Good evening from Borneo. Kuching, Sarawak to be exact. On a whim I came here and it has been transformative–mostly in that it has given me some time to reflect and think about my experience so far. This post isn’t about Borneo–it’s about Galang Refugee Camp on the Riau Islands of Indonesia, a 45 minute ferry ride from Singapore.
I have been gone four weeks. One month. In a way it hasn’t felt like anything. In a way it has felt like a lifetime. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang: all cities. Great food, but cities. Easy to photograph. Easy to think about. Instead of starting elsewhere (like Vietnam or Laos) and working my way down to Singapore, I sort of went backwards. I think most people who do Southeast Asia end in Singapore. The reason I decided to start in Singapore was that I wanted to visit the refugee camp that I was born in. I was only there for a month before coming to the United States, I wanted to see it. I wanted to see what my parents saw. I wanted to be where they stood, where they waited, luckier than most, for their onward plane to a better place–somewhere they had wanted to get to so bad they were willing to gamble their lives. What is that like? Putting your life on the line?
From Singapore, I caught the Batam Fast Ferry to the City Center. Once there I tried to hire a cab to take me to Galang Refugee camp, but none of the drivers understood where I wanted to go. As I sat down thinking about what to do, all I knew was that I could not give up. I did not come all this way only to be turned away once reaching the islands. It didn’t take long, but I came up with pictures pulled on my phone (thank you T-Mobile free international data roaming) and showed the man who was directing the cabs. ”Oh, you go Vietnam! Vietnam!” Yes, yes, I nodded my head, I don’t care what you call it, please, take me there. He quoted me a price that I didn’t bother to haggle. I probably could have gotten it for less. I was too excited and so happy someone understood me, I could care less what I had to pay. This is a place I have to see. The one checkmark I had to make. I could go without seeing any of the other places, but I had to see my birthplace.
For some reason, I was passed from one driver to another and ended up with a man named Wadi. As soon as I got into his cab, he immediately started offering me things: water, snacks, and cigarettes all the while smiling as if this had been the best day he’s had in some time. He spoke poor English. I knew absolutely no Bahasa. Despite not smoking anymore and initially turning them down, I decided to have a cigarette. So there I was, in a cab, window down, the warm breeze beating at my face, smoking a clove cigarette next to man named Wadi. Cloves smell wonderful and they can no longer be gotten in America.Everywhere fires burned on the island. No need to worry about smoking as I doubt the air could be any safer to breathe. The smoke burrowed its way down into my organs and while it didn’t necessarily hurt or ache, it was uncomfortable to breathe with that film coating my lungs.
I didn’t know what to expect, what I would see, how I would feel. I roamed about taking photographs. Every few minutes I turned to check to see if Wadi was still there. What would I do if he decided to turn around and leave me? We had stopped to get gas earlier and he asked for gas money, but I told him I was only going to pay what we had agreed on, so I naively gave him the entire sum. I know I had nothing to worry about, but as this was my first experience traveling on my own, my nerves were shot. He could ditch me. He no longer had an obligation to me since he already received payment. I immediately felt ashamed for thinking about the situation in that light. Wadi is not an unscrupulous man.
Here I am in this place that I was born, but I have never really been here. Every time I looked anywhere, I wondered, will this be familiar, will I know it? Of course not. I had been here before I had developed a consciousness. We pass the cemetery, stopped at the replica boats the refugees boarded, crammed and stuffed to the brim, suffocating and starving, to escape Vietnam. Then we were at the visitor’s center, where there is a makeshift museum filled with photos, paintings, and a souvenir shop (!). I don’t know what kind of souvenirs you would want to buy, but no thank you. I don’t know much about the place. My mother is, understandably, mum on the subject. I cannot even begin to imagine the horrors she had endured. It wasn’t until my sister got married that I even found out my mother is a actually a Cambodian national. At eight years old she left Cambodia for Vietnam and at 15 she had to flee Vietnam as well. What was it like? At eight years old having to run for your life? And again not much later? Whatever her faults her, I will always think of her in the best possible light. She is strong. Inspirational barely cuts it.
There are two Galang sites according to my stepfather, who also spent some time there before processing onwards. Most of what I saw was Galang II. We came across the crumbled wings of the hospital. The rooms were hard to enter as debris blocked the passages. Nesting in the dimly lit rooms that were much cooler than outside were bats. A few flew past as I entered Still I did not let them deter me. I wanted to see the rooms. Could I have been born here? Then one started flying at my face, its claws (I think) extended and aiming for my eyes. My nerves were already shot. I didn’t think I could be braver than what I already was. Later my mother tells me it was on Galang I I had been born, not here. Good thing I didn’t risk getting my face scratched at by bats.After the hospital we went to the religious center. I saw the old Catholic church and I wonder if my stepfather spent time there. I saw the rickety wooden bridge with missing planks, holes, and cautiously proceed across. I had not even bothered to look around to see if there was another more viable path. After I left the church, I noticed cars were driving across a modern concrete bridge, a totally solid and stable one. Next time I must look around before putting myself at risk walking across something so rickety.As I was photographing the area, I noticed a sign that pointed up toward a hill for a buddhist church. My driver was nowhere in sight, but I decided to go forward. As I walked up the slope, I hear some whistling, the sound of air being hissed through the back of teeth. I turned to see a group of men sitting around a table on the porch of an old wooden building, though in bad shape, but obviously still in use. They said something to me in Bahasa, but I shook my head, telling them I don’t understand. Then one of them said to me in Vietnamese that he will take me up to the church on the back of the motorcycle. For a fee. One of them said something about me. While I knew that I was safe, something in my gut just told me that it was a situation to get out of. The lack of other people certainly concerned me. That I didn’t know the whereabouts of my driver also added to the worry. I politely declined in Vietnamese, informing them that I had already hired a driver who was just down the street. Quickly I made my way down the street where I see the cab. As I approached the door, I saw Wadi reclined fully on his side lightly snoring away.
He woke up and we go up to the Pagoda, which is in Galang Site I. It happened to be Lunar New Year so the place had been decorated with red lanterns and people had been lighting incense praying to the Lady of Peace. I am not a religious person. In fact, I am an atheist. My mother is a believer. So I knelt in front of the statues, lit the incense and prayed for her, my Catholic stepfather, my sister, my brothers, and lastly for myself. For a better year. For a better life. For the life I already have. As I thought about my mother, I teared up. I had been expecting tears since I arrived, but they didn’t come, not until then. I had spent hours there, wandering from one decaying structure to another. I kept waiting for something to course through my body, maybe some kind of intensity, maybe something that would overwhelm me. For months I had been wondering how I would get there, what I would do once I got there, would it mean anything to me. And then I started dreading that maybe it wouldn’t change me, maybe I would just come, observe it and leave. But how could being somewhere like that not have an impact?I have waited to write this post because I didn’t know how to put down in words what I felt. What I still feel. When I decided to take this trip–alone and without much planning–I thought fear would strike me. Loneliness would set in and grip me. Homesickness will catch me off guard and I would spend days, if not a whole week broken down and questioning my decision. Surprisingly, it was none of these things. I have not felt lonely. I have not felt homesick. What I have felt is, what I have wondered is, have I ever truly been here? What have I seen? Will it change me? It’s the stasis that frightens me. It’s thinking that this experience will have no effect on me. I expected ground shaking, earth shattering epiphany. That’s just not how things happen. It takes time. Time to set in, time to parse through, time to understand. What it is and who I am.
My fear isn’t being stuck, lonely, or homesick. When I got off the ferry, I feared I would not get to the place I had traveled across an ocean for, but that wasn’t anything compared to the fear of stagnating. I do not want to be the same. Sometimes you have to go back in order to go forward. It’s been a month now and I think I am different. In a way. Though everything feels the same, I am different.The other night, all night. Lightning. Thunder. Rain. In the warm tropical storm, I stood in the streets, letting the drops soak through my clothes, every strand of hair. In Kuching, in Sarawak, in Borneo, I let it all go. Once I got inside, I felt sick and I threw up everything I had eaten. I went to bed and in the morning I woke up and felt different.
People say travel is transformative. People say that it will help you discover who you are. I am not looking to discover who I am. I am looking for history, for culture–to know from where I come. It’s not the individual experience I desire, it’s the collective. I want to trace my mother’s footsteps from Thailand to Vietnam to Cambodia. I have longed to smell the air, see the colors of the sunrises and sunsets, feel the warmth and humidity on my skin. Have I ever truly been here? Though it feels like nothing will change, everything is different. My home is not here or there. People come up to me and ask me where I am from, sometimes speaking to me in Bahasa Malay. I am American, I say. That is not enough. I am American, but also Vietnamese, but I have never been there. Better. I have never met my grandparents. More. My mother is Cambodian but she identifies as Vietnamese. Wait, doesn’t that also make me Cambodian? I spent the first 26 years of my life not knowing that. What does it mean to be Cambodian? How is that different from Vietnamese? Am I not American? Who are my people?
On the way back, Wadi picked up a woman who needed a ride into town. I told him I didn’t mind sharing the cab with her. Then he turned onto a road that led down into a dock area. The entrance had armed guards. The woman in the back said something in Bahasa that seemed to me to be concern and worry. It panicked me. Where are we going? I demanded. We drove past old boats, run-down buildings, litter. It turned out that he was just buying a pack of cigarettes. I was never unsafe. After that, I relaxed a little. Not everything is in my control. I just have to let it be.
Different or not, change isn’t the instantaneous thing I expected or sought. It’s far more subtle. I am ready now. For the journey. Or sojourn, whichever it is. I am ready for whatever comes.
The rest of the Galang Refugee Camp photos can be viewed on flickr.