Archives For relocation

Where is that hope?

August 20, 2017 — 2 Comments

Work brought us to America in 1997. The suggestion had been presented a number of times in the previous years, but we had demurred. Not because we did not want to relocate – I had by that time lived in ten countries and my husband in six.

A panoply of color and creeds surrounded me and I did not know what segregation was, though at a fundamental level I knew I was privileged. My classmates were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, animists.

My husband had been traveling to the US for many years but it was not a country I had ever wanted to visit, let alone live. Stories of inherent racism permeated the international arena, in some ways more offensive even than South Africa’s apartheid, because America was meant to be the brave new world where all men are born equal.

But years pass, times change and hope is always present.

We came to America with excitement tinged naturally with trepidation. Houston was to be our city. We chose our neighborhood based on schools and proximity to work but had not taken into account the politics and color of the area and had, unwittingly, chosen a white Republican enclave.

It did not take long to realize I was not considered to be in the middle of the political spectrum – a line I had straddled comfortably for years. I had in a few short weeks become a staunch Democrat. But it’s a big and beautiful country and we came to love it, flaws and all. Our Green Cards arrived as we relocated to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa where we lived for nearly three years.

On our return to the US we decided to stay put for the requisite five years so we could gain citizenship. I was able to write “The President lives in the White House” in order to pass my English test. We had our date to swear allegiance to the flag.

We had filled in the forms, waited our time, paid our money to get to this point – there had never been any real concern that we would not be granted citizenship. Gazing around the packed tiers of the sports arena of a high school in north Houston I was humbled. People of all nationalities were waiting, and a great many of them had sweated and cried to be in that courtroom-for-a-day.

We were all becoming American. We were signing up, as Paul Krugman wrote in a recent New York Times op ed piece, to become part of a “multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns”.

But here’s the thing, before we got to that point on April 19th, 2010, we, all of us in that auditorium waiting to raise our right hands and pledge the Oath of Allegiance, had to swear we had never been, nor would become, affiliated to any organization that might harm the United States.

Us new Americans promised old Americans to abide by the laws, to live up to the ideals of equality and basic human rights, to respect the values of decent people irrespective of their color, where their ancestors or they came from, or their religious affiliations. And with the exception of handfuls, I believe most of us live by that credo.

But what about those born American? The flag might be raised in school yards and the Pledge of Allegiance sworn in rote each morning but what about the disengaged men and women who have forgotten, or reinterpreted, those words? What about those who spew hatred at anyone who does not believe white is might?

I find myself, as a relatively new and proud American, thrown back to the those days of reluctance. Those days of not wanting to live in a country where the color of skin, or what is worn on the head – whether it’s a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke – labels people in the eyes of the ignorant and angry as unAmerican.

And I find myself sad and despairing at the arrogance and nepotism emanating from that great White House. The days before rage and intolerance flew from vitriolic tweets, the days before innocent people on the street were mown down by bigotry and fanaticism.

Where is that hope? Where are those heady days of proud to be American, old or new?

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White Feathers

February 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

p09909-005           Sister Ida Morse, my mother, back row, tall unhatted!

Over the years, I have been asked by those on the global trail how I have managed multiple relocations to multiple countries with a certain amount of sangfroid. This is how, and why.

I must have been about twelve. We were living in Kuala Lumpur so maybe that triggered the conversation about war, which prompted my mother’s comment, “Being shot in the stomach is a terrible way to die.”

This is Mum’s story.

75 years ago, on February 12th, 1942, 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service boarded the SS Vyner Brooke in Singapore. Not far offshore Sumatra the ship was bombed and sunk. 12 nurses drowned or were killed in the water. 53 staggered ashore at Banka Island having been in the sea for about three days. On Radji Beach, 22 of those women and one civilian, were lined up in the shallows and machine gunned. One, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived. Shot in the waist, she played possum in the waves until the Japanese soldiers moved on. She later surrendered and was interned in a POW camp. Of those 65 nurses only 24 survived to be rescued on 16th September, 1945.

Sister Bullwinkel and my mother, Sister Ida Arundel Morse (NX76286), were passing acquaintances. They met in the chaos of a Singapore under threat from the rapidly advancing bicycle brigade of the Imperial Japanese Army, which on December 8th, 1941 landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north eastern shores of the Malay Peninisula.

An hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour began.

Fresh in people’s minds were stories filtering in from Hong Kong of the gang rape and massacre of nurses at St Stephen’s College, being used as a front line hospital, on Christmas Day 1941 just prior to the British surrender. As it became increasingly obvious the island citadel of Singapore would be breached, General Gordon Bennett ordered the evacuation of all Australian nurses.

Matron Irene Drummond called her nursing staff into the main hall, explaining there were two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the SS Empire Star, on which they could be evacuated. One to depart within the hour and the other the following morning. Volunteers were needed for the second departure. Every nurse stepped forward. The matron smiled,  nodded and raised her arm, unilaterally signaling one side of the room would leave immediately aboard the SS Empire Star. My mother was allocated the first ship. Each nurse was allowed one small case. Matron Drummond was shot on the beach at Banka Island.

The SS Empire Star, under the command of an irascible Brit named Captain Capon, not happy having women on board, had accommodation for 23 passengers and a crew. An air raid attack on the wharf delayed embarkation but eventually 2,160 people, of whom 59 were AANS or physiotherapists, were herded into the holds. They did not set sail until first light on the 12th February due to the darkness of the night, mines in the straits and the light buoy being shot out.

Japanese aircraft found them at 9am, bombarding and strafing the fleeing ship until about 3pm. It was due only to Captain Capon’s seamanship they survived with, at one point, bombs landing simultaneously on either side of the ship. If one of the bombs had disabled the ship completely they would have drowned, as most were in the hold. Two nurses were on deck, and threw themselves over the wounded. Both sisters, Victoria Torney and Margaret Anderson were awarded medals for their valour. There were three direct hits in which 37 men were badly wounded, and 13 men killed. It was one of these men my mother nursed until he died.

“What did you do during the attack?” I asked.

“No one panicked. We sang. Waltzing Mathilda mainly. Over and over.”

There was very little food on board. Mum remembers an empty tin of Players cigarettes being used as a tea cup, and someone had a bottle of whisky. The Empire Star eventually made it to Batavia (Jakarta) where everyone was moved to a Dutch vessel for 48 hours while repairs were made. “It was heaven. We had hot showers.”

It was overcast when they left Tanjong Priok and, feeling safe aircraft wouldn’t be able to find them, everyone slept on deck as they sailed for Perth. Disembarking, Captain Capon saluted the Australian nurses, saying it had been a privilege to know them. By the time the nurses arrived in their home states, about a month later, the fate was known of those aboard the SS Vyner Brooke.

Some of the nurses, including my mother, were met at train stations by people waving white feathers. Because these brave and selfless women had survived.
Sister Ida Morse was a pragmatic woman, not given to sugar-coating or dramas but was softness personified to babies, and those who were sick or injured, whether two or four legged.

After that initial telling, my mother rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, either in Singapore or later in New Guinea. She gave me a book, White Coolies, by Betty Jeffrey, a friend from the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, which told of the nurses internment in the camps in Indonesia.

Mum’s story unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson.

Those of us lucky enough not to be directly impacted by war or terror should, I sometimes think, emulate the courage of our parents and grandparents. Our relocations, or dislocations, pale in comparison and are, for the most part, merely inconveniences.

I am not a beach bunny – even stretching way, way back to my bikini days. I love the ocean – being in, under or on it. But sitting on the sand, even with a book and a beer, palls very quickly. Walking along the beach though is a different matter. There is always something to gather.

My latest collections come from the beaches of St Croix. From one, the delicate little shells of palest pink to the deepest blush. Under candlelight on my dining table they take on a translucent beauty reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait. From another beach, I gather sea glass, or as my granddaughter calls them, gems, tumbled and tossed ashore by tides and waves beginning their journey from who knows where. What start as bottles discarded by careless souls from boats, end up recycled as smooth fragments of opaque glass often used for island jewelry. Or, as in my home, placed in glass bowls to glimmer in quiet simplicity.

I still kick myself for throwing out a cache of elegant little black and white shells. Classic shell shapes – each striation a marvel of nature’s preciseness. I can’t remember where I harvested them, perhaps Australia, perhaps Thailand, but I liked them enough to carry around the world for about fifteen years. And then in a fit of throwing out, probably before another relocation, I tossed them.

That is the trouble with, or perhaps the benefit of, frequent moves. Each item must be judged worthy of container space. We have a problem with books but I think have, on the whole, reached an amicable arrangement. My husband’s collection of Folio Society books, and those left him by my father, always get a free ride. Reference, history and travel books too. Some novels I refuse to be parted from, Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, or those which have struck enough of a chord to warrant a second, or third, reading also get a pass.

But beach novels get the heave ho – no ifs, no buts. Which, considering I am a writer attempting to break into the novel arena and know the agonies of bringing 90,000 words to publication readiness, is very hard to do. I feel I am letting the writerhood down but comfort myself with the thought at least the books will be available for others to enjoy, even if the author gets no royalties from the resale.

A truckload of fabric bought from markets around the world – saris, ikat, batik and so on – has also been a constant, with pieces showing up as curtains, tablecloths and cushion covers in other parts of the world.

And then there is a large box of Mexican tiles. Now they have been an ongoing bone of contention – with each relocation my justification getting thinner. Until St Croix.
Those tiles, lovingly collected over the years, now have a permanent home and there has been a certain amount of “see, I told you I’d use them somewhere!”

Our home in St Croix is in Christiansted. One day we will have a wonderful terrace and garden, but at the moment it is a quarry. We have enough stone to build our very own fort – never mind the one guarding the town and Gallows Bay. But it’s what is between the stones that delights me.

Chaney. Lots and lots of chaney.

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Now to people not acquainted with the islands these little bits of pottery and china might just look like, well, little bits of pottery and china. But they’re not! Chaney was currency. Broken shards of table and kitchenware scavenged by children who would then file down the edges, probably on a rock, and use it as money. “I’ll swap you two chaney for a stick of sugarcane” kind of transaction. Early day bitcoins! The term ‘chaney’ is said to be the words – china and money – conflated. Or perhaps, and I have absolutely no evidence of this, chaney came from the word ‘change’. “You owe me two chaney,” sort of thing.

In 2017, chaney is still valuable. This time wrapped in gold or silver and sold as jewelry to tourists and residents alike. Currency of a different kind. These little pieces of china, nearly always blue and white, have though a multitude of uses – all of them artistic. They embellish lintels, become tabletops, or cover vases.

There are four distinct types of chaney: shell edge, a slightly fluted design from mid 1700s England; mochaware, off-white sturdy kitchenware with linear designs from a similar period; flow blue, from mid 1500s Germany when during the glazing process cobalt oxide blurred the design; and lastly the ubiquitous blue willow design, imported from China in the 1700s, and adapted by Thomas Minton for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire. The willow design depicts the forbidden love between a Chinese Mandarin’s daughter and his secretary. Upon the lovers untimely death, the gods immortalised them as two doves, forever flying together.

And as St Croix once flew under the Dutch flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the blue and white fragments are Delftware.

As I wash each piece of chaney, I wonder about its story. These little shards of china and pottery – history found in our garden. History which will stay in our garden, to one day be incorporated into paving stones and risers. One collection which will not be moving on.

Absorbing Cultures

January 15, 2016 — 1 Comment

Culture, a word with various meanings. My copy of the Shorter OED, once we get past the cultivation of bugs in petri dishes, defines it as, “the training and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side of civilization.” No mention of “ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”, which is how an online dictionary interprets the word.

For those of us who have spent large swathes of our lives roaming the globe, living in other cultures, there is often a subliminal absorption of those cultures. Foreign words become part of our family lexicon, not through affectation as some of our more sedentary friends and family might assume, but because they are an audible part of our life wherever we happen to be living. I grew up with words like cukup and tidak, Malay words for Continue Reading…