I met Alison Gresik at our writing group in Ottawa. She was the exciting young writer whose first book, a collection of stories, Brick and Mortar, had been nominated for the Ottawa Book Award in 2001. But after some years, what with work and kids and writing a novel, she got kind of quiet at the meetings. And then suddenly, in July 2011, she and her husband sold their house and possessions and moved abroad with their two children. This process — her struggle to write, their year in Malaysia — Gresik writes about in her self-published travel memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire.
Gresik grew up in Kingston, Ontario and did her M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Calgary with Aritha van Herk. Her short fiction has appeared in Grain, Descant, IMAGE, and in the anthology The Company We Keep. She has been writing about creativity at gresik.ca for fifteen years. Since September 2012 she has been living in Vancouver with her family.
The e-book version of Pilgrimage of Desire is available now; the print edition is still in production.
DM: You and your family lived in Penang, Malaysia, from September 2011 to April 2012. What took you there?
AG: Shawn and I had always wanted to live overseas for an extended period of time — he had relatives in the Netherlands, and we talked about New Zealand and South Africa. But we always assumed that one of us would need to get a job overseas. Then remote working became a thing, and I was making a living from my laptop at home, which made the idea of long-term travel more of a possibility. So shortly after our second child joined the family we started making plans to go. We adopted our daughter Lia in 2007 and our son Nico in 2009, both from China, and those two-week adoption trips strengthened our desire to travel with the kids. We wanted to travel before the kids got too old and needed to be settled in school, so Lia was five and Nico was three when we left Ottawa.
We chose Penang as our first stop abroad for a number of reasons. We wanted to go somewhere warm after too many frigid Ottawa winters! Malaysia has a low cost of living, as do many Southeast Asian countries, and English is widely spoken, which makes it easier to manage day to day. There’s a large Chinese population in Malaysia, and we knew from our research that we could put our kids in a private preschool where they could learn Mandarin. On top of all that, the food is amazing.
DM: What did you see from your work space?
AG: We lived in a three-bedroom high-rise apartment just outside Georgetown, in the more touristy area of Batu Ferringi, with a view of the ocean. I could see the ocean from every room in the apartment, over the red roofs of the houses below our high-rise. There were hibiscus plants growing in the planters around the parking garage, and the kids would hiss and boo at the monkeys when they ate them. We were also a stone’s throw from the tennis court.
During the rainy season, storms came in from offshore — the clouds darkened to steel blue and then the rain would hit with a terrific noise and wind. After a few hours, the sun came back out again.
I loved the sounds in our apartment: insects, tennis balls, barking dogs, the whirr of ceiling fans, car doors, bird calls. I loved the warm breeze that wafted through and the sun on the ocean. I could smell the incense lit at the shrine behind the parking garage.
DM: Tell us about your life there.
AG: Let me count all the ways in which our morning routine in Penang was a thousand times better than our Ottawa mornings.
- When I got out of bed, I was still warm. I didn’t even have to put on socks, let alone slippers.
- I never checked the weather forecast because it was always the same: 30 degrees and sunny.
- The apartment was clean and tidy because our cleaner Mariana came twice a week.
- At 5 or 6 a.m., I talked to family, friends, and clients back in North America while the kids were still sleeping (there’s a twelve-hour time difference).
- I made breakfast in a few minutes: oatmeal with fresh fruit (mango, bananas, pineapple, kiwi), coffee for Shawn and tea for me.
- I didn’t have to pack school lunches! No rooting through the fridge for snacks the kids will eat, no washing dirty lunch containers, no complaints about food they don’t like.
- When I got the kids up at 7:15 a.m., I just walked into the next room instead of shouting or climbing the stairs.
- Lia and Nico put on their lime-green and white school uniforms in moments, and there was no arguing with Lia to wear tights or pants because it was cold or with Nico that his favourite shirt was dirty.
- I put homework and water bottles into their backpacks, and the kids put on their own sandals rather than hunting around for snow pants, mittens, hats, boots, and coats.
- Shawn would head off with Lia and Nico for the drive to school, and I waved goodbye from our bedroom window when they reached the parking garage. I did not spend ten minutes trying to calm down because the morning was so chaotic — I was already calm. I rolled out a mat in front of the balcony and began my yoga routine.
- When Shawn came back from dropping off the kids, he would give me fresh roti with curry sauce to round out my breakfast.
- No boss was expecting us at the office, and we were now alone in a clean, warm apartment. The children were learning to read and write English and Mandarin. Life was good.
The kids were at school five mornings a week and two afternoons as well. In the mornings, Shawn and I worked, and we sometimes went for coffee or lunch together at the beach before picking up the kids. In the afternoons, Shawn took the kids swimming in the condo pool while I got more work done. We often ate dinner out at the hawker market in Batu Ferringi or one of the nearby restaurants. Nasi goreng and fresh fish were some of our favourites — the kids stuck to chicken satay and pizza.
On the weekends we had outings: the tropical fruit farm, Penang Hill, and Kek Lok Si Temple. Or if we were tired of the heat, we hung out at the mall, watching movies and doing sand painting. Shawn played Ultimate Frisbee on Sunday nights, and we often met up with friends — other travelling families that we connected with through the Internet.
DM: What helped your work, what hindered it?
AG: I was writing a memoir about our trip called Pilgrimage of Desire. I finished the Prologue on the flight to Malaysia, but it took us some time to get settled, and I developed a bad case of bronchitis. I also started a big work contract in October for a software company back in Ottawa, and I was blogging and releasing products for my creativity coaching business, so it was hard to get back to the memoir.
What helped was taking a few days away from the family to focus on writing. I would rent a hotel room or a guest house nearby for a night or two and do nothing but read and write and practise yoga. I also hired a friend to edit the book, and getting her feedback kept me going.
But I didn’t want to overwork myself. The kids were little and I wanted to spend time with them too.
We arrive at Pattaya Beach, where chalky sand glitters emerald under the shallow water, broken up by dark green patches of coral. There is no landing pier, so a longboat comes to meet us and transfer passengers and baggage to shore. -from Pilgrimage of Desire by Alison Gresik
DM: Is your sense of self, or your Canadian identity, affected by living abroad and does that affect your work?
AG: I felt so much myself on this trip. Shawn and I wanted to travel like this for so long that actually doing it (especially when the kids were this young) made me happy, as if people could finally see the real me.
Our time in Penang was short enough that I still felt quite Canadian. We found little connections — the minister at the Alliance church we attended was from Canada, and we met a family from Victoria and one from Montreal. Shawn ran into Canadian Ultimate players at a tournament in Bangkok. What set us apart as Canadian in Penang? Having a trans-racial family, having money, having leisure time. And Shawn watching his hockey games over the Internet.
On first reflection, I think my work is more influenced by memoirists whom I admire — Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed — than by my Canadian identity. My book has a personal development slant to it which was inspired by my coaching work, and that always strikes me as more of an American genre than anything else. But it may be that I just haven’t looked for the Canadian connection. Going farther back, I can say I was also influenced by Aritha van Herk’s books No Fixed Address and Places far from Ellesmere, by K.D. Miller’s memoir Holy Writ, and by Merilyn Simonds’ memoir, The Lion in the Room Next Door.
DM: Did you keep up with or read new Canadian literature?
AG: I did have a Kindle, and English books are quite easy to pick up in Malaysia, but my reading was very haphazard. I bought a paperback copy of Emma Donoghue’s Room at the drugstore and read it in one day, while waiting at the Telekom Malaysia office to get our internet hooked up. (Disturbingly enough, Room gave me some good ideas for games to play with the kids in confined spaces.) I also read the children’s book Plain Kate by Erin Bow. And I read Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels, downloaded to my Kindle the day it was released — I met Lilian at a writer’s conference and we connected because we both have children adopted from China. I loved that book. I really admire what Lilian did in telling a realistic story about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
DM: How do you describe the place to others when there are things/words they don’t know or understand? Is there a word or phrase so apt to that place that it can’t be replaced with an English one?
AG: Interesting question. I feel like there is so much writing about Southeast Asia and so many people travelling there that it’s not such a foreign place anymore. And because English is commonly spoken, we didn’t pick up much Mandarin or Bahasa. I know there were layers of racial relations and politics that we only had the faintest awareness of, but in terms of knowing the place in a sensory way, it hasn’t been too hard to describe.
DM: Did you participate in local cultural activities or meet local writers, artists or musicians, or other expat writers?
AG: This is one area I neglected while we were in Malaysia — I did have virtual connections with writers back home, but I didn’t make an effort to meet up with people in Penang. I would have liked to do that if we returned. I also envisioned setting up a writer’s colony in our high-rise, so that we could write in the mornings and discuss the Governor General award nominees in the afternoon by the pool.
DM: Can you tell us an amusing story about cross-cultural misunderstanding?
AG: The preschool where we enrolled the kids was planning a concert, and my task was to buy costumes for Lia and Nico. The big event wasn’t until November, but they were already rehearsing their dance numbers in September. I had a list of requirements from the head teacher: white dress, white leggings, and cargo pants for Lia; white button-down shirt, white capris, and white shoes for Nico.
Penang didn’t have any of the children’s chain stores I knew, and the mall was gargantuan (seven floors spread over three wings), so I had to wander through every floor looking for stores that sold kids’ clothes, then comparison-shop, make decisions, back and forth. So stressful! And I felt silly to be stressed about such a little thing.
At one point I bought a fancy, expensive dress for Lia and then found a cheaper one that I thought she would like better. I tried to return the expensive dress and discovered that stores here don’t give refunds! It was so funny that I expected things to operate in a certain way just because I was in a mall that looked very much like a North American mall. The first time I realized the rules were different, my reaction was, Are you kidding me? I felt quite angry and frustrated. And then the next time someone said, “No cash refund,” I thought, Oh yeah, I know about that, no big deal. Anyway, I exchanged the dress for a swim life jacket for Nico, so all was good.
AG: What brought you to this place?
I’m going to do this question again, because I gave the practical mainstream answer above, and now I’d like to end with a more personal answer.
In 2002 I was diagnosed with depression. The illness runs in my family, but I also courted it myself by working too much, putting other people’s priorities ahead of my own, and neglecting my writing. I didn’t take care of myself physically, and I entertained a lot of mean critical voices in my head.
Our trip abroad was the culmination of ten years of healing and recovery from depression. It was a reward and a rest from busy life, and it was also an affirmation that I had become strong enough to do this trip because I had put in the hours of therapy and changed my life so I could honour my longing to write. And even though the trip was cut short sooner than I would have liked, it now forms a monument to what I can make happen when I follow my desires. And I hope through my writing and coaching to help other people make those desires happen for themselves too.
DM: Is there travel in your family’s future?
AG: At the moment we are pretty stationary in Vancouver because of Shawn’s job and financial constraints. We are taking advantage of being on the West Coast by travelling locally and getting outdoors: biking, swimming, skiing, and camping. We definitely want to get back to China as soon and as often as we can.
I plug in the MP3 player and dial up Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira.” Her croon- ing tremolo fills the car — I’m travelling in some vehicle. I’m sitting in some cafe. A defector from the petty wars that shell shock love away. Shawn and I turn to each other, grinning like maniacs, and finally let the reality flood in.