The following audio piece and written profile were used as assignments for JRNL201 and JRNL203 in the 2016 Autumn Session.
*At the request of the main profile subject, only the first name will be used (Zach)*
As the nation of Australia slumped onto their couches to view the traditional Boxing Day Test match, another family some 5,000 kilometers away slumped onto their couch for a completely different reason.
“My dad got a call from his secretary. She was in a panic and was like you need to turn on the news right now, go to BBC, CNN and just watch.”
The footage that nine-year-old Zach saw would be ones repeated across screens the world over. Wave after wave hitting the once sandy shores of Khao Lak and washing away all the memories he had made only three days ago.
“I could see the room we were staying in (in the footage) and then you can see the waves coming in and the destruction of the room and a few stories above it. After my family saw that and we digested it, we all sat there thinking; that could have been us.”
Had it not been for a spur-the-moment decision to head back to Bangkok for Christmas, there is every chance Zach and his family would be among the thousands of people who were swept away and disappeared in the clear-blue ocean. But for every story of survival, there is an inverse story of loss. And for the expatriate (expat) community in Asia, the Boxing Day Tsunami was the equivalent of an encyclopedia of loss.
“His name was Lennet. We had been in the same class since day one of going to my first school in Thailand, he was there. We had gone through all these classes together in a small school and our parents all decided to send us all to the same school after Year 4. We all got split up in this bigger school but luckily I was in the same class as Lennet and that was nice, especially in that transitional time.”
Lennet was one of the 8,500 estimated deaths reported in Thailand, a bitter pill for Zach to swallow knowing that he had seen him just days before the Tsunami hit. He looks down at his car keys which he has left on the table and starts to fiddle with the Lego Darth Vader figurine attached to them, all the while with a somber look drawn across his face, as if he is trying to deftly navigate his way through the thoughts that came swimming back in his own mind.
“I often think about what we would have done if we were on the ground when the Tsunami hit. I like to think we would have been ok, we would have gotten to higher ground and safety. But what about Lennet and his family? Did they try and get to safety? Or were they stuck somewhere in the open and had no hope?”
In a statement dated January 5th, 2005 from Zach and Lennet’s school, Patana; a major International school in Bangkok which educates a large number of expats, Lennet and his family were not among the initial twelve students, staff and family members confirmed or presumed dead. However, in the weeks between that statement and Zach’s return to school, that number would rise sharply as more details would come in about the disaster.
“It didn’t really hit home for me until I returned to school about three weeks later and sat down in my seat on the first day and once everyone had sat down, I looked up and looked around the room and there were four empty seats. No one missed the first day back, it was school policy. It wasn’t someone out sick, it wasn’t someone who missed their flight and couldn’t get back. I had run into two of the people who were not there at the resort so I kind of knew what had happened.”
Zach stops and just looks straight ahead, his eyes meeting The Evil Dead poster attached to the wall opposite him, the words ‘the ultimate experience in grueling terror’ almost mocking him as he tries to take himself back to himself at nine years old, attempting to process the horrors the weeks after the disaster.
“As an expat, you get used to saying goodbye a lot. You get used to people coming and going. You might run into them later on down the track, but saying goodbye is something you learn to do quickly as a kid. You’re used to things constantly changing and things never being the same. I guess I compartmentalized the whole thing. That’s kinda how we dealt with saying goodbye. But the hardest part was the fact that with this (the Tsunami) it never felt like we actually said goodbye.”
Zach was just a pebble among the estimated 100,000 Australian expatriates living in the Asia region in 2004, according to an Australian Council of Learned Academies report, but the experience of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami is a shared one among the Australian expat community. Daniel Lee was only eleven at the time of the Boxing Day Tsunami and was living with his family in Singapore when news broke.
“We had been due to head over to Phuket Island after New Years and meet up with my uncle and aunt and their family. When the Tsunami hit we couldn’t get through to them as all the phone lines were completely down. It wasn’t until about three weeks after the disaster that we learnt my uncle was missing. Those first few nights none of us could sleep.”
As days morphed into weeks and weeks shifted into months, it became more and more apparent to Daniel that his uncle would not be found.
“My parents gave up hope after about a month. It wasn’t until about a year after the disaster that I thought, maybe he isn’t coming back. Every now and then I still think he is going to turn up somewhere and he will be fine, joking about that nasty weather or something, but I have to stop myself and think just how ridiculous that is.”
Daniel’s uncle is still missing, presumed dead. Yet twelve years later Daniel still acknowledges his metaphorical scars as ones that bleed to this day.
“The overwhelming evidence pointing to him being gone is not what hurts, it’s the glimmer of hope that he was never confirmed dead that hurts the most. We can’t really have any proper closure.”
For Zach, closure was a lot easier to obtain.
“I put it away about three months after the incident, but I never really got over it until The Impossible (A 2012 film starring Ewan McGregor) came out. I went and saw it on my own and it was a tough experience. But walking out after, I had a sudden feeling of relief. I guess the best way of describing it is that the things that I went through, what my friends went through, what we all went through, it had finally reached the public domain and it felt like it was something that only I as an expat had to deal with.”
The effects of the Boxing Day Tsunami are still being felt to this day. Whether it is across the affected countries or even further down to the individual. However, for Zach, it became something packed away deep in the metaphorical closet of his mind.
“I went to god knows how many schools after Patana and it definitely followed me, but there was none of this ‘where were you during the tsunami’, like there was for 9/11. It was never something you talked about. And for a long time, I never talked about it.”
While Zach is no longer an expat in the strict sense, having returned to Australia to complete his education, there is still a feeling that the disaster that claimed over 230,000 lives lingers just off the metaphorical shore of their lives, haunting them from afar. And as Zach slumped back onto his couch, exhausted after an emotionally draining experience, he picked up his keys and jingled them once more.
“As an expat, you get put into so many weird, outstandingly bizarre situations. But every community has their tale of hardship. Something that put the entire group through adversity and shaped them as a culture or group. And although the expat community is somewhat of a niche group, the Boxing Day Tsunami was our one. And it still is to this day.”