It feels like quite some time has passed since my last post. I have been absent from the internet and away from my usual physical environment since the middle of January — which was when I had left Melbourne on a one-way flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The timing of this was intentional, as the desire was to spend the weeks of Chinese New Year with the extended family, most of whom I have not seen in-person for quite some time.
8 years have passed since my last visit to the hometown, which feels strange to say because on paper this seems like an eternity but the actual lived experience makes it all feel so much shorter. During this window of time, I had graduated from university, backpacked through more of South East Asia, left the family home to work and live independently, immersed myself in a career centred around chemical engineering and most recently, pivoted towards a new path.
Upon arriving back in Kuala Lumpur, it became evident very quickly that as much as time has passed for me, it has also passed for the people, places and things that I knew of 8 years ago. The roads had gotten wider and more intensely networked, the same restaurants had progressed beyond their previous venues and evolved their recipes (for better or worse), the uncles and aunties have gotten more grey (and yet more free-spirited) while in contrast the younger generation have evidently become more stressed as the uptake of responsibilities increased.
What made this trip even more special and intense was the fact that I was travelling together with my mother, brother and sister — all of whom I see infrequently now since moving away from the family home base of Perth. Most of my energy and attention were dedicated towards being in full-participation mode, which meant little time was left for sharing these precious experiences publicly.
“Stories are made in the present, and only understood in hindsight.”
One particular lesson I had learnt from this trip was the meaning of ‘precious experiences’. For the most part, I would associate these words with the extravagant, complicated stuff — yet there were not many of these during the trip. The most memorable experiences actually came about from the smallest things like: having breakfast together with family on the same dining table and wandering the streets of the city for coffee to drink and delicious food to eat. Like having to come up with creative answers to postpone the question of ‘are you hungry?’ when asked by a persistent and generous aunty who had spent countless hours prepping and producing an abundance of food. Like sitting comfortably in silence when there was nothing left to talk about.
Simply being present and around was one of the core aims of this trip. Secondary to this was something more intimidating and uncertain, which was the mission of documenting more of my mother’s family history by interviewing the people who were actually there at the time and recording their stories on paper.
This idea was sparked from the time I had spent on sabbatical in early 2022. By virtue of being back in the family home, there were many instances where my mother would share with me these stories from her past — of growing up in regional Malaysia, of starting a career in finance and of meeting my father. The tragedy of these times was in the arrogance I had of assuming that I would be able to remember and recall all the tiny details that make up the bigger stories. As a result of not actually recording these on paper, the recollections tends to be quite fuzzy and patchy — failing to do any justice to the richly textured history of the various experiences my mother has seen.
This particular Chinese New Year was much anticipated because I knew that my mother would be spending much of the time around her side of the family — the same people she had frequently spoken about in the stories she had shared previously. Making the ask was the scariest part. Who am I to be going around interviewing people and unearthing the past, especially when I have been absent and away for so many years?
What really surprised me was that there were many, many doors that opened up from that initial ask. What had initially appeared as an intimidating challenge had quickly transformed into open invitations between myself and the family members I was able to sit down with.
Simple questions around key dates and milestone events were the levers that opened up the flood gates and countless stories had emerged. Armed with a pen, paper and some time, the whole experience of interviewing ended up being far more enjoyable and fruitful than what I had originally expected. Having the beginnings of a written record of the family history was the cherry on top really — the cake was in feeling a stronger connection to the family members who I had unconsciously become distant to over the years.
In my own personal journey, there have been a number of pivotal moments of discovery and self-actualisation that have helped me arrive at a better understanding of the person that I am today and the kind of person that I would like to become — this trip has helped to reinforce the importance of excavating, reconciling and owning all of what has come before in order to make better and better steps forward into the future. It has also helped reveal to me the fact that my life and my potential is far less deterministic than what I would like to think it is. All of the gifts that I have in my life today is as much a by-product of blind circumstance and good fortune as it is to my own will and decisions.
“My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualisation. The immigrant generation gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning & fulfilment.” — Bo Ren