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 Kurdish 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 P 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 Kurdish, we are not from anywhere,' he replied, 'I speak Farsi, I lived in Iran but I am Kurdish.'

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.'
'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.'

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember

The other day I found myself browsing through old documents on my computer. I came across a folder entitle 'Darwin.' There were only three files all of which were entries I had written after the long ten or twelve hour days. I was a volunteer in a detention centre for asylum-seekers. My job was to make their hell a little less brutal and remind them us aussies weren't all for locking them up. That month was undoubtedly the most intense month of my life. Here are some of my scribblings, copied and pasted as they were written (except for the names, that have been changed for the privacy of these people I met - the majority of whose whereabouts and safe-being I do not know). 

It was the Christmas party and all the volunteers were trying to get the clients involved. We were dancing in a circle in the middle of the mess hall in front of the band doing the sprinkler and the shopping trolley, the dorkiest moves we could think of. We were clapping in the air and stomping our feet, trying not to move our shoulders and our hips. Meanwhile, the clients sat in a circle of chairs on the outskirts sitting, some smiling and tapping their feet, others staring on in bemusement of the volunteers. A young chubby Iranian guy by the name of A* stopped and asked in a somewhat concerned tone, 'Do all Australians dance like this?'

On Christmas day we were meant to paint Christmas trees. Instead, they painted my face. A dot in the middle of my forehead like an Indian princess. A circle around my face, and A* painted eyelashes on my eyelids.
'Is it bad?' I asked A* H*.
'No, it's not bad.' He said laughing some more.
'Then why are you laughing?' I asked, confused and adamant that it was something bad he had taught me.
'Because I feel like I am talking to an Afghan girl.'
I smiled smugly and more than chuffed, satisfied it was far from bad.

One guy had gotten his visa and his friends had pinned him down to the floor. The Iranians were always louder and more outgoing. This chubby guy on the grass being held by his larger friend while the other tickled him, sending girlish squeals throughout the compound. We stood by and laughed, giggled - amused at the normality of it all. School boys in a playground.

The Indonesians were something else all together. They played guitar and smoked constantly, grabbed you and tried to propose. They were cheeky, if there was one word to describe them. 

The Hazaras were gentle, I had always said. Quieter and gentler than the Iranians and the Kurds. They looked slightly asian and had eyes that were bewitching. Their faces told story after story, mystery after mystery. 

A young Hazara only 20 years old with brown curly hair and a lazy eye was one of the favourites. He always seemed to be by himself and being one of the youngest in the compound the volunteers seemed to take to him quickly. His name was A* R*. One day he was singing a hazaragi song, I asked what it was and he wrote it out for me, singing as I tried to read the lyrics in the appropriate accent. 

It became an instant hit at lunch and dinner, in programs and making friends with anyone who spoke hazaragi, they would clap at the end when I finished and smile unexpectedly when I began, amused at this filipino-australian girl singing this hazaragi song from start to finish.  'Do you know what it means?' he asked. 'When you are not here, I will miss you... you are like bird flying with a broken wing.' It was sad, so sad. All of the hazaragi songs were. About forbidden love and goodbyes, mothers aching for their children and friends separated by oceans. They were all love songs. Everytime I sang 'Balak Balak' - to fly - I would raise my arms in a flapping motion, up and down like a bird. 

'How do you say "I appreciate you coming"?' L* was always asking questions. He had a pen and paper on him at all times and was one of the most eager students. He asked what the meanings were to all the words he didn't know, he wrote them down and used them in sentences. He asked me to check his work and took his english very seriously. He had a close shaved head and brown eyes, he looked almost like a monk. 

'You are very good. We had volunteer like you before, she was of Arab background and very good. How do you say, how do we tell the volunteers like you were a good volunteer.' I almost welled up in tears.

N* wrote on the inside of connect 4 'Grace is smiling and friendly. She is very nice, I hope she has a handsome husband or boyfriend one day.'

'What religion are you?' he asked on my last day.
'I'm Catholic.' I said, one of the first conversations on the topic of religion that I had there.
'Is that like Christian?'
'Yes, almost the same.' I said, not wanting to confuse him by going into the detail of the history of the Catholic church.
'When do you pray?' He asked, in all seriousness.
I paused, smiled a big at the bluntness of the question that was the first time I had ever been asked that.
'Ahm... well we have mass on Sundays.'
'What's mass?'
'It's where everybody goes to pray together and the priest leads it.'
'What's a priest?'
'Like... the person who leads the prayer.'
'But when do you pray, do you pray everyday?'
'Well.. before eating, if I remember.. and before I go to sleep sometimes.'
'Where do you pray?'
Again, I was amused - both at my unpreparedness of an answer and the directness and keen interest of his question.
'Anywhere. Before I go to sleep in my bedroom or before I eat wherever I am.'
'How do you pray?' There were a bunch of guys around me as well while L* asked the question, interested and watching.
'Well, like this...' And I motioned the sign of the cross saying 'In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit' and I put my hands together.
'What do you say?' He asked, a glimmer of a smile played across his lips.
'Thank you God for my family and friends, for their safety. I pray for all the struggles going on in our lives and in the lives of people around the world. We offer up our worries to you. Amen.'
He seemed satisfied with that. 
'Will you pray for me?'
Tears welled in my eyes and I had to fight them back. 'Of course I will pray for you. I will pray for all of you I said and looked at them all.' I had to blink back the tears, we weren't allowed to cry. 

I saw A* through the window peering in and I gave him the biggest smile I could muster, waving him to come in. I knew I had to tell him it was my last day, he didn't know yet.
'A* how are you?' I said shaking his hand.
'Good, how are you?' 
'I'm good. I have not seen you for a while. You are always playing Sangrak.'
He laughed, 'Yes.'
'Come sit and play with me, today is my last day.' The phrase was so final. 
His face dropped and his mouth opened. 'Your last day.. today?'
'Yes.' I had to force the smile to stay there, ordering the corners of my lips to stay upward.
'So come and play.'
'But.. why?'
'Ah, don't be sad. There will be so many new volunteers. H-gapneeya doostiman.'
He didn't smile.

A*H*  was a smart young guy who said he was seventeen although he looked about twenty two at least. Most of the unaccompanied minors did. You couldn't tell if they had lied to get into the ASTI or if their experiences had aged them. Either way they were smart beyond their years and lacking something of the cavalier and self-indulgent attitude of my generation of Australian friends. He had a scar on his cheek, a burn from when he was younger. He was from Afghanistan but lived in Pakistan, which was meant to be safer. He had told another volunteer, how he had seen dead bodies in the water coming over. How the captain had told him 99% of people that got on the boats would not survive, how he was lucky to be of the 1% that survived.

'What will you do once you're out?' I asked. 
'I will just enjoy my life. It is a time for enjoyment. I have had too many difficulties in my life.' I smiled and hoped he would, hoped it was true and that he would – Inshallah – get to finally enjoy his life.  


Rereading this reminds me of how much I have forgotten, of all the faces and names and phrases I swore I would not have erased from my memory. The truth of the nature of memory and experience shocks me, especially when I realise that so many of the things that are so real to me here - every routine, quote, inside joke, encounter - will be less in focus with every new day, new routine, new quote, new inside joke, new encounter. Nobody can live in the past or the future, it's a magnificent way to miss out on real life but still I lament the faults and holes in my remembering. I made a lot of promises to myself and to other people that month - mostly about not forgetting, about changing, about making sure other people knew. I've done my best to be true to that and still stand by the fact that those were some of the most intensely lived days of my life. They may not get as much spotlight as the way I harp on about Spain or Bolivia but that is because it had nothing to do with location or cuisine, culture or self-discovery. It was where I learned the stuff that we are all made of.  It's where I saw what people mean when they talk about 'our shared humanity'. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In sight

Having learned a second language and to be breathing it everyday has changed my perception of English. I read words with spanish pronunciation. I translate spanish directly back into english instead of the other way around. I'll say of useless actions, thoughts, things - it doesn't serve for anything (No sirve para nada). And I don't see the difference until I catch myself, a little later. When I was learning it, fluency seemed such an impossible and distant place that I would never reach, no matter how much I walked in one day. Now it is an afterthought. When I was tongue-tied and nervous trying to connect my brain to my tongue to a second language, there were days I would rather stay in bed than go out to face my Spanish and Italian room mates. Now mornings speaking spanish doesn't cost me anything (no me cuesta nada). 

Being with someone is like this. My mind is stretched and shaken constantly to make room for a new way of saying what I want to say. I am learning this third language which is made up of reading my own silences and moments I bite-my tongue as much as his eye-rolling or rants. Deciphering the way we are together, in all the voiceless touches and unsaid hints, remembering what he's done rather than what he's forgotten to say. Wrapping my head around the way I am now not a completely unattached being floating in the world with only myself to think about - that's a language I'm not used to at all.

The more I learn about being in a relationship the more I understand what I did and who I did not understand for such a long time. I breathe a slightly regretful sigh at my childish demands of friends trying to neatly divide their time between everyone they loved and who they just wanted to get along. I shake my head at grace before version 2.0, slapping on labels and judgments because it's funner not to have to consider the complex alternatives. That's all the hindsight, now that I am in sight.

In hind sight, I am more acutely aware of the space and distance I need from others to function on a daily basis.  My close friends tell me not to make myself small, not to shrink so others can be big. Which implies that I do that, which I have realised I do. Why do I do that? I have always been so big for a person so small. Being small doesn't serve for anything. The advantage of being In sight means I can edit my life while it's happening, before it's printed in black ink on uniform pages I so desperately wish to tear out. 

If there is any insight I have now more than before it is that we are all so many different people. I am not the same person with everyone. We have no one personality, no one side to us. I don't think anybody can really know us totally. There may be a face we wear the majority of the time but there are millions of masks we store away, masks we may never wear but have nonetheless. 

On here I try and avoid sentences that begin with but it seems I have no other point of reference. I used to not hesitate beginning sentences at all but I am too self-conscious now, clumsy and paranoid holding my cards close to my chest. What do I write here? What do I have to say? What is worth saying? Who gives a damn? On here people I know well or not at all read what I choose to write. But it does not define me and when whatever is written here takes them by surprise - people who have known me for years, or are with me everyday - it reminds me that this is just one of the faces I wear.

I used to care in a more earnest way what everybody thought of me, as everybody does at one point or another - even those who grow up to beyonce (that being, beyonce). In hindsight even if I could rewrite those years of my life, I wouldn't rub out the insecurity because the feeling of learning to untie the weight of expectation was almost certainly worth the carrying it all around for a while. And in sight I would tell her that you can be more than one thing, one person. I would tell her that no one thing and definitely no one person has to define her, ever. And that it's okay to begin sentences with I.