“The Assassins” starring Chow Yun Fatt and Liu Yi Fei.

One of the few Asian movies to make it to any part of Australia or perhaps, any part of the English-speaking world, “The Assassins” is a movie about two childhood sweethearts torn apart by their covert mission to assassinate the most powerful man of their time, Cao Cao. Now fans of Chinese Period Drama like me, have probably watched other depictions of Cao Cao, a man known for his extreme ruthlessness and unmatchable cunning; in recent times there’s been 1994’s Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, 2008’s 3 Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, 2009’s Red Cliff, 2010’s 3 Kingdoms and 2011’s The Lost Bladesman.

2012’s The Assassins adds to this list but for the first time – and this is my contention from having watched the movie not once but twice (I’ll tell you more about that later) – Cao Cao is portrayed not merely as a powerful despotic warlord, but as a man on a mission of his own: to unite the land and bring peace to its inhabitants.

Had the director, Zhao Lin Shan, cast anyone other than Chow Yun Fatt in the role of Cao Cao, I probably wouldn’t have borrowed the movie from my local Video Ezy, much less persuaded HRH, who has read the 600 year old historical novel by Luo Guan Zhong, touted to be the most popular novel in all of Asia, to watch it with me. Chow Yun Fatt, who HRH and I remember from watching many of his movies in childhood, not only humanised what many would consider a deeply inhumane figure, but carried an otherwise limp cast.

Liu Yi Fei, as Lingju his young lover, chosen by Cao Cao’s physician to warm the cockles of the old warlord’s heart while simultaneously finding a good time to knock him off, plays the part of the fair gentle Chinese maiden with ease, but it’s not a role in which she shows any previously unseen acting abilities. Hiroshi Tamaki, who plays Linju’s childhood sweetheart, Mu Shun, is handsome, but rather wooden in delivery.

It is my impression that even though the English title of the movie is “The Assassins”, the movie illuminates none other than the target of various assassination attempts, Cao Cao. Or maybe Chow Yun Fatt’s portrayal of the Cao Cai makes it seem that way. As I said, I wouldn’t have watched it if not for Chow Yun Fatt, whose eternal youthfulness has me wondering about his beauty regime and dietary habits. Chow Yun Fatt is nearing 60 but he looks much like what HRH and I remember as children. He has that ability to make a character seem likeable, even when it’s death threats he’s delivering.

As for the script, it was very well written. You’d have to understand Mandarin to appreciate the economy of words with which Cao Cao and Lingju’s sentiments were put across, but the logic of the dialogue between the two should be apparent in any language. At one point in the movie, Cao Cao reminisces about the many worthy adversaries he’s fought.

Cao Cao tells Linju that the only everlasting peace one will ever find is in the dust. To which she asks, “If the only peace is in the dust, why gain the world to lose your soul?

Cao Cao says, “It’s only by gaining the world that you have peace; when the country is unified, there will be no more wars, no more death. Neighbours will no longer have to fight with one another.

Linju goes on to wonder, silently, if the utopia this man she’s assigned to kill, is any different from the utopia inside her and Mu Shun’s heart. Could it be that Cao Cao the  tyrant wants the very same things that they, as pawns in his private game of Chinese chess with numerous adversaries, do?

In a final showdown with the puppet Emperor he installed as a 15 year old, Cao Cao asserts, “He, who is not prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of the people, is not fit to rule.” A lesson for modern-day politicians, perhaps?

Cao Cao goes on to say, “If not for me (and my ruthlessness and tyranny) there would have been many more Emperors, many more wars, as nobles scrabble to get a piece of your kingdom.”

Cao Cao implies that it was he, who always held all the power and could easily have toppled the Emperor at any time, who protected the latter from real threats to the throne. Yet due to the foolish Emperor’s insecurity at his powerlessness, he, the Emperor, colluded with real threats to the throne to annihilate Cao Cao. In my mind, there is a parallel with modern-day politics in that people, wishing to lessen the power of government, vote into office popular if ineffectual leaders, who placate their fears of being ruled but fail to deliver objectives that will move society forward.

So why did I watch the movie twice? The first time was so that I could follow the plot and scrutinise the acting, the second time was so that I could savour the language used. Watching it a second time with Amanda also gave me the chance to explain to her how Chinese society has evolved. We still put a premium on intelligence and have plenty of respect for those whose intelligence accompanies wisdom, but long before Mao, Emperors were regarded as Gods and their every edicts obeyed to the letter.

I told her, “In those days, people found guilty of treason…”

“What’s treason, Mama?” she asked, after witnessing one of the Emperor’s officials quartered by horses through her little hands.

“Treason means to act against the government,” I explained. “In old China, the punishment for treason was death. Often, one wasn’t just sentenced to death, but one’s family – up to 9 generations – was sentenced to death too.” From reading a book about the Emperors of China given to me by a friend and a series of illustrated books I once found in a bookstore, I could also tell her that, “The methods of exacting death used to be most barbaric. Some Emperors favoured quartering by horses, others favoured something known as death of a 1000 cuts, one liked to have people drink from a pool filled with alcohol until they either drowned or died from alcohol intoxication, in which case they also drowned, one liked to load people into a cannon to be shot in mid-air…”

“Nowadays they just shoot people or hang them,” she interjected.

“Yes, that’s true. Although in some parts of the United States they put to death convicted felons through something known as an electric chair.”

Barbaric as the ancient Chinese methods are, I occasionally wonder if perhaps there’d be fewer incidences of pedophilia, rape, murder, mutilation or even acts of terrorism, if some of them were revived. After all, how many times have you heard the trial of a unrepentant rapist and said to yourself, “That guy should be castrated!”

I’ll leave you with that thought and a trailer from the “The Assasins” 2012, starring Chow Yun Fatt and Liu Yi Fei.

 

 

 

Chicken Little and the issue of child safety.

This might as well be a picture of me.

This might as well be a picture of me.

Chicken Little (aka Henny Penny, pictured above) and I are second cousins. Sometimes I suspect our kinship is a lot closer because like Chicken Little, I constantly picture the sky falling. And yes, there is that same compulsion to report on the falling sky to the King – in my case, the resident monarch, HRH.

Fortunately or unfortunately, he too shares my concern about the falling sky. Instead of laughing at me when I told him to follow our then-newborn Amanda from the delivery suite, to make sure she doesn’t get wrongly tagged as someone else’s baby or carted off by strangers visiting the ward or in a hospital that only delivers a handful of Asian babies, smuggled out and sold off to Asia for 10 large – I’m highly adept at analysing the variables, mind you – HRH dutifully stuck to her as she was taken away to be weighed and measured, then brought back to me. In the weeks after that, we took turns guarding her – me in the day, him at night while I caught up on my sleep – in case she’d choke on her own saliva or somehow stop breathing while asleep.

When HRH was no longer able to give me a couple of hours sleep before I came on for the night shift, I took to sleeping with her instead; she was always on my arm and since her birth, I have become an extremely light-sleeper, so there was never any danger of me rolling on to her. Till today, some 8.5 years later, Amanda still sleeps with us and HRH and I are both in agreement that the most comforting sound to our ears is that of her snoring.

You might consider it extreme for an 8.5 year old to be still sharing her parents’ bed, but let me tell you what a friend of mine told me. She doesn’t have 1 but 5 children sleeping with her and her husband in a house that has at least 2 other bedrooms. “If there is a fire, I know where my kids are. He can grab the smaller ones and I can grab one under each arm and run out.”

Since then, I have learnt (mainly from reading the news) of other reasons to always know where your kids are: runaway pythons, nitrous oxide from old decrepit heaters, Ted-Bundy wannabes who go breaking into sorority houses to name but 3.

But I don’t want my kids to live in fear, Estella,” said my new friend Nancy, to me yesterday. “The world is a beautiful place and I want them to discover it.”

“The world is a beautiful place indeed…but there are many bad people in it,” I insisted.

I would have told her about the clown who murdered 33 teenage boys and young men, or the boy who raped, murdered and mutilated his childhood friend or perhaps the origins of my general distrust of everyone but she appeared to have her mind made up.

“Think about 10, maybe 15 years ago (when we were growing up). I want my kids to know what it is like to play in the streets, to go to the park with friends, to be independent,” she said.

Those all sounded like very nice things, but those are things I never experienced as a child because Malaysia was already not that safe even then. When I was born, my parents could get away without having grills on any of the windows or doors for 2 whole months. Now they would not dream of being indoors without the grills pad locked.

I would have told Nancy about the little boy from my childhood who got abducted and had his arms and legs cut off, smuggled out of the country to Thailand and made to beg on the streets there, but I knew she would hear none of it. I would have told her about Ong Tin Tin too, who was taken from a Malaysian school and never seen again or the eight year old who went missing and was later found dead, sodomised and stuffed in a gym bag, but Nancy had a determined look about her.

We live in a civilised country,” she continued to say.

“Have you heard of Daniel Morcombe of Queensland? He went out to buy Christmas presents by himself and was never seen alive again. His twin brother still blames himself for not going with him.”

“Yes, but there are cases like that everywhere,” she said, dismissively.

“But what if this was your kid?”

“These things are fated, Estella.”

I believe in fate, but not when it comes to my kid. “Why expose yourself to such risks? Why endure such pain?”

I was living across from Monash University and often frequented the Australia Post there, when a student went on a rampage with a gun, killing 2 and injuring 5. What I’m trying to say, perhaps ineloquently, is that serious crime doesn’t just happen in America. It does and has happened in a country as safe as Australia too.

Another picture of Chicken Little holding an umbrella to protect from falling acorns.

Another picture of Chicken Little holding an umbrella to protect from falling acorns.

Nancy allows her boys, the same age as my Amanda, to walk 3 blocks to the shops and back on their own. I won’t even allow Amanda, who can cross the road on her own, to walk or ride to school by herself, less than 50 paces away from our home, because in those 50 paces, she can meet anyone and anything can happen.

Except during school hours or on play dates at other people’s homes, which I thoroughly assess beforehand for sources of danger or dubious individuals, I have my eyes on Amanda at all times. At the very least, she is within earshot. In previous years, I volunteered for almost every school outing just to make sure Amanda was safe. Amanda even asked me, ahead of next year’s school camping trip, if I can volunteer for that too, so that she’ll be able to sleep at night.

“The problem with teaching children about stranger danger,” said my friend Lucy, “is that  children are only taught to beware of people they don’t know. In many cases of child rape and molestation, the crime is perpetrated by someone known to the victim.”

For this reason, I’ve already explained to Amanda why she can’t follow anyone home without my expressed permission or take food from them. “I don’t care how well you think you know them. You just can’t.”

Last year, before our move to Perth, Amanda’s bestie’s mum loaned me a book called “Everyone’s got a bottom.” It’s a tool for parents to broach with their kids the testy topic of “self protection.” The book is easy to read and can be shared with children as young as 3. Here’s a list of tips on how to keep your children safe from the Malaysian Edition of The Asian Parent. It touches on the abduction and death of 6 year old William Yau Zhen Zhong.

“But what about when Amanda goes to Uni?” asked Nancy.

“Oh, we’ve thought about that already,” I said smiling.

What I didn’t tell Nancy is that HRH and I plan to buy a house right in front of whichever University Amanda gets admitted into so that we can continue to keep two eyes on her. Either that or I will drive her to and from University, to and from all parties, to and from all shopping malls, or have her drive me everywhere, since she’ll be presumably driving by then.

 

 

When YUPPIES and Hippies collide.

I’ve got enough friends from both groups – YUPPIES (Young Urban Professionals or Young Upwardly-Mobile Professionals) and Hippies (love the earth, don’t kill ’em animals) – to witness, first-hand, the relationship between the two. At first blush, it seems like YUPPIES have nothing in common with Hippies, but if you ever move to West End in Brisbane, where I used to live, which I fondly refer to as the 4101, after the local postcode, you will see a peaceful, if separate, co-existence. Well, that’s how it is for the most part anyway.

Because for all the yoga classes we take together (or rather Hippies teach and YUPPIES attend), lentil-chewing, recycling, walking and cycling everywhere  (everyone’s into the “green life” to put it simply), there remains a core of beliefs within both groups that clearly do not overlap. What is that core? To put it in a word: Economics. YUPPIES are overwhelmingly capitalist, hence their ascension up the economic and social ladder, whilst Hippies have co-opted out of capitalism, but to their continued chagrin, still find themselves caught up in it’s web, one way or another.

From reading my many posts, you probably already know which group I fall into. For my many attempts at “turning vego” (9 at last count) and my ample admiration of other people’s gardens, I have come to accept that I will never give up meat entirely or be able to grow anything that can possibly die (which rules out all plants). I love visiting farmer’s markets on the weekends and eating organic whenever the opportunity arises (I don’t go out of my way to eat organic food), can be spotted at the Salvos and Vinnies from time to time trying to score a bargain, but if you ask me what gets my fires burning, it’s progress.

It’s progress that brought me to Australia and it’s progress that’s keeping me in this part of the world when I could be anywhere else. Where I’m from, people either progress or they perish into the unforgiving straits of poverty. It’s really that simple. There isn’t a third option.

That’s why you find many migrants singing the praises of the Australian government. In Alice Pung’s memoir “Unpolished Gem”, her grandmother cannot understand why the other oldies at the welfare office look like they’ve been sucking on lemons as she, unlike them, is overjoyed to be given an allowance by “Father Government”, who, let’s remember, is funded by the tax-paying public.

Maybe it’s where I’m from, but I know there is no such thing as a free lunch in the world. If someone is giving you money, then obviously they are going to ask of something from you in return. Recently I’ve heard a murmur of dissent among my Hippie friends about the Australian government’s move to tie child immunisation with some parenting payments. One says their child has never been ill even without the immunisation while another likens it to bullying and thinks AMA and the pharmaceutical giants are behind the change in legislation. And as usual, and this often amuses me, someone postulates how nice it’d be to be exempt from the will of the people who dole out money.

There is a way out of this, good people. It’s called, “Don’t take welfare” because the people funding your welfare have the RIGHT to feel that their children will be protected from immunizable diseases.

“Yes, but my children are healthy! They don’t need jabs from the white coats!” people protest, then they assert, “Immunization only makes the pharmaceutical industry rich!”

Let me tell you: your children may be healthy but if immunization levels fall below 85%, even those jabbed will not be protected from diseases like whooping cough, chicken pox or polio. Babies, who are most at risk from whooping cough, have DIED because people refuse to immunise their children to the disease. So in effect, if you choose NOT to vaccinate your children, you are potentially MURDERING someone else’s. Think about that. Think about that carefully.

People who know me, know I’ve never praised Rudd. In fact, although my 8 year old is his biggest fan (she rips the newspapers out of my hands to read about him), I’ve had nary a good word to say about him or any of his policies until now. This move to make the parenting payment supplement worth an estimated $2100 a year to some, contingent on immunisation, gets 2 big thumbs up from me. I think that if your fellow tax payers are funding your lifestyle, you OWE it to them, to keep immunizable diseases at bay.

I wish there was a less-offensive, more politically-correct way to state the case but there isn’t. Hippies feel entitled to government handouts but do not want to be hampered by the constraints of regular society. For myself, this clash of ideals between YUPPIES and Hippies is something I came to realise when a pseudo-Hippie friend (she’s not really a Hippie but is sympathetic to their causes) brought around to my place a real hippie.

The real hippie seemed contemptuous of my supposed trappings of wealth – the product of a capitalist YUPPIE lifestyle – but was more than happy to use my pool. In response to my “friend request” on facebook, we became friends shortly after. I continued to meet her when our mutual friend organised Hippie-type gatherings but she never, ever, took it upon herself to chat with me even though as mothers, we would have something to talk about.

Soon after my move to Perth was announced, she “unfriended” me. Perhaps what  troubled her about our association is not how dissimilar to her I am but how similar. Perhaps from a distance, it’s easier too for her to believe that I am “evil” just because I live in a place with a pool, dine at restaurants and go on holidays.

Migrating: it’s not about us versus them.

I eavesdrop. No, scratch that. I actually do partake in many conversations, real and virtual, but the number of conversations I listen to or read without making any comment is by far greater than the number in which I do say something. Most of the time, people don’t even realise I’m listening, intently in fact, because I must have this clueless, “dumb dodo” look about me.

Which brings me to what I’ve discovered: a disturbing number of negative comments from some (I said some, not all) Malaysians on their countrymen who’ve migrated. Aussies don’t seem to mind where other Aussies move to – after all, people move according to need and economic circumstance – but Malaysians take this “outflow” most personally.

Comments range from, “If they like that X country so much, they don’t need to come back ever again” to “I’ve been to X country. It’s nothing great. They don’t have A, B and C.”

Excuse me, hello? But do you own the country? Of course they don’t have A, B, C. That’s because they’re a different country. People get on well enough without the things they supposedly lack, I can assure you. Meanwhile you’ve got your panties in a bunch because you think (and this is you thinking, just me saying it aloud) that I must think I’m so smart and so grand to have packed up and left. Again, it’s what you think. 

Do you see what I’m saying? It’s your assumptions that have upset you and not my actions.  Me leaving or having left is about where I feel I’ll be heading with society and the economy the way it is. It is in NO way an indictment of the people who still call the country home. I, personally, respect my fellow Malaysians decision to stay on or move abroad because their decision, one way or another, is not a reflection of my relationship with them. My own decision to migrate was made after careful consideration of my wants and needs.

In fact, you should look at it this way: Malaysians out in the world are carrying the Malaysian flag on their backs. That’s why the world knows who we are! It’s like when people talk abut Jimmy Choo; they say he’s Malaysian-born. Or when they talk about Australian Senator Penny Wong, they say she’s Malaysian-born too. Or (and I’m sure those from the Malaysian opposition are going to be pissed off by such a reference) when people refer to Michelle Yeoh, they refer to Malaysia in the same breath.

Really, no one would know about Maggi or Asics or Selangor Pewter or any of our many “treasures” if we hadn’t sent them out into the world. Human beings have the potential to carry the Malaysian “brand” further and wider. I, for one, think I should be on Malaysian Tourism’s payroll for the amount of promotion I give the country. While we are at it, I should be paid by Aussie Tourism board too, for the number of posts I’ve written on Aussie culture, food and scenic attractions.

For this reason I find it hard to stomach the vitriol surrounding migration and the countries my fellow Malaysians have migrated to. To me, there is no need for “us versus them” type comments, posts or discussions. We all have free will so each to their own. Like I don’t mind people telling me about the many new developments in Malaysia. Even though I’ve migrated, I’m happy to note improvements in the efficiency of the public sector and new services available for issues not previously addressed (eg. a fund for couples seeking to use IVF or welfare measures for single mothers). I’m thrilled to know that our hospitals can cope with the delivery of high order multiple births and that Malaysia now has magazines on new stands for people like myself, not just the single girls.

However, to me too, one must have a deep and abiding inferiority complex if every second word is about how you are better than the next person. From personal experience, I can tell you the next person doesn’t give the matter all that much thought. It’s like how the Kiwis are always slagging off the Aussies but the former still come here to live in droves. For every one thousand comments Kiwis make about how poorly Aussieland fares in terms of rugby or social services or what-have-you, only 1 comment is made back about them. Why? Because Aussies simply don’t give a toss.

Similarly, Malaysians wagging their fingers at their compatriots who have move to Singapore or Australia are missing the point: we aren’t talking about you in the negative. Until this post at least.

 

 

Educational opportunities in the most unlikely of places.

Over the weekend I had dinner with a former classmate of mine and her gorgeous family. As you do when everyone is friends, you ask what they’ve been up to lately and they ask you the same thing. I confessed to an inexplicable fascination with the Jodi Arias Travis Alexander case, which I discovered when I wandered off-course on the Psychology Today website, after reading various articles on sociopathy.

I know you’re thinking, “Yikes. Sociopaths.”

It follows on from my profound interest in reading people’s ears, but that’s another story. At any rate, I was torn between allowing Amanda, who let’s remember is only 8, to watch the made-for-TV reenactment of the events leading up to Jodi Arias murdering Travis Alexander and the subsequent murder investigation and court case, and telling her a firm No in response to her repeated pestering. Then I thought of American Psycho and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both of which I allowed her watch with me and the conversations we had about people and morality after that, and I relented.

“It was an educational opportunity too good to pass up on,” I told my classmate’s husband.

“Educational opportunity?” he chuckled.

“Of course,” I smiled. “Everything we come across in life presents an opportunity for us to better our understanding of the world. After watching this Jodi Arias movie with Amanda I told her that no man is worth soiling her hands for. That she should see Jodi Arias before she committed the crime and after 5 years of jail.”

Man, there is a big difference! Once she was this hot, young thing that could even make heterosexual women (this one at least) take a second glance in her direction. Now, with pronounced nasolabial lines, oral commissures and a loss of volume in the cheeks, she looks like a completely different person.

Now why would you do that to yourself?” I asked my classmate’s husband. “Come on. Even if you think nothing about the bastard, think about yourself. They need to revamp moral education in school.”

My classmate’s husband chuckled some more. He must have suspected me to be a recent escapee from a mental institution.

“Yes, now I believe that being moral is being kind to yourself first,” he laughed.

“Exactly! So why give yourself so much trouble by murdering anyone? The problem with moral education (or religious education) is that they expect everyone to have a conscience. Some people (namely Sociopaths, which supposedly account for every 1 in 25 people ), just don’t have one.”

Plus, children are for the most part egocentric; until their teenage years – some beyond, they won’t be able to see anything from another person’s point of view. So all this talk about being good for goodness sake, never gets into their heads! Perhaps when children are older, after they’ve demonstrated a smidgen of empathy, can you preach about the sanctity of life and split hairs over the right and wrong of a situation. Until then, you might as well be trying to teach them Greek!

“But didn’t he (Travis Alexander) hurt her (Jodi Arias)?” Amanda asked me.

“Maybe he did hurt her very badly by playing with her feelings (actually, as a woman, I would think that he did) but who’s stuck in jail now? The thrill of vengeance, especially if it involves murder, is very, very short lived. Better still is to cut your loses and just walk on.”

“Yes, but didn’t he do bad things to her.”

“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The point is he’s dead and she’s in jail. No man is worth the trouble she has gone through and is going through right now. If someone plays mind games with you and strings you along, he’s a dumb ass. But if you decide to turn someone into pork sausages, then you’re a bigger ass than he is. I’ll say it once and for all: the best revenge is moving on with your life.”

No doubt, there are many Travis Alexanders out there who see women as either whores or madonnas – the first for having fun with and the second for bringing home to Mama – when women can be both depending on where we are in our menstrual cycle. Be that as it may, it is my fervent hope this Jodi Arias story serves as a cautionary tale to them to avoid trifling with us girls while they get their heads straight.

 

The story of Boy.

This is the story of Boy who plays with my Amanda most days after school. You can tell that Boy is a good boy, raised by very conservative Asian parents, because he plays the piano – even though he doesn’t want to.

He reminds me a lot of myself at that age: unsmiling, wary of adults and highly guarded. Unlike Asian kids with more liberal parents, who are in many ways similar to their white Aussie counterparts, he knows better than to assume that you, an adult, are a friend, regardless of the number of times you’ve spoken to him. You’re not just an adult; you’re the mother of the girl he plays with often and he knows that if she loses even a couple of strands of hair, you’ll flambé his liver with your dragon-breath.

He’s well aware of the dragon-breath because he’s seen his parents turn his brother into toast; which is why he’s still tickling those damned ivories.

“But you’ve got to tell them at some point,” I say to him, in the same tone I use to remark about the weather. “You’re just putting off the inevitable,” I add.

He looks at me like I’ve never seen a dragon up close before. For some reason, conservatively raised Asian children lack the imagination to picture adults as children. More liberally raised Asian children and their little white Aussies friends are the exact opposite: once they get to know you, they think you’re a child just like them.

“But my brother quit playing just last month and my mother had a cow.” Had a cow is Aussie speak for got mad. It’s got nothing to do with real cows unless you live on a farm.

“Yes, but it’s obvious you’re just wasting her money and your time. I played for 10 years and the day I found the courage to tell my mother I wanted to stop (actually, she found the courage to tell me to stop since I wasn’t practising), was the day I could move forward with my life.”

Years later I found the courage to tell my mother I didn’t want to do accounting either but she wouldn’t hear of it.

Like most crafty Asian mothers, I believe in the wisdom to Sun Tzu who says, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It’s too early to say whether Boy will end up in the first or second category but I’ve been keeping an eye on him ever since, especially since HRH demands that I do.

“Is he trying to tackle my daughter?” he asks when I report to him the goings-on in the playground.

“Amanda says they’re just friends.” Then again, Amanda says that of every boy she plays with.

A few days hence, she comes to me and says, “Boy called me a sucker.”

Boy is less than 20 paces away, climbing rope in the playground. Instead of getting up and walking over to where he is, I project my voice over; “Boy, did you call my daughter a sucker?”

He gets to the top of the rope and says, over his shoulder, “No, I didn’t.”

Amanda goes over to him and returns seconds later saying, “He said he called me a loser, not a sucker.”

“Same thing,” I say. “Has he apologised to you?”

“No,” Amanda says, folding her arms, her surly pout suggesting I should do something about it.

“Don’t play with him then,” I say in a voice loud enough for Boy to hear.

He looks at me in protest. She too looks at me in protest.

“Yes, that’s right. Since he thinks you’re a loser you can’t play with him. Okay, off you go. Find someone else to play with.”

When we are about to go home, Amanda says, “Boy said he’s sorry. He asks if I’m allowed to play with him now.”

“Oh, I’ll have to think about it,” I say, picking up Amanda’s school bag to leave.

A couple of days hence, when ordering Amanda’s school lunch, I come across Boy. With me is HRH on his morning off from work.

“Boy, this is Amanda’s dad,” I say with a head-tilt in HRH’s direction, as I scribble Amanda’s name and class onto a white lunch bag.

“Honey, this is Boy, who plays with Amanda all the time.”

After that meeting, HRH asks me, “Why did you introduce me to him? Were you trying to scare the kid?”

HRH knows me only too well. Boy is a large Asian kid but HRH is a large adult, even by Caucasian standards.

“No, I was just introducing you since you are Amanda’s dad,” I say, shrugging my shoulders.

Soon after, Amanda returns from school bearing a name card.

“Boy asks if you like crab. This is his mother’s card.”

I flip it over to find the name of a proprietor of a group of well-known restaurants in Perth.

“What is he trying to say?” I ask Amanda.

“I don’t know. He just asked me to pass you this card.”

Weeks later, I overhear Amanda and Boy having a dispute.

“What’s this about?” I ask.

“He says I’m a rooster because I’m born in 2005, but I keep telling him I’m a Monkey.”

“Everyone born in 2005 is a Rooster,” he insists.

“Look here, smart ass. Amanda was born before the Chinese New Year and is therefore a Monkey. I should know when the Chinese New Year is because I’m Chinese.”

An Aussie child will offer up some excuse at his ignorance or try to engage me in a different topic of conversation but he just maintains the same vacant expression throughout. I turn and leave.

Yet a few more days later, he comes up to me with Amanda’s sweater. “She left this in class,” he explains, holding out the garment to me.

“Thank you for returning it,” I say, my expression exactly the same as his, one of nothingness.

On the walk back home from school I relate the incident to Amanda. “Boy returned your sweater.”

“Did he? He asked me if I was going to get it or if I wanted him to get it for me. He was stupid enough to get it for me so I allowed him to.”

Not stupid,” I correct her, “chivalrous. It means he did something nice for you.”

Having said that, I’m still figuring out why he handed the sweater to me instead of her. Could it be he’s trying to tell me something?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life as a Hakka girl.

It is a little known fact but I’m Hakka. No, that’s not just a brand of fish balls sold in the Asian grocer, it’s a Chinese dialect group. You’re probably scratching your head again (hopefully it’s not lice), thinking, “But hasn’t she been saying she’s Peranakan? What are all these other posts on Peranakan culture and people then?”

Wait a minute. Hold your horses. Okay, to most Chinese, this explanation is unnecessary, since all of us identify to being Chinese and a member of the dialect group from which we are descended, but as my audience is composed of many white Aussies (Hey Mate!) and Americans (Hey y’all!), a bit of foreword on the topic of distinctions Chinese make among ourselves is in order.

White people probably don’t google or read these pages, but there are many forums on which Chinese argue (almost always among ourselves) about which dialect group is most successful or stingy or whatever the desired characteristic maybe. Yes, only among Chinese is stinginess a desired characteristic as it tends to be synonymous with accumulating wealth – in our case, at any rate.

How this multi-layered identity that has non-Chinese utterly confused works like this: Let’s use Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, invariably known as the Father of Singapore as an example since whatever I’m about to tell you is verifiable through a few punch and clicks of the keyboard.

Mr Lee has been identified as Peranakan because he comes from a long-line of Peranakan. Now, if you’ve read my post on how Peranakan faces differ from regular Chinese faces, you’ll also know that Peranakans also identify and are identified as Chinese. His great grandfather though, was a Hakka from Dapu County in Guangdong Province, China. Thus, since Chinese society and culture is patriarchal and patrilineal, Mr Lee is still considered a Hakka, even if like me, he probably speaks no Hakka. As an aside, I particularly abhor the ignorant, racist dog, Ah Chia, who asked Mr. Lee to own up to being Baba (male Peranakan) when being Baba and being Chinese are interchangeable and not mutually exclusive.

The reason I speak no Hakka is because I never heard it at home. Hakka, which has various sub-dialects, is said to be an amalgam of the other dialects the Hakka people heard as they travelled on foot from one end of China to the other. Therefore, I suppose, it’s always been easier for my Hakka father (who is half Teochew) to speak Cantonese to my Cantonese-speaking Peranakan mother, who identifies as Cantonese, who speaks English most of the time anyway, than it is for her to speak to him in Hakka.

But part of who we are must be in the blood because even though I was never taught Hakka, as a child, on reconnaissance missions for my Cantonese-speaking Peranakan mother, I understood perfectly the conversations my Hakka father had with his Teochew mother. Talk about child labour!

What little I know about being Hakka I actually owe to my mother as my father hardly impressed upon me “Hakka-ness.” When I was a child, she used to say to me in the little Hakka she knows that, “To Hakkas, a girl is loss-producing goods.” And in English, she’d go on to tell me how my father, being the son of a daughter, was made to sleep in the hallway while the sons of his grandmother’s sons slept in the room with her. At mealtimes, his maternal grandmother also gave bigger and better rations to her sons’ sons than to him, her daughter’s son.

The precious little I know about Teochews also comes from my mother, who used to say, “Teochews are very stingy.” A brief look around the internet will conjure up similar descriptions, including a reference to them being the Jews of China, in that many are also very business-savvy. Teasing my father in front of me, she’d say, “Hakkas are very stingy and Teochews are also very stingy so your father, being a Hakka-Teochew (who later told me one of his grandmothers is Peranakan) is doubly stingy.”

None of which was ever apparent to me while I was growing up because my father was not only extremely generous towards me, he treated me as the equal of my brother; something that I discovered is not uncommon among Hakkas of my father’s generation. Perhaps indirect victims of sexism like my father, whose grandmother was clearly biased against him, they sought to address the imbalance in the status quo by being fairer towards their daughters, many of whom, in my generation, have been sent to college. I know this because when I went to college, there was a sizeable number of Hakka girls.

One of my most enduring friendships has been with one of them. While we don’t talk much about being Hakka, one day, the conversation turned to our looks; she and I both bear a striking resemblance to our fathers – she, at a glance, me, when I put on glasses.

“I thought it’s said that girls who look like their dads have better lives,” I said, referring to an age-old Chinese belief.

“Wouldn’t you say it’s true? Wouldn’t you say you and I have good lives?” she asked me, rhetorically of course, for there’s no denying that our lives are splendid.

2 to 3 generations ago, we’d have been told we are loss-producing goods, made to work hard around the home, perhaps never to set foot  inside a higher learning institution. Today, almost all of the Hakka girls I know are tertiary-educated. Among the other dialect groups, sons may still be preferred to daughters, but among modern Hakkas, little distinction is made between the two.

 

The importance of maternal nutrition and effects of breastfeeding on long-term health.

There is this old Chinese lady I like chatting with every time I pick Amanda up from school. Having food on the brain at least two thirds of the time (I am asleep the other third), I like knowing what people have for dinner and so, our conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: Po Po (Granny), what delicious food are you cooking for dinner tonight?

I swear this line sounds a lot more natural in Mandarin.

Po Po: I’m cooking fish and chicken and beef…I haven’t thought about it yet (but) I’ll look into the fridge and decide later.

What is evident in her response is a simple joy at being able to regale me with the types of meat she has to cook with. It isn’t until many conversations later that I understand why she positively glows when rattling off a list of dead animals.

One day, observing her granddaughter and my Amanda on the swings, the normal “what are you having for dinner conversation?” turns to breastfeeding.

Po Po: My granddaughter was breastfed for 9 months. That’s why she’s so healthy.

Me: Did her mother stop to return to work?

Po Po: Yes, she had to return to work.

Me: I breastfed Amanda for 3 years and she is much healthier than me. While her father and I are shivering with layers upon layers of clothes in winter, she’s walking about in only her undies, oblivious to the cold.

Po Po: It’s the same with my granddaughter.

Me: Did you breastfeed your children?

Po Po: I breastfed all of them.

Me: Then are they all healthy?

The reason I ask this is because even though there have been many studies done on the positive effects of breastfeeding, none are longitudinal. 5 people discussed in the playground of a school is hardly a study but I was curious to know what I’ve not been able to ask anyone else: what lifelong effects does breastfeeding have on a person? Will Amanda always be as healthy and robust as she is now?

Po Po: My eldest 3 are very healthy. They’ve always been very healthy. My youngest 2 are somewhat sickly.

Me: Why the difference? I thought you breastfed all of them.

Po Po: The difference was  that I was younger.

Me: I don’t get you. Does (maternal) age matter?

Po Po: I didn’t have enough to eat when I was breastfeeding them.

Me: What do you mean? Did you have rice and biscuits?

Po Po: Those were tough times – for them and for me. We only had “xi fan” (watery porridge) cooked together with a type of grass.

She goes on to describe this grass to me, how it is harvested and dried, then added to the watery porridge, but I don’t know what it is because I’ve never seen it, much less eaten it.

Me: Weren’t there any biscuits?

Po Po: None. “Xi fan” was all we had every meal.

Me: How about milk? Or soy beans?

Po Po: There was no milk and no soy beans.

Me: Then what if one wanted to “Bao Yang” (nourish and nurture the body)? What could one have?

She looks at me like I’m retarded.

Po Po: There was nothing to eat! At the most, we could get some carrots. But the place selling carrots was very far away.

Me: Were you breastfed?

Po Po: I wasn’t.

Me: Then are you healthy?

Po Po: I was healthy until mid-life when I started having giddy turns. I’m been on Chinese medication since the middle of my life. My children get the pills for me.

Me: Your children are very good, very filial. I was never breastfed either and because of that, I’ve always been a very sickly person.

I’ve had pneumonia, glandular fever, strep throat which morphed into fever and rashes, years where I have consecutive bouts of the cold that go for months on end, on top of on-going irritable bowel syndrome – this despite consuming a King’s ransom in supplements.

Me: I find consuming very nutritious food to be very helpful, but I don’t think I’ll ever have half of Amanda’s health. This can’t be helped.

Po Po: Why didn’t your mother breastfeed you?

Me: I am not a first child and she gave up trying after she put the first on the bottle. I don’t blame her – people didn’t know as much in those days and Milk Companies are constantly pushing formula onto mothers in our part of the world. Mothers mistakenly think that formula is as good as breast milk when that is most untrue.

I’m sure there are bottle-fed babies who have better health than I do, but those I know are all like me: they catch the first bug that comes along and all too often have digestive problems that dog them for life. Anyway, what I learned from this conversation with Po Po is that breastfeeding is good, BUT only if the mother has adequate nutrition. If she doesn’t then the net sum result is possibly worse than bottle-feeding. This is not to say one can’t be on a completely plant-based diet and breast-feed successfully; a Vego friend of mine is a mother of triplets and she’s done just that, but more effort has to be put into eating well if one eats plants exclusively and breastfeeds.

As for what Po Po’s life was like in Mao’s China, you’ll get an inkling from watching this poignant movie:

I dare say the characters in this movie had more to eat.