Hosting New Migrants: on the capacity to welcome

Welcome Sign to a Home
Welcome By Delforge

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.

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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.

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Laundry on Life: thoughts on privacy and friendship

 

Rijper Laundry on the Roof

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.

Neighbourhood Welcome

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.

New Zealand Neighbourhood
Our new neighbourhood in New Zealand as seen from our driveway.

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’.

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Welcome card from my Japanese neighbour

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.’

Sabah and his family in Adelaide.

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:

  1. If in doubt, give fruit.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. Once out of sight, write those names down in a safe place.
  5. 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).

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.

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).

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Jen

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.

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World Bank Photo Collection: A construction site in Kuala Lumpur

I’ve only just realised the significance of my encounter last week with Rashed, the owner of Loveon Cafe and Deli in Adelaide. It was not the Bangla breakfast – poached eggs with lentil soup, not the iced coffee, nor the hand-made clay earrings from Bangladesh; it was the first time I have had a conversation with a Bangladeshi.

This is surprising because I return to Malaysia every year, temporary home to tens of thousands of Bangladeshis; they are everywhere but everywhere unseen. They might lay bricks in construction sites, make beds in hotel rooms, fill up cars at petrol stations but I’ve never had a conversation with any of them.

‘Full tank,’ is probably the most I have ever said. Aside from the obvious language barrier, there is something else that prevents me from asking even a simple, ‘How was your day?’ – the knowledge that that in all likelihood he hasn’t seen his family for months, is sending almost all of his pay home, and his employer-provided accommodation is not exactly the Hilton. This knowledge makes me feel that the question would be insensitive at best, patronising at worst.

Our forefathers used to be barred from the Selangor Club, where colonialist played tennis and drank at the bar, native workers bringing them them clean towels and drinks. It still irks me when I read of someone calling for ‘boy’ in period novels – a native servant could be fifty years old, but to his employers, he would still be ‘boy’.

We who have known how humiliating it was to be regarded as inferior, what it was to be regarded as less intellectual, less capable, less civilised, do we treat Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Burmese, as a lesser class of people?

There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where some people have to leave their homes, to work in another country for years, in order to provide food for their families, or money for their children’s schooling.

My paternal grandmother left her family in Menglembu, Perak, to work as a maid in Penang up north. She only returned during Chinese festivals a few times a year and as a result my father never really had a close relationship with her, but at least she was still in Malaya.

In two generations we have moved from a society of servants to a society with servants.  May we remember where we came from and treat our foreign workers as we would have liked our grandmothers and grandfathers to have been treated.