Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Memory is in the present tense.


A man struggles with his daughters in the grey light of evening. A bedraggled group of people wade through water, waves beating against chests and faces, arms desperately grasping at items soon to be lost in the water. This is where we lose most of our family photos; Um does not forget. We live beside and from the river; we must fight it to find another home.

Ba is leading and he carries me, asleep on his shoulder. Um walks somewhere behind, carrying Brother 8 who is not asleep but quietly hugging his much loved blanket. Between them stumble my sisters: No 4, No 6 and No 7, heads down, tired and alone. The cold water and Ba's jerky movements wake me - Ba calls back to Um asking about the sleeping pills she should have fed me. Um exasperatedly calls out - I fed her two. I wriggle and demand to be put down, to walk on my own through the water. I am two years old, going on three. Unimpressed, Ba shushes me, continues his struggle towards the distant green light of a small waiting fishing boat.

Sister 7 is youngest of those struggling on their own. She is five, soon to be six. The waves knock her down time and again. At last, it is too much. She turns around - it is so much easier to walk with the tide, rather than against it - and returns to the land: it is so much closer than the distant light, there is warmth and food back there; ahead there is only uncertainty and months on the water with only rice and salt to eat. But Sister 7 is responsible - she calls out to Um & Ba, calls out that she is returning home. Um yells at Ba and at Sister 7: at Ba to stop Sister 7, at Sister 7 to not be stupid, to continue with the family, who will look after her? "I will look after myself", Sister 7 announces and continues towards land. "Walk by yourself then" Ba says to me, letting me fall as he races back to collect Sister 7, whom he scoops up and carries. He picks me up, too and carries us both, struggling for different reasons.

We arrive at the boat, though it is hard to recall how. The walk was interminable and yet, may have lasted no more than half an hour.

People often ask me whether I was a boat person. My only response is - sort of; or maybe, no, not really. We came by boat to Malaysia and stayed in the refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur for many months before coming to Australia by the family reunion program under the auspices of the UN refugee program. From KL to Australia, we flew. We are boat and plane people. It was harder than for some, easier than for others.

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