This post originally appeared on bringinguptheparks.com where our writer, Jackie Park, maintains her personal blog.
This moment I am in right now brings me back to that time when my mother shared that she had lost her childhood pictures when her house was flooded, hard copies of her youth drenched. It was a sad story, of course, but one that had always been just that until today.
And, finally understanding that loss, I take a deep breath, hold my sleepy baby closer to me and welcome the memories that have been put aside for so long.
When I was young, my mother would take me and my siblings to Malaysia to visit her side of the family. My relatives were spread out all across the country, but thanks to airplanes and buses that distance was still manageable. It was that great border called language that my siblings and I struggled with.
Growing up in the Philippines, the Chinese-Filipinos of my generation mostly spoke English. We were all enrolled in Chinese schools, but that didn’t necessarily mean we actually learned the language—Mandarin and Hokkien to be more specific. Some days, I still wonder how different my life would be right now had I just paid more attention to my Chinese classes.
You would think that having relatives in Malaysia and visiting them every two years would be motivation enough to study, but I was quite a lazy kid back then. To them, speaking Mandarin came naturally because that was their native tongue. Chinese-Malaysians mainly speak to each other in Mandarin. Like the general population, my relatives could also converse in English but mainly because it was part of their school curriculum. Naturally, they could also speak Malay but that was a language very much foreign to me and my siblings. Nonetheless, we were blessed with kind and patient cousins who would do their best to communicate with us in English during our infrequent visits.
Each visit to Malaysia was an adventure. Of the four siblings, I think that I was always the most excited to go to Malaysia. Every trip wasn’t just a plane ride to a foreign land. It was a trip back to the land I was born in.
But the language barrier meant that there were many instances when communication was a bit queasy and even awkward, especially when we all got older and our parents weren’t just putting us all in one room and asking us all to play with each other. And then there was the fact that our holidays were different from Malaysian holidays, which meant that my cousins were usually still in school whenever we came around and we didn’t always have someone to play with. If I’m not mistaken, it was during those quiet in-betweens when I started to read more and to write.
The reading came first. On slow afternoons I would entertain myself by excusing myself to retreat to my assigned bedroom to read a book. The writing came once in a while, but it was more out of boredom rather than a desire to document our visits.
And then one day, it just clicked. I started to write. I started to write about the smallest things at first—like the fat chicken I considered murdered on my Aunt’s giant chopping board or that time my Gwa-ma (my mother’s mother) tried talking to me more but couldn’t because she got tired of trying to understand my broken Mandarin. And then there was that time my Uncle’s cow caught me with its horn which fortunately was just a minor injury. That was also the same trip when my cousin, my brother and I thought that giving a smelly cat a bath was a brilliant idea. And that time we swam in a river with the cousins or that time I rode in my Uncle’s truck across Sabah to buy fish from one end to sell halfway across the state. Or the first time I drank beer with my mom and sang a song from a screen screaming words in front of me. Or even that ride to my grandparents’ house where I was so worried about getting lost that, in a half-panic, I asked my mother for our home address and wrote it down in my teeny, tiny notepad.
Oh joy! It reminds me of that time when my mother scolded me for writing in a moving cab and my mother’s sisters took me to libraries and bookstores because they knew how much I liked reading. At my grandmother’s Chinese funeral I took notes and even wrote about how my mom and her elder sister watched me nervously as I tossed and turned in my sleep that night—a rumored sign that tossing person was being visited by the departed (in this case, my beloved Gua-ma (mom of my mom)) to say goodbye. I remember not being able to attend my Gwa-kong’s funeral because I was a newbie at work and my mom advised against risking my new job for my dearly departed grandfather’s funeral. Oh, how I remember crying about that so much in the ladies’ room.
Because really, how else could I have held onto those adventures and memories that often happened and passed too swiftly, in a language that wasn’t mine in a home that could have been?
And then there are those stories I keep telling myself I’ll write about until I’ve completely forgotten the details and am left with a few snippets here and there. Like my first awesome Spiderman-spinning ride at Genting Highlands where we all had to stand, arms and legs slightly apart, which my mother partially regretted trying while my younger cousin cried for not being too young to try. Or our trip to Sunway lagoon, a memory which sadly evades me now. Or that time my mother inspected my grandparents’ farm-like backyard and talked about what it was like in the old days, and how my grandparents could maximized that great span of land behind their house. Or that time we would collect durians from my grandparents’ tree and share it as a family.
Most importantly, I saw my mom in another light. I remember writing down observations of my mom taking on the role as Sister, reprise her role as Best Friend and, maybe most importantly, show me what it’s like to be my grandmother’s daughter.
And now I’m in her shoes: the daughter who comes home every so often bringing her gifts called Grandchildren.
But sadly, my journals have gone. The physical copies of my stories and my memories have been sent far, far away, because only I saw the value in those tattered notes.
There’s this particular spot in my parents’ house that I had always assumed to be mine. Not the actual cabinet, but the contents it held.
It was that little corner I never expected anyone to touch.
This year, I had decided to finally collect all of my notes and bring it home with me to Beijing.
It was an accident, of course, that my stories and notebooks were thrown away with the garbage. I don’t live there anymore, after all. Who would have known that the disarray that I had left in my shelves and in my drawer would still hold any meaning for me?
I’d like to believe they were neatly stacked, one on top of each other, but I’ve already been told that they were all thrown into a sack without even being peeked into.
Stories of my Malaysian visits all gone. If only we had laptops then. Maybe I would have an online copy of them.
Because really, who else but its author would understand the random collection of sheets and tiny notepads scattered throughout the space I mistook as “still mine”? Who else would value the scribbles and stories and rants and tear-stained pages of notebooks that didn’t get even a peek as they were collected into a sack and sent to only God-knows-where?
It breaks my heart.
But, like my mother, there’s nothing I can do. Nothing but to start again and try to recollect the memories. This time pen them down and keep them somewhere safe.
Strangely, I keep going back to that memory of my mom telling me about those pictures from her youth.
I understand. I now finally understand the sadness and pain that comes with that kind of loss.
Photo: Abizern (Flickr)