‘Anthropology is what people leave behind. It could be as recent as this morning.’
‘Smugglers are complex human beings.’
To paraphrase this classically trained anthropologist.
One of the photographs in this piece really moved me. There were no people in that photograph, which shows me that this anthropologist is right. Objects move us, but only because of their connection to people.
The anthropologist studies the objects left behind by migrants as they cross the border.
Last week, I shared Theophilus Kwek’s article where he suggested that even though Singapore is a small country, it can try to find creative and mutually beneficial ways to help Rohingya refugees. This new article by Tan Teck Chye presents counter arguments, suggesting why this would be fraught with problems, such as the exploitation of asylum seekers.
If my house were on fire, I won’t hold it against the good people who take me in and give me shelter if they could not guarantee my longterm prospects.
BY TAN TECK CHYE Theophilus Kwek’s article on asylum policies (“Safer Waters: An Asylum Policy for Singapore?”) is well-intentioned but requires further consideration before it can be applied to reality …
When we first arrived in Adelaide, we stayed in a two-bedroom unit off Goodwood Road. My sister’s old school friend had arranged for us to live there while the occupant-bachelor was away for a holiday. Two weeks or so later, he was due home but we still hadn’t found a place to rent.
Fortunately, through our new church, we met a university lecturer who said that his family had space for us. They lived in a double storey brick bungalow with two separate entrances – one on the top level for the family, and one on the bottom level, which was rented out to international students.
It was summer, and the students had not yet returned. The lecturer had devised an ingenious scheme of using grey water for his fruit trees. He had peach trees in his backyard, and he used to lug in boxes of peaches for us to help ourselves. I had never before tasted such peaches, picked when ripe from the tree, simply bursting with sweetness.
Neither the bachelor nor the lecturer accepted rent from us. We invited the lecturer to come downstairs to share a meal with us (the rest of his family were away), but the sense of indebtedness lingered.
We eventually found a rental place on a sub-divided plot of land. It was a compact home, with three small bedrooms and a bay window that looked out to pink standard roses lining the front porch. This became our first home in Adelaide.
We lived there for two or three years. At different times two new migrant families moved in with us until they found their rental properties. The entire family – mother, father, child/children, luggage – would take up our master bedroom, and my family retreated to the back two rooms. Nowadays, when I drive by that tiny house, I wonder: how did we all fit?
But I don’t remember it being onerous. I also don’t remember any evidence, in these two instances, to the saying, ‘Fish and guests in three days are stale.’
Perhaps it was because we didn’t move heaven and earth to accommodate our guests. I didn’t cook special food, and we let them do the dishes and mop the floor when they offered. It took the pressure off me to be the perfect hostess. While we were close enough to have some shared history, we had enough distance so that we were courteous to one another, and refrained from comparing or critiquing child-rearing practices, content to let it be that each family has different habits and standards.
It may be due to selective memory, but I remember those two occasions as fun times, like adult versions of extended sleepover parties. Our children were around the same age, so the kids had a few extra playmates. We took turns cooking. They copied my tiramisu recipe and I admired their Thermal Cooker: bring soup to the boil in a pot, put the pot into an insulating cylinder, let the soup cook on latent heat for three or four hours, and by dinner enjoy bak kut teh, pork falling off the bone.
When I drive by those pink standard roses now, I almost think the house must have expanded. Resources have the capacity to grow to accommodate the intentions of the heart.
When I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, I asked him why Australia did not take any of the 2,500 refugees from a freighter, the Hai Hong, that was languishing in Malaysian waters in November 1978, local authorities having refused the freighter permission to dock.
He said, ‘Maybe Australia felt it was doing enough with the numbers we were taking out of the camps, in Malaya in particular. I think we’ve all got to accept that there could be more people than you can easily, totally accommodate. That’s why as many countries as possible should keep their doors open to refugees. So that no one country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.’
How far is too far? This is not an easy question to answer because there is an elasticity to capacity. It grows or shrinks depending on how the host community regards newcomers: bane or blessing? And this is where the rhetoric around immigration and asylum seekers has a real effect on how welcoming a society is and its capacity to provide refuge to those fleeing war and terror.
Next Friday: how my grandfather accommodated Chinese migrants in Malaya and what that did for his business.
In the late 1800’s, the Neuman family immigrated from England to the fledgeling colony of South Australia. Following a tough beginning, including the loss of their son on the voyage, they eventually took a significant business risk. When they established a plant nursery in a remote area on the outskirts of the city, many considered it madness. Yet it was a huge success, attracting customers from all over Adelaide to purchase plants.
I hiked into the area recently to view the old ruins of the homestead. Isolated tracks such as Perseverance Rd and Torture Hill reflect the challenging setting. In the remote location, I found it difficult to imagine a thriving business. And then I noticed clusters of tiny orchids growing amidst the native flora, seeded from plants of previous generations.
BY THEOPHILUS KWEK Over 400,000 Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar since August, the latest episode in a cycle of conflict and displacement that has afflicted the predominantly Muslim community. …
Writer and researcher Theophilus Kwek points out that despite Singapore’s size, the island provided ‘immediate rescue’ to over 32,000 Vietnamese refugees from 1978 to 1996, on the condition that they were repatriated or resettled within 90 days.
In today’s context, Kwek suggests that Singapore could provide short-term territorial asylum, receive unaccompanied minors, or allow Rohingya to work in Singapore, a country heavily reliant on foreign labour. Neighbouring Malaysia is giving 3-year work permits for Rohingya to work in certain sectors, as Jordan is doing for highly skilled Syrian refugees.
The old house in Malaysia had laundry lines strung across the first floor balcony. Through a small latched gate in the balcony railing, I could step off the balcony, onto the carport roof to make use of the additional space if I had more laundry than usual. It was an ideal spot, receiving the morning sun.
The house was on a no-through road and everybody else had lived there for one or two generations. I was the latest addition, having married into the family. It didn’t take long for all the neighbours to know I was pregnant, and everybody knew when I delivered because of the row of cloth nappies hanging over the carport. Those white flags were as good as any community broadcasting service.
When we moved to New Zealand, the laundry lines were located on the western side, between the house and the fence, a location chosen for discretion rather than sunlight receiving properties. It has been that way for every house I’ve moved to ever since, whether in New Zealand or Australia.
Does this mean that Malaysians value privacy less than New Zealanders? After all, in Malaysia, you can drop by for a meal unannounced, call after 9 p.m., and feast all day at other people’s homes during festivals like Chinese New Year, Christmas and Hari Raya.
Yet, in other ways, Malaysians, or more broadly, Asians, can be incredibly private. There is an unspoken code for what is private and what is public. Celebrations are public; family troubles are private. I think that this stems from a sense of family loyalty and the wish to maintain the honour of the family name.
Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston begins her memoir The Woman Warrior with the words: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you…” Her mother then speaks of an aunt who became pregnant in China. One night, villagers attacked the family home on account of what they conclude must have been an act of adultery. Maxine’s mother found the body of the aunt and the newborn child plugging up the family well the next day.
It’s clear from the opening line that Hong Kingston is about to disregard what her mother told her. She’s not only going to tell someone; she’s going to write a book and tell the world.
Why did she do that? I can’t speak for her, but my experience is that family secrets keep people caged up and prevent them from receiving support at times of great need.
It would be presumptuous to conclude that Asians value their privacy less than Westerners. In fact, the location of those laundry lines over the car port had more to do with the pragmatism of my mother-in-law’s generation in an era before neighbourhoods were prettified. You won’t see laundry lines as you drive by Tropicana Golf and Country Club bungalows today. Furthermore, the Asian welcome of the unexpected guest comes not from a scant regard for privacy, but from a culture of gracious hospitality.
As I grow older, I see the choice more clearly: if I have to choose between respectability and wellbeing, I would choose wellbeing. Better to confide in a trusted friend, than to suffer in silence. It is not to air dirty laundry that we speak of family secrets; it is to deny those secrets the power to confuse and cripple us.
Of immeasurable worth, anywhere in the world, in any culture, is the friend who will listen and not gossip, who will accept me as I am, tell me the truth, and walk with me through hard times. Some things are universal. True friendship is one of them.
Next week: the role migrants play in welcoming newer migrants.
From 2001 to 2010, our young family moved ten times for my husband’s work. Twice we moved to different countries, four times to different cities, ten times to different neighbourhoods.
The first of these moves was from my husband’s hometown, where the same handful of families had lived for two or three generations. We moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, where we knew one Malaysian couple.
A Pakeha lady from a local church baked a batch of biscuits and gave them to us in a reusable plastic container, with a note. For some reason, the only thing that I remember about the note was that we could keep the container.
Perhaps it was because there is a kind of leanness to a new home. Every cup, pot, and plate has been brought over or acquired, not accumulated the way stuff naturally aggregates when you live in one place for a long time.
Our house was newly-built and unfenced. It was hard to keep the children penned in while I was hanging out the laundry. Once, when my back was turned, they stumbled on their chubby legs down the slope. Fortunately, our new neighbour, Maria, who had very short hair and very long nails spotted them and asked, ‘Does your mother know where you are?’
As a result of my husband’s work, we moved from Hamilton, to Tauranga, and back to Hamilton again. This time, we moved into an old log-cabin-styled home. Some time after we had settled in, we noticed a new family moving into the row of units to our right. Having grown up in multi-cultural Malaysia, I instinctively avoided any welcome gift containing pork or beef, and baked them a cake.
After knocking, I waited, anticipation laced with nervousness. The door opened and I saw a grey-haired lady in a kurtha, an old man in a turban, and, I think, young children. The parents of the children were out. When I left, the cake was still in my hands. They didn’t eat eggs.
Seven house moves later, we introduced ourselves to all our neighbours, bearing a gift of Bracegirdles handmade chocolates. The Japanese lady two doors from us exclaimed, ‘Oh, in Japan, the new people introduce themselves. You’re doing this Japanese style’.
A few days later, we retrieved this card from our letter box. Our Japanese neighbour had given us her phone number and the names of all the members of her family, in English and Japanese script. She also wrote these words: ‘I’m sure you’ve found the best Door to your life in Adelaide…If you need any help, we are here’.
We have now lived in this neighbourhood for over seven years. In this time, two neighbours have passed away, one has been involved in a motor accident and recovered, and one has had a baby. Our families have not known each other for generations, but we are not strangers either. We have some shared history, some shared memories. It’s sparse, but it’s something.
In my book, Island of Refuge, I interviewed Iraqi playwright, Sabah. He and his family fled Baqubah in 2003, applied for asylum in Jordan, and arrived in Adelaide in 2006. The family has lived here since. At the close of the last interview, he said,
‘Man belongs to his memories. Iraq was my home and I lived there a long time. My imagination is linked to those memories. I realise of course that if I had a chance to go back I will find that things have changed and I will have a shock. But still, this is the missing link in my life. In Iraq, I lived with people who shared my memories, people who knew us: Sabah the writer, Lamia, the actress; here, nobody knows us.’
Perhaps knowing and being known is the essence of belonging. It’s nice when neighbours reach out to the newcomer, but if they don’t, there’s nothing to stop the newcomer from reaching out.
After ten house moves, here is my checklist for the nurture of neighbourliness:
If in doubt, give fruit.
Give without expecting anything in return. (After all, I once received golden Anzacs without saying thank you properly. At various times, I have attributed this to the chaos of moving, the busyness of motherhood and the lack of knowledge of local etiquette; these are all excuses.)
Concentrate when the new neighbours say their names. (Can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten the crucial point of introductions. Might have something to do with the nervousness when meeting new people.)
Once out of sight, write those names down in a safe place.
In time, as opportunities present themselves, offer neighbourly courtesies: pick up the mail and wheel in the bin and water the plants when they go away, exchange phone numbers, return stray children.
I would love to hear about your neighbourhood: how you’ve been welcomed, or how you welcomed new neighbours. Feel free to leave a comment. Email address will not be posted or shared.
Next week: Laundry on Life (or where we hang our laundry says a lot about our attitudes to privacy).