Win Yee Tan is a Sydney writer. Originally from the small island of Penang, she is forever drawn to stories that are borne from the intersection of culture, language and food. Through her writing, Win Yee hopes to explore the lives of diverse everyday Australians.
Seventeen years ago in Malaysia, sister, you and I, along with our family, boarded a plane with one-way tickets to Australia. Armed with a bag of snacks that we had painstakingly collected over weeks, we were delighted at the prospect of the new life that was waiting for us on the other side of our journey.
At the time, nothing seemed better than going to a school at which disciplinary caning did not exist. We briefly wondered what would happen at the new school if we didn’t do our homework, but swore that we would never try to find out. It seemed deliciously liberating to know that we wouldn’t have to pre-emptively apply glue to our hands to protect them anymore – indeed, what had seemed like common knowledge for pain relief would soon become a distant memory in our new life.
Even more exciting was the fact that we would soon be able to grow our hair to any length we wanted. Ah, if only we could experience that palpable anticipation once more today! We were giddy with glee, knowing that we would be free to choose our hairstyles, and once we arrived we did go on to experiment in our own ways. Over the years, you grew beautiful waist-length hair. Your hair was always much blacker, silkier and stronger than mine, and even though I never told you, I envied your elegant style as I continued to sport failed mullets and disastrous pixie cuts (who could forget the time I was mistaken for a boy?).
Of course, we could never have anticipated our obligation to attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at our new school. Though we would never find out why, we were required to attend those slightly humiliating lessons in our first few months. I suppose that our fluency in English was overshadowed by our foreign-sounding names and incongruous place of birth. Nevertheless, I must admit that it was thrilling to exceed our ESL teacher’s expectations each week. I rather enjoyed selecting a little reward from the trinket box at the end of every lesson. Do you remember that blue pop-up fish we got one time? We used to love flipping it inside out, observing its eventual pop with equal amounts of shock and relief. I wonder now: would we have loved the fish as much if we still had access to the toys we’d left behind in Malaysia?
Another memory was our school lunches. Lunches were never easy – our meals always seemed so alien to our schoolmates, and I used to feel hot with embarrassment each time I pulled out the contents of my lunchbox. The most unforgettable lunch from those early days was the vegemite and soy braised pork sandwich – potentially the most bizarre combination that I have tasted to date. In an attempt to help us embrace Australia and its local delicacies, our parents had blended together the classic flavours of our old and new homes. It was a thoughtful gesture, and an endearing concept in theory, but we soon realised that this combination did not work in practice. The sandwich was eye-wateringly salty, and the bitterness from the vegemite only accentuated the pork’s caramelised flavour. Needless to say, neither of us finished our lunch that day. As we sat there looking down at our sandwiches, I wished that we were back in our crowded school canteen in Malaysia, surrounded by friends as we devoured fish ball noodle soup and packets of dried seaweed.
We didn’t know it then, but homesickness doesn’t last – at least, not in the agonisingly confusing and heart wrenching form in which it initially manifests itself. As the years went on, we stopped seeing Malaysia as home. It happened so gradually that we almost didn’t realise Australia was now home; the place we would spent our formative years, and where we have now lived for most of our lives.
Of course, this change in consciousness has not obliterated homesickness for good. These days, homesickness may lead to a spontaneous nasi lemak at the nearest Malaysian restaurant or, better still, a frantic WhatsApp discussion on the ingredients for curry chicken. Homesickness takes the form of a gentle yearning; a nostalgia for faraway childhood days, and the comfort of languorous summer breaks. I feel fortunate to have both a home in which we live, as well as one that we dream of in quiet contentment. It’s a privilege that few have the opportunity to experience, and I am grateful for it.
As an adult, I look back on our childish excitement with fondness. That plane trip we took 17 years ago marked a momentous milestone that our little hearts could barely begin to comprehend. It took us on an incredible journey, and I couldn’t have chosen a better companion for it than you.
Living now in the era of COVID-19 and closed borders, I can’t help but wish for another joint plane trip; another adventure beyond a horizon that we can barely fathom, and another opportunity for exploration. Alas, this hope must wait. For now, I shall continue peacefully to dream of those two little girls we were, dreamily discussing their future as they feasted on their plane snacks.
© Win Yee Tan, 2021