Tag Archives: life

The Secret Life of Birds

This morning I threw a half-eaten apple out onto my backyard. Two birds immediately landed near it; one began eating ferociously, the other stayed back and twittered. In my half-awake stupor, I stayed at the window a little longer than necessary watching them.

Bird 1: Do you smell that?

Bird 2: Yes, there’s a sweet fruity fragrance..? What is it..? Oh, an apple!

B1: No, it’s rain…

B2: Look Grandpa, it’s so fresh and juicy! (CHOMP, CHOMP)

B1: Be careful son, smell it first. Remember what I told you? If it’s white it could be poisonous. You’ll be pooping all over the electricity wires in no time and you know how your mother hates that. She won’t be able to hang clothes off it for weeks. (Hang on…clothes..?)

B2: Don’t worry Grandpa. It’s so delicious! I can’t wait to tell Mom about this!

B1: Where are your manners? Don’t bite like that! Peck, for godssake! And this isn’t our turf, it belongs to the pies. Hurry up with that apple, I’ll make sure they don’t come too close.

B2: I wish we could take this home to Grandma, she could make baked apple on the red chimney! (CHOMP, CHOMP)

B1: Aish, it’s raining (indeed it was). Come on son, time to go. You know it’s dangerous learning to fly when it’s wet.

B2: But can’t we bring this with us? (gazes forlornly at the apple)

B1: No, you know we can’t bring anything we can’t fit in our beaks with us. We have to go now, your mother expects us home for supper.

B2: Can we come back for it then? Please, Grandpa? Pleaseeeeee?

Both birds fly off into freedom leaving a mangled apple behind, while I hang my head and leave to go do my macroeconomics exam.

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Australia’s District 9

Today I was doing some good old procrastination while studying for exams, so I decided to watch the movie District 9 from 2009. One of the many movies I remember wanting to go watch after seeing the trailer, only to forget about it completely or have my wallet say No.

Aliens, blood and a tearjerking story. What more could you possibly ask for in a movie? Of course, District 9 isn’t all about that. Its themes of humanity, xenophobia and social segregation easily call forth a number of humanitarian tragedies in history – colonisation, Auschwitz and the South-African apartheid leap out. A direct interpretation of the aliens, or derogatory term ‘prawns’, is made: “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue”.

And in light of the Labor government’s new bill to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone on Wednesday, I decided to take a step further and draw some parallels between District 9 and Australian immigration detention.

Aliens

District 9: The aliens aren’t just foreigners, they’re extraterrestrials from another planet. They come from another place offering no plausible reason for their arrival, subsequently taking up space in Johannesburg, and are a massive source of violence and crime among the existing community. As aliens, their physical appearances disgust us and make them hard to identify. As the command module to fly their mothership back to their home planet has been lost, it is impossible for them to leave.

Detention: In the real world, the term ‘alien’ has long been used by immigration departments to mean ‘a person who is not a citizen of the country’. That includes all recent immigrants, but especially refugees/ asylum seekers/boat people. The particular ‘aliens’ we are concerned with as a country right now are the sneaky immigrants who arrive without a visa: mostly of Middle Eastern and Southern Asian descent. We have to keep them in detention while we process them because they might be terrorists. Even the little kids. And even if they really did come to Australia out of fear for their lives, they’ll steal our jobs. Furthermore, if refugees are given adverse security assessments by ASIO they can be detained indefinitely, and such a security assessment also prevents other countries from taking them in.

The Government

District 9: The South-African government must respond to the people’s popular protests to remove the aliens from the city, and contracts Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to carry out this process.

Detention: As of 2009, the Australian Immigration Department contracted Serco Australia Pty Ltd as the service-provider to people in immigration detention centres throughout Australia. Serco is a private government services company that also manages prisons in the UK and the only privately-run prison in Western Australia. Its Immigration Services page reassures you that it runs its immigration business in accordance with utmost professional and corporate standards.

Location

District 9: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. The alien district, District 9, turns into slums where aliens forage for food amongst rubbish dumps, and the shacks are underdeveloped, dirty and falling apart. Eventually the government intervenes to relocate the aliens to District 10, where they can live in new, white tents far away from the city and its people. District 10 is likened to a concentration camp.

Detention: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. As of 2011, there were 5733 people in immigration detention in Australia, 975 of whom were children and 97 of whom had been in detention for two years or longer. The average accommodation capacity of Australian detention facilities is in the 200-400 person range, with some immigration detention centres able to accommodate up to 1200 persons. Their forced detainment in places far removed from metropolitan society effectively fences them off from us – out of sight, out of mind.

Communication

District 9: The aliens speak in a garbled, techno-robotic voice that is largely unintelligible to the humans in South Africa. So we mostly don’t hear from the alien population, save some very spare language.

Detention: Not to mention that most refugees come to Australia speaking only their native languages, many don’t have a voice that can speak clearly and directly to the outside world from inside detention centres, like lawyers or social workers. There have been instances of asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest over delays in processing their visa applications. 60 people did this in 2002, and last year three boys at the Victorian Broadmeadows Detention Centre did this as well. These acts of self-mutilation speak powerfully of desperation, emotional and psychological damage, even when detainees physically cannot.

State of Emergency

In a state of emergency, which is exactly what it is, the government suspends all normal behaviour – citizens are alerted to follow official instructions such as evacuation, and government agencies put into plan emergency preparations. Executive, legislative and judicial powers are usually heightened to allow the government to take whatever course of action it has to, based on emergency situations that were obviously unprecedented when drawing up the law. David Cameron effectively declared Britain to be in a state of emergency at the peak of the 2011 London riots, and the aftermath of 9/11 was certainly another, leading to increased state powers to crack down on terrorism. In fact, for 31 years Egypt was held under emergency laws that allowed authorities to detain people without charge and try them in emergency security courts.

District 9: The 20 years of the emergency of alien arrival is surely what political philosopher Carl Schmitt was considering as he first mused over the ‘state of exception’…haha. We see that the state of emergency in Johannesburg allows authorities to get away with some pretty fucked up things, like physical abuse of the aliens or just callous, inhumane references to them, such as when Wikus refers to the sound of alien eggs being destroyed as popping just like popcorn. It’s of course a little funny to speak of humanity in the dealings of very non-human extraterrestrials, but still humanity is a trait we should have, as humans. We should show humanity both to humans and to non-humans, like other animals, and especially to those weaker than us, or at our mercy. Humanity is something that describes us.

Detention: Since the first arrival of boat people in the 1980s, Australia has more or less been in a state of emergency, at least on the border security front. Politicians have been able to bank on this to pull sizeable support for their immigration policies for decades, thanks to ghostly vestiges of the White Australia policy. As a nation we aren’t decided on how to keep them away, but we are decided on keeping them away.

No matter how much they dominate our national conversation, refugees remain a stateless people, non-citizens who are outside of the legitimate political sphere. In physical incarceration, authorities have complete sovereignty over their bodies. There is no concept of personal liberty. In mainstream media, asylum seekers are more of a human rights issue than the real people who make up the issue. They are silent subjects – faceless, hopeless – and we reject the biopolitics of their lives. We reject them.

I only fear that it may not be long before we start thinking of them as aliens, and ‘unbelonging’ turns into subhuman. That’s certainly how the Holocaust and the Apartheid started out. Foucault said:

Modern man is an animal whose politics placed his existence as a living being into question.

We are all living beings. But are all living beings equal? If you say yes, we are all equal, then does that mean we all have equal human rights, including the right as a refugee to the protection of your new country? If your answer is still yes, then please, have a think about what we are doing as a country.

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For Chris:

Most of my friends post-2009 might not know this about me, but when I was 9 years old I was diagnosed with an autoimmune blood disorder. Recently my haematologist asked me to contribute my own story to a support forum for patients, and I thought I’d share it here as well. Vive les sciences!

I’ve lived exactly half of my life with ITP – but if ITP were a person, these days it would be a familiar, though not exactly friendly acquaintance to me, rather than the strange, alien sounding blood condition it seemed when we first met (at the age of 9 I could hardly spell the word ‘idiopathic’).

ITP, or its full designation idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura gives an idea of what the blood disorder means to those who have it – thrombocytopenia means a deficiency of platelets in the blood. This causes bleeding into the tissues, bruising, and slow blood clotting after injury. Purpura indicates a rash of purple spots on the skin caused by internal bleeding from small blood vessels. Idiopathic simply means unknown cause, which leaves doctors and patients chewing over murky avenues of treatment such as platelet transfusion, steroids, bone marrow examinations and the like. With a few lucky exceptions, most courses of treatment yield short-term results at best and are utterly redundant at worst.

Whilst a healthy platelet count is in the range of 150,000 to 450,000 per microlitre of blood (150-450 shorthand), at the time of diagnosis mine was low by all counts at around 20,000 (20). Although the figure would fluctuate over the years – from a worrying low of 6,000 (6) to 40,000 (40), on a normal day it sits dependably in the 20,000-30,000 (20-30) range.

These days ITP isn’t a big part of my life at all, I don’t think about it once a week or even once a month. By all accounts, it’s an invisible friend. I’m only reminded of it when I trip and fall on my butt or take a tumble down the stairs, and the costs of my clumsiness stay for longer than they should.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, my parents and I worried endlessly about bruises, wounds, and tooth extractions. My specialist at the time at the Children’s talked about splenectomies, blood transfusions and steroids. This all made her, the hospital and the blood disorder a whole lot scarier. I stopped playing sport and stayed home from school on heavy days when I had my period. I learned to identify and avoid risky situations.

But I think the biggest price I had to pay for having less platelets than everybody else was not being able to fly. My specialist had explicitly warned us against taking me overseas: with a low platelet count of 10-20, the high air pressure of flying by plane could cause rupture to blood vessels in the brain, and in a worst case scenario this could be fatal. And so it was that I spent most of my early teens dreaming about flying when I sat in the classroom or before falling asleep at night. Even if I hadn’t wanted to travel the world to begin with, the reality that I could not made me want it a million times more. We could only go interstate – when my whole Year 6 grade went to Canberra on camp, my parents drove me there and back separately from the cohort. The trip took sixteen hours in total, eight times longer than that of my classmates. Isn’t flight great?

I’d think about Hong Kong, Paris, New York, London compulsively with not just a hint of adolescent romance – everything I read and heard convinced me that any place was better than Melbourne, my forced home (I now know better). I was addicted to stories told by travellers and expatriates. I learnt French, Japanese, Arabic and my parents’ native Chinese, anything that could give me a glimpse into life outside of the places I knew. In hindsight I think that maybe this whole period gave me the first inklings of what my future career aspirations would be – I later finally identified this as journalism.

I would wonder: if nothing changed and I didn’t get any better, would I have to be confined to a career in Australia without international prospects? Would I never get to go anywhere in the world? It got to the point where not a day went by without me thinking about flying. I prayed for miracle leaps in my blood count, and wore ‘lucky jewellery’ to monthly blood tests. I’ll tell you another little (embarrassing) secret: after watching the pop psychology movie The Secret that preaches the law of attraction, I tried hard to imagine the sensation of flying; of looking down from the window of a plane onto a city of night lights, following the rules of desire, ask, believe, receive. But who knows – in the end I did get what I wanted, though not exactly in the way I’d thought!

In 2009, I was passed onto another specialist at the Children’s. By this time, I’d spent six years in and out of the haematology ward, and not much had changed – at the last appointment with my old specialist she urged my parents to seriously consider surgical removal of my spleen, a risky and non-guaranteed cure for ITP. When I met Chris, it was a whole different story. By then medical research had progressed significantly, and some doctors took a far more liberal approach to treating ITP than the conservative approach we had been used to. Chris was definitely of the more recent camp. He had a Let’s-wait approach.

Let’s wait and see how your body develops and whether the platelets might improve with it (he thought they would).

Let’s wait and see what happens before we take your spleen out, or pump you with steroids (and we did).

Chris told me to play sport again, and most importantly – he told me to hop on a plane without a moment’s hesitation. To this end, I always thought this verdict was a little anticlimactic after all those years of waiting, but I was so happy I DIDN’T CARE. His optimism was fresh and overwhelming – and set me free.

I remember calling my dad’s sister in Hong Kong to tell her I was coming and crying from happiness. At the time of booking my Christmas trip, I hadn’t been anywhere for seven years. Since then, I’ve studied abroad in Japan, have a trip to Europe lined up for next year and might even be going to India in January, fingers crossed. Between my specialist, my parents and I, we’ve removed most of the obstacles stopping me from living like a regular teenager. Anxiety is probably the biggest one: I don’t panic nearly as much when I fall over – ‘let’s wait and see’ – and three more people have been sleeping easier at night for the last three years.

For more stories like mine, check out this page.

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