A tale of bilateral uprooting

This story is a part of a series of essays submitted to The Culture Review Mag on the theme of #perantauan (Malay for ‘journey’).

If you have your own story to tell on this theme, whether as someone who has left Malaysia, leaving it, staying put or returning to the country, we would like to hear it. The word limit is 1500 words. Please include a short bio and a few photos of yourself. The editor can be reached at theculturereview.tcr@gmail.com

By Ai Sin

When a vacancy for a post-doctorate research fellow in Japan was publicised, my husband knew he had to apply for it. It was the opportunity that he had been looking forward to while clocking in countless late nights trying to draft and revise his doctorate thesis.

We were naturally overwhelmed with elation when he received the offer a month later. The three months that ensued were a tumultuous time, as we left everything that we had accumulated and prepared to take the plunge. My husband’s career options shifted between unpaid leave and resignation. Furthermore, we had other things to consider, such as what would we do with our cars in Malaysia and where we would live in Japan.

Eventually, my husband took the bold step to tender his resignation and with our small family in tow, boarded the flight on a one-way ticket. A good month passed after our arrival in Japan when his employer in Malaysia finally approved his unpaid leave. Having a job position to return to would determine the direction of our lives and the sequence of events that would take place over the next few years.

So, I landed in Japan as an expatriate wife before our child turned four. To prepare her, we took her to the pond near our home where we had usually frequented to bid farewell to the fish and tortoises. I also took her to our neighbourhood field to watch the boys play football one last time.

After a few days of settling down, my daughter had a tremendous meltdown on the morning just when my husband announced that he was going to work. She must have thought this was like our trip to Cameron Highlands where we would stay a few days and go home.

In Japan, we settled in a local community where we found ourselves acquainted with a handful of international postgraduates. However, we found out that general foreigners were the minority – Malaysians rarer still. That rendered English practically useless. We had to get our resident cards at the ward office and open a bank account at the post office, where all forms and conversations took place in Japanese. Not speaking fluent Japanese was something to be frowned upon but flashing a professor visa gained us enormous respect as I soon found out.

I learnt that speaking broken Japanese definitely garnered more positive response rather than using English, whenever I had to shop for furniture and appliances. I was soon forced to learn to type in Japanese because searching for English keywords would return vastly different results. For example, we found out that the annual pass to the recreational farms were only explained in Japanese, which motivated me to communicate in Japanese even more.

Once, while we were on our way out to the mall, one of us had a small accident that resulted in a dislocated wrist. We were refused treatment at the nearest polyclinic because we lacked an interpreter. On the way back to our neighbourhood, I took the time to translate a few keywords before knocking on the door of a small osteopathic clinic known as a Seikotuin. Thankfully, they fixed the injury.

Through my writers’ network back in Malaysia, I chanced upon a part-time job offered by a technology company founded in Japan by a Malaysian engineer who had been living there for two decades and who often travelled between the two countries. I was glad that I could finally put my English to some good use.

We had the perfect chance to hone our culinary skills, such as with nasi lemak or the char kuey teow that used to be a fifteen-minute drive away from our home in Malaysia. So, we pored over recipes, whipped up a shopping list where we substituted ingredients with local variants and cooked in our four hundred square feet apartment. After a few prototypes and fine-tuning, we mastered the tricks to the dishes.  

We found out that paying taxes to the Japanese government paid back in the way of childcare support. In every housing community, there is a Jidoukan, a childcare support facility catered for children activities with parental companion, a place where we ended up frequenting.

In contrast to our choice, immigrants whom we met and whom were planning on a longer term stay were sending their children to Youchien (public kindergarten) or Hoikuen (drop-off childcare centres), which was about the only way for the next generation to master the language and blend in. Hence, the parents would study Japanese with much more rigour than I did.

When the 14th Malaysian general election came, my husband and I fervently followed the news on Malaysia. We earnestly filled in the form to receive our ballot paper by mail. We received it but there was no way to return it by postal service for it to arrive the next day. Some Malaysians made it to the airport to pass the ballot paper to travellers who would then relay the piece of paper to whoever arranged to get them from KLIA to drop at the voting stations in time.

On 10 May 2018, the day of the swearing in, my husband and I were glued to the screen anticipating the ceremony. The internet connected us with our homeland, and we felt deeply being a part of it.

Uprooting from one’s homeland is emotionally excruciating; but to do it a second time is to double the pain. I prepared my daughter for our return to Malaysia by counting down from three months before our departure. I bought cards for her to trace and write ありがとう(arigatou) to the volunteer teachers and childcare staff who had been a part of our daily lives.

But nothing prepared her for the reality of losing of a good part of her life after we were back. For months, she would burst into tears whenever something reminded her of life in Japan, something as simple as a meal of onigiri with seaweed in miso soup. She was weeping over the loss of her newly-forged friendships in Japan. When we were there, all she would draw were the fish and the tortoises from the pond near our Malaysian home.

Upon our return, we stared at the TV screen in disbelief and bewilderment at the whole turn of the political events. I missed the swearing-in ceremony on 29 February 2020.

One day while rushing on foot to the neighbourhood printing shop, I brushed shoulders with the neighbouring boy whom we had watched play football. He flashed a grin at me even though I could barely recognize him in his nearly-adult body. Meanwhile, the image of my silver-haired Japanese neighbours of the past two years are now etched into my memory, together with their smiles.

About the author

Ai Sin is an engineer by training with a decade of experience specialising in mobile technology. She went on to conduct training sessions for telecommunication engineers in 16 countries spanning over 4 continents, and have written more than 10 technical training manuals in the process. Her series of articles on the history of telecommunication have been cited in teaching materials for telecommunication engineering courses at Multimedia University. She recently co-authored Money Stories from Malaysians Volume 1 (2019) and also won a prize in a national essay-writing competition in the Chinese language held by Sin Chew Jit Poh in 2007.