Is life better over here?
The day we arrived Melbourne was a rainy evening in autumn though at that time the seasons meant nothing to us. In Malaysia it is either hot or very hot all year round. We were entering as skilled migrants – here to pursue the great Australian dream of fresh air, sunshine and a world of opportunity.
The taxi swept us over the West Gate Bridge, and I thought of our double-storey house in Kuala Lumpur – the frangipani tree in the garden about to bloom, the city we had just left behind still twinkling with the warmth of late-night food stalls. Outside, the rain continued to fall. Walls hollered with graffiti. And somewhere beyond the darkness, a shadowy shape stumbled and cursed into the night. So, this was Melbourne.
The hardest part about moving to a new country, I found, was not the actual moving but reestablishing your career with young kids in tow. As I wiped crumbs off the floor for the third time that evening, I contemplated the lifestyle of middle-class families in Malaysia, many of whom can afford helpers who take care of meals, clean the house and bathe the child so you can come back home to a nice clean house and children you can then spend ‘quality time’ with. You are not too exhausted to read a story or talk to them about their day. You have time to switch off work – or work overtime if you wish.
As time went by, my partner and I learnt to navigate the relentless marathon of working and parenting in Australia. We found ourselves entwined in a multi-layered landscape of new migrants, old migrants, First Nations communities and more – and you wondered where we fit in all of this. Malaysia too consists of a melting pot of cultures – Chinese, Malays, Indians – but why didn’t we feel like outsiders there? Is it because everyone spoke Bahasa Malaysia? What then is Australia’s national language?
Years have passed and I’ve learnt to do a lot of things myself. I can fill up bank forms with one hand. I can prepare breakfast, pack lunch, do pick-ups and drop-offs – and still manage to squeeze work in in between. Melbourne has taught me to be a parent, or more precisely, it has taught me that it is okay to be one.
And yet, as I feed my youngest child and revel in the joy she has in slurping up a strand of spaghetti, I reflect on all these things I have done on my own. I notice the quietness of my living room, the gum tree creaking outside; and I think of the country I have left behind. Despite the traffic, the chaos, and the way rules are bent all over the place, would it not be better to have a village around?
Moving here, I know that the children will never really know their roots, not the way I did. There is only so much you can learn from Mandarin class 50 minutes a week before running out into a world full of Australian words and Australian life. Sure, they might have a trip back home every few years, but it will simply be a holiday like any other. My children will never understand the beauty of chaos; where malls are abuzz from 7 P.M., where cars trump pedestrians, and no one complains about the hawker stalls spilling out onto a street.
The country has a Malaysia Boleh attitude, a ‘we-can-do-anything-ness’ that flies through the city like a flag that inspires people to break boundaries and venture into new areas. How do you explain the joy of eating in a back lane at midnight, or being able to understand three languages simply because you have heard them all your life?
Every time I go back to Malaysia, there is something bigger, newer, shinier – malls that would make Chaddy look small. On my last trip back, the Light Rail Transit was complete, transforming the skyline into a Blade Runner world. Melbourne on the other hand, had not changed much since my university days. The Union Building still looked the same as it did 20 years ago and the CBD trundled with trams from centuries gone by.
Then again, many migrants flock to Melbourne not for its infrastructure but for the underlying foundations that uphold society such as a system of government that is seen as world-class, transparent, and genuinely dedicated to giving everyone a fair go. Almost one third of Australians were born overseas. Whether it is from UK, Italy or China, we have all left people and places behind, many of which are no more. We are all learning to carve a new life, and hanging on to the pieces of culture and language that exist only in our memories.
Suddenly the festivals and celebrations we used to celebrate with such fanfare, have become private family rituals that remind us of who we used to be. The mooncake festivals, the Chinese New Year reunion dinners, winter solstice; each year and every generation they remain special but are somewhat smaller, and more diluted.
Instead, we celebrate Easter and Australia Day, the Grand Finals and NAIDOC week, and every other opportunity to have a BBQ. What ties us together is a bigger, all-encompassing celebration of life, of family, of people who have made the choice to seek alternate pastures; whose second, third or fourth generation children may feel loss, but who will hopefully emerge as Australians and citizens of the world.
At this point, my 12-year-old son walks into the room. He says his homework today was ‘easy as’. He calls a duvet a ‘doona’ and says things like ‘Woolies’, ‘Maccas’ and ‘Mate’. When he says ‘water’ it sounds like ‘war-taa’; and I think maybe… maybe we do have a national language after all.