I can't come home for Christmas
A moment in Paradise

Merry Christmas PNG, with love from Emma

Emma Wakpi - "There are kinks in the cultures and ways of my people and I continue to struggle against them. But for the most part I am at peace"

| Published in PNG Attitude, 25 December 2012

MY DEAREST MOTHERLAND - I am writing this letter on the eve of Christmas to let you know how much I love and appreciate you.

This time of the year reminds us of what we should be thankful for and of what love is really all about.

Often times we argue so much about what is wrong and right and how it’s supposed to be done nowadays.

But at the end of the day, you are family, you give me my identity and I find my comfort in your coarse gruffness which conceals a heart so fiercely loyal to me.

At times I pine for things other nations can offer their children and am ashamed to admit that in my youth I’ve oft rued the fact that destiny saw fit to make me a Papua New Guinean.

But as I have grown and experienced what life has had to offer - as opportunities have allowed me to visit other countries and cultures; I have discovered that no one is perfect and even the most ideal of situations have their faults.

Looking back I realise the privilege of growing up as a Papua New Guinean and the unique traits that helped create my identity.

Nowhere else on earth can I find a family so diverse and realise the feat it takes to congregate hundreds of nations into the single entity known as PNG and to keep it functioning.

Individual identities are not smothered but like jigsaw puzzles are being pieced together to complete a picture. How this picture will turn out, only God knows.

I am an integral part of that overall puzzle - my piece of the picture you are designing.

The way you are shaping me is altogether unique, the experiences and memories are what constitute my mind, body and soul.

I realise this now and do not want to take for granted the encounters which you have allowed to mould and shape me.

I therefore would like to reminisce and share with you the impact that you have had on me and how you’ve helped shape my life until now….

I see myself blown up and shaped into a puzzle piece (for aesthetic purposes let it be the capital letter E). The top half of the letter is yellow with flecks of orange.

These are the times of my early childhood, the experiences of my village.

Adults sitting around the open fire in the evening as I lie at the back drifting hazily upon the quiet conversations about the garden and its yields.

That stubborn pig that’s always escaping from its fenced parameter.

The recounting of bygone days with revered ancestors admired for their feats of hunting, fighting, gardening.

Then rising at dawn to hear my grandfather sharpen his axe as he sings old chants; seeing his toothy, bearded grin as he stoops to enter the hut to prepare our smoky breakfast of sweet tea and roasted bananas – his specialty.

I hear my grandmother lovingly calling out to her pigs in the pig house as she ties ropes around the front ankles, leading them to good feeding grounds for the day.

My attention is caught and catapulted to the surrounding kunai hills as my uncle lustily exchanges the morning news with yodelling neighbours while my aunt and mother listen in and make ready their bilums with the supplies needed for a day of gardening.

I see myself straddling my grandfather’s shoulders, clinging to his hair like a young kapul as he effortlessly carries me along, balancing his spade and other working tools on one shoulder while climbing the small hill to work the family garden.

And of him letting me sneak off to play with other children hunting cicadas, grasshoppers and any critters we can safely eat.

The bursts of emotional experience now sweep over me.

The sheer excitement as groups of children and older teenagers go mushroom hunting when the season has started and the cautionary voices of my grandparents telling us to bring everything home to identify before it can be consumed.

The feeling of complete contentment and fun as I see my mother and older cousins and aunts fill bilums full of bedding and clothes, talking and laughing as they take them to the nearby river to launder.

I find myself playing tag with other children, diving and splashing about in the cool shallow pools and drying ourselves, basking lazily like lizards on the big stones.

In the afternoon I follow my older cousins and their friends to the nearby hill which has been laboriously watered to make a slippery slope.

Each child has brought along banana trunks with carved designs stylised from twigs and leaves.

The fun as teams are formed and pairs race each other to see who can reach the bottom first while successfully clinging to the banana trunk.

The exhilaration of speeding down that hill and taking risks; bathed a dusky red by the wet mud.

I see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins clinging to me and crying as my father gently prises me away from them and carries me into an airplane.

The people inside look fresh and crisp and I am in awe of the air stewardess.

The straight hair, red lips and pencilled eyebrows fascinate me but this is swooped aside and my heart soars as the plane takes off.

A complete sense of surreal wonder overwhelms me as I watch everything fade and cars and houses become like the toys that Dad always brought home when he came on his breaks.

He is taking my mother, sister and I to that place where he works.

When we arrive, the place is green and dense, blanketing and swallowing up everything.

It is a colour I’ve never experienced - my own village canopy allowed sunlight to at least filter through and tinge everything a yellowish gold; it is not so here, and it is a bit frightening.

But slowly it grows on me and envelopes me in its mountainous embrace, solid and soothing.

It is in this mass of green comfort that I learn to speak and read English, to bond with my nuclear family, to make friends in church and school and to become comfortable with neighbours from other countries.

There is a sense of wonder at the modern world I’ve stepped into. Walking into our kapa house for the first time, it seemed hollow and so full of air and light.

Everything is new, white and exciting – the light and fan switches, faucets, shower basin, flushing toilet and we even have a washing machine.

Oh, the wonder of turning things on and off at the switch of a button or a twist of a knob – no smoky lamp and fires to blow, no running down the slope to cart water from the watering hole, no more pit toilets in the middle of the night where my imagination terrorises me with shadows cast from the kerosene lamp.

And dad shows me the television for the first time.

What words can describe that feeling? (I learn to speak and read English watching Sesame Street and Play School every morning and afternoon with mum.)

The sense of awe extends to the start of my education. As I walk into my prep class, Mrs Bignal intrigues me.

Red hair, nails and lips contrast sharply with her pale countenance and she seems rather stern but I soon find she is fun as she untangles me from behind my mothers’ skirt and tells me to go play.

Mr Canham, my second grade teacher (reading a portion of Arabian Nights every afternoon), introduces me to the world of books and helps me discover the magic of the cool library with soft bean bags and captivating shelves holding imaginations of every kind.

Many a lunch and after school session finds me holed up devouring anything that grabs my interest.

The jungle green now transforms into a deep red hue with flickers of black. This is the dawning of my self-realisation - of discovering who I am and how I should live in this country called Papua New Guinea.

My existence consists of several dimensions - family, culture, peers, faith.

I attend high school and university and interact with various nationalities and cultures. How do I balance them all?

I find my friends “don’t get” my village life so that becomes my private world I escape to every school holiday to fall into the loving arms of family and where modern amenities are exchanged for smoky huts as I snuggle close to my grandmother and listen to her singsong voice retelling tales of old.

Of squatting next to my grandfather as he operates on the slaughtered pig for our ‘family Christmas’ feast.

Of wandering into the jungle with my aunt and uncle to see them clear land for new gardens, of following my cousins as they participate in the Christmas games of volleyball and basketball where the rules are made up and which I find a bit too rough for my now town bred self.

But I enjoy watching and cheering and every now and again brave the swinging arms and thrusting hips to play.

My culture has certain expectations of me as an educated man’s daughter.

How I conduct myself in the village, how I dress, how I react to situations, knowing my place - there is a structure which places me on a certain level and this is in stark contrast to the independence I am so used to in school.

I huff and puff and grumble but know that I must comply or else bring shame to my family.

How do I do it so I don’t feel as if I’m being coerced into something?

How do I do it so that I am not condescending but sincere? I realise love, respect and understanding of world views is crucial to achieving this balance.

Having been exposed to a broader view of the world and having decided toward the end of my high school days to accept Christ and follow his teaching, I realise that unconditional love and seeing things from another’s perspective brings understanding.

For this I am thankful for my parents counsel; they too have had to tread this path - my nuclear family helped me fit better into my extended family, culture and Papua New Guinea as a nation.

And now, as I accept myself and my place, I can with understanding address issues that to me are wrong - the flickers of black. Not all things are rosy recollections.

There are kinks in the cultures and ways of my people and I continue to struggle against them.

But for the most part I am at peace, I love and am loved fully in return and find contentment in my identity – I have a place in this world where I can wholly belong - to know who I am even as I interact and am drawn in by an ever increasingly global world and its persuasions.

My dear PNG, as I ponder all this, I realise the privilege and richness of my life.

I thank God for creating me and choosing me to be your citizen and placing me in your care to be shaped and fitted; to experience what I have experienced and to work toward an even better future.

I love you and honour you and this Christmas, as we reflect on the meaning of giving; of love unconditional bestowed with abandon to all mankind, I pray God grant me the grace to live out a life of integrity and love so that I can make you proud.

Merry Christmas, and forever yours, Emma.


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Paul Oates

Well done Emma. You've captured the essential spirit of PNG in your Christmas message.

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