Saltwater is a baptism by immersion experience of the gentlest kind.
Disarmingly simple yet overlain with cultural intent, Saltwater brings together several known experiences to make a completely new one: a shared table dinner with conversation led by Singaporean Australian performance artist Jamie Lewis, brought to us by the Bleach Festival.
Some of our most rewarding cultural experiences have been enjoyed dining with strangers. Whether travelling, attending a festival, eating at an ethnic restaurant or a dining club, sharing a table with strangers can bring unexpected rewards. There’s something disarming about opening your mind, going along with the flow and immersing yourself in the experience.
On entering, in almost Biblical significance, our hands are washed by others before we join a table to pluck ‘the ugly bits’ from the bean sprouts. This is the theatre of food and we’ve ceremoniously entered the stage of a communal meal.
In Chinese tradition, storytelling is a millennium old craft, crossing over into modern genres of performance where oral and literary skills, memorisation and improvisation all play a part. Both family and food are culturally imbued, with particular ingredients and dishes carrying overlays of meaning, somehow all bound together in Jamie’s narrative.
Seated as one of the diners around the table, Jamie begins to speak as we concentrate on the sprouts: “When my husband and I cook, it’s like some kind of dance…” And so begins Jamie’s monologue, which travels back and forth across the generations of her family, seamlessly interweaving childhood memories and parental anecdotes into the fabric of her own life and relationship.
We’re eating the vegetarian version of ABC soup, the expression of parental love when a child or teenager is sick. Around our table, it equates to tomato soup for some, chicken soup for others – the way our mothers cared for us, nurtured us, taught us. Sent off on the tangent of childhood memories, our conversations meander from alphabet games to childhood illnesses as Jamie flash fries the bean sprouts in a wok alongside.
Weaving and dipping, monologue slips into conversation as she asks us questions, beginning with the innocuous ‘So, how did you learn to cook?’ before we delve into the deeper territory of long term relationships during the main course. We’re eating simple bean sprouts cooked with soy sauce, garlic and fried shallots on steamed rice. It’s fairly mundane, given depth only by the spicy homemade sambal. The sambal is fiery, as is the marital conflict she alludes to, leading to loneliness, the spiraling into despair and silence…
“Marriage is hard work. I wonder how was it for her? How did she deal with it?” Jamie reflects on her mother’s marriage and how it relates to her own, the ebb and flow of conversation rising and falling, gaps and silences drifting between laughter and pain. We’ve taken that road at our table too, letting down guards to talk about marriage, expectations and relationship breakdowns.
“We never really shake off the blueprint of who we are. We don’t really realise it until we live with someone whose blueprint is entirely different to our own.” The profundity of it seeps under our skin; the enormity of the challenge of revealing ourselves and finding out who the other person truly is.
How did we arrive at this place within the space of an hour at the dinner table with strangers? How did we get to look at this slippery slide of love led to Jamie’s reflections, lulled by her gentle tones into complicity so that we could examine our own?
We’re let down gently with dessert – a sweet soup of poached pear and white fungus, denoting a blessing so that our marriage will be sweet. As we walk out of the restaurant to enjoy tea on the outer verandah, we see that life has carried on around us. The Q:Link tram pulls up at Southport Station, the bar across the road in filled with revellers, and preparations are continuing for a Bleach celebration the next night.
An hour has passed, an encounter which will be continued in thought for many more hours, all created in a seamless, uncontrived way. Gentle and thoughtful, unexpected and a little confronting, this experience has moved my mindset just a little. To me, that’s the mark of a worthwhile arts experience.
March 2015 at MingSanity (now closed), Chinatown, 52 Nerang Street, Southport
Tickets from Bleach cost $30 pp incl. dinner
Photography credit for photo of Jamie cooking – Sarah Walker.
Disclaimer: Good Food Gold Coast were guests of Bleach Festival.