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.

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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’.

IMG_3266
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).