Renaming Roads and Revisiting History

On a 2010 road trip with my dad to find his childhood home, I discover roads that have been renamed. Our understanding of history is anything but static.

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On Malaysia’s Independence Day today, my thoughts turn to a road trip I took with my dad in 2010. We drove up from Kuala Lumpur to Menglembu, so that he could show me the house where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. Back then, I was helping Dad write his memoirs. My sister had handed me her notes and the eleven pages she had written. My job was to complete the rest.

Malaysian shophouses
The row of colonial British shophouses in Perak where my dad grew up.

Dad’s first Identity Card (IC) was issued in 1952, when he was 12 years old. The card itself is a curious mix of languages: English, Malay, Chinese. The British introduced the IC to fight communism and it was a possible precursor to some sort of citizenship document in anticipation of the day when Malaya would be granted independence.

Dad’s address is listed as 57, Tranchell Street, Menglembu. In 2010, when Dad pulled off the North-South Highway, his memory guided him.  Tranchell Road is no longer on the map. It has been renamed.

dad's ic
My dad’s identity card issued in 1952.

Looking at Google Maps this morning, I think Tranchell Road is somewhere in the cluster of roads renamed Jalan Menglembu Timur 1 to Jalan Menglembu Timur 16. Very long names. A tad unwieldy. I understand why the roads have been renamed – to name and to rename is the prerogative of the ruling power – but I cannot help feeling that something has been lost in the process, some enigma, some history, some story.

Malaysia school
My father’s old Wan Hua Primary School, which housed a Lutheran Kindergarten when this photograph was taken. This street has been renamed Jalan Barat.

Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian yesterday that the current debate over the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue is really about ‘how European Australian and indigenous Australia are going to reconcile on this continent given their competing cultures and histories.’ He warned against revising history because there will be no end and it will leave both sides depleted.

Revising history is difficult and dangerous. But revisiting history is not. I think we should revisit history many times, preferably from different points of view, and hopefully, each time, we gain a better understanding of what happened, a more nuanced, more accurate version of what happened and why.

I think it is crucial we pay attention to the telling and retelling of history because history confers legitimacy. It shapes understanding. It speaks to what we allow and forbid, what we love and hate, and who we allow ourselves to become.

I am so glad I embarked on that road trip with Dad. I discovered things I would never have otherwise discovered. It took three years to write the book, Fish in the Well, which we self-published in 2013. I hope to make it available shortly as an eBook. Please subscribe if you would like to hear more.

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).

Jen
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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Graves at sea, graves on land

Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper
Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper

Today, May the 29th, officials from 17 countries are attending a “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.” Myanmar had threatened to boycott the meeting if the term ‘Rohingya’ was used in the official title.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are 2,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya still stranded at sea. The Australian Prime Minister has flatly ruled out resettling any of them.

A few days ago, a cartoon published in a Thai newspaper, The Nation, depicted horrified Malaysians uncovering a mass grave – a reference to a grisly discovery in the northern Malaysian state of Perlis – with a twist on Malaysia’s tourism slogan: ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ to ‘Malaysia Truly Embarrassed’. One Facebook comment was, “Yes, well, who is doing the smuggling? And would The Nation dare print anything like this about the situation in Thailand?”

I feel a deep and abiding sadness within me and recall the Malay proverb, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah“, which translates: As the elephants fight, the mouse deer dies in the middle.

It so happens today that a few hundred Rohingya are stuck on a boat out at sea, a handful of officials are meeting in Thailand and I am blogging at my writing desk. If we were born at a different time or in a different place, all of us could easily have traded places.