In 2017 I felt the loss of my parents in a new way. When they left years before, they took with them the link to the story of what made me. Of the generations of people, experiences and values that shaped me. I did not belong to the place I grew up in, in the conventional sense. My mother and father were first and second generation immigrants respectively. I was a mixed-raced child, a rarity in my generation, especially when one parent was white in a Southeast Asian country. And we lived an unconventional life. Suffice to say, my sense of belonging was entirely held together by them.
But then I visited my family home after a long absence. It used to be located on the border of a rubber plantation and jungle surrounded by lush green. I found it deteriorating without the people that brought it to life amidst a landscape itself stripped bare of life and story. My lovely brother has begun replanting our land, but at that point in time I entered the physical void of loss.
That year I felt compelled to devour research on the Borneo rainforest. Although it was on the other side of Malaysia, it felt as familiar as the jungle I grew up in. The constant damp and din of insects, the mottled light filtering through green, the curious creatures. I knew no other playground. I was often considered a foreigner in my country of birth, but I was deeply connected to the jungle and its inhabitants.
Writing the Rainforest Tales is my way of remembering what it was like to live at the intersection of consumerism and nature and take them both for granted. It is also my way of considering the nuance and complexity that the local Bornean communities struggle with against the expectation of them to be custodians of the land. Especially when the traditional concepts of land rights are replaced by the modern concept of land ownership.
Who owns the land vs who lives off the land vs who belongs to the land. What does the land mean to us, how do we value it, who gets to decide?
The struggles the Borneo rainforest has against deforestation and poaching also made me question the role I play today as a consumer and resident in modern Australia. In fact, it brought up so many questions.
Where do I belong now that I have no home to go back to? Home being the place where my parents and their stories live. Do I have any claim to a place that only lives in memory now? Where do my responsibilities lie?
The aboriginals are custodians of the Australian land. They understood long before many that the connection to land was part of wellbeing. But can I ever play a role as custodian, and truly belong anywhere, if my story is not from there or if I do not live there? Especially, since my story seems to have gone with my parents.
I have decided to hold myself responsible as a consumer and maker with every dollar I spend and invest to make sure I am supporting ethical and sustainable products. This is my way of committing to the land I value. But there is complexity in what gives a product those values relative to where and how they are consumed and disposed of. In future blogs I will share how I figure this out and the new tales I write from the stories I lost.