Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The long answer

'Where are you from?' is at once an assumption and an accusation. The assumption that you are not from here and the accusation that you are from somewhere else. When you've grown up in a country different to the one you or your parents were born in, you will be asked this question over and over as your accent, dress, word choice, assimilation and right to belong are put on trial. The trial will take place in seemingly innocuous conversations with everybody you will ever meet, in between half-smiling faces and tilted heads leaning on fists leaning on elbows on the table.

Like most people the world over I have trouble answering this question. Perhaps due to the traumatic experience of having to answer this in primary school and constantly getting the answer 'wrong'. You're not Australian, You're Asian! the playground logic went. As I got older this question was asked in round about ways Where are you from originally? What's your background? This is a fair question in itself. It's rudimentary conversation. I ask this all the time, I get asked this all the time. Yet it doesn't erase the heaviness it takes to respond.

Answering this question and having it asked in many ways throughout my life I have learned a lot about people, society and myself. I learned that from a young age I came to associate being Australian with being white because that definition came from the indelible conversation I had in primary school and the way people would ask again, after I would tell them I was Australian, No, I mean where are you from? I learned later that it also meant what suburb you lived in, which was another way to judge somebody altogether. Mostly I learned to answer or avoid answering what it was I realised people were really asking me. Questions about race, class, inclusion, identity, the right to belong.  

I've learned that some people take pride in telling you where you are from. At a house party in Spain a group of moroccan guys confidently informed me I was indeed from the Philippines and not from Australia because I was born there, as if the location of my birth directly excluded the twenty years I'd spent in a different country. They reinforced the life I'd spent feeling I had to prove my Australianess and in subtle ways deny or circumvent the reality of my filipino heritage. I was infuriated and a little drunk and so less than articulately and in spanish tried to explain what I am explaining here.

Which is that of course, you've heard it all before, definitions are important, the way we ask and answer and frame questions is important. These little everyday things that happen over and over again are imprescindible because they provide insight into what society values or assumes about those that make it up. This conversation is not so much about the question Where Are You From as it is about what that question is really asking, why we ask it and what the answer is.

People say where you're from is whatever you identify with. This doesn't make things easier necessarily. As an immigrant you are without roots in the country you're in. You grow up feeling your way through the culture you are in, trying to connect to it, be part of it. It feels almost as if you are a limb, amputated from a seamlessly connected body and placed rather hastily onto a new one. You imagine what it would be like had you not been torn from the original but cannot keep but growing into the one you are part of now. The phantom of the old comes back every now and then to remind you that you are not completely from here.

At the same time your adopted body excludes you, however unconsciously. You are conveniently forgotten in the image it paints of itself, often overlooked in a casual way only to later be held up as some token of difference and plurality. Where do you belong, if anywhere? At once the question about where you come from is less and less about the actual state of your birth and more and more about how you define yourself as a being.

On paper I was born in the Philippines and raised in Australia. I live in Sydney's west. Yes, The West. That's the answer I give, the short answer. The long answer is that I feel every day a little more drawn to know the country of my birth - its tongue, its tastes, its chatter - to create a connection that I do not feel deeply, that was severed the moment I left and has not had enough time to grow into anything other than an awkward nod to my ethnicity. On the other hand there is the irrefutable will I have to put down roots in Australia, the country of my first cubby house, my scarred knees, my accent that always leaves out the Rs. I know this is the place I want to continue to write on forms as my Country of Residence. I will also always feel for Spain and Bolivia and look longingly on their progress as I would a sibling in whose life I am merely a spectator.

The long answer is that I feel at home in many places, the two countries who have defined me all my life continue to play a role in shaping who I am despite a few years living outside of both of them. Being cut off from one and replanted in the other endows in me the wondrous luck of being able to be a tourist and a local at the same time; to look into an identical face speak a foreign language and at the same time take pride in introducing other travellers to aussie slang. To be many parts of a whole that cannot be fractioned nicely, that will always have something left over from somewhere else.

Monday, August 4, 2014

My sisters

With respect to my brothers, I've read that having a sister makes you a better person. 'Better' how? Well it's supposed to make you kinder, more human. I have two sisters so by logic I should be extra super duper nice. When I tell stories about Australia, about home, about my life I often find myself starting with their names, their weird habits, their funny stories, their evolutions from fellow confused children to somewhat grown up but no less confused people.

We fought like banshees when we were younger, my sister Bas and I. She was always trying to "ruin my life" by wearing the same outfit as me and I was always making her cry because I wouldn't let her wear the same outfit as me. My face was a clenched fist that would explode 'MUUUUM!' I'd scream stretched out so the single vowel took on five different tones of injustice - 'BAS. IS. ALWAYS. COPYING. ME!' Is there anything more comical than the seeming injustice imposed upon children and the passion with which they seek to right those wrongs? Bas would say I was always. excluding. her. and my dad would say don'texcludeyoursister! and I would say yes dad as if putting the word don't in front of her complaint changed everything.

Things were different with my youngest sister. She has always been the baby and my memories, our memories, of her are set apart from the bickering and bitter I'M.NEVER.TALKING.TO.YOU.AGAIN! fights (that would come later, during the teenage years). With Gel it was almost like playing house. I was just shy of five when she was born and I remember being at the hospital to visit this pink fleshed martian sister of mine. Too fragile to play with, to innocent to fight with, too young yet to be our equal. We had to learn how to be softer and quieter and kinder around her.

All four of us 'older kids' have grown up, growing her up but I have never and will probably never stop calling her my baby sister. People ask me how old she is when I say that and I am forced to remember sheepishly that she is almost twenty. I know for certain when I am eighty and she seventy-five I will still speak fondly of her to the other old bats at the nursing home referring to her in a tone reserved for puppies and infants as my baby sister.

There is a fierce adoration, competition and loyalty bred between me and my sisters. I imagine there is some similar invisible spider's web connecting my twin brothers. Living away from them the web stretches but never breaks. After fourteen months my baby sister and I are in the same country and in a few short days we'll be excluding everybody else by talking in a language only we understand, it will be her and I on the same side of the skype screen. And we'll skype Bas (Hi Bas!) who I'll be seeing in only a few short months. August is here already and I can count the months I have left on one hand. Months and weeks more of this life before the two best things in the world - home and family.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The first week in Bahia

Monday to friday I wake up early. I get out of bed fifteen minutes after the alarm sounds at seven to cut up bananas and strawberries and have the coffee Joe's made for me, the cheap instant kind we mask with small teaspoons of brown sugar. We sit in the dining room with its large french style doors that are always open, showing small balconies with pot plants of knee-high aloe vera. Orlando, an ecuadorian equivalent of my dad, usually knocks on the door at eight.

We walk with him to buy coconuts - he buys the ones with the least flesh because he only likes the juice while we buy the more mature ones for 25 cents more. We eat them later when the sun is high and the sweat soaked into our shirts on what we now call our Coconut Break. This means Orlando talks about how much he likes coconut juice (but not the flesh!) while we suck out all the water under the shade of the bamboo hut's thatched roof. After all the juice is gone Orlando hacks them into quarters with his machete and we scoop them out with his pocket knife.

The hours pass as we water plants, weed, move the small trees in their plastic bottles from the corales to the nursery, we separate seeds, prepare soil, mix the compost and supervise groups of school children who fight over how many plants they can take home and which kinds and how big this one is or how small the other; the child's right to complain for complaining's sake. We learn to distinguish the leaves of the chirimoya tree from other kinds, the purpose of using rice husks in the soil, fine and thick compost and which weeds to pull out even though they have grown so big they look like the trees we want to grow.

It is not Cartagena humid. A pinch of cool water sits in the air - not enough to make everything permanently sticky. The mornings have been cool, the sun peering out as we board the twenty minute bus passing painted walls advertising last year's regional candidates Cristi - Mujer Con Pantalones. Despite the motto she didn't win but Orlando says nobody wants to paint over the walls because they're all still too attached to their favourites.

Joe and I have already tried the different almuerzos, scoped out dinner places when we don't feel like cooking and have designated Coco Bongo as the regular wifi and coffee spot. During the week I bake brownies and banana bread like I did in Cochabamba. Trips to the local market a block away are made once a day to buy fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. We are early retirees - living not off our pensions but our debt or savings and spending leisurely hours reading, writing and taking naps.

The pace of life is different here, from traveling through Colombia, from the year in Bolivia, from Sydney life, from spain. The sun doesn't set later or earlier at any time during the year. The equator has that effect of evenness, of balance and I find I am liking more everyday having my hands in the earth in the morning and my feet in the sand and ocean in the afternoon.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The things I count

These days I count
the time since I last saw
the half moon, my sister's face
the southern cross, my lover

I do not count on my fingers
but in my closed eyes dream
as I walk through palm trees
on mountains, so far from the sea

I count the pages of my life
double checking that none are missing
that the naked parchment will be filled
by words as earnest and full as the last

There are things I cannot count
like my missing him, them, home, out
I cannot count on how I feel, the words I speak
that the past will not be forgot, on tomorrow

Yet I keep counting
mostly my blessings
giving perfect thanks
for the countless times
I've seen the half moon
my sister's face
the southern cross
my love

Friday, July 4, 2014

Notes on Colombia

Here your travelers paranoia is disproven, it does not apply. A stranger on a bus takes your luggage and yourself suddenly and too soon you are in a taxi heading to a place you don't know. You are practising ways to defend yourself when he turns to attack you which he surely will because nobody is to be trusted - least of all a random passenger from a bus in some small city in Colombia. Cursing yourself silently for being so stupid and unoriginal, sure to end up another irresponsible single female traveler headline in a foreign country. You reply to him in curt, one word answers.

You are wrong. He pays for the taxi and sees you to the bus stop, warning you about the dangers of traveling alone and to always be careful. The bus to the little fish village arrives, as he said, and he sees you on helping you with your luggage. You apologise briefly, rightly embarrassed at the way you were hypothetically karate chopping his neck before running out of the taxi in the worst-case-scenario nightmare playing in your head. 
***

Cartagena is thick, sticky heat that clings to you. You sweat through your thin cotton shirts and tiny shorts while the locals stride by unperturbed in jeans and long sleeve shirts. There are also some of the most hideously unnatural plastic surgery results you've ever seen; Colombia - home to the world's most beautiful women. Their legs are thin yet somehow morph into giant curves that make you want to break out into all the songs you know that have to do with ass. But you don't, your mouth drops and your head turns and you realise now what it's like to be a guy. You keep on. 

The colonial centre is stunning and immediately you are taken aback, you have discovered time travel, or perhaps just travel - the best kind. Vines creep up pale pink walls, you peer into wooden barred windows and walk under balconies fit for serenading. It is undoubtedly romantic and you smile at the thought of coming back here with him and doing it all again. Him who you miss and whose absence reaffirms both that you can, in fact, be alone again and be more than okay and that now he has formed a part of what home means to you, a home that you carry with you always, wearing it around your neck and close to your heart.
***

You travel with a french friend who is every bit as awesome as her name suggests. Most of the time you spend laughing at everything that nobody else would find funny. She asks you questions without easy answers and listens intently to your inchoate replies. There's the absence of self-consciousness in your conversations, topics that might make one frown or cringe but that you dive into without hesitation. The comfort of your chatter and later the silences pave over the discomforts of traveling, sweaty and tired through buses and taxis. You sleep in hammocks by a beach, in a tent in a national park, in a dorm with young good looking french guys and at the hospitality of lovely colombian connections who prove over and over that yes, colombian people may just be the nicest people in the world.
***

Alone you write a lot and quickly the pages fill with your slanted scrawl. You draw occasionally but write mostly and one of the things that stands out are the only true words of a poorly attempted poem I want to live the way I float in the sea

I want to live the way I float in the sea.

I want to live the way I float in the sea.

Monday, June 16, 2014

La despedida

Colombia has been a place in my mind I have run to many times. It was where I stored all of my fantasies of belonging and being blown away. It was where everything would be fixed or at least no longer matter. A wonderland of a country I would talk about with a glint in my eye when my skin was wrinkled and my mind muddled. A place of pure expectation.

It's unfair to have on one side all experience, to have lived through all that was Bolivia for me and to now be crossing over into a world that I had preplanned being in love with. Before I jump into the next affair I have, I must, say a proper goodbye to the place I've called home for the last year.

Bolivia I will not miss your daily manifestaciones about trufi prices or coca cola in schools... but I will miss that certainty people have that the actions they take have the capacity to affect outcomes. 

Bolivia I will not miss having to haggle for everything with the unparalleled suspicion that comes with being a gringo... but I will miss the notion that most things are negotiable, that nothing is fixed, that with a bit of luck and a lot of cheek you can get something you weren't expecting.

Bolivia I will not miss the piles of rubbish that fill the street, every man woman and child contributing to its unfathomable rise... but I will miss the notion of pachamama, the donation and acknowledgment she gets before a beer is drank, at the k'oa every month.

Bolivia I will not miss the choking dust that flies in through the windows, the broken cracked pavements, the packs of street dogs that walk the night that taught me to keep a rock in my clenched fist just in case. I will not miss the generic cholita pop pumping from the trufi speakers with the same casio keyboard sounds behind each souless 'Eso! Esoooo!'

But I will miss the stretched words and endearing endings of all the words in their diminutive, that particular way Cochabambinos have of making castellano their own. I'll miss the sound of quechanhol spoken en la cancha. I will miss the sturdiness of the women here who redefine the word feminine, women who are the pillars of Bolivian society, raising children on their backs, building streets and working farms, running businesses, leading demonstrations and being generally formidable human beings.

I will take with me the lessons of complexity this country has taught me, through conversations with Bolivians where my image of their president, history, culture and society have been challenged and rebuilt. It has been refreshing to be shown how far Bolivia has come and how far it still has to go. That having the first indigenous president has meant indigenous people have not only been acknowledged but valued. TO learn that this has come at the price of alienating other sectors of society, devaluing other peoples. That the continued insular politics and rhetoric of the current government isolates tourists and other types of foreign exchange be that NGOs or businesses. I leave with Bolivia close to my heart, watching for its rise and cautions of another fall. By no stretch of the imagination have I become an authority on Bolivia, simply somebody who was lucky enough to watch and see and talk to a Bolivia that is and has created a strong image of itself to the world, however far or close that is to reality.

Like any imagined community, as Benedict Anderson coined, it is exactly or exactly not what you think it to be.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember: Part 2

The ASTI was a world away, albeit in the same universe. There were no fences, no barbed wire and no gates. It was an old motel that was now housing families and unaccompanied minors in the bunk beds and multi-level rooms. It had a shallow gated pool that they were allowed to swim in when there was a lifeguard, no grass and a small back concrete area with a sad-looking volleyball net held down by broken bricks. We walked in after showing our licenses to the guard sitting at the front of the motel, bored and tired looking. We signed in but not before a young girl came up and gave me a hug. We were allowed to hug the kids and sit them on our knees, let them give us kisses and hold their hands. Human contact. 


There was womens yoga inside and mens yoga outside everyday at 11am. We managed to get a tall Kordish man by the name of M* to join in, he was a towering and formidable figure - thick eyebrows that met in the middle - all off set by a large friendly smile. I learned later that day he was a father, his two children were as gorgeous as they come, the prince and princess of the ASTI motel. His son had almost marble blue eyes that shot through - not blue of the ocean, but a pale almost milk blue of the sky on a clear day near sundown, or of a marble staircase reflecting it.
'He's got gorgeous eyes,' I told M.
'Like his mother,' he said. 
His daughter Piraya had more of his dark features, long eyelashes that extended from here to infinity.
'Where are you from?' I asked M.
'No from. I am Khordish, we are not from anywhere,' he replied, 'I speak Farsi, I lived in Iran but I am Khordish.'
***

His name was H* and he spoke flawless english in an almost english accent. He had told us he had studied english for 7 years. He spoke Arabic, among other things. He liked russian authors, particularly Ivan Bunin and I recommended Leo Tolstoy – Confessions and other religious writings to him.
'Christmas Island was disgusting. It was like hell, worse than hell. Everyday,' he held out his hands in resignation.
'I saw people cut themselves, slices up and down their arms.'
He went on to relate a story about an officer who was racist.
'He asked me, “What do you think of this Tamil tiger?” and he tried to act as if he was good, as if it was okay. It was disgusting. I told him “what do you mean?” but I knew what he meant, what he really meant. And he was trying to act as if he was still good.'
H* was extremely articulate and I remember thinking what a great thinker he was. I asked him why he didn't come to any activities and encouraged him to come, 'We want to talk to people like you and hear your stories, we want to listen – even if that's all we can do.' Later that night while I was in North 1 he came to scrabble, without hassle and without spruiking. He came and sat for almost the entire two hours sitting and playing with the others. Another small victory, I thought.



The younger guys, the unaccompanied minors or UAMs, loved idioms, so did the men at the centre. The UAMs english was the best out of all of them, probably because they went to school. They were always using any excuse to slip them into conversation, like 'Piece of cake' or 'Green with envy'. They were so eager to practise their english, to improve, to be part of this new country that rejected them so outrightly. 
'Grace! Grace! Ask me how my day was.'
'What?'
'Ask me.'
'Ok, how was your day A*?'
'Same shirt, different day.' And he had a smile that ate half his face up, so wide that his eyes disappeared into full cheeks of satisfaction. He proceeded then to turn to another volunteer who was leaving. They were always making jokes between them and he was not happy that she was leaving.
He said to her, 'T
ouch my shoulder.''What? Why?''Just touch my shoulder.''Is it, cold?'
There was a momentary pause before we burst out into laughter. I loved how they took these idioms literally and made them their own. He had given her the cold shoulder and a warm smile at the same time. 


***

There were a group of Burmese guys who were sitting in the corner. There weren't that many of them, most of the guys in South 1 were from Afghanistan and spoke Hazaragi. I approached them and asked them how they were, what they were doing and why didn't they come over. I asked their names. There was a serco officer sitting with them and he spoke their language too, he would translate if I spoke too fast but A* was the one who understood the most. He was a very skinny guy with large round eyes that seemed dilated like an owls.

'Thanks for coming over, I know it means a lot to these guys. It may not seem it but I know them, even their body language has changed. They are more open. They just want to be acknowledged.' Again, there was that ache in my chest again, the onset of blurriness at the back of my eyes. 'I will remember you guys! You have to come to programs, come to art and yoga!'

I did see them and speak to them after that. A* invited me to play soccer with them and I would smile and wave everytime I saw them, I could see the difference too. They were a minority among a minority. A small group of Burmese guys amongst Afghans and Iranians. In North 1 I heard there were only 4 Burmese guys in the entire compound – North 1 had about 200 people. What loneliness among loneliness I thought.



***


On one of my first couple of days I had my first experience of sadness, the bleak outlook that so many of them must have had. His name was S* and I had never met him before. I was talking to people through the fence, which we only later learned we weren't meant to do, and while the others walked away I saw him there, standing by himself.
'Hello,' I said, smiling.
'Hello,' he replied, taking a step toward the fence. I did the same.
'How are you?'
'Not good,' he replied, straight out.
'Why?' It was such an instant response, it probably didn't occur to me how insufficient and inappropriate it was.
'Because I am here. Everyday. I have too much tension in my head.' He said, fingers rubbing his temples.
I didn't know what to say.
'I know it isn't good, it is a difficult place.
'Do you pray?' I asked, although religion was on the contraband list of topics along with politics, it was the only thing I could think of.
'Yes, but my God does not listen. He is angry with me.'
'No, that's not true. I know it is hard but you must have patience.' I wasn't sure where this was going, didn't want to patronise him or set him off.
'I know, I know,' he said.
'What is your name?'
'My name is S.'
'I hope to see you at activities. We want to listen to you and help you if we can. We can not solve your problems but we can be here just to listen.'