8 May 2017

Hungry Girls - Food blogger Nina Powles

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 8 May 2017

"You must be hungry girls," he said. We were in Shanghai, 14 or 15, eating dumplings. We absolutely were hungry girls, I don't just mean food. We were hungry for everything, in every sense of the word."  - Nina Powles.

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Nimble chopsticks deftly flip sizzling egg and spring onion pancakes as writer Nina Powles gives the wok a quick shake. Quintessential Chinese comfort food is her biggest love; dishes like these pancakes and homemade dumplings have even inspired poetry, because no matter where she cooks them, they remind her of home.

Nina describes herself as a 'hungry girl’ on her blog Dumpling Queen. It’s food that drives her writing and evokes the strongest memories for Nina. It was her Chinese Malaysian mother’s love of food that sparked Nina's own obsession.

"Love is a bowl of noodles. Eating noodles reminds me of being at home, and also being very, very far away from home." Nina Powles, Mooncake poetry zine, Shanghai, 2016.

This is especially true now that she lives in Shanghai, almost 10,000km away from her home in Wellington. Nina is studying Chinese at Shanghai's Fudan University, a city she saw first saw in her teens as the daughter of diplomats. During a brief visit to Wellington, Nina shows me how to cook these pancakes in the kitchen of her parents' sprawling Eastbourne house and explains her take on the complexities of food, feminism and life in Shanghai.

"My first noodles were instant noodles. Mum used to make them for me on winter weekend mornings. We almost couldn't hear the wind over the sound of our slurping."

Tell me about your feminist beliefs?

It's all connected. As women we don't allow ourselves to satisfy our hunger. We grow up with messages in media. We grow up with messages to diet, to take up as little space as possible. Diet culture is something that makes me angry all the time.

"The first character of my mother's name, Wen, is made of rain and language.  According to my dictionary, together they mean "multi-coloured clouds" or "cloud tints." There are so many things I am trying to hold together. I write them down each day to stop them from slipping. Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark."  Nina Powles, Field Notes On A Downpour, zine, Shanghai 2016.

Are you politicised by your Eurasian ethnicity?

Absolutely, but I'm cautious. I don't try to stand in for a full-Chinese or full-Asian women. I listen carefully and try to amplify voices from women of colour.

But we are both Eurasian, we are women of colour too, Does she feel judged for being only half Chinese?

It's something I'm hyper-conscious of myself. I have a fraction of knowledge.

"Big hips, brown eyes, brown hair that turns lighter in a New Zealand summer...the way I look has given me privilege my whole life in predominantly white, Pakeha spaces ... The way I look means I can lie for my safety, when a guy approaches ... The way I look makes it easy for some people to see me as no different from them ... It sometimes makes it easy to see myself that way too." Nina Powles, 2016.

Nina Powles, Dumpling Queen blogger.

Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Have you experienced being 'exoticised' as a Eurasian woman?

As I've gotten older, I've had weird comments, always from white guys. They think they're giving you a compliment - "Mixed raced girls are so incredibly beautiful." - They're judging you by Western standards of beauty; you're only half Chinese, you're Chinese but not "too" Chinese. First I'm offended but then, as a defense mechanism, I laugh in their face.