Hello there, if you’re looking for The Curious Scribbler, she has moved to maykuanlim.com.
The walk to the waterfall always seems to take longer than the return trip back to the car. The unknown is always a little daunting, but one thing that I learnt from Darren Rowse is to adopt the start-up mindset: to embrace challenges and to step forward into unknown territory.
Sure, there will be some failures, but it is more than likely that there will also be some successes. And with that mindset, I’ve taken the plunge to self-hosting my own website.
It’s been an exciting few weeks so far of learning about web migration, creating new pages, thinking about what I really want to say with my blog, heck, thinking what I really want to do with my life.
I would love to have you visit my new writerly home at maykuanlim.com.
Thank you so much, Susanne Timpani, for allowing me to contribute this guest post on your blog, Season to journal.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; Ecclesiastes 3:5 A Guest Post by May-Kuan Lim, author of The Curious Scribbler I feel a hint of pain when I look at these early photos because my children […]
One false step has made me the target of swooping magpies. Is this how fake news begins?
The first spring after we moved into our house in Adelaide, magpies swooped me occasionally, but I didn’t pay them much attention. Magpies are territorial birds, protective of their young in spring and will swoop to try to scare away perceived threats. The only real damage they can inflict on humans is eye injury, but I wear glasses so I am safe.
One quiet morning, I decide to go for a walk around my neighbourhood. On the bitumen outside my neighbour’s house, I notice a splatter of black and white feathers. A magpie chick must have been run over by a car. I step closer and bend down to get a better look. From behind, I hear powerful wingbeats approaching, fast.
I turn. A pair of crazed red eyes are fixed on me. A very sharp beak is coming straight at me. A scream of pure unadulterated terror pierces the air. It is my scream but I do not recognise my voice.
I stumble backwards. I push myself far back into a tree, as if the pine needles can offer protection against this bird that must think that I killed its baby. It has aborted its attack without touching me. Perched on a low branch, about five metres away, it does not take its eyes off me.
Finally, mercifully, it turns its head, slightly. Now, only one red eye is trained on me. Eventually, I find the courage to move. A small step first, then another, and slowly I crab walk back up the road, all the while I keeping both my eyes on the magpie and when it is out of sight, run like crazy the last few metres home.
Every breeding season since then, the magpies have targeted me with a vengeance. For most of the intervening seven years, the magpies have swooped only me and left all other family members and neighbours alone.
Every year, the first swoop of the season catches me unaware as I rush to complete as many gardening jobs as possible before I am banished indoors. Last year, I fell off a ladder while pruning a tall thorny rose bush. I screamed, dropped my tools, and ran. Thankfully, I was on a low rung of the ladder. This year, I was talking to my neighbour when it swooped. I stumbled, yelled out goodbye, and ran. We resumed our conversation a few days later, with me hiding beneath a huge black golf umbrella.
How I wish that I could communicate to the magpies that I am not a threat. The irony is that I love birds. I keep a bird list: over a hundred birds identified (caged birds not counted – twitchers’ rules). I put out water for birds in summer. I try to plant plants that provide food for them.
I have even tried, in non-breeding seasons, to feed the magpies – mince beef or bread – to persuade them of my essential goodness. On a few occasions, one has been persuaded to hop nearer, and nearer, and finally to pick up the piece of bread and fly away. But then, spring comes, protective instincts kick in, and all goodwill is lost.
When my efforts failed, the question became: how long do magpies live? When this lot dies off, my life can return to normal again – collect the mail, smell the roses, talk to the neighbours.
But then I heard on a radio program that magpies teach their young to target the same people they perceive as dangerous. It’s intergenerational!
It made me think about the information that is passed down to us. How much of it is misinformation? When I was about ten years old, my grandmother died. I remember being driven to the place where she would be laid to rest. In the car, with my cousins, I was told that on no account should I look back, otherwise something very bad will happen. I had every intention of obeying, but became distracted, and looked back. There was a collective gasp of horror from my cousins. They wagged accusatory fingers, but, thankfully, nothing bad happened.
Other types of misinformation can have more dire consequences. Sometimes people take one incident, that happened at a point in time, under specific circumstances and generalise it to represent a whole group of people, for all time. Politicians may encourage certain narratives because it suits their interests. We have many terms for this: propaganda, bias, prejudice, fake news.
But I thought I couldn’t end this post on such a defeatist tone and last night improvised a magpie-proof hat.
Screen Cloth sewn on.
Wire Ties Discourage Swooping and Visor to Hide Face
I tested it for one hour, and am happy to say that from this limited test period, it appears to have worked. Either the magpies are not around (I am so traumatised that I think of them as omnipresent) or they cannot identify me or the wire ties have discouraged them from swooping. Finally, I got a gardening job done, a job that was really irking me.
Daisies need pruning.
A serious cut back.
Flowers for the table.
Do you have a story about discovering that something that you had been told is untrue? Would love to hear about it in the comments below. More and more I think it is the sharing of our our first-hand experiences that is the antidote to fake news.
Please like and share if you enjoyed this story.
Next Friday, I will write about my experience of the Australian education system as a former international student, a former vocational teacher, and a mother (you never stop being a mother, so no former there).
Many things can get a girl down. How she looks. How much she earns. Whether she climbs the corporate ladder. Whether she cares for her children herself. Whether she has children. Whether she is married, single, divorced, separated, uninterested, uninteresting (or so she thinks).
For men? Just vary the variables. Modern life, full of choices and options, can be confounding. It can frazzle. Confuse. Disappoint.
Kathleen Ciwa Browne Rushton didn’t have the luxury of choice. I know this because, last week, I interviewed her daughter, Tricia Rushton.
In the late 1960s, Kathleen was working in a factory in Sydney to support her invalid husband, Meurig, their two teenage daughters, and Meurig’s mother, who was also an invalid. Both Kathleen and Meurig had grown up in Fiji and survived dramatic World War II experiences before migrating to Australia.
Shaped by mum and dad.
‘In Fiji, after the war, there was an attempt to reimpose a very hierarchical colonial structure, and my father in particular would not have that,’ says Tricia. ‘He really loved Indian people. He wanted to maintain his Indian and Fijian friends and equality, and they thought if they moved to Australia, it would be a less racist place.’
Even though Tricia’s parents were quite wealthy when she was a baby, they lost all their money due to health and other disasters. That is how Kathleen came to be making tin cans at the Gadsden-Hughes Factory in Five Dock, Sydney.
The factory was full of migrant women. Kathleen was a migrant too, but unlike her co-workers, English was her first language. (She also spoke Fijian and Hindustani.)
‘My mother was earning 75% of what the man next to her earned, because she was a woman and there wasn’t equal pay. A guy called Halfpenny was around’- John Halfpenny was a powerful figure in the trade union movement -‘and my mother was angered at the high level of strikes and that the migrant women were being fooled; they did not understand why they were being asked to put up their hands.’
Dwell for a moment on the the picture of a factory worker, a woman paid 25% less than a man in the same job, a woman so ordinary that it might be hard to tell her apart from all the other women. Factories around the world are full of such women. Bangladesh. Vietnam. China.
Now think of two vocal, forceful men confronting her, men important enough to be brought in from interstate, men accustomed to speaking before crowds, men tackling the big issues of pay and work rights and conditions, men perhaps prepared to use whatever means necessary to reach their goal.
Sit down, they say.
No, she says.
Shut up, they say.
No, she says.
It’s enough to put the steel back in my backbone and rub the self-pity off my educated face. But wait. Kathleen was different to the other women.
‘She was blind. She had sight in only one eye and became very old and there was nothing particularly attractive about her except her love and warmth and she just used her persistence and sense of obligation in the community to make things right.
‘I think I have been shaped by her. If anyone thinks that I am half as effective as what my mother was – with all privileges she sacrificed to give me university degrees, and a senior executive career and all that – I would be incredibly proud.’
‘Right up until her deathbed,’ continues Tricia, ‘she was writing to the council, writing to people about things that weren’t right. For instance, when Medicare was first introduced in Australia, it was called Medibank in those days, she noticed that there was a gap. She was a pensioner by then. The Medibank gap inhibited people from going to the doctor. One day she received a phone call from the Commonwealth Minister for Health. “Neal Blewett here. What can I do for you?” She explained the gap problem. And they fixed it.’
Fixing. Lots of things need fixing. There is a lot to do, regardless of one’s employment status, one’s marital status, one’s parenthood status (I think I just coined that phrase).
Perspective. Kathleen’s story gives me perspective. I am part of a larger narrative.
Laughter. I hear the laughter and energy in Tricia’s voice and ask myself, when I am dead and gone, what is it that I have done today that will matter?
I feel like inserting an expletive here, directed at the little pesky problems that get me down. Generally speaking, I don’t swear. However, I want to very forcefully say that I’m not going to let those &*%$! things get the better of me. You know what I mean.
Next Friday: Magpies and me. Warning: it’s not a pretty story.
Last week, I spoke to Tricia Rushton, the current convenor of the Blackwood Circle of Friends, a support group for refugees and asylum seekers.
The Circle of Friends was formed in 2002. Tricia became a member of the Blackwood Circle only five years ago, and cannot speak from first hand experience of those early days.
‘What I know about the beginnings,’ she says, ‘is that it was formed because people were so concerned for refugees who were coming from Baxter detention centre and just being dropped off in Adelaide.’
Baxter was Australia’s first purpose built immigration detention centre. It opened in 2002, ten years after the Keating government legislated Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for non-citizens without a valid visa. Members of the Blackwood and the Hills Circle of Friends used to wait at the bus stop in Adelaide to welcome released detainees and even invite them to stay at their homes. Some of these people had been in detention for several years and needed help to adjust to life beyond the high fences and barbed wire.
Today, far fewer refugees reside in Blackwood. Responding to their changing demographics, the Blackwood Circle of Friends decided to focus on three areas:
direct support for refugees and asylum seekers
raising community awareness and lobbying government.
Fundraising is important, says Tricia, because the group then has the freedom to use the funds as they see fit. Some of the things they have used the funds for:
reunite a mother in Australia with her son after an eight-year-separation (He had been hiding from the Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan.)
DNA tests for three African orphans so that they could be brought to Australia to live with their uncle
TAFE fees for a highly-qualified couple who are refugees (Their original qualifications are not recognised in Australia. Without TAFE qualifications, they will not be able to work in their area of expertise.)
dental work to relieve the agony of a pregnant woman
As good as it is to be able to provide help in this way, Tricia feels that fundraising and direct support is like driving the ambulance to help injured people at the bottom of a cliff. Their third focus area – lobbying government – is crucial, like urging the council to build a fence at the top of the cliff that will prevent people from falling off in the first place. She explains, ‘A lot of the things we pay for are driven by the policies that the government has.’ She talks about Temporary Protection Visas, which are only valid for three years. Often, refugees need legal help, or the services of migration agents to submit visa applications, and this can be very costly.
When I ask her about her motivation to do all this, she points to her parents, who were brought up in Fiji. (Her paternal grandfather was Welsh. He was the first colonial engineer in the sugar refinery.) Tricia’s parents were strongly anti-racist and moved to Australia for a new life. It’s a very inspiring story but too long for this post. I’ll save it for next Friday.
Initially, what intrigued me to about the Blackwood Circle of Friends was the willingness of some of their members to welcome strangers into their homes. For migrants to welcome newer migrants from the same town or village is easy to comprehend. I blogged last week about my grandfather’s shop in Malaya which housed new migrants from China. But welcoming strangers into one’s home is, to me, radical hospitality. Exercising this kind of hospitality requires a certain way of thinking.
Tricia puts it this way, ‘You cannot spend time just thinking about the world or the world’s people and their experiences without thinking: “That’s me; that’s us”. There’s no them. It’s us. To be alive is such a fantastic thing. If you look at the span of history, your life just fans up for this small time, and it’s a terrific opportunity, you know? You should not be leaving the world a worse place than when you arrived.’
Tricia sees her role in the Blackwood Circle of Friends as facilitating a community brought together by their deep concern for refugees and asylum seekers. The Blackwood Circle meets at the Blackwood Uniting Church.
‘The Blackwood Uniting Church is a community-embedded, wonderful institution led by a very visionary pastor. They are very supportive of our work, but the Blackwood Circle of Friends is not a Christian group. It’s a human group.’
I always thought of my maternal grandfather as a wealthy man but digging deeper I learn that he was a small town migrant kid who became prosperous enough to provide temporary housing to new migrants.
When I was a little girl, my family drove from KL to Ipoh so often that I memorised the small towns along the way: Slim River (half-way point), Bidor (eat duck noodles in double-boiled herbal soup), Tapah, Kampar, Gopeng, Ipoh.
Some of the one-street towns appeared as a brief anomalies that whizzed past my backseat window. Those concrete shops looked as if they had fought valiantly against the rainforest for their place and won.
By contrast, towering limestone cliffs flanked the approach to Ipoh. The challenge in our little car was to be the first to spot the Mercedes Benz sign high up on the hills. It indicated that we had arrived.
The Ipoh of my childhood was for holidays and extended time with my cousins. My grandparents’ living room had a concrete and glass aquarium, and portraits of my grandparents and great-grandparents on either side of a towering grandfather clock. At some point during every Chinese New Year, my mother or one of my aunts would say, ‘All line up and kiss Gong Gong.‘
My grandfather was practically bald, apart from a comb-over. He wore slip-in suede shoes and walked in a shuffling gait. He would be guided to a chair, from which he received kisses and presented ang pows.
I remember the feel of his scratchy stubble as I leaned forward to peck him on the cheek. With good humour, he would give me a red packet as a hand-coloured version of his younger self smiled from a portrait photograph on the wall.
The going rate, for as long as I can remember, was ten Ringgit. And so, my image of him as a wealthy businessman, who drove the first Mercedes Benz in Ipoh (so I have been told), appeared to me fully formed, set in concrete, so to speak.
My grandfather, Loh Mee Loon, owned and operated Ban Loong. Initially, he sold all sorts of weighing scales and was also a tinsmith. His shop stood in the centre of Old Town, Ipoh. He had bought it 1926.
His father, Loh Siew San, had migrated from China and settled in Sungai Siput, a small town north of Ipoh. I try to imagine the kind foresight, self-belief and courage that compelled my grandfather, a small town migrant kid, to stretch himself to purchase a commercial property in the tin-mining capital of Malaya when he was only twenty-three years old.
In those days, migrants and mail came by long ship journeys. A husband who had sent for his wife might have relocated by the time she arrived. To address this problem, my grandfather opened his shop to new Chinese migrants. Ban Loong provided temporary accommodation and food in exchange for labour and soon became a community hub.
Then came the destruction of World War II. Bombs rained from Japanese planes. After the war, my grandfather saw an opportunity in the destruction and expanded his business to hardware supply. Business prospered as the townspeople began rebuilding.
The shop in 2015
Supplier of weighing scales
In 2015, when the hardware business was no longer viable, grandson Ir. Loh Ban Ho decided to commit himself to preserving the building. It is fortuitous that Ban Ho is a civil and structural engineer. The old colonial building required new engineering solutions. To meet fire safety standards, the wooden staircase and wooden first floor were dismantled. A steel framework was constructed within the old walls to carry the weight of a new concrete slab.
‘We basically built a new building within the old one. It was three times more expensive than building a new shop, but we didn’t want to tear down the original structure,’ said Ban Ho.
Fittingly, the restored shop now is Ban Loong Hotel, a testament to the foresight, can-do attitude and hospitality of my grandparents’ generation.
Deluxe Double Bedroom
Next Friday: an interview with Tricia Rushton that almost made me cry. She’s a very busy woman, who has worked on projects as diverse as building stronger families, Indigenous Financial management and refugee support.
‘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.