Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling
Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.
I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.
It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.
I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.
But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.
The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.
I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.
And then I heard her name.
Nothing could make me more happy than to see my wife awarded for her generosity, her determined help and care, and for her insistence that some things must change. She took to the hills in the revolution against Marcos in the Philippines as a teen, she lost her first husband in the intercine aftermath. More than anyone else I know she understands liberty and what denies it – and when we began working with the women who might once have been her colleagues, her comrades, she knew instinctively the ways, both big and small, that we could make a difference.
I stood to receive the certificate on my wife’s behalf because she’d left the room, looking for something our youngest daughter could eat. In situations like that I usually feel like an impostor, stealing the goodwill meant for someone else. But then my name was called.
Standing a little awkwardly, somewhere between a step and an urge to turn away, I realised that it really doesn’t matter what a certificate says, the words are immaterial and the effort put into gaining that piece of paper is but marginally more significant. What counts are the people who give you the thing, that their reasons are your reasons, in one way or another. Incidentally, the certificates read that my wife and I are now Bethune House Ambassadors of Goodwill. That’s a title we’re both happy to take.
We’ll frame the things soon, hang them on the wall, but one day they’ll probably gather dust, somewhere or other. We think it might be around here because we’re finding it more difficult to imagine that we could ever move on.
Life twists, turns and protrudes in peculiar ways, and we could yet be wrong. But there’s too much to be done in Hong Kong, too few who know about what’s going on, so much to lose for the women whose lives are scared by abuse. And we’ve got the certificates to prove it.