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).

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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.

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.

Boy

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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.

 

 

 

 

Iced coffee instead of bush tea

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My friend Merrilyn remembers a wonderful Afghan family and has a visual picture of where she parked when she visited them twelve years ago. On hearing that I would like to interview Afghans for my book, the two of us set out in my little car to try to locate this family.

‘It’s a corner house like this, but this one looks too flash.’

‘It has a long backyard like this, but there are only men’s shirts hanging in the backyard.’

‘Look, there are council workers over there. Would you be embarrassed if I spoke to them?’

‘No, but I don’t think they are going to know the Afghan family.’ I was starting to have my doubts, but admired Merrilyn’s commitment to the mission.

When we crossed the street to speak to a lady wearing a fluorescent vest, I thought of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, the detective and her secretary from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith. The only difference was location: Adelaide, not Gabarone.

‘I’m looking for an Afghan refugee family who live here. I visited them twelve years ago. You wouldn’t have stumbled upon them would you?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘We’ve just started in this area.’

‘You’re probably not even asking ethnicity.’

‘No, dog registrations.’

‘Ah, that’s a good thing to do. Keep cool. Sorry to take up your time.’

‘Not at all.’

It was a cheerful exchange, though not a very productive one.

‘Let’s try this one,’ said Merrilyn, pointing to an old sandstone bungalow with a letterbox propped up against the chain link fence. My heart sank when we rung the doorbell and heard Broadway music from the last century. An Aussie bloke in a singlet shuffled to the door. Definitely not Afghan. We did however learn that he barracked for Carlton because his brother lived there, though he did occasionally barrack for Port.

Ah, well, it was not to be.

We had spied a bustling cafe and decided to quench our thirst after all that sleuthing. Once again, like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, only we had iced coffee instead of bush tea. Waiting to pay, I read a small newspaper article pasted to the till. Loveon Cafe had been started by a certain Rashed Kabir, who came from Bangladesh 10 years ago. While waiting for our coffees, we admired the handmade clay earrings we had bought to commemorate our day of detective work, the artistic decor and the little teapot on our table with the words ‘Coronation 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth.’

We met Rashed before we left and I said, ‘Wonderful cafe. Who is the artistic person who did your decor?’

‘All of you. The community. Everybody contributes.’

‘Where are you from?’ asked Merrilyn.

‘Bangladesh, crazy place,’ he says, smiling.

 

His son was just behind the counter, a mop of curly hair and bright black eyes. The young boy moved to a small table with crayons and toys, and I understood why it felt like a child friendly place, not just because of the brown paper wall covered with children’s drawings, the high chairs, the mothers with their babies, but because it was this child’s space too.

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Trying to finish the first draft for the book while juggling all the other commitments in life, the best thing motto I can think of for now is: Love On. After all, ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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Loveon Cafe along Gladstone Road, Mile End. Well worth checking out if you’re in town.

Hello and Goodbye

My paternal grandfather
My paternal grandfather

I sit in my study in Adelaide, thinking of the journey that my paternal grandfather took from China to Malaya somewhere between 1900 and 1930. It’s an imprecise estimate, my best guess.

In the only surviving photo of his younger days, he is in Western attire. He was a scholar, or, as the Cantonese saying goes, one who holds a brush. I imagine him looking for a better life, fleeing the political turmoil of China, setting sail for the South China Sea.

For the migrant, life is a series of goodbyes and hellos, and for me, the modern day migrant, December is a month of long summer days, bush fire dangers, and holidays back home. But home is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Maybe home is where the food is best – where I hear a metal spatula fighting with a wok and know that a good plate of char-kway-teow is coming up. But my children have developed a taste for Spaghetti Bolognese, Aussie meat pies and Kourabiethes, and I must admit that I am partial to a good tiramisu myself.

Or is it where I can walk the streets my grandfather walked? Where I can gaze up at his calligraphy, imagine his brush forming words that were cast in concrete and affixed to the newest building in town? But my link to him is tenuous. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. Those streets may hold my history, but not my home.

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My grandfather’s calligraphy on a building in Menglembu, near Ipoh.

 

My grandfather left China and never returned to see family left behind, establishing a new family in a new land. Modern migrants are luckier. We travel back and forth with our hellos and goodbyes and our bittersweet holidays, maintaining links with the past where all the talking and remembering is compressed into a few emotional weeks, and then we return home again to forge a path into the future, wherever that may be.