Reflections post Saltwater at AusAsia


Image from Walking Borders, courtesy of Scotia Monkivitch

“I would also like to remember that while we gather here today to share in a meal over a migrant’s story, another group of people are gathering in front of Lady Cilento Hospital in solidarity with asylum seekers. I carry a red passport from the country also affectionately known as the Little Red Dot, which means I am able to live in this country with the man I love, practice my art, and celebrate my cultural traditions without fear. “

I don’t usually start my performances so “clearly,” if you know what I mean. But in the steamboat party adaptation of Saltwater last Sunday, I begun with an introduction. I had to.

Prior to arriving in Brisbane, I had been following the news, and my dear friend Scotia’s social media feed on the situation with Baby Asha and the vigil outside of Lady Cilento Hospital. On my first night, I went down to witness the vigil. I was (am) after all, staying at Scotia’s, and she was there. In fact, she had been taking on most of the night shifts (anything between midnight and 9am) since the vigil had begun.

It was dinner time when I arrived. The Rohingya community had prepared enough food to feed 100s of people at the vigil. I put a donation in and shared in the meal. I felt a little cheeky to share the feed when I haven’t yet “done my part,” but by the end of the meal, my heart was well stirred up and I wanted to do more, though I didn’t know what yet.

I had committed to the show, and I knew I had to do it. But there was a big part of me that would have liked to bring the steamboat party to the vigil instead. In context of what was happening so immediately before me, I felt the gravity of my privilege like never before.

Between that Friday night and Monday morning after the performance, a lot of things unfolded with Baby Asha and the vigil. An urgent call to form a blockade was made, 100s of pizzas were delivered because of a twitter call, and Baby Asha and her family were released into community detention. The stand that the medical professionals of Lady Cilento Hospital took, along with the community support through the vigil and across the nation, changed the immediate outcome of the situation. (Yes, it would seem that the family might still be sent back to Nauru; no, offshore detention isn’t over; yes, Australia’s asylum seeker policy is still fucked, excuse my language; but a change in outcome nonetheless.)

The vigil was coming to a close.

As it turned out, I had overestimated the groceries for the show. I brought the leftovers home, and cooked it up the next day and brought it to the wrap-up rally. It did not feed 100s of people, but it fed some. It fed the ones that stayed till the end.

I want the people smuggling “industry” to end. But I don’t believe offshore detention to be the answer.
I understand temporary shelter is necessary while processing takes place. But I cannot tolerate that the environment has to be abusive, inhumane, and unjust.

Elizabeth, who I met at at the wrap up rally, said it most eloquently, “this is about safety.”

Asylum seekers and refugees are seeking safety – from the countries they are fleeing. We may not be able to grant them a visa immediately, but we can most definitely provide safety.

Come on Australia, we can do better than this!

#Letthemstay is the hashtag in the campaign started by the Refugee Action Collective. Hashtags are an important device these days. Over social media, it is how we track if a campaign/topic has gone viral. It is how we know there is support for a cause. It is how we attempt to have a conversation about important issues.

But I wonder if the hashtag speaks to the right audience.

“Let Them Stay” seems to be a demand, and in this case, from the government. But the social media audience is the community. What about #letskeepthemsafe ? A call-to-action – let us! – Is a gathering of people who share the belief in the cause.

In a climate where the government shouts its own slogans, reducing “policy” to 3-words, are we perpetuating a reductionist approach to the issue of the safety of asylum seekers and refugees? When in actual fact, what we want is to open up the conversation and talk more holistically about the matter? That this campaign is not simply reactionary to “Stop the Boats,” but so much more!

And yet, I understand the need to spread the message fast. And I understand the need to make sure the message catches on. And in the urgency of these current situations, often campaigners have to be thinking and acting fast.

Depending on which news publication you read, and depending on whether you read the comments sections, you’ll find a whole spectrum of supporters and non-supporters (read: “the-go-back-to-where-you-came-from-nutheads). When Peter Dutton came out to say that Asha and her family would eventually be sent back to Nauru, and even went so far as to imply that Asha was intentionally scalded so that they could get treatment in Brisbane etc., many people thought of the vigil as a “failure.”

I must admit that for a long time, I haven’t really understood the effect and effectiveness of protests, rallies, and marches. Perhaps it is the Singaporean in me – ignorant of such things since we were never allowed such civil disobedience. And I probably still don’t fully grasp it either. But I am beginning to see the different parts of the machine that is activism, and they all need to be moving at once.

Policies need to change. And policies change when 1) politicians stop being self(corporate)-serving jerks, and 2) the population shifts. When the people’s hearts are changed, policies will start to change. At the same time, policies drive regulations, which drives behaviour, which can just as much change hearts.

And art, can speak to the heart.

Elizabeth reaffirmed my work when we spoke further, and I am grateful for our conversation. In my works, I am looking for a democratic space – where we can sit with the stranger next to us, share and exchange vulnerable moments and memories, be in service to each other, and feed ourselves, literally and metaphorically.

Yes, it is an incredibly privileged space. The audience demographic is mostly made up of people who can afford a ticket, whose lives afford them the experience of encountering contemporary art, and we leave the space feeling good. But I can only hope that it stirs in them compassion, gentleness, and the desire to view the world just a little differently than when they entered the work.

And in my own ways – that I could, with leftovers, feed a wombok stew to 20 people at a vigil, or devil’s curry to the homeless on swanston street, or even hungry theatre crew each night – is my attempt at extending that shared experience of life and love, generosity and kindness, that I hope gets carried forward.

In my house, there is more. There is always, more.

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