We fly into Singapore International airport in the wee hours of the morning. The first leg is a breeze and lulls us into a false sense of security. It is the first time we are traveling with two children, the first already a seasoned traveler but two – that completely changes the rules.
By the time we reach our seats and settle our children in we are exhausted. I push back into the seat, the ache in my back throbs dully as it molds in protest to uncomfortable seats. As I cradle my sleepy son I hear the haka dialect swirling around me, and I know I am bound for home – Sabah. I’ve never really spoken this dialect, my tongue like a piece of cardboard, unyielding to its cadence. But the language is embedded in my bones, it is the language of my parents and grandparents – that mix of English and Hakka.
We are home again this year, unexpectedly because of my brother’s wedding. As we walk around KK town as Kota Kinabalu is affectionately known, familiar smells remind me that I’m back in Asia; the wet smell of dank and rotting garbage from open sewers. I walk past an old man squatting on a faded plastic stool, a bag of bones encased in a dull leather sack, tanned by a lifetime of peeling onions on the sidewalk of the restaurant. Raw sewage flows out of an industrial bin next to him but he seems unfazed. Brackish water seeps into the bitumen road, pooling in between the holes and crevices mingling with the run-off of diesel fuel. The sludge made worse by the cigarette butts swimming in the soup. Words spoken in Bahasa now bubble up in snatches of conversation as I walk past, it takes awhile to connect the words to meaning, but as I wrap the words around my tongue a door opens, and they spill forth.
Most first generation migrants still refer to their country of birth as home, no matter how long they’ve been overseas. But funnily enough I don’t really know KK – the hometown where I was born, I never lived here for long enough having grown up in Kuala Lumpur. We moved around quite a bit, and by the time my parents moved back to KK I was already studying in Australia, and I breezed back and forth between the school or university term without much thought or interest in this place. For over twenty years now I’ve resided in Brisbane, it’s been the longest place I’ve been in that I call home. For many of us migrants, I’ve straddled between a Malaysian Chinese culture that has grown dim over the years and an Australian one which jostles for prime position. What is it to be an Australian and Malaysian Chinese? I never really thought about it until now as we arrive with my children in tow. I’ve come back a different person and I look at my ancestral home with new eyes.
Is this my ancestral home? Or is it way back in China to a town down south somewhere that no one knows about? I interview my father and his siblings, trying to ascertain the source of our roots but no one knows.
‘How come?’ I ask out of frustration.
‘Don’t know,’ my father says shrugging his shoulders, ‘never asked.’ He said pursing his lips in thought. It mirrors the same answer I got from Uncle Tim, his younger brother.
‘Why not?’ I asked
‘Back in those days, we didn’t want to bother the old people. They never spoke about China, I think life was hard back in there, there must’ve been hardship and suffering – ‘
‘Do you know what happened?’
‘No, but what I gleaned talking to the old people here and there it was pretty awful – the starvation etc
‘Are both sides of your family from China?’
‘Yes, both my mum’s and dad’s, they’re both Hakka which explains a lot of their life.’
I had never really thought too hard about what it meant to be Hakka before, but now I was curious to dig deeper – who are we? Where were we from? The word ‘Hakka’ literally means guest in Mandarin. For the Chinese to call us that, research says that we might’ve originated outside of China. History tells us that we were driven out of our lands by the Chinese, I wonder whether we were considered minorities, were we persecuted too? Eventually, we settled somewhere in the south of China, where exactly I can’t verify. No one seems to be able to tell me. Or perhaps they don’t want to.
I’ve spent the last two years writing a book in someone else’s skin, now I feel compelled to write my own. This yearning to belong, to show my children that they too have a history, roots, that go all the way back to China. There is a reluctance in my family to reveal too much – for some, the pain is all too present, for others the shame is something they want to be erased forever. But I am determined to find out where we are from, what our story. I will persevere, for all good stories deserve the time and patience to tease out.
The image of a Chinese golden dragon on the wall catches my eye – the eternal symbol of strength and power. Legend tells the story of a school of golden koi who swam upstream with the goal of getting to the top of the waterfall. Leaping from the depths of the river, they attempted to reach the top of the waterfall to no avail. Their efforts caught the attention of local demons, who mocked their efforts and heightened the waterfall out of malice. After a hundred years of jumping, one koi finally reached the top of the waterfall and the gods recognized the koi for its perseverance and determination and turned it into a golden dragon.
Like the koi, I too will persevere.