elder brothers helped him with the paddy and haystacks.
For Asian households, or Southeast Asian in my case, and especially for most Indonesian people, rice is the main dish; everything else is just entremets. Our meals, my family routine, consisted of a mountain of white rice three times a day accompanied by various side dishes, and coming from a family who produced their own meals felt like an inner privilege. We were neither rich (speaking as the daughter of a farmer) nor poor (my mother taught public school, and she was pretty well paid); almost sufficient, but never quite enough (because I went to arguably better schools in the 2000s than my brother did in the 1990s). However, we were thankful that our warehouse was full of sacks of rice from our field, and sometimes we had coconuts from my grandmother's field, too, or bananas, or jackfruits, or sapodilla fruits; rarely "fish", but often tempeh.
Every Sunday, my mother and I would watch this cooking show on TV whose host liked to pick foreign (sounding) ingredients like "parsley" (whose translated name, peterseli, my mother and I loved, because it was so often misheard as a combination of two people's names), or "plum", "calamari" and the like. She and I together often wished that one day we would cook and eat those foreign things out of pure curiosity, not because we were bored of local or homegrown foods - maybe when we discovered where to find the ingredients, and could afford to buy for the whole family rather than just for ourselves. One day, a few years later, we bought two or three small kiwis, something we had never touched or tasted before, and cut them up to eat the next day when we could just consume everything all at once, because we wanted the moment prolonged.
That was then, years ago, when we dreamt of purchasing unfamiliar ingredients from a big, air-conditioned hypermarket, and when there were only one or two shops in the center of the town of Tulungagung, which itself is about a 45-minute drive from our village. And this is now, my mother and I retrieving the memory of vicarious fruit- and vegetable-eating by actually living it: on weekends, my second eldest brother and sister-in-law casually bring my mother her requested fruits and vegetables from the hypermarket. I do the same for myself with my weekly grocery shopping, only in a different and far-away town. I text her to tell her what I bought and to ask her what she cooked for dinner at home; meals just like the old days, only now we no longer treat "fish" as a luxury - because it no longer is - nor unfamiliar-sounding stuff as something we are eager to eat or learn about just because it’s different.
As good as the food itself undoubtedly makes us feel, eating it without feeling guilty about not keeping a few slices for the next day, or about indulgence in general, speaks to some significant changes in our lives. My mother's raise allowed us to splurge on sumptuous "fish" like turkey and shrimp, okra and beets, and imported canned lychee, while my father's rice field is a gift that keeps on giving. If there were a food-scaled spectrum of the privilege of production and consumption in one’s household, then the position we occupy on it has most certainly shifted over time. We were lacking in so much, but my mother always said that we were coming from a place of abundance. I chose not to believe it. Financial insecurity was a reality for us; until the day I packed my bags and moved out, my father was required to sell a lot of rice and even sublet a part of his field to pay for my high school tuition.
I discovered that I really did come from a place of abundance when I moved here - I had to pay IDR [Indonesian Rupiah] 60,000 for 5 kilograms of rice, which was the cheapest I could find, and I found other raw ingredients to be just as expensive. I called my mother, and she told me that it would be easier just to bring the rice from home next time, along with spices. I laughed at how silly that advice was. Picturing myself lifting heavy sacks onto the train was excruciating enough, but she wasn't joking - she wanted me not to buy it because we already have everything at home. While I know how much insecurity I used to feel about being a child from a family that grew their own rice and cooked their own meals, compared to other families whose food was all store-bought and seemed more interesting, I truly am celebrating that inner privilege now.
Almost every afternoon, when classes are over, I ride my motorcycle straight up to any shopping spot where I can take my time choosing whichever greens are greener than the others, or which frozen watermelon looks the freshest, or randomly guessing the weight of a potato, or deliberating between leek or celery. There's something magical in a fruit and vegetable stall that isn’t just about feeding myself and managing my depression in public places – to me, it falls somewhere between remembrance and ritual. It’s about rejoicing in the truth of the far-off place I come from; about realizing my gratitude, to say the least.
Innas Tsuroiya is a writer and poet living in Indonesia. Follow her on Twitter.