23 January 2013

At the gate

Malaysia

Of the things that you might be afraid of, having one of your children snatched out of your driveway by a man on a motorbike is about the worst thing, I think. I have been thinking about this because our well-meaning neighbours who surround us–old women with dark, beautiful skin and strong hands that clasp your forearm tightly–keep warning us. They take your jewellery, they come into your house and take your gold. Everyone's gate is locked: the richer you are, the higher the gates around your house are (the metaphor scholar in me jumps up and down). Yoko tells me of two men she saw on a motorbike, riding by, looking. It's not safe here; nothing is safe.

Do not be afraid, the good book says, and for as much as I have discarded a majority of the good book, I treasure that bit of it, a kind of Jefffersonian approach to the sacred. I have talked about this move in terms of faith and trust. I always preface my comments with, I'm not religious, but—and then I go on to talk passionately about faith. Faith, for me, means letting go of worry and concern about what one can't control. The good book suggests we give that up to a belief in god, which I'm happy for you to do, if that's your thing. For me? Well, for me it's more complex.

My antidote to the fear of someone snatching our child was to, of course, search 'kidnapping in Malaysia' and discover that, actually, this never happens. Moreover, there is a famous case now, splashed all over the tabloids, of a boy gone missing. Horrifying, really, until you read the story: the mother had left him in the car while she shopped, and he got bored and wandered off. The tabloid offered advice to parents about avoiding kidnapping, like Don't leave your children in the car alone and Don't give your kid some money to play in the arcade while you shop. I looked at Yoko after reading this and had a chance to use one of my favourite Japanese phrases: 当たり前 A-ta-ri-ma-e. Of course: in Japanese, it's a metaphor–right in front of you.

The neighbourhood women who clasp my forearm and warn me about things--mosquitoes, men on motorbikes, the gate in our back garden, our lack of curtains on all our windows--have been nothing but kind to us, bringing food and doting on the girls and offering help. Do this, don't do that, how much are you paying for your house. Our girls call out to them in the morning, practising their Malay: Selmat Pagi! And the old women respond with smiles and more offers to help: Call us if you need to go to Tesco, my brother will take you.

I don't like feeling helpless, but we are often helpless here. One of the women flags down the old Chinese guy who delivers gas for the stove and talks him into giving us a small canister. He has mercy on you. I loved the way she phrased that: I knew instantly that she was a Christian, the woman occupying the house with the painting of blue-eyed Jesus that you can see through the open door. Mercy. He hoisted the gas tank from his truck and carefully placed it beside our stove: we now have means to cook. Yes, this is mercy: take my RM 75.

We do take the warnings seriously though, as much as we can. We try to tell the girls to be careful, to not stay too close to the gate. To beware of strangers, even ones that seem kind. But they forget immediately, their little hearts wide open like their mother's. They're changing though: day by day. Their skin is getting darker. Each day it seems we become more accustomed to our little house on Jalan Minang 3, even though it's only been ten or eleven days. Kids, they say, are so adaptable: it's just me that can't make sense of anything that happens here. I say have faith and that it means whatever it means to me. I'm not quite sure, but then again, I'm not sure that even the most devout Muslim or Christian or whoever really knows. We do our best: that's the most we can ever do, hey? For now, we are surrounded on three sides by caring neighbours and if that's not enough, I'm not sure what is.

Malaysia
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