Categories
Excerpt

Asian Anthology

Title: Asian Anthology, New Writing Vol. 1

Editor: Ivy Ngeow

Publisher: Leopard Print London

Spring Onions by Yang Ming

Like most devotees, Ning’s mother, Suyin, spent her Saturday afternoons visiting Singapore’s Chinese temples. For the past year, she had meticulously listed them on a piece of neatly folded foolscap paper and visited one each weekend after closing her steamed bun shop for the day. She arrived at the temple each week with two red plastic bags containing fruit. Ning stood next to her mother, hands clasped, observing her overturn the bags: apples and oranges tumbled out onto the table. Suyin assembled them on two paper plates in groups of five and placed them at the altar. It was done so mechanically that Ning swore her mother could have done it with her eyes closed.  

* * *

That Saturday, Ning had accompanied her mother to Thian Hock Keng for prayers. Ning was a month away from an examination that had the potential to define her future. After learning about her daughter’s dismal mid-year test results, Ning’s mother had found it hard to sleep. Ning’s older brother, Ren, on the other hand, had fared much better in his academic studies. A student highly regarded by his peers, Ning’s mother did not need to worry about her son. Ning had never wanted to be part of this prayer nonsense but, at her mother’s insistence, she dragged her feet to the temple. She considered it a waste of her time; she would rather film a series of life hack videos for TikTok than standing idly at the temple.  

“Ma, why do you offer spring onions to Confucius?” Ning asked. Instead of fruit, Ning’s mother had prepared a plate of spring onions and steamed buns as offerings to the Confucius statue. Outside, heavy rain fell on the ground like water gushing through a drain. Ning cast a glance at the temple’s rooftop, its curved ridges and elongated eaves with upturned swallow-tail decoration blocking the grey skies. Fat raindrops began to whip Ning’s legs, causing her to retreat further into the temple’s statue shelter. Ning’s mother had followed her usual practice of waiting for fifteen minutes for the gods to ‘eat’ the offerings before clearing them away. Ning wondered if they liked spring onions; she certainly did not. 

“Spring onion is 聪 in Mandarin. Cong. It means intelligence. You will need it for your exams,” Ning’s mother replied, folding her arms across her chest. 

The smell of the incense coil burning in the main hall spread through the air. Ning was surprised to find the smell soothing and she likened it to sandalwood incense sticks from her favourite aromatherapy shop. 

“My friends say praying to Confucius will help you in your exams,” Ning’s mother said as she rummaged in her bag for her phone. She fished it out and began to tap away. 

Ning wanted very much to tell her mother that she was going to fail her upcoming examinations, and no amount of prayers or offerings to any deities would work but she couldn’t summon the courage. 

“Time to clear the table,” her mother said, walking towards the altar. Putting her hands together, her mother uttered a few inaudible sentences and bowed to the statue three times before shoving the offerings into the plastic bags. Ning followed suit, bowing grudgingly. 

Under the minimal lighting, her mother had a pallid face; her yellow-stained nails and dark circles sagged under her eyes. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed those hands and face marked with endless strife and pain. 

On a one-way street, a solitary car lumbered past them. Ning sidestepped puddles of water scattered along the pavement while swinging the bag of spring onions recklessly. 

“Stop that,” her mother said, her voice echoing through the empty street. 

“It’s just spring onions!” Ning exclaimed in defiance. 

Her mother slapped her daughter’s head lightly. “I need to cook these tonight. You think what, I’m going to throw it away, is it?” her mother said, gripping a half-smoked cigarette between her forefinger and third finger. Ning heard her mother mumbling some words in Hokkien as she turned away. She rolled her eyes at the thought of eating a plate of stir-fry spring onions or any dish with spring onions in it. 

If Ning could harness any power from a higher being, she would remove every stalk of spring onion from existence. Her mother’s phone rang as they turned at the corner shophouse. Ning stepped back to give her some privacy. A group of young, giggling girls traipsed past them, enthusiastically discussing a hip coffee joint. Ning surreptitiously crept closer towards her mother, trying to listen in on the conversation. But she could only hear laconic replies that consisted of, “yes”, “no” and “I understand”. Her voice seemed restrained.  

“Who was that?” Ning asked. 

“Just somebody. Why so kaypoh?” Ning’s mother asked, clicking her tongue. 

Ning knew her mother deployed this snappy attitude to fob her off whenever Ning became too much of a busybody for her own good. The skies had finally cleared, releasing an earthy petrichor — a scent Ning secretly adored. The afternoon sun peeked out of the grey clouds, creating a golden halo with glorious rays of light around them.  

Ning watched snippets of TikTok videos on the train home. Images of a mother and daughter duo swaying and jumping in one frame and morphing into each other in the next frame. A muscular man struggling to tear into an apple with his bare hands while a young man used a knife to cut an apple. A middle-aged woman synchronising her dance moves with a little girl. These entertaining yet addictive videos usually amused her, but Ning couldn’t seem to shake that mysterious phone call off her mind. Why did her mother lower her voice? Or why did she sound so serious? The ‘whys’ inundated her mind throughout the entire journey, until her mother nudged her elbow to motion her to get off the train. 

“Make sure you finish up all the spring onions later,” Ning’s mother remarked as they ambled through the housing blocks. 

“I’m not going to eat any spring onions,” said Ning. Those words had rolled out of her mouth faster than her mind could stop them. 

Ning’s mother glared at her with an expression as stiff as a starched uniform and Ning knew what came after this was going to be torture. 

“Ma, I’m going to fail my exams next month. There’s no point for me to eat those awful vegetables,” Ning said, pursing her lips. She cast her eyes on the ground as though something incredible had just skipped across her feet. A group of boys ran past them, yelling, Eh, where are we going ah? Let’s go to the playground. Their voices echoed through the communal void deck. 

“And what are you going to do if you fail your exams?”

“Ma, I want to make buns, just like you.” 

Ning’s mother closed her eyes and clenched her hands into fists. The last time Ning had witnessed this inscrutable face was three years ago when she returned home from grandma’s place, and had seen her mother sitting on the kitchen stool, staring into nothingness. Ning had pushed open the door to her parents’ room, only to find it in a chaotic mess — a smashed family photo frame was on the floor. 

Before Ning could say anything else, her mother walked towards the lift lobby. She was surprised her mother hadn’t rebuked her for speaking out. 

* * *

In the kitchen, Ning quickly tore the omelette apart, only to discover an absence of spring onions. She grinned quietly to herself, thinking she had convinced her mother to exclude that awful vegetable.  

Later that week, Ning parked herself at the side table in the bun shop, working on her Maths assignment. The afternoon news on the radio blared loudly in the background. She stared at the Pythagoras Theorem question and doodled aimlessly on the foolscap paper until her mind was drawn to her mobile phone. She tapped her TikTok app when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mrs Lim peering into the shop. 

“Eh, ah girl, so hardworking! Where’s your mummy?” Mrs Lim asked, raising her voice above the static crackling noises. 

“Hi, Mrs Lim! She’s in the kitchen making baos with Chen,” Ning replied, pointing towards the back of their tiny shop, where their cramped kitchen was located. “Do you want your usual Char Siew Bao or Big Chicken Bao?”  

Mrs Lim, a regular customer of Tan’s Bun Shop for years, beamed upon hearing those words. Ning gave her a wide smile. Mrs Lim rarely hesitated to buy more steamed buns whenever she patronised the shop. 

“Just give me five Char Siew Baos and five Big Chicken Baos,” Mrs Lim said. 

Ning pulled out the second tier of the bun steamer display cabinet and used a pair of silver tongs to pick those flavours. She enjoyed giving those soft and fluffy buns a little squeeze on the side as she placed them into the polystyrene boxes. She felt that was the least she could do as a daughter – assisting her mother and, at the same time, learning the trade. Halfway through, she heard a series of quick footsteps from behind her and before Ning could turn around, her mother was already standing next to her. 

“Go and do your homework. I will help Mrs Lim with her order,” Ning’s mum said as she smoothed away a few strands of hair from her eyes. Ning gently placed the tongs on the table and nodded silently at Mrs Lim, whose face had already become annoyed. Ning grabbed her phone from the table and slunk away.

Inside the kitchen, a stack of large bamboo steamers formed a tower on an industrial stove. They were probably the last batch of assorted steamed buns that would be sold for the day, Ning thought. White steam swirled up in the clammy air. 

On the other side, Chen, the ever-loyal shop assistant, was cleaning a dough mixer as he whistled and swayed to a catchy Chinese tune. Originally from Johor, Chen had been crossing the Causeway to work at the shop since Ning was born. Two small portions of leftover dough and a small bowl of barbecue pork were left on the table. Usually, these remnants would be thrown away at the end of the day, as Ning’s mother believed in the freshness of ingredients. 

Ning whipped out her phone and filmed the first part of a video, cut out a tiny piece of the dough, flattened it with a wooden rolling pin and filled it with a spoonful of barbecue pork. For the second part, she slowly gathered the pleat of the dough to seal up the filling, but the pleat looked odd. Chen glided towards Ning and commented, “Not bad. But still need a lot more practice.”

Ning hushed him as the video was still recording. 

“But you are getting better now. In the past, your baos looked so funny. If I have more time, I can teach you more things,” Chen said, dousing the floor with warm water. 

“I’m free on weekends or when Ma goes out to buy Toto,” Ning said enthusiastically. 

“No point. I’m going to look for a new job.” 

“Why? Has Ma found someone to replace you?” Ning asked, giving a quizzical look. 

“She didn’t tell you anything?” Chen asked. Ning shook her head. “Your ma is going to sell this shop.”

Words became trapped in Ning’s throat. The air grew cold. Sell the shop? Why would her mother even consider selling it? Those questions whirled in her mind like a gale barrelling through an open field. Ning’s mother had barely scraped through her secondary school education. In her teens, she had repeatedly failed her exams and, like any hot-headed teenage girl with raging hormones, she got involved with boys and bad company. She eventually left school at the age of 15, much to her mother’s chagrin. No amount of words could persuade her to return to school, until her grandma received a call from the police late one afternoon, informing her that her granddaughter had been involved in a gang fight which had led to the accidental death of an elderly passer-by. 

Ning’s mother was sent to a probation home for girls for two years. It was at that place where she had encountered a God-loving youth worker who persuaded her to think about her future and about the people who loved her. Upon her release from the girls’ home, Ning’s mother trudged home, only to discover her family wanted nothing to do with her. Out of kindness, they provided her a bed in which to sleep. Due to her bad record and a lack of qualifications, she worked several odd jobs to get by, until a kind elderly man who owned a steamed bun shop had taken her in and imparted his bun-making skills to her. 

Those thoughts were interrupted when she heard a loud shriek floating from the shop front. Ning stepped out of the kitchen and caught Mrs Lim flinging her arms at her mother, remarking, “Crazy woman! You think your bao shop is the best in Singapore, is it?’ If not for your daughter, I wouldn’t even step into your shop.” Mrs Lim spat on the ground before stomping off. 

“She thinks she is a big shot! Everyone must kowtow to her,” Ning’s mother fumed, slapping the thick receipt book on the counter. It didn’t come as a surprise to Ning, as Mrs Lim was probably one of those disgruntled customers her mother had offended on a regular basis. Ever since Ning’s father had abandoned the family on the day her mother stared into nothingness, business had gone downhill. Multicoloured graffiti had repeatedly been sprayed across their shop’s rolling shutter with words like, O$P$ and Go to hell! Ning’s mother had surmised the vandalism was the loan sharks’ doing. 

Already bestowed with the moribund steamed bun shop and heavily burdened with two young children, Ning’s mother balanced her life between reviving the shop and paying off her good-for-nothing ex-husband’s mounting debts. Ning witnessed the relentless spirit of those loan sharks sauntering into their shop on random sultry afternoons. The men, no younger than twenty-five years old, had blond hair and a uniformed phoenix tattoo on their forearms. They appeared harmless at first but what came out of their mouths was nothing but coarse language. This had led Ning’s mother to a nervous breakdown, and she eventually became short-tempered. 

As years went by, customers dwindled. Ning found herself greeted by bags of cold steamed buns at home every day. Ning’s mother always shrugged it off with, “We made so many baos today. These were the leftovers.”

* * *

“But Ma, Mrs Lim was just…”Ning protested, still holding on to her phone. Her mother quickly interjected. 

“Stop playing with your phone. What’s the point of doing all those videos? Can earn money or not? Ning, my friend just recommended me a tutor for you. She said he’s a very good tutor. Can teach you Maths. I know it’s too late but at least he can teach you what he can.” 

Ning gasped. Tutor? But how could her mother afford it? 

* * *

Ning’s head weighed a ton when her best friend, Farah, rambled on about her latest TikTok and Instagram videos during recess. She raved about the number of views she had garnered in a day. Farah’s monologue suddenly changed subject, and she asked Ning if she’d like to study for their upcoming exams with her after school. Ning knew Farah was the more hardworking person of the two of them. Even her social media videos yielded more views and likes than hers. She forced a lop-sided smile. She wanted to tell her about the shop and the sudden change in her mother’s behaviour, but she couldn’t form the words in her mind. Before Ning could say anything, she saw their form teacher, Madam Nadia, walking towards them. Farah greeted her like any obedient child before slinking away. 

Madam Nadia pulled Ning aside to a quiet section of the corridor. She interrogated Ning about the Maths assignment — Ning had completely forgotten about it. She sheepishly replied and said she left it in the shop but it was a lie. Madam Nadia raised her eyebrows sceptically, and with a straight face, she broke the news to Ning that, if she failed her upcoming exams, she would have to repeat another year. Ning acknowledged it with a nod and disappeared, but not before Madam Nadia requested to see Ning’s mother, to which Ning lied that her mother was too busy. 

At 8 that evening, Ning’s mother returned to their modest three-room flat with a bag of assorted steamed buns. She was on the phone, speaking in a low voice. She didn’t notice Ning sitting on the sofa watching a variety game show where contestants had to guess the price of household items. Ning quickly lowered the volume of the television, when she distinctively heard her mother saying, “The price is too low. I will consider selling it if the price is higher.”

Ning was about to confront her mother when her brother, Ren, shouted at her for stealing his favourite blue gel pen. Ning glared at him, grabbed his pen from the coffee table and tossed it to him. Ning’s mother untied the bag of buns and passed her improved steamed Pork bun to them to try. But Ren scrutinised the bag before settling on the lotus flavour bun instead and disappeared into his room. Ning obediently picked the lukewarm bun off her mother’s hands. 

She sank her teeth into the bun. The more she chewed, the more she felt a strange and bitter taste on her tongue. She spat out a morsel of the filling and discovered a slimy green vegetable — spring onions! Ning’s mother scolded her for wasting the filling as she and Chen had spent the whole afternoon improving the flavours. A strange feeling inexplicably invaded Ning, and in one swift movement, she ripped the bun apart and threw it on the floor. 

About the Book: Crocodiles in the city, street food fandom, a psychic club meeting in a Penang beach resort. Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1 is a showcase of short stories and place writing by both new and more established prize-winning writers. Some unexpected, a few surreal and others traditional, these are 23 compelling stories of irony, humanity and satire, exploring a range of subject matter to reveal a glimpse of modern Asian society and culture: a funeral in India, a hotel encounter in Japan, a sleepless night in Hong Kong. Modern themes such as the chilling consequences of the environmental impact of logging, deforestation and the barbarism of the shark’s fin soup delicacy press on our collective conscience. In the pieces on place writing, the outsider’s view gives insight into the white-guy-in-Asia trope: backpacker, courier and expat company manager. But no Asian fiction is complete without stories of food, family conflict, redemption and reconciliation. Surprising and entertaining, this anthology captures the paradox of richness, diversity and humour that is Asian culture.

Contributors: Rumaizah Abu Bakar, Patrick Burns, Cheung Louie, E.P. Chiew, Mason Croft, MK Eidson, Marc de Faoite, Jenny Hor, Nenad Jovancic, Lynett Khoh, Doc Krinberg, V.S. Lai, Ewan Lawrie, Winston Lim, Y.K. Lim, Yvonne Lyon, Sandeep Kumar Mishra, Ivy Ngeow, Krishnaveni Panikker, Sylvia Petter, Shafiqah Alliah Razman, San Lin Tun and Yang Ming.

Editor/Author’s Bio: Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She holds an MA in Writing from Middlesex University, where she won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Press Prize out of almost 1500 entrants worldwide. Her debut, Cry of the Flying Rhino (2017), was awarded the International Proverse Prize in Hong Kong. Her novels include Overboard (2020) and Heart of Glass (2018). She lives in London.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

Who Said You Could Die…

By A Jessie Michael

Woman on her Deathbed,1777, Abraham Delfos. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Who said you could die Ma,
Just because you are old?
The Ganges is called mother.
Like her you have flowed long,
Tributaries and distributaries webbing 
wide around the world.

You have lived so long in this world,
How will we breathe Ma if you die?
Your blood in our veins is our webbing.
A river dos not dry up because it is old
So who said you could die mother
Just because you have lived so long?

We are mothers with a mother,
Living in another world.
We have missed so long
your laden table, dishes to die
for, and curry rice balls of old.
The stories of your history is our webbing.

We still do not know the webbing  
Of the food of the mother --
Land, recipes of old,
Food of the gods from another world.
Our taste buds will die
Not having tasted them so long.

We have loved you so long,
How will we mend the webbing
Of the delta when you die mother?
You are the Ganges of our world.
You are eternal, not old.

We have also grown old
and our shadows are long.
What will we do in this wide world
but cling desperately to tattered webbing
Please stay. Breathe mother
Who said you could die?

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for online journals, local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

Nature & Kenny Peavy

Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door. 

American Kenny Peavy has spent three decades getting people outdoors. He believes that by playing in and exploring the natural world, we can discover or re-kindle a deep connection with Nature and learn to respect and take care of the planet we all share. 

For the last twenty one years, he’s been based in Asia, working in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s currently at possibly the coolest school in the world, made of bamboo and nestled in lush jungle, the Green School Bali. Kenny is an advocate for education and learning outside the classroom. 

In this conversation, we are going to learn about growing up in the South of the US, how his environmental awareness was instilled, what brought him to Asia, and some of the biggest cultural differences (including breakfast). In addition to his questioning memoir Young Homeless Professional, in 2007 Kenny co-authored the pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places

In efforts to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability in Southeast Asia, he’s paddled around the island of Phuket in Thailand, and ridden a bamboo-frame bike from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore and Bali. As well as being a nature guide, project fundraiser and science teacher, Kenny is also a qualified wilderness first responder and first aid trainer. In Bali, he had to flee with his family when an erupting volcano threatened their village. 

Kenny has some advice for city-dwellers afraid of the ‘sometimes scary’ world away from concrete and mobile phones.

Tell me about growing up in Georgia, as I only know it being famous for peanuts, and being the birthplace of Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr, Ray Charles, and Hulk Hogan? 

I was born in 1969 so, essentially, I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’80s were my high school years, I consider myself a child of the ’80s in all its hair metal, boom box, Pac Man and Donkey Kong glory!

It was very rural. A lot different then. We weren’t as aware of the outside world and didn’t have access to a lot of things like we do now. 

I distinctly remember going to my first ‘real mall’ in about 1984 or maybe 1985. It was Gwinnett Place Mall. A huge commercial shopping centre. Up until then, we only really had local mom-n-pop shops. So, it was astounding. One of my friends could drive and he had a car. 

None of us had much money so we all pitched in a couple of dollars for gas. The parking lot was dizzying and the mall was an amazing place to watch people. We tried this new thing none of us had ever heard of called a Gyro wrap and it was absolutely delicious and strange. Then afterwards I had an Oreo ice cream. Something I had never experienced before since we only had vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the local shop. It was all brand new. 

Growing up in the countryside we didn’t have that sort of food or flavours so even those simple things we take for granted today were fascinating novelties back then!

Aside from that, as I said, it was very rural. Most folks had land and cows or chickens. A lot of pine trees which means pulp mills to make paper. Plenty of dirt roads. Atlanta was the BIG CITY and most of us were kind of afraid to go there because we never heard anything but bad news about city folks.

What was the environment you grew up in like

Most folks were into fishing, hunting and other similar recreations. I went to a public school and took the free bus to school. We definitely had jocks, hicks, geeks and other ‘distinctive’ social groups. Me and all my friends were into hard rock and heavy metal and we saved our money so we could see all the shows from AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and White Snake when they came to Atlanta (even though we were scared of the Big City and fast talking city folks).

Our big entertainment was cruising the strip mall where they had a McDonalds and a hardware store. We’d all just drive in circles wasting time and gas while blasting The Scorpions so we could wave at people we’d seen at school the very same day.

I think most families were basically Blue Collar with jobs in construction, factories or some kind of farming. We all grew up working and my first job at age fifteen was washing dishes at a steak house in town. Other jobs we had as teens were cutting grass, painting curbs, running cashier in a gas station and other similar tasks.

How did you get into writing, was it something you developed a talent for early on, or did you have some inspiration and guidance from others? 

I always wanted to be a poet and swoon the girls with poems and fancy quotes from far-flung novels. It never worked.

I also wanted to be that professor with the patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket and a pipe dangling from my mouth as I pontificated wise philosophical diatribes to impress the masses. I’m still working on that one!

Your interest in Nature, the environment and science, where did that come from? 

Essentially, from growing up and playing outdoors. We were always outside and not allowed in the house during the day. So, we’d get bored and flip over logs, explore the creeks, go fishing and ride our bikes all over the trails in the woods.

This lead me to get curious about the critters we found under the logs and hiding out in the rocks in the stream. Combine that with a love for hunting and fishing and I eventually studied biology at university.

I basically wanted to know how Nature worked. What made it tick? How did all the pieces fit together? That also lead to jobs at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia where I learned a heap about aquatic macro-invertebrates, ichthyology (fish) and ecology — and had a private lunch with the Father of Modern Ecology and author of the very first ecology textbook, Professor Emiritus Eugene Odum.

That’s why I firmly believe that a childhood spent outdoors playing and exploring will later lead to an insatiable curiosity for Nature and an ethic for conservation and stewardship.

You document in your book Young Homeless Professional  about a time in your life when you immersed yourself in the natural world, and were searching for answers. What did you learn from that time about the world and yourself? 

I essentially have many of the same questions today. I think I understand the inner workings of Nature and life’s mysteries a bit better now. With a modicum more insight and quite a few more experiences under my belt than 20+ years ago, I think what’s most important is the process of questioning. The ability to stay open to life’s possibilities is key. We most likely will never fully comprehend or understand life, our roles in the cosmos and Nature’s mysteries, but if we stay curious, keep exploring, stay open to the possibilities and keep questioning then I think that’s the key to finding a place in this world we all share.

How did you end up moving from the US to teaching in Asia? 

On a whim. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see and experience new cultures, try weird foods, learn about different religions and philosophies. Speak strange languages. So with US$ 8,000 in the bank, a teaching degree and a hankering to see the world I set out for Kuala Lumpur in the year 2000: I’ve never looked back!

What are the biggest differences between life in the US and your current life and environment in Bali? 

The biggest difference has to be that it’s a majority Muslim country. My wife is Muslim and I’ve grown quite comfortable being married into a different culture and religion. And here in Bali, it’s mostly Hindu which is vastly different from Islam. Growing up in the Southern US, I was only ever exposed to Methodist and Baptist forms of Christianity. All of this was new to me 20 years ago when I moved here.

I think the tropical climate and easy-going beach lifestyle are also very different from growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Another HUGE difference is having rice for breakfast! I was always a hash browns and eggs or better yet, grits, kind of guy. We don’t really have either one of those here. But instead, they eat rice with a spicy sauce and crispy chicken or fish for a typical Indonesian Breakfast!

As well as being a teacher, you’ve done a lot of activities, organising events, initiating projects and raising funds. What’s your motivation for doing these? 

I feel like we should give back. Whatever we have to share, to teach, to give to others is valuable. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it is a project, a group, a movement or an ideology is fundamental to achieving a sense of fulfilment and belonging. When we give, we receive back way more joy and happiness than we originally gave. It gets multiplied! Through giving of ourselves and sharing what we have, we receive a sense of being part of a larger cause and a sense of contentment which is multiplied many times over. 

One of your most notable achievements, in addition to your writing and educational work, is riding a bamboo bicycle across Southeast Asia from Thailand to Bali to raise awareness on sustainability. What was the hardest part of that adventure? 

It was all fun with plenty of excitement and adventure. There were actually very few hiccups and hardships. But I would have to say that cycling some of the monotonous palm oil plantations through peninsular Malaysia from the Thai border to Singapore was hot, boring and so sad. It was heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful rainforest converted into endless palm oil plantations and a never-ending paved highway.

You also kayaked around the island of Phuket to raise awareness about marine conservation. How important is tangible action to bringing about change? 

Taking action is paramount. We can say anything we want. We can project an image of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We can GreenWash anything. But if you want to see what someone truly believes, watch what they do. Pay attention to their actions. Tangible action, hands-on, in the field, is where it’s at! Especially, if we truly want to bring about change and make a difference we have TO DO, not just SAY or BELIEVE.

Environmental education seems to be at the heart of your mission, how do you encourage students, teachers and adults to re-connect with Nature? 

Ironically, I spent 2 years researching this question as part of my MS degree and what I discovered and concluded after hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, conferences, surveys and questionnaires is that the best way to connect to Nature is simple… get outside and play!

Free time, exploring and playing in Nature are way more effective than any curriculum or lesson plan. When we take time to just wander and wonder we connect in ways that can’t be facilitated through constructed lessons or planning. It happens naturally and spontaneously when we get lost in play, discovery and exploration.

What are people’s (particularly city-dwellers) biggest fears about the natural world? 

I think the main thing people are afraid of is boredom. They don’t know how to wallow in boredom until the sense of wonder kicks in. We’re so used to instantaneous entertainment that we’ve become afraid to just sit, observe and take things as they come.

Another big one is mosquitos! And leeches. People are terrified of leeches!

Tell us about the environmental education book you co-wrote with Thom Henley As if the Earth matters?

It’s basically a teacher training manual and activity guide. We wrote it back before there were any resources to train teachers in Southeast Asia. So, the activities are meant to get kids connected to nature through exploration and engaging the senses. We put an emphasis on showing Southeast Asian flora and fauna as well as locals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as instructors and participants to make sure it would have a multi-cultural approach to environmental education.

I am hoping to take some of the activities in the book and update them and create a much smaller activity packet. I think it’s now more important and relevant than ever that we try to connect kids and adults to Nature. 

As well as working as a nature guide, trek leader, science teacher, you are also a wilderness first aid instructor. What inspires you to be so active? 

I think the main driver and inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I always wanted to be a National Geographic explorer, or some kind of adventurer!

When I was young, I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, David Attenborough and TV shows that featured people exploring exotic places, getting lost in mysterious jungles, landing in the middle of some kind of misadventure or a quest.

Those images stuck with me and keep me excited and curious to this day! There is always something new to learn, a new place to see, a new style of music to hear, and new flavours to be tasted.

You’ve also done some personal service projects, such as in Bali helping those affected by the volcano eruption. How challenging is it to initiate projects, particularly in a foreign country? 

It’s easy to do a project but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right.

The key seems to be relationships. If you have a relationship with someone in the village or even someone that knows someone in the village then things tend to go well.

The main issue I see is that many foreigners want to help in some way but they simply don’t know how. During the Mount Agung crisis, we were at a refugee camp and saw a car pull up and start tossing food into the crowd. The local villagers were then forced to run around and grab the donations up off the ground. It was very demeaning. I vowed to never approach any type of service project that way.

Essentially, you just need to ask the village what they truly need. This is the crucial step and it’s often overlooked. What I mostly see are people with good intentions making assumptions about what a village needs and then donating completely irrelevant or unwanted and unneeded stuff. Whether this is inappropriate food items that won’t be used, hot thick blankets in the tropics or painting a wall at a school when the funds and volunteer time could be used much wiser the missing ingredient is always communication with the locals to find out their true needs.

In the case of Mount Agung, what we discovered after meeting the heads of the villages is that they wanted fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, spices, electric fans and N95 masks. They said everyone had donated rice and instant noodles and that they needed something they could cook to go with it! In the end, we delivered those items based on their needs and wants not on assumptions.

So, if and when folks want to help out and do service projects it’s most helpful to find a trustworthy local that can help facilitate communications to ensure that the project is effective and truly wanted and needed.

How much do you feel you are an American in Asia, or a global citizen of the planet? 

I don’t feel very American anymore. Aside from my mom, dad and sister, I don’t have many connections to my country of birth these days.

I’ve been overseas for more than 20 years now. I’ve changed quite a bit personally and the USA has also changed a great deal in that time. 

I would say nowadays I definitely feel more like a global citizen and can be comfortable in almost any situation. These days I’m used to being surrounded by, working with and keeping company with locals of whatever country I am working in.

Being surrounded by people of diverse cultures, exploring and learning about different peoples, traditions, foods and ecosystems are what keep me happy!

When it comes to communicating and writing, what’s your process? 

Ideas always come to me at the strangest times. The best ideas seem to come when I am not thinking about writing but instead, when I am on the motorbike, bicycle, drifting off to sleep or distracted or focused on something entirely different. To catch those ideas, I always keep a pad of paper and pen next to the bed, my phone has a note-taking app and I have a zillion sticky notes. I even e-mail ideas to myself sometimes! So that’s step one. Catch the idea and record it. 

Then I tend to forget about it until I come across a similar thought or idea through reading, listening to a podcast or hearing something or someone that triggers more thought. That’s when I tend to gather up those ideas from the emails, sticky notes and note-taking app and start to map them out and write an outline. Then I forget about it again for a while.

Finally, when I revisit those ideas, I try to develop them into an essay, poem or even a book!

For the writing, I try to use my Southern American voice and interject colloquialisms. I normally write it. Edit it. Re-write. Edit again.

I find the editing is ongoing and every time you ‘rest’ in between versions and then look at your writing with fresh eyes you catch phrases that could be written better, sentences that can be shortened and different ways to say and express things that make them more interesting. Lastly, the thesaurus is my best friend!

What advice do you have some someone reading this, who wants to find their purpose, and also make a difference in the world?

Stay curious. Stay open. Seek out adventure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep learning new skills and spend long periods of time reflecting on who you are and what you have to contribute to the world.

Enjoy the adventure of being alive!

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You can follow Kenny Peavy on Twitter @kenny_peavy or Instagram @kenny_peavy, and he will reply if you email him at kennywpeavy@gmail.com. Kenny also has a FB group about the Box People project (https://www.facebook.com/groups/boxpeopleunboxed ), and there is more information about the book on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Box-People-Out/dp/B09M4R6PRB/), or direct from Kenny via email kennywpeavy@gmail.com

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
Poetry

Birds

By Vernon Daim

BIRDS

Tangled black ribbons knotting, 
Unknotting, in the fiery sunset sky.
Crossing seasons, the route in their blood.

Musical notation in mid-flight silhouettes,
Melancholic songs of lamentation,
Wind-teased susurration

Among mountains and along rivers
In countries broken and scarred.
See them return once again,

Wintering somewhere warm as blood,
Oblivious to unfolding bloodshed,
Altering borders on the map.

Vernon Daim is a Malaysian writer. His poems have appeared in local and international publications. As an English teacher, he has also presented papers at various ELT conferences.

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Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

A Tale of Two Houses

By P Ravi Shankar

I was extremely upset and howling my head off. My mother struggled to keep me quiet. My parents had just got down at the bus stop and it was raining. It was a short walk to Laksmi Nivas. My mother was dragging me along and I was trying my best to turn around and run back to my paternal grandmother. The bus journey to the village had been miserable. The bus had ploughed through heavy rains and waterlogged roads. There were occasional claps of thunder and the tarpaulin sheets covering the bus windows offered scant protection against the rain. The bus was crowded and leaking. Puddles were forming on the floor.

My maternal grandfather’s house was a two-story mansion located in Thiruvazhiad (turn-away-goat could be a literal English translation) village, Palakkad district, Kerala. He had built it in the 1960s and had named it after my grandmother. The house was a combination of living space and granary. There were long passages which were used to store the rice harvest. Wood was prominently used in the construction. The house sat in a huge plot of land. There was a front yard and a huge backyard. The house was large, but the number of rooms were limited. There were only three bedrooms on the ground floor, and they were all dark and scary. There was a traditional dining room and a wood burning kitchen. A well and a huge bathroom completed the amenities.

There were three bedrooms on the top floor and a small attic above that. The rooms on the top floor were small with wooden windows and had excellent views across the backyard to the hills beyond. The rooms opened on to a common corridor in front. This offered excellent views of the road to Nemmara, the main town in that part. Traffic was sparse and our attention was captured by the buses to Palakkad town which ran at hourly intervals during the hot, lazy afternoons and at half-hourly intervals during the morning and evening. The village was situated in a cul de sac, away from the main hustle and bustle.

During the seventies, my grandmother had three to four helpers working in the house. Traditional stones were used to grind dough for idlis and dosas and we had a smaller stone to grind masalas or spices. There was a huge mortar and pestle used to pound grain. Physical labour and strength were important. I do not remember my grandfather (mother’s father) much as he had passed away when I was very young. My grandmother was a religious lady who used to read the Hindu religious epics daily. Later (late seventies and eighties) she was mostly confined to bed and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

I enjoyed climbing the wooden staircase to the first floor with its curved wooden banister. I believed the darkness of the house and the rooms scared me and contributed to my aversion. As I grew older I grew more adapted to this house. The house was dark but stayed cool during the hot summers. The red tiles on the roof were charming. The windows had no glass panes and once closed they let in very little light. The long corridors encircled the rooms on the ground floor letting in very little light into the inner rooms. The furniture was mostly wooden, locally made, solid and heavy. My grandma’s room had a massive valve radio. Evenings were spent listening to the news and other programs on the radio. Old houses had dark storerooms which both fascinated and scared me.

My father’s house was located inside East Yakkara near to Palakkad town and the holy Manapullikavu temple was nearby. It is believed Brahmins performed yagnas (prayers) on the holy riverbed and the place was named yaga-kara (do yagnas) and eventually came to be known as Yakkara. In the seventies, this was a peaceful place with traditional houses. The narrow winding lanes and the paddy fields lend a rustic charm to the place. My father’s mother had purchased a house after they moved back to India from Malaysia where my grandfather had worked as an estate manager. My grandfather had died when my father was young. The house was renovated and, to my childish eyes, was charming. There were windows with coloured glass panes in the drawing room. The floor was coated with a red oxide powder which had to be reapplied regularly. Pink bougainvillea grew over the welcome arch and the bright yellow front door welcomed visitors.   

The best part of the house were the two rooms in the wing adjoining the kitchen. The house had doors and windows which could be opened only half. This I felt was an ingenious arrangement. Both my mother’s and father’s houses had doorsteps which were massive, and I used to trip on these often. I was not used to them. There was a dark room that did not open to the outside. My cousin would study there. Wood was still the cooking material, took time to catch fire and burn. It was like an astringent to the eyes. I still remember the hot summer afternoons. We had lunch in the hot dining room and by the time we finished I would be soaked in sweat. The rice was hot, the fish curry spicy, the fish fry crispy, and the pickles incendiary. The roof had a few glass tiles to let in the light and I watched fascinated the path of the light beams being made visible by the kitchen smoke.

The rains were my favourite time of the year. In those days it used to pour in Kerala. The rains continued throughout the day, and I enjoyed creating and sending out flotillas of paper boats in the rapidly flowing streams of rainwater. The weather was cool, and the smell of the Earth (petrichor) was mesmerising. I also remember the smell of fresh paint as the windows and doors often would have a fresh coat of paint just before our visits. Now with the national highway (NH47) passing behind the house, the area has changed totally. So many new houses have sprouted. And there are two large apartment complexes.

These two houses had character and solidity. I regret not having the opportunity to interact with my grandfathers (the patriarchs). The houses reflected in many ways the matriarchs living in them. With their illness, being bed ridden and their eventual passing, an era came to an end. These houses no longer hold the same level of fascination they once exerted on my young mind!

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Poetry

Christmas Cheer

By Malachi Edwin Vethamani

Christmas Cheer

The familiar sounds of carols 
and hymns are distant 
as are the smells of 
curries and freshly baked cookies. 

Boyhood memories warm the spirit
but the passing of the years
missing loved ones
brings a chill to the heart. 

The present so varied
and so unfamiliar 
of the once held dear
Christmas joy. 

A chef is roasting the turkey.
A waiter is pouring my wine.
Text messages are streaming in 
but give little Christmas cheer.

Malachi Edwin Vethamani is a poet and writer. His poetry publications include: Life Happens (Maya Press, 2017) and Complicated Lives (Maya Press, 2016). His edited volume of poems entitled Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (Maya Press, 2017) won the Best Book prize in the English Language category for the Malaysian Best Book Award 2020 organised by the Malaysian Publishers Association. His latest publication is an edited volume of poems entitled Malaysian Millennial Voices (Maya Press, 2021). His poems have appeared in various literary journals. He is Founding Editor of Men Matters Online Journal.

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Categories
Poetry

Wake

By A Jessie Michael

I awake to a wake,
(my very own it seems)
Of people familiar and not,
Unaware that I am awake at my wake.

What have I left 
in the wake of my awake life-
A speed boat existence
Swirling a lengthy, frothy wake?

How many were drenched by
The spray of my life’s wake?
I never turned to see
Too busy awake to the things before me

Now they reminisce, drink, smoke and snack
To keep awake at my wake.
“Go home. Sleep!” I say
But to them I’m not awake.

They keep awake at my wake
To celebrate me dead.
Where were they
When I was truly awake?

“O we were there,” they chatter.
“We were drenched by the wake
Of your speedboat existence.
Were you truly ever awake?”

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for online journals, local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).

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Categories
Stories

Captain Andi is in love

By Dr. P Ravi Shankar

The bubbly lyrics of Bobby McFerrin’s song ‘Don’t worry be happy’ filled the room. Andi was awakened from his slumber and slowly opened his eyes. He glanced at the clock by the bedside. Five a.m. Still dark outside. He had a virtual clinical exam later that morning. Early to bed and early to rise in the good old armed forces tradition was always mentioned by his mentor. Though with the heavy course workload and multiple assignments on most days he did not hit the bed before 11 pm.

His artificial intelligence (AI) mentor carefully monitored his academic progress. He was a straight A student and had done very well through the duration of the course, which was partially done. He was doing an accelerated curriculum and was expected to graduate in about two years. After his morning ablutions, his home robot came with a steaming hot cup of coffee. Dark and strong just the way he liked it. The robot checked his physical parameters. There were several sensors implanted in his body monitoring in real-time his physical parameters. Everything seemed normal and there was no cause for alarm.

He was one of the twenty students who had joined the undergraduate medical program at the Armed Forces medical school a year ago. He was inducted at the rank of Captain. Now the army and other organisations did not require many doctors. AI systems did most of the work of diagnosing and treating patients. AI was ubiquitous and omnipresent. Systems drove trucks, public transportation, private transportation, flew planes, did all menial jobs, carried out all secretarial and clerical jobs and took care of and educated human children. He had a special interest in human history and recalled the history lessons he had taken at school. During the mid-twenty-first century AI began to dominate life and most humans had slowly but steadily lost their jobs. Some were able to retrain and readapt and started helping in building and educating AI systems. The wars and the heating of the planet had reduced the liveable land. Human population steadily decreased for the first time in several centuries.

Frequent pandemics had become a regular part of life. Or rather was it the same pandemic which never really went away? A certain degree of control and protection was afforded by vaccines, but the virus had become endemic. Humans were resilient and had adapted to the new normal. New strains were isolated regularly, and these required a new set of vaccines to be developed and another round of vaccination. Luckily vaccines were edible these days and incorporated in tasty fruits like bananas.

Maya was his classmate. A perky and slender dark-haired girl, she never failed to cheer him up. He would be meeting her in about an hour. He read through his notes and prepared for the day ahead. He had a special interest in cyborgs and in enhancement of human function. Medicine had developed so much since the Middle Ages. He would be having a class on the ethics of incorporating AI systems in medicine in the morning by Prof Kim. He enjoyed Prof Kim’s sessions. All sessions these days were virtual except the ones on clinical skills. Most patients interacted with their doctors virtually. The sensors implanted on each human meant changes could be identified early and diseases addressed at the incipient stage. He and his fellow students and the teacher interacted virtually using a mix of extended reality and holographic images. The world had shifted online.

The world was a huge web. The internet of things. Devices and persons communicated constantly. Life was good, was it not? Why did he get the creepy feeling that he was being monitored all the time? Was he ever really alone? His father had made a fortune building sea walls and protecting coastal cities from the rising seas. The sea level had risen by over two feet and sea walls were a necessity. The Dutch were the masters and had made a huge fortune keeping the world from drowning. Human germ cell DNA editing was routine — both to eliminate deadly genetic diseases and to enhance human capabilities.  

Nearly everyone had some sort of enhancements done to their body to improve their hearing, vision, physical endurance, and immunity among other things. Surviving in the hostile world without an enhanced immune system was impossible. Occasionally he got together physically with his batchmates in the informal learning spaces the college provided. They were an even split. Ten humans with enhancements and ten living AI machines. Life had taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of machine life.

Machine life had several advantages. They were stronger, had almost superhuman powers and were immune to the viruses and other microbes in the air. Occasionally some parts needed to be replaced or some enhancements carried out. They did not need to sleep, and neither were they ever bored and unfocused. In medicine the machines had anthropomorphic features. They looked like humans and from their external appearance only it had become difficult to know if someone was a machine or a human.

Humankind was pursuing immortality. Most lived nearly three hundred years. Rich individuals could download their memories into AI systems and become immortal. The memories could be slowly downloaded at intervals into a developing human and a person could live life both in the virtual and the real worlds. Dr Cerson was a famous surgeon of the twentieth century, and his memories were being slowly downloaded into Captain Andi. Cerson’s ‘soul’ had passed through several human bodies during the ensuing centuries learning and adapting to the brave new world in the process. Surgery today was fully robotic and used an army of micro and nano-bots to carry out the procedure precisely and with nearly no tissue damage.

Maya was a humanoid — machine life. He recalled the day she had told him about herself in the college cafeteria. She knew he was developing tender feelings for her. Machines were built to detect and respond to human emotions. Human-machine intimate relationships were not expressly forbidden but neither were they encouraged by the government. There were a host of problems though the machines were built to be empathetic and kind to humans. The machines did not require sleep, no babies resulted from the relationship and one of the partners was immortal. He had given a lot of thought to these issues but eventually decided to go ahead with his relationship with Maya. He would be moving into her house in a week so that they could sync forces and optimise performance. He started humming the opening lyrics of the classic love song sung by George Benson ‘Nothing’s gonna change my love for you’ as he got dressed for his trip to the college cafeteria and coffee with Maya.

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Independence Day

Malaysia

Malaysia is said to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago by the same tribes who populated the Andamans. Situated on the trade route between China and India, they assimilated varied cultures into their lore, including that of the Arabs. Phases of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British wracked their history from 1511. They suffered from Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Federation of Malaya achieved independence after a struggle on 31st August 1957. In 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were combined with Malaya and the country was rechristened Malaysia.

In 1965, Singapore was voted out due to ideological reasons, some of it being racial and political. This Partition was free of political bloodshed or violence between the two countries, unlike the earlier Partitions within Asia which led to much violence and bigotry — India, Pakistan and North Korea and South Korea (where the split along the 38th parallel was initiated by the West post-Second World War to settle matters between the ideological blocks of communism and capitalism).

Malaysia continues a federal constitutional monarchy with a Sultan and an elected Prime Minister at the helm and has a mixed population of Malays (Bumiputera), Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and other ethnicities. We present a selection of writing from this country, put together on the occasion of their 64th independence day, also known as Hari Merdeka or National day.

Poetry

Benderaku (My Flag) by Julian Matthews. Click here to read.

A False Dawn by  Malachi Edwin Vethamani. Click here to read.

Colours of Words, three poems by A Jessie Michael. Click here to read.

Prose

Brother Felix’s Ward

Malachi Edwin Vethamani takes us to an exploration of faiths and borders. Click here to read.

The Night of Sirens

A Jessie Michael tells us of riots that set in during elections in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Categories
Poetry

Colours of Words

By A Jessie Michael

DIVERSITY   

Diversity is our last name.
Born speaking three languages (or four),
We, unconscious code switchers,
created creole 
before linguists caught up with us.
Colourless and colour blind.
Playing in each other’s homes,
Their food, became ours 
 Ours, theirs.
Their foul words ours,
And our curses theirs.

We walk into temples,
Mosques, churches,
attending christenings, weddings
and funerals.
No discomfort we feel 
participating in diverse festivals
of each religion and race.
Come to think of it, 
Diversity must be our middle name.

We don each other’s costumes 
as a matter of daily wear;
no one claims ownership,
it’s all national fare.
Then of course we marry each other
Creating a lovelier mess
of bi-racial and tri-racial children
of no definite ethnicity.
Growing up bi-religious and tri-lingual,
Colourless and colour blind,

We live everywhere in this world,
Never feeling we are different
until we have to fill a form.
Asian, Indian, European, East European
Middle Eastern, African, African American,
 American and other.
How the heck do we know?
Dang those forms that ask us so,
to tick boxes to put us into boxes.
Dang the politicians of single colour 
because they cannot see the rainbow.

Actually, diversity is our first name. 


HAVE WE?  HAVE WE?        

Have we learnt another language
to challenge our little brains?
Have we walked in others’ shoes 
and learnt of their pain?
Have we shared with them a cup of joy
and freely drunk of theirs too?
Have we sat at their table and
broken bread with them?
Have we stood beside the others 
and thought them just the same?
Have we risen above ancient anger,
forgiven our fellow men,
thought them worthy of our compassion
and stretched out our hands?
Have we emptied the bitter cup
that diminishes all men?


Our colours are but geography,
our religions but pathways 
to the same universal One.
So, who is to say who is better?
It is always our own buried fear,
that we pray at the altar,
then curse the man on the street
just because he looks different 
and is from another land;
just because we will not say
he is really a God-made-Man.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL