Swooping magpies and fake news

One false step has made me the target of swooping magpies. Is this how fake news begins?

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Kerrawn

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.

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Bittinger

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.

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My bird list. Australian magpie is No 40, with an entry to say it pecked my youngest child in 2007.

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!

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Sanderson Magpies Warbling

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.

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.

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).

Interview with Blackwood Circle of Friends convenor: Tricia Rushton

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The Blackwood circle has partnered with a local Men’s Shed group that refurbishes bicycles to give bicycles and helmets to a northern suburb circle, where far more refugees live today. (Tricia is next to the girl in pink.)

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:

  1. direct support for refugees and asylum seekers
  2. fundraising
  3. 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
  • bike helmets.

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.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather’s legacy: from general merchant to something more

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.

Ban Loong Chan
Literal Translation: Shop of Ten Thousand Prosperities

 

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.

An early portrait of my grandfather, Loh Mee Loon
My maternal grandfather, Loh Mee Loon (1903 – 1993)

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.

My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 - 1947)
My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 – 1947)

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.

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.

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Ir Loh Ban Ho, a grandson of Loh Mee Loon, pointing to the original shop signage now hanging in the restored building.

‘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.

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.

 

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.

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).

How to Spot Psychological Manipulators *NEW POST*

I used to assume that I had done or said something wrong whenever people reacted badly. This post was illuminating. As I read the list, I wondered: how am I going to remember so many points? Then I reread the quote in the beginning. Just bearing that quote in mind – you learn a lot about people when they don’t get what they want – automatically puts me in a healthier relational space with another.

Source: How to Spot Psychological Manipulators *NEW POST*