Lest we forget

My relationship with Melbourne began only one and a half years ago, which may seem like a relatively short time. However, in that span of time, I’ve seen and discovered the many sides of her. From Ice Queen with a heart that challenges the harsh winters of Siberia, to Little Miss Sunshine with a familiar warmth that brings thoughts of home, to the cool aloof kid who was always breaking all the rules and setting trends simultaneously, to everything in between. I’ve played on her beaches, explored her laneways and tasted the myriad of culture she offered.

But my favourite Melbourne would have to be the special glimpse I had, the hidden self only few have the privilege to discover. The glimpse I had only once, on 25 April 2016. Otherwise known as ANZAC Day in the calendar.

On that day, while the sun and the city were still asleep, my friend and I made our way to Flinders Street Station. We were giddy and giggly, equal parts excited and sleep-deprived. As we walked from Flinders Street Station to the Shrine of Remembrance, other eager souls sharing the same journey and destination joined us. The casual chatter and polite greetings to uniformed men and women created a buzz of excitement in the still eerie wee hours of the morning. A sense of mission somehow hung unspoken in the air. I decided that mine was to discover a side of Melbourne and its people that I have not experienced before.

At the Shrine of Remembrance, there were many people gathered in front of large screens projecting memorial images and videos. As I stood with them, I was suddenly aware of the quietness surrounding me. It was the kind of silence that spoke volumes. It was in the way people stood, in the hushed tones and held breaths, in the unison of the gathering that seemed to emit a powerful aura of pride and honour.

In that moment, I felt as if everything was forgotten, that the lives we live didn’t matter. What mattered was the very reason we were standing in the dark, together, united by being present in this time and place. Being an international student, I did not know much about this significant day that weaved together the histories of Australia and New Zealand. However, no history lesson could replace what I learnt that day. The amount of respect I felt so strongly taught me how Melburnians thought of ANZAC Day.

As the commemorative service went on, dawn began to break during the singing of the national song. The silhouette of the Shrine was painted in cool undertones, contrasted against the occasional bright glimpse of the sun as it began to rise. As new light washed over the Shrine, I began to see it in a figurative new light. The outlines of the people around me began to sharpen, and slowly, I had a face to each of the voices I heard. People from all walks of life were around me, with an indescribable look of solemness and honour on their faces. Although I am not Australian, a feeling of pride washed over me. I felt my heart thump with the same amount of love and respect for this country. This was a side of Melbourne that I’d searched for, one where every building, person, tune, time and place had a purpose and meaning.

After the service, my friend and I each bought a poppy pin. The iconic red flower, worn proudly like a badge of honour on coats and scarves, just like the medals hanging on uniformed war veterans. As I held the poppy in my hands, thoughts of familiarity clouded my mind as I was reminded of the hibiscus flower. The reason? The hibiscus is my home country’s national flower. The two flowers bear a resemblance to each other, not just by their scarlet petals but by the sacrifices and pride they represent.

A symbol of keeping the faith, the red poppy is used in Remembrance Day as well as ANZAC Day. During the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae saw the brilliant red bloom of poppies in the battlefield at Ypres in 1915. Inspired, he wrote the poem In Flanders fields, where the poppy came to embody the symbolism of blood shed in sacrifice. This opposed the initial idea of sleep or oblivion associated with the poppy in nineteenth-century English literature. The seemingly unassuming flower began to blossom in a new, powerful light.

Just as how the poppy tells a rich history of Australia and New Zealand, the hibiscus too, takes on this story-telling role. Its story bears uncoincidental similarity to the poppy’s, painted against a background of war. It became the national flower of Malaysia, when one was needed to symbolise the independence my forefathers fought so hard for. During the Second World War in the pre-independence period, Australian troops fought bravely alongside my forefathers. Unbeknownst to me, the independence symbolised by the hibiscus weaved together the histories of my country of birth and the country I currently reside in, into an intricate tapestry that I now appreciate.

The hibiscus is known as Bunga Raya in Malay, my national language. In English, this translates to mean ‘flower of celebration’. My own interpretation of this, after my thought-provoking ANZAC Day experience, began to change.

Celebration is possible because of the sacrifices made. We celebrate ANZAC Day, in memory of the sacrifice of Australians who served and died at war. We celebrate Malaysia’s national day, in memory of the sacrifice of all who helped achieved independence. And I celebrate being an international student in Melbourne, in memory of the sacrifice of all, especially my parents, who helped turned this dream into reality.

Just like how Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae gave new meaning to the poppy, I am giving new meaning to my Melbourne from the experiences I create and the experiences I honour, forever etched in my heart.

Esther Kuok May Yan's story was the winner in the Higher Education Category: By international students studying university