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.

The Little Man Counts

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Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.

With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.

Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.

Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.

Endurance Challenge held every year in Chapman's honour

Chapman’s Challenge held on the island every year in his honour. In 2016, his descendants participated in the challenge and are listed in placing 4 and 5.

I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.

This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter  Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.

Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.

 

Seeing life through the lens of death

Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.

Leo Tolstoy

Rees Leo Tolstoy

While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?

So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.

But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.

Lord Jim in Borneo

When I began reading Lord Jim, I was pleasantly surprised that Jim was not the Lord of an English manor as I had supposed. Instead, he was a seaman, disgraced by his desertion of the passenger ship, Patna, which he believed was about to sink.

Tormented by his loss of honour, Jim banishes himself to the village of Patusan, a fictitious village, on the island of Borneo (a real island on which Kuching, capital of Sarawak, is located). There, it seems that he finds redemption – his strategic thinking and courage bring peace to the village. The villagers call him  Tuan Jim, Tuan being the Malay word for Lord.

When I finished this classic, I felt my emotions quivering so near the surface of my being that I could have wept. I wondered how the author, Joseph Conrad, of Polish descent, could portray Jim and the villagers in Patusan with such empathy.

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Sutherland Bronze bust of Joseph Conrad

Was because he had sailed to the Malayan archipelago while working aboard British trading ships? Was because he understood his own frailties? (In his youth, he had attempted suicide in the face of gambling debts.) Or was it his extensive research? To inform his writing, Conrad drew on many 19th century non-fiction works.

Given that this was the age of colonisation, I find it all the more extraordinary that Conrad had the intellect and heart to go beyond superficialities and prevalent stereotypes. He wrote to our shared humanity.

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Beckett Conrad’s gravestone inscription

 

A hundred and sixteen years after Lord Jim was published, Mark Nyambang asked the Bishop of Kuching about the true meaning of Christmas. The bishop spoke of hatred in the world, the refugee crisis and the challenges of diversity. He highlighted the uniqueness of Sarawak, where people of different races and religions live together in peace. His words ring true to me, because I have lived there. I have experienced their welcome. It is real.

 

 

‘So my Christmas message to everyone is that we should try to obey God, to embrace, to reach out to one another in love and be reconciled. Heaven and earth is reconciled on Christmas Day.’

The Right Reverend  Bolly Lapok

Bishop of Kuching

Eyes to See

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Carmen as a child in Romania, 1960s

Carmen grew up in Romania during the Cold War. With her young schoolmates, she used to pay homage to Ceausescu, chanting at rallies: Long live the President who gives us a good life. But long queues for bread told her she was living a lie; the entire country was living a lie.

Carmen was fascinated by psychology. As a Christian, however, she could not study it at university – professions in teaching and psychology were only for Communist party members. Instead, following her father’s footsteps, she enrolled in Mechanical Engineering.

By 1987, during her third year of studies, Carmen became deeply dissatisfied. She saw no future for herself in Engineering or in Romania. She wondered if she could escape; she saw a better future for herself outside Eastern Europe.

After interviewing her about her amazing journey to Australia, we both stood at her kitchen bench. She was describing her plan to turn her house into a place where she could offer counselling and prayer.

‘It’s a bit woolly out there at the moment,’ she said, looking out the back window, her gaze directed at a carpet of weeds, ‘but my husband and I will landscape it. It’ll be a garden where people with troubles can come and sit. Can you see it?’ She peers at me through her spectacles.

Almost thirty years since she embarked on her own journey of hope, Carmen has launched Hope 4 You House, which aims to ‘assist families experiencing extreme hardship, by offering food parcels, emotional and Christian spiritual support.’

Carmen’s story is about having the eyes to see potential, a kind of vision that gives us hope and enables us to keep working until possibility becomes reality. We all need such eyes – how else could we raise children, build houses or write books?

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish…’

Proverbs 29:18a

The Bible, King James Version

Setbacks and breakthroughs

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Adelaide Chin Christian Church choir. Used with permission.

About a year ago, I began interviewing Za Dim, a lady from the minority Chin tribe of Myanmar. After describing her experience of torture in an Indian jail, she said that each time she recounted the experience, she would be dizzy and unwell for a few days. We sat silent for a while, the air heavy with horror and sorrow.

Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry for all that you went through.’

‘Nothing you can do about that. It’s in the past now,’ interpreted her son. ‘The story after this is happy.’

A few days later, her son called to postpone a meeting because his mother was unwell. My subsequent phone calls went unanswered and I almost gave up hope of seeing them again, wondering if the interview had caused her so much pain that she had decided to discontinue the retelling, wondering if she was still happy for me to publish her story.

To my great delight and relief, I recently reestablished contact Za Dim. Her family had moved from their inner city home to the northern suburbs. Warming ourselves before an antiquated wood burner, Za Dim and I exchanged pleasantries. I handed her a copy of her story, what I had written so far. She accepted it and invited me to her church.

As I drove her to church that Sunday, she told me that her youngest son had read her story and asked who had written it. ‘My friend, May-Kuan,’ she had replied.

It has been said that journalists have no satisfactory word for the people they cover – characters? subjects? – which may say something about the oddness of the relationship itself. So it meant a great deal to hear Za Dim call me friend.

Writing this book over the past three years, I’ve encountered various setbacks. The Cambodian lady I interviewed pulled out on reading the draft, desiring to ‘let the past be the past.’ It was a setback for the book, but, I’d like to think, a cathartic experience for her personally.  So many times when I’ve thought the book is nearly done, the finish line in sight, it turns out to be a mirage; there is more writing, more editing, more interviewing.

But breakthroughs like reestablishing contact with Za Dim, visiting her church, seeing so many Chin families thrive in Adelaide, makes me take heart. Press on. Move forward. Inch closer to the end.

 

 

Foreign workers, foreign languages

Each time I return to Malaysia, I eat dim sum, or as it’s known in Australia, yum cha. Pushing trolleys of bamboo steamers and plastic plates, waiters and waitresses call out har gaw (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts).

Without looking up at their faces, I cannot distinguish if the speakers are Chinese or Burmese, so perfect is their pronunciation. As I travel through Singapore and Malaysia, the language acquisition of foreign workers never ceases to amaze the English teacher in me. In class, my worksheets and role playing exercises cannot achieve the same results.

It was with lofty ideas of learning how to improve resettlement services that I embarked on this story collecting journey – forty years of refugee resettlement and six stories, the stories winding through thirteen countries. But as I near the the end of it, I realise my folly.

Heck, I’m not even an hourly paid instructor at TAFE anymore. What hope do I have of improving the delivery of English in Australia? To persuade employers to give migrants a chance? Use an apprentice system, perhaps coupled with tailored English lessons. Language has to be used to be acquired. Classroom teaching alone will never deliver.

In interviewing people and writing their stories of forced migration, I was, I think, at a deeper level, looking for an excuse to seek out such stories because my students had made my predictable life more interesting. They were unemployed, being paid to attend math and English lessons, but they made me laugh and put my daily inconveniences into perspective. I felt more alive, more human, more in touch with the world for having known them.

Never refuse chocolate

It was mid-morning and Kom saw other students giving me food. It was comical; my little haul was surely too much to consume during a fifteen-minute tea break. Kom rummaged through his bag, pulled out a chocolate bar and offered it to me with a wide smile.

‘Oh, no thank you,’ I laughed. ‘I’ll grow fat.’

‘Don’t say that, teacher,’ he said, his eyes downcast, as if a great sorrow had descended upon him.

I had met Kom on my first day in my new job as a teacher. I was sitting in to observe a more experience teacher, who had asked everyone to write down three numbers each and get someone else to guess what those numbers referred to.

Kom looked at my piece of paper and said, ‘Husband?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘everybody has one husband.’ I realise this is not true, but for some reason, we both burst out laughing.

When Kom re-entered my class about three years later, the carefree laughter had gone. Things were not going well at home. His wife came in for my computing class one day with her tiny daughter in tow, a little girl with large, large eyes and two tight ponytails. Childcare arrangements were not yet in place.

‘Please, I have been home nine years looking after the children. I want to learn. Please let me stay,’ she said. I understood her anguish. I had known what it was to stay at home with beautiful children you love so much, and at the same time feel that the world is passing you by.

But we could not let her stay; management had made it amply clear that our insurance did not cover children on the premises. My boss came and told her kindly, but firmly, that she could not attend class with a child. The little girl started swiping her chubby fingers at my boss’ knees, trying to protect her mother. Kom’s wife was aghast, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And then they both went away.

And so Kom taught me that I should not refuse gifts and goodness. When so many troubles beset us in this world, we should celebrate kindness, accept generosity and be thankful. Sometimes you need to keep your eyes on the small good things, especially when the larger more difficult problems are too difficult to solve, just yet.

I took the chocolate bar. And thanked him.

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Carter

Capture them while you can

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My aunt, Lim Kum Ying, circa 1950.

My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’

I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.

But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.

When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.

Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, and write down stories.