Parenting 101: Babies Grow Up

 

Honeydew Seeds

Once, I cut open a honeydew, scooped out the seeds and thought it looked too good for the food scrap bin. So I buried it in my vegetable patch. If nothing else, microorganisms would feed on the pulp and the seeds would be good for my soil.

The Accidental Seedling
An Accidental Seedling

A few days later, seedlings started to emerge. They were strong and vigorous. I separated and replanted them, and they thrived. In some ways, the ball of sweet pulp and seed hidden inside the honeydew reminds me of a mother’s womb, a secret place, safe and insular, primed for new life.

When I was pregnant, I watched my diet, refrained from alcohol, and fled cigarette smoke. I alone controlled what influences reached my child. The first few years of motherhood were physically exhausting, but emotionally rewarding. There were times when only I could quiet the baby. The baby didn’t want that toy, that book, that person; the baby wanted me.

But babies grow up and I was amazed at how quickly I was knocked off my pedestal. When they were toddlers, they happily allowed me to choose their library books. Now my literary recommendations to my teenagers are practically deterrents.

They have started to think for themselves and make independent choices. At first, it was alarming. This might be so for all parents, perhaps, but especially for the migrant parent, because apart from the generational gap, there is the culture gap, and it feels as if the child is venturing very far away.

But I quiet my fears and remind myself that they are children, not clones. Besides, I hope they will one day go beyond anything I ever dreamt of achieving. And to do that, they have to find their own way in the world and think their own independent thoughts.

It turned out that Adelaide weather is not suited to growing honeydew. Those promising seedlings shrivelled. But I had also started burying pumpkin seeds and two years ago harvested a bumper crop – around twenty pumpkins, no less!

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My Pumpkin Patch

At the tail end of that pumpkin season, possums in my garden discovered that pumpkins are tasty, and that was the beginning of the end. I sprinkled chilli powder on a half eaten pumpkin, but that didn’t deter them, and might have enhanced their culinary experience instead.

And yet, I still work in my a small vegetable patch because nurturing new life makes me happy. While I cannot control the weather, and am constantly battling weeds and pests, I know that if I persist in creating a nurturing environment, good things will grow.

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Literature and Finance: a great combo?

What happens when you interview a 1987 Literature and Finance graduate from Xiamen University for your book? Well, you get a long reading list.

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My Reading List

Josie (not her real name) was born in 1965, a year before Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Recalling her childhood, she tells me that the only entertainment people had at the time were eight state-sanctioned plays. Her opinion about these plays?

‘Boring!’ she says, definitively.

As a result of this intellectual deprivation, an underground network of readers emerged. People would hide banned books, read them in secret, and circulate them among like-minded friends. Books were so rare and precious that each reader could only have a book for a short time. In order to be able to reread the texts, Josie and her mother used to copy books by hand.

‘What sort of books did you copy?’ I ask.

‘Books that reflect human nature, human love, human feelings, because we were sick of political books. French classics: Camellia,’ says Josie.

From 1981 to 1987, Josie studied Chinese Literature and Finance at university. After graduating, she worked at the People’s Bank of China before flying to Perth to study English in 1990. She eventually settled in Australia as a political refugee.

As much as the first part of her story is astounding for the breadth of her reading, the second part is astounding for her business acumen. I could not have made up the story of how she moved from working on less than minimum wage to owner of not one, but two, small businesses.

I then ask Josie what she thought about the current unease over major Australian political parties receiving donations from Chinese businesses. Her reaction is swift and far more emphatic than what I had expected, ‘They should NOT! These politicians do not care where this money comes from, and Australia should guard her sovereignty.’

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In 2016, Senator Sam Dastyari lost his spot in the Labor front bench for asking a Sydney based company with close links to the Chinese government to pay his travel bill overspend of $1670.82. In his book, he explained that he had not done anything illegal but had underestimated how damning it would look beside his comments on China’s conduct in the South China Sea.

I had thought that Literature and Finance was an unusual combination, but after hours of reading the books Josie read, and hours spent writing her story, it dawns upon me that literature and finance is a great combination because it teaches you that money comes with story.

It matters where money comes from and how it is acquired. It matters because money is used to shape the future. This is a problematic thought when so much of the Australian economy is dependant on the Chinese dollar, and more broadly, when money moves fluidly around the world as if it is a neutral agent.

Danger: Blind Faith in Big Data

Originally posted on mathbabe:
It went up this morning, I hope you like it: The era of blind faith in big data must end https://embed.ted.com/talks/cathy_o_neil_the_era_of_blind_faith_in_big_data_must_end

Algorithms reflect the human biases of their designers. This matters because algorithms may decide what kind of credit card you can apply for or whether you get a job interview. Thank you Cathy O’Neil for unpacking the black box.

mathbabe

It went up this morning, I hope you like it:

The era of blind faith in big data must end

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Renaming Roads and Revisiting History

On a 2010 road trip with my dad to find his childhood home, I discover roads that have been renamed. Our understanding of history is anything but static.

 

On Malaysia’s Independence Day today, my thoughts turn to a road trip I took with my dad in 2010. We drove up from Kuala Lumpur to Menglembu, so that he could show me the house where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. Back then, I was helping Dad write his memoirs. My sister had handed me her notes and the eleven pages she had written. My job was to complete the rest.

Malaysian shophouses
The row of colonial British shophouses in Perak where my dad grew up.

Dad’s first Identity Card (IC) was issued in 1952, when he was 12 years old. The card itself is a curious mix of languages: English, Malay, Chinese. The British introduced the IC to fight communism and it was a possible precursor to some sort of citizenship document in anticipation of the day when Malaya would be granted independence.

Dad’s address is listed as 57, Tranchell Street, Menglembu. In 2010, when Dad pulled off the North-South Highway, his memory guided him.  Tranchell Road is no longer on the map. It has been renamed.

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My dad’s identity card issued in 1952.

Looking at Google Maps this morning, I think Tranchell Road is somewhere in the cluster of roads renamed Jalan Menglembu Timur 1 to Jalan Menglembu Timur 16. Very long names. A tad unwieldy. I understand why the roads have been renamed – to name and to rename is the prerogative of the ruling power – but I cannot help feeling that something has been lost in the process, some enigma, some history, some story.

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My father’s old Wan Hua Primary School, which housed a Lutheran Kindergarten when this photograph was taken. This street has been renamed Jalan Barat.

Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian yesterday that the current debate over the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue is really about ‘how European Australian and indigenous Australia are going to reconcile on this continent given their competing cultures and histories.’ He warned against revising history because there will be no end and it will leave both sides depleted.

Revising history is difficult and dangerous. But revisiting history is not. I think we should revisit history many times, preferably from different points of view, and hopefully, each time, we gain a better understanding of what happened, a more nuanced, more accurate version of what happened and why.

I think it is crucial we pay attention to the telling and retelling of history because history confers legitimacy. It shapes understanding. It speaks to what we allow and forbid, what we love and hate, and who we allow ourselves to become.

I am so glad I embarked on that road trip with Dad. I discovered things I would never have otherwise discovered. It took three years to write the book, Fish in the Well, which we self-published in 2013. I hope to make it available shortly as an eBook. Please subscribe if you would like to hear more.

A Crack in the Immigration System

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Amber Glass by my Front Door

My home was built in the late 1960s, a federation-style house with amber glass, faux gold fittings and slate floors. For a middle-aged entity, this double-bricked beauty is holding up pretty well. But, of course, cracks are starting to show.

A crack in the mosaic bathroom floor finally flacked off. That loose tile let down several of its neighbours and they scattered everywhere. I gathered them into a snap lock bag, intending to google ‘How to fix a mosaic floor’, and added it onto my to-do list.

I procrastinated. A week later, I inadvertently vacuumed up another little tile. I notice that the fault line getting longer, the hole bigger, uglier, dirtier. And it all started with a single crack in the system.

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A Crack in the System

On 4 August, a leaked phone transcript between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull revealed what the two leaders talked about in January. Turnbull asked Trump to honour a refugee swap deal, but Trump said he didn’t want the US to become a dumping ground and demanded to know why Turnbull hadn’t let them out.

Turnbull explained that the refugees on Nauru and Manus were not bad people, but ‘in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of a product.’ But Trump is not convinced about the kind of people he is being asked to consider. Later in the conversation, he says, ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’

Trump may have vocalised a growing public perception. After all, it is hard to believe that a civilised government like Australia will lock people up indefinitely unless they were bad or dangerous in some way.

As a result, some ordinary, compassionate Australians now fear associating with refugees or helping them because because of the taint of illegality, of being on the wrong side of migration law.

People who would have previously said hello to a stranger, or invited a new neighbour for dinner, now think twice, and maybe walk on by. (Not all refugees are in detention, many are in community. It depends on their date of arrival in Australia, whether they came by boat, whether they received legal help, whether they had a friend to explain a letter to them, a whole host of factors that can sometimes seem as random as the roll of a dice.)

Indefinite mandatory detention was introduced to fix a crack in the immigration system but is threatening to introduce a crack in society and a crack in humanity – how we view one another and how we treat people in need.

It’s an ugly crack. It’s growing and if left unfixed, is going to be our undoing.

Creation and Destruction

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Jordi Bernabeu Syrian girls on their way home from school

 

After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.

A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other  UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.

Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?

It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot.  I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.

It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.

Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’

What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.

Di Giovanni will be speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on 8 March 2017.

 

 

Mothers and Sons

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By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow morning, I shall bid my seventeen-year-old son farewell as he travels to another city to begin his undergraduate studies. These past weeks, as friends have learnt of his move, many have peered me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m fine,’ I bravely reply. ‘I feel that this is the best opportunity for his future.’

There are moments when nostalgia seizes me and tears threaten, but intellectually, rationally, I believe the time is right for him to leave home and experience the wider world.

It made me reflect on a vastly different farewell that I have been writing about. Remember the Sri Lankan asylum seeker I wrote about previously? Let’s call him Suthan. His father was killed in 1989 and his older brother disappeared in 1995.

In Suthan’s words, this is how it happened: My mother was very sad so she decided to send me away. She knew very well that I wouldn’t join the Tamil Tigers because I am not interested at all; I was a frightened boy. But my mother wanted to keep me safe, so she decided to send me to another country. I didn’t want to go; I really felt like shit. For one month I couldn’t cope.

What, you may ask, compelled Suthan’s mother to surrender her only remaining son, and an exorbitant sum of money, to people smugglers? The only answer, in my mind, is that the alternative was worse.

Indeed, in 1995, in Sri Lanka, it was very dangerous to be a young Tamil male – a potential recruit to the Tamil Tigers and a deadly threat to the predominantly Singhalese army. Therefore, Suthan’s mother sent him away even though he was only nineteen and there were no guarantees, no certainties. She was buying hope and the chance, however tenuous, that her son will survive.

I used to see migrants as different to refugees. I am writing a story about them, not about me. But more and more, I see it as a spectrum, with the forced migration of refugees on one end and my voluntary migration on the other.

But the commonality is that we move because we hope for better things. It is only human to act on hope.