Anonymous (UWC AC 2008-2010)
Each morning, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I asked myself the same question. ‘Who am I, and where do I belong?’ My dad is a Chinese Malaysian, and my mom is Caucasian and was raised in suburban Minnesota. At the International School that I attend, I learn Bahasa Melayu – Malaysia’s national language – but it was not good enough for me to speak with the locals and I conversed almost solely in English. And in Minnesota, the place I visit every summer, I feared the glances and questions I might draw if I walked around with my white mother. To both of these worlds, I was an outsider.
In Malaysia and America, I had always had a roof over my head, food on the table, and people to talk to, but I had never truly understood what a ‘home’ really was. I envied my friends who could speak their nation’s language and could revel in its culture. They possessed a sort of acceptance that I was missing, and I pledged to myself that I would travel to the ends of the earth to discover that acceptance – to find my home. My search did not end with the guidance of a teacher, a friend, or even a parent. It ended with a group of Burmese refugees. My questions were not answered at the ends of the earth. My journey ended exactly where it began. This is a story about their stories, and how they forever changed my understanding of home.
There were stories of struggle
I first met the Burmese refugees when I visited their village for a school project. Brother Fredrick, a religious leader who ran a major NGO assisting the refugees, agreed to help me. As me and some other teenage volunteers filed into the village, I was immediately shocked by the forty-some refugees huddling under a small tarp, and next to it the single pot the fed the entire village. But I was more shocked when one of the village’s only English-speaking refugees approached me and told me the story of his people. They traveled for months hiding under tarps on the backs of vans. If caught, they would be imprisoned, if not, killed, back in Myanmar. Nonetheless, the prospect of a life of freedom in Malaysia was enough for them to escape their homes. The poverty and persecution that they endured in Myanmar dwarfed my feeble struggle to learn Bahasa and reconcile my two ancestries. Furthermore, in Malaysia, were far from having asylum.
Here, the refugees are paid RM50 to cut down an acre of trees, regardless if 1 or 100 people are working on it. They eat two meager meals: one at 10 am and one at 6 pm. In Malaysia, they are illegal. Malaysia does not recognize refugees of any kind: only the UNHCR in Malaysia can offer refugees shelter. But the process of receiving that assistance is long and hard: there are approximately 30,000 refugees waiting, and only 300 a day are accepted. In the long lines leading to the UNHCR office, the government can easily show up and arrest every person in line.
Brother Fredrick took me aside and he told me of the refugees’ hardships. If caught without UN registration, the refugees could receive two lashings from a rattan, which is prickly enough to tear at the skin after the short punishment. They are deported back to Myanmar, or they are sent to ‘employers’, for whom they are slaves until they have ‘paid for their freedom.’ “It’s human trafficking,” Brother Fredrick told me.
Myanmar and Malaysia were to them what Malaysia and America were to me. Except my refrigerator was full, and their stomachs were empty. I had my freedom, and they were illegal. And most importantly, they were stuck. Forced away from Myanmar and constrained in Malaysia, they seemed to me to be utterly homeless. So why was it that they could tell their story of unimaginable hardship with conviction while my story was, to me, unfinished? The question remained. What was I missing?
There were stories of hope
“They’re a beautiful people,” Brother Fredrick told me. One day, a young woman arrived outside his office. Although it was long past closing time, he didn’t have the heart to turn her away, and he called her in. In Myanmar, she told him, her husband worked a dangerous job clearing forests. Without safety standards, injury was commonplace, and one day, a tree fell on him and he was killed instantly. In his absence, a patrolling military officer became attracted to his wife. He raped her in front of her son. When she came to Malaysia, Brother Fredrick could see the marks of her suicide attempts. After arriving, she took a pregnancy test, which resulted positive. But she said, “There has been so much death, I don’t want to cause another death.” She decided against abortion.
A few weeks later, another stranger arrived in Brother Fredrick’s office. He was her friend from Myanmar, and he had come after her when he heard she left. The two fell in love, and he told her that the baby need not know who the real father was – that he would be the baby’ father. The two fell in love, and they married in the jungle next to the shack and the pot that fed forty. Brother Fredrick kept a picture as proof of that beautiful wedding on that hopeful day.
In the thick, towering Malaysian forest – the same forest that has imprisoned them – they have rejected submission, instead forging families and building homes. Brother Fredrick looked at his friends squatting in the dark shack. “There’s no need to go to the ends of the earth to do anything. They don’t forget. We forget, because our lives our so hectic. But they are staying here. They are home. They don’t forget.” With every doubt I cast on my heritage, with every look in the mirror, I was straying further from home. I was never a stranger to Malaysia or America; I was a stranger to myself. The brave young Burmese woman who chose guidance over suicide, birth over abortion, and family over solitude – she taught me this. She taught me that I could always choose hope over submission. She taught me that with a roof or no roof, with a meal or no meal, in Malaysia or America or Slovakia or Timbuktu; that in any jungle, I could build a home.