Teaching children about money: wages, taxes, debt and repayment.

Except for a very privileged few, household chores are part and parcel of growing up; it’s how mums and dads lighten the workload around the home and for some kids, provide that first taste of things to come many years hence in the adult workforce. So much is it a “rite of passage” that most of us can even name that first chore: mine was folding clean laundry and helping either of my sisters to wipe the dishes as they were placed on the wiring rack to dry – I started this shortly after I turned 8. HRH’s was to rub his uncle’s sore back now and again, which he never saw as a chore. He’s still rather good at giving back rubs, by the way.  At any rate, neither of us were paid for our labour and had we asked for payment, our caregivers would have most definitely have pointed to all the food we consume, as Chinese are apt to do.

Nevertheless, since we’re now living in 2013, and in the west at that – where children are all remunerated for their labour, however modestly – it seemed only right to offer Amanda money for the work she asked to do around the house in order to afford a second batch of books from the Scholastic Book Club, a programme through which schools raise funds. While HRH and I encourage reading, neither of us were particularly keen on spending another $125 on books she’d read just the once. Furthermore, there is such a thing a public library; we’ve been meaning to bring Amanda to the one in our neighbourhood but something always crops up on our weekend agenda. Be that as it may, the one in her school allows kids to return and borrow new books outside of “library day.” So as far as we parents were concerned, there was no need to buy anything, much less stuff we’d have to get rid off when we move again.

I settled on what I thought was fair pay given her age and lack of experience, a means by which to afford the Scholastic Book Club order, but not so much that it’d make her consider a long-term career in cleaning. You can laugh but I once heard of this university-aged boy who got so caught up in the money he was earning from a Western restaurant ($16 per hour excluding tips, 8 years ago) that he failed his studies 2 years in a row, necessitating his mother, who works at a fish market in Hong Kong, to go around begging for soft loans to fund yet another year’s international student school fees.

HRH, who is more “China” of the two of us, would not even entertain the idea of paying Amanda. He said, “She should help to clean for free!”

But I said, “We want her to learn about earning money. So how is she going to do that if we don’t pay her for her efforts?” Moreover, she’d treasure more the things she’s bought through her own sweat – or at least I’d hope so.

So he said to her, “Fine. For every $5 you earn, you must give me $1.”

I raised an eyebrow. So early paying “father maintenance” already? 

“Why must I give you my money?” protested Amanda, quite loudly I must add.

It’s called paying tax. Papa has to pay the Australian government tax for money earned, so you also have to pay tax to me, the Australian government in the house, for money you earn. Because you aren’t earning very much, I will only collect $1 out of every $5 from you or 20%.”

“But that’s not fair! How will I be able to afford my book club order if I have to pay tax? I have to work for that money!” she shrieked.

“You can be lazy and not work and not earn anything. Or you can work and pay some tax. Your choice. The tax you pay will go towards other things you need.”

Things like the sticks of glue she has me buy (she’s now on to her 4th stick for the year), or coloured paper for her school projects (costing $1 per piece) or the workbooks we practise Maths and English with ($8 per book). HRH and I are not calculative, especially not with Amanda, but we want her to learn about money – how hard it is to earn and why she has to manage hers. She went away harrumphing like a camel and I thought that would be the end of that, but she returned minutes later asking when she can start work.

Because I’d let go my regular cleaner a month ago, who wanted a raise after I was already paying her DOUBLE the award rate (and a good $7 more than what people pay per hour for a dwelling like mine) allowing her to come late and leave early (trust me, there’s a story in there yet to be told), there was more than enough work for Amanda to earn what she needed for the  Scholastic Book Club. She needed a couple of pointers to get the downstairs vacuumed and the bathroom and toilet cleaned, but did both jobs in under two hours, for which I paid her $10 in total. At the end of it, she was less-than-happy to give her father the $2, but she did anyway. After which she asked me for more work.

“But why?” I asked her. “Isn’t that enough for your order?”

She grabbed her dog-earred catalogue and started totalling up her order.

“How much more do you need?” I asked.

“My order comes to $65. I have a $5 voucher from the last time and $25 before I started. Now I have $33. I’m short of $32 but 2 books are what you agreed to buy for me (those are Maths and English grammar books. I refuse to pay for story books)…”

I grabbed the catalogue from her. “My order is only $19. I will use the $5 voucher towards it (because I paid the last time) so I will throw in another $14. So how much more do you need to complete your order?”

She came up with the right answer and so I said, “I’ll give you a loan for the balance. But a loan means you have to repay me.”

It’s not big money but I wanted to teach Amanda that she has to be responsible for money she borrows. Otherwise she’ll turn into one of those adults who run around scratching their heads, wondering how they can be declared bankrupt over a couple of paltry thousands.

The next day we went to submit her order. A red “NO CASH” sign greeted us on the collection box; this meant I had to place her order over the internet with a credit card and fill in the receipt number on the form instead. Since I carry a card few vendors accept (thank you hubby!), I had to borrow HRH’s Mastercard to put the order through. Understandably, when Amanda returned from school to see the money still on the table, there was some confusion on her part.

“Can I take the money back since Papa has already paid?” she asked.

“Not so fast,” I said. “Mama paid for your books using Papa’s card so that money has to be given to Papa.”

“But then now I owe 2 people!”

“No, you only owe me for the money you borrowed.”

“But I have to work for you to repay the money and I have to give this money to Papa.”

“You have to give this money to Papa because he paid for the order with his credit card so now he owes the credit card company. If not, how is he going to pay for the order?”

It’d have been so easy for me to just say, “You can have the money back as Papa has already paid for your order.” It’s after all, peanut-money to us. But I wanted her to understand the flow of debt, to not get into debt unnecessarily. 

“So I earn the money to give to you to give to Papa to give to the credit card company? But I still owe you?”

“That’s right. Because you didn’t have enough for the order in the first place. So you don’t owe Papa or the credit company, but you still owe me for the balance on that order.”

While it’s going to take plenty of concerted effort on our part for Amanda to be “financially literate”, we cannot afford for her to be blind to the consequences of rampant consumerism, which is the accumulation of debt for non-income producing assets. Put simply, if we don’t teach children to think twice about their purchases or how it is to be funded, then we run the risks of allowing them to be slaves to debt accumulated for goods long since passed their usefulness. That’s like paying for a bag of Twisties you ate a decade ago. Nonsensical, isn’t it? But that’s exactly what’s going to happen unless children are taught how to manage money.

 

Old China Meets New China.

I’ve been told, nay reminded, by many Malaysian Chinese friends that we, Malaysian Chinese, are different from China Chinese. We’re different too from Singapore Chinese, the majority in Singapore, and Indonesian Chinese, who make up less than 3% of the Indonesian population, who, unlike us Malaysian Chinese, had Chinese language and culture suppressed under Suharto. As if those are not enough distinctions between various members of what is essentially the same race, give or take the influences of our adopted countries, being a master race, the majority, a minority or in the case of Malaysian Chinese, a majority minority, I’m reminded every time I go back to Malaysia that there are another 2 categories into which we are divided: Chinese-educated and non-Chinese-educated.

Meanwhile Amanda, who was born here, announces, “I’m not really a Chinese person. I was just born into a Chinese body,” which would be blasphemy to many Malaysian Chinese, but ironically, it’s a sentiment my China Chinese friends seem to relate to.

Few seem to give as much thought to their racial identity as we, known collectively as Overseas Chinese, do. With us Overseas Chinese, being our version of Chinese is a full-time vocation, an uninterrupted show of filial-piety to long-dead ancestors, a badge by which we distinguish ourselves from the other races we’re born amongst and raised to adulthood with. China Chinese don’t need prove their Chinese-ness. They just are, regardless of purity of bloodlines, cultural-adherence or linguistic-proficiency, Chinese.

Maybe it’s because they don’t expect me to be able to speak Mandarin, much less insist on doing so all the time, that they are effusive of what my fellow Malaysian Chinese consider to be rather atrocious Mandarin. Then again, I suppose it’s where you set the bar. HRH, himself a fluent Mandarin speaker thanks to 12 years of Chinese school, says I sound like a Westerner speaking Mandarin.

“Would you rather I not speak Mandarin then?” I ask him. “If Mandarin is all you speak, I’m sure you’d rather I sound bizarre than not make an attempt to communicate with you at all.”

Perhaps, one can only improve through practise, and practise is nigh impossible if you are overly self-concsious. Furthermore, it should be noted that those who point out your inadequacies, have inadequacies of their own. All those Malaysian Chinese who moan about my Mandarin for instance, only speak mangled English or market Malay at best. But as I said, what I’ve found among China Chinese is a complete lack of justification for who they are. They simply are Chinese. For instance, due to Mao, they cannot understand why anyone would follow the orders of an Emperor.

“The Emperor used to be God incarnate. You did whatever he asked or else you and your kin would be put to death,” I say, explaining why 500 nobles of the Ming court would agree to accompany the legendary princess Hang Li Po to Malacca, in what was, one would assume, a one-way journey to an alien land.

How do I know this? Because it’s what Malaysian history books I grew up reading told me; it’s what learned elders say when expounding the Confucian principles underpinning our practise of filial-piety: children obey parents, parents obey rulers, rulers obey Emperor. Even without an Emperor, children still have to obey parents and parents still have to obey the law for there to be a well-run state.

Have you ever heard of the Er Ya?” I ask them.

Most shake their head; one or two have heard of it but can’t say for sure they know what it is about. If you must know, these China Mamas are all university-educated, some with multiple degrees.

“Have you ever wondered why we Chinese do the things we do? Why our relatives have the individual titles they do? What defines our relationship with them?”

Few may have heard of Er Ya, but it is the oldest surviving Chinese encyclopaedia known, from which we – especially Overseas Chinese – unknowingly draw guidance for our personal conduct from. So yes, I may be a bastardised non-Chinese-educated Chinese, whose Mandarin sounds decidedly phelgm-free, whose Cantonese is only slightly better, but there’s a core of me that’s undeniably Chinese.

But why should I have to justify any of this? Am I any less Chinese if, like my China Chinese mates, I don’t? Must I have a PHD in Mandarin and be able to recite all the classics from memory to be deserving of the race identified on my birth certificate? Or am I not just what it says I am?

Recently I’ve taken to identifying myself not as Chinese, not as Peranakan, but as a dinosaur. “Yes, you better believe it. I’m a jurassic creature,” I joke, before sharing with them the news that China’s top brass has visited Malacca to observe ancient Chinese culture in practise, conserved ironically by the Peranakan, descendants of the first Chinese settlers to the Malayan Peninsula.

I often feel that we modern-day Malaysian Chinese are the result of an unintended social experiment into cultural transplantation. The reason our forefathers’ culture has survived the competing foreign influences of our adopted homeland is because we cleave to it with a ferocity not shown by the Chinese communities in neighbouring lands. It is this that often puts us at odds with the Malays, because in order for us to defend our culture, we’ve had to reject all others. This of course precludes any meaningful integration. Having said that, we already know this. If not, why the on-going debate about what it means to be Chinese?

 

Inhabitants of border-town: caught between generation X and Y.

Before I went to Melbourne, I came across this article call Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. Even without reading it, I knew the reasons why Generation Y Yuppies are unhappy: they’re spoon-fed softies who expect to have the wealth and fame of…name whoever you want…minus the years of toil that person has endured to be who he or she is. After reading Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, I was even more convinced that this is the case. The only question I had, as a 78 baby, was whether I was Generation Y Yuppy (in which case, I retract my less than flattering earlier statement about Generation Y Yuppies) or a Generation X Yuppy (which no one writes about because we are generally well-adjusted, if not particularly exciting, members of society).

Let’s face it: no one is going to dedicate virtual or real pages to you if you pay your taxes, stay within the defined limits of the law, produce the national average of children and have a retirement plan in place. Lawmakers, sociologists, journalists, even your fellow bloggers, are only interested if you are creating a ruckus about essentially nothing, spending your inheritance to sustain the entire economy, and not keeping up your end of the national repopulation plan. Hence the endless yarns about Generation Y Yuppies.

So being born on the border between X and Y, where do I fall? Many of my friends – coincidentally all border-town inhabitants – have asked themselves the same thing.

“But I’ve always been responsible,” insisted one. “I took the first job that came along.”

“I’ve never thought of unicorns,” said I, in reference to how unrealistic some Generation Y Yuppy aspirations are; although there was a time when I harboured a desire for Pegasus-type achievements. That’s the border-line influence I suppose.

Then of course came reality, followed by a crash down to earth. I can’t say that I dream of anything more than a overflowing bank account anymore. The Generation X Yuppy in me has come to a begrudging acceptance that bills are paid with money and not unrealised potential or good feelings inspired by something that may or may not materialise with plenty of hard slog. Unlike most Generation X-ers, I’m not waiting for Boomers to shove off so I can take their place. I can’t speak for the other X-ers, but I certainly have nothing to gain from them vacating their perch at the top of the resource tree: I have not asked or taken a dime from my parents since graduation and leave it to their discretion to do what they want with what they have. It’s after all their money. Thus my own advice and concerns for my daughter, a Millennium Yuppie.

“You can sing, paint and collage all you want but just make sure you have a proper day job,” I often tell her. “Mama and Papa are not going to give you anything more than love and a good education.” That’s also to keep away the would-be gold-diggers – there’s too many of those around.

The mistake Boomers made with their Generation Y offspring is they imbued them with this sense that they can achieve anything when in reality, they can achieve anything with untold amounts of luck (which is God-given), talent (also God-given), plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Boomers also neglected to teach their Generation Y offspring anything about money.

If my Beijing friend is to believed, Generation X and Generation Y yuppies are the same the world over. You can tell what generation a person belongs to simply by observing his or her spending.

Those born in the 70s are used to saving a large part of their wagesThose born in the 80s, like my sister, don’t save anything,” she said. “Those born in the 90s are worse. They take out loans for trifling things like mobile phones. Can you imagine taking out a loan for a mobile phone?” she asked.

With just a trace of Generation Y Yuppie about me, I might have seen the value of  buying by instalment in my younger days, but I have since become the 35 year old that prefers cash purchases, recalling the frequent exhortations of parents to refrain from buying one’s way into debt. Moreover, I was taught that the fastest way to lose a friend is to ask for a loan, which would inevitably happen if I were to stay on the spending path. Then there are also reasons besides lost of friendship and financial insolvency for not doing so.

I remember reading about this boy in China who sold his kidneys to buy an Ipad and an Iphone,” I said to my Beijing friend. “He probably now realises that fancy electronics are a poor exchange for 2 good kidneys.”

“That’s sad but the desire for nice things is driving young people to do all sorts of things.”

That’s not to say I don’t admire the boundless self-belief Generation Y Yuppies have for themselves. While the rest of us are stuck in some less-than-ideal version of ourselves, Generation Y Yuppies morph Machiavellian-like into whatever suits their purposes. Being a border-town inhabitant, with a strong leaning towards the X, I see more hurdles to the transformation than benefits to be gained from such a soul-altering undertaking. Accordingly, even the grandest of my aspirations are pygmies beside that of the typical Generation Y Yuppy. Even then, they aren’t things I go about declaring to the whole wide world. I have that Generation X tendency of playing it safe by saying nothing – that way, whether I succeed or fail, no one is to know. There is of course, another reason for this:

When I was in my early 20s, a colleague further up the Generation X tree than I am, said, “Don’t ever tell people what you want to achieve. If you do, they’ll try to stop you.”

Over the years, I’ve encountered the people I was warned of so I can fully appreciate the reasoning behind that former colleague’s advice. Meanwhile Generation Y Yuppies, perhaps luckier than I’ll ever be, have that loveable naivety that everyone is on their side and thus set about broadcasting their plans to anyone who will listen.

 

A week-long trip to marvellous Melbourne.

Okay. This post is not going to be for everyone because a) I took no photos of my week in Melbourne b) I saw only the taxman, 3 friends and a few family members c) covers mostly what returning residents to a city as marvellous as Melbourne do, when disinclined to see anyone.

Due to the many verbal sparring sessions I’ve had in leading up to my time away (I’d put it down to hormonal imbalance except one look at me will convince even the least observant person otherwise), I simply wanted and needed some time to myself to recharge my batteries. So I’m very sorry if I didn’t call you while in Melbourne. If it makes you feel any better, very few people even knew I was there.

Anyhow, HRH, Amanda and I took to the skies last Monday night, at the start of Amanda’s second week of school holidays. We arrived at the cock-crowing hour of 6am and by the time we made it to HRH’s bestie’s home in Balwyn, after first being conveyed to an off-site car rental company’s parking bay, then negotiating unfamiliar roads guided only by Google Maps on our half-dead mobile phones, it was close to 8.30am. Thoroughly jet-lagged, we had a quick breakfast with one of our gracious hosts and willed ourselves to catch-up on some much-needed shut eye. If there is anything I can say about flying budget, it’s this: don’t expect to get any sleep, especially if the person behind you is a giant whose knees keep kneading your back, but not in a good way.

I awoke mid-afternoon, showered and settled into a comfortable lump on one of the sofas with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for company. With HRH glued to his Iphone and Amanda still fast asleep, I remained utterly content in that semi-comatose position until one of hosts returned from work, and then another. We indulged in some chit chat, as old friends who’ve not seen each other in a long time do, then adjourned to the Straits Cafe in Doncaster where I managed to satisfy my long-held craving for fish head noodles. And that marked the end of day one.

On day 2, the 3 of us spent a good hour getting to the taxman’s office (yes, it does take forever to get anywhere in Melbourne) then another 2 hours holed up in his windowless room until our business with him was done. Leaving $2400 poorer (taxman has yet to bill us for his services but that’s the price he quoted beforehand), we made our way to Glen Waverley where we stumbled upon an ol’ haunt, The Grand Tofu, famed for Malaysian hawker fare, which with the on-going construction of the apartments above the railway station, is now housed a stone’s throw from the library along Kingsway. There, in place of the second bowl of fish head noodles I was hoping to eat (I told you I have a craving), had Penang assam laksa with extra “hae koh” (shrimp paste) as my first choice was sold out. HRH had curry noodles with 6 pieces of yong tau fu while Amanda had her regular wanton noodle soup. You can click on any of the highlighted links to see pictures and reviews of the restaurants I frequented.

We returned to our hosts’ home after that to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays. Fine weather such as what we had last Wednesday is so rare in Melbourne that when you do have it, the way to make the most of it is to do absolutely nothing – which is what we did. Changing back into my PJs, I went for a stroll around the garden and sat by the pool contemplating the many people who in one way or another, make up the fabric of my existence. Why do some irritate me more than others? Do I make extraneous allowances for those that don’t, therefore they don’t, or is there simply such a thing as an animal-knowing of incompatibility?

That night, our hosts treated us to a Thai restaurant called Jinda in Richmond where we feasted on crispy pork belly stir fried with chinese kale, green paw paw salad, fish with the traditional namjin sauce, massaman curry and shared two scrumptious desserts at the end. Walking back to their car, we came across a Thai grocer next door. Since none of us had ever been in one, or one completely dedicated to Thai food, we all went for a look see. If you love Thai food and are the lazy sort like I am, you’ll appreciate the wide variety of freshly cooked, boxed, curries, stir fries, snacks and refrigerated desserts on offer. Not only that but I spied quite a number of the road-side snacks I’d bought as a kid in Malaysia, such as fish satay and tamarind candy.

Since we were in Melbourne to essentially decompress, we spent day 3 snoozing until midday, then went to Box Hill’s Ramen King for lunch, followed by a spot of shopping at Chadstone, just to show Amanda “Australia’s biggest shopping mall.” She wasn’t as impressed as HRH and I were, nostalgic at the sight of Chaddy, an old friend that has grown into this sprawling capitalistic behemoth in our absence. We walked around pointing out the new additions to the the building to her, the way proud parents say, “Do you remember when our baby was just this high?”

That evening our host took us to  Tien Dat Vietnamese restaurant in Box Hill where we shared plates of broken rice, vermicelli salad, and crispy stir-fried noodles. As I’d picked up a jar of marinated goat’s cheese and rosemary flavoured Byron Bay-made crackers from Simon Johnson at Chaddy and HRH a 24 piece box of Lindor balls from Sweet As, we decided to have dessert in the quiet of our hosts’ home instead of competing for shouting space with the other diners there.

Day 4 was much like day 3, in that we also slept until midday; I, having risen earlier than the other two, took a break from Cloud Atlas to check out Jeff Mcmullen’s “A Life of Extremes”, which came highly recommended by one of our hosts; part travelogue, part memoir of a life lived out documenting many of this centuries’ worst wars, A Life of Extremes will make even the most restless first world dweller thankful for the relative peace and affluence we enjoy here. It is a read that will open your eyes to what it means to live and be alive like no other. Flipping through it’s pages, I was grateful to my maker not to have been born a South American or African child soldier, or any soldier for that matter, as a horrific death is almost a certainty in many of the encounters cited.

When the other two cared to join me after their shower, we went to Springvale for lunch. HRH and Amanda, hankering after mud crab, had that sea meat Melbourne is so well-known for, braised with noodles at an establishment named Hue Hue, where it’s currently going for $26 per pound. Meanwhile I walked to the neighbouring market and back, where I picked up a roast pork roll and a undiluted glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice laced with tangy kumquats for a tiny $11. In the evening, we drove over to my brother’s place to sort out some stuff and take him and his wife to dinner.

Endeavouring to show Amanda what Papa and Mama got up to before we had her, back in the days when the two of us called Melbourne home, HRH ferried us to Kansai in Huntingdale, an old favourite, only to find the shop no longer there. So I got my first choice, which was a visit to another old favourite, an unpretentious little Thai place in Springvale called Papaya Pog Pog where we had 2 plates of fragrant crab fried rice, tolerably hot Thai paw paw salad, fermented crab Lao paw paw salad and thai chicken mince salad.

A word of warning: if you like 5 star establishments or silver service, most of the diners in Springvale will not be for you. Spingvale is one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get type suburbs. Food is cheap for the simple reason that eateries are typically no-frills affairs. Having said that, produce used is fresh and of good quality, which is what I’d prefer to zen-out establishments featuring over-priced “Asian-inspired”, bastardised fare any given day. But that’s just me. You can’t eat the wallpaper anyway.

On day 5 we had to pull ourselves out of bed a little earlier as we had a date with HRH’s cousin, who lives in the same suburb as our hosts’ but 10 minutes by car away. It was good to see that he had relocated from Brisbane to Melbourne successfully and is by all accounts, very happy there. After a cup of tea or two at his place, we all left for Papa Rich, a franchise familiar to all Malaysians, synonymous with upmarket Kopitiam (coffee shop) fare. I suppose that for all our oft-proclaimed desires that society be flat and everyone equal, everyone wishes for a rich Papa, hence the popularity of the chain.

At the urging of HRH’s cousin’s wife, I tried their biryani and ayam masak merak set, which was surprisingly authentic. HRH had their nasi lemak, which he too was only too pleased with to extol the virtues of, and Amanda a couple of sticks of satay and some of my biryani.

After yet more sofa-warming back at our hosts’ home, we were taken to Kenji in Camberwell for one final good feed ahead of our flight back to Perth. There we had so many delectable Japanese dishes that for me to recall them all, I wouldn’t have been paying much attention to the food. After dinner, we went home for tea and one last yakking session because who knows when we’ll get to do this again? My last visit to Melbourne was a year and a half before this. With Amanda in school, we’re restricted to the school holidays when flights are most expensive and reasonably-priced accommodation scarce.

As all good things must come to an end, we enjoyed one last breakfast with our hosts, then  retraced our steps to the car rental company, from which we were spirited away to the Tiger terminal for our flight home. FYI, even flying Tiger cost $1000 + for the 3 of us. But reemerging in Perth, feeling utterly rested and refreshed, I can say it was money very well spent.

 

Lost in translation: converting from third world to first.

Most migrants I know lead double lives. There’s us, bright and cheery, speaking in rose-coloured tones about things as mundane as the weather to friends in adopted homelands and there’s us, huddled together in a sombre circles, discussing some new calamity (there’s always one) to have befallen our original homelands. In the second scenario, many of us even manage to crack one or several jokes – humour often veiling contempt, frustration or even plain despair. But it’s not something we care to share with those in the first scenario  because our inner reality – fear for family far away, fear for the lands of our birth – is just too different from our outer reality of sunshine, picnics and BBQs. Perhaps, why piss on everyone’s parade?

This has gotten a friend of mine down. “All anyone wants to talk about is what they’re doing on the weekends or where they are going for holiday.”

“Isn’t that why we moved here?” I asked her. “To get away from it all?”

My most memorable conversations have been with people who’ve survived worst than the legally codified racism of Malaysia. One was with the husband of an acquaintance who survived being shot in the bum as a boy, escaping the rebel forces of Sri Lanka. His mother stood down tanks and now in her twilight years in Australia, is standing down anyone who says she has to accept her Chinese daughter-in-law. I’ve never met the woman but she makes me – who’s been labeled the yakuza of the family – look like a tame pussy cat.

Another woman I chanced to talked to many years ago when visiting a friend who’d recently delivered a baby, had swum from China to Hong Kong to be with her husband, back in the days when China and Hong Kong were two separate countries instead of one.

“There used to be a watchman guarding the  coast,” she told me in Cantonese. “We’d wait until nightfall and five of us would try to swim across at a time. If they caught you, you’d be in big trouble. They’d sent you back a long way from there. The worst part of this,” I expected her to say the swim in cold waters with an armed guard at her back, “was there was no soup to drink. Not a drop at all!”

So what’s a couple of conversations about BBQs, picnics and holidays every week? If not contemplating the fate of family left behind – inhaling heavily polluted air romantically called “haze”, or enduring chronic power outages and water cuts, or living in fear of masked bandits wielding parangs – a fate you, by virtue of having migrated to this gloriously safe and well-governed land have left behind, what is there to do otherwise?

The problem I’ve found with first generation migrants like myself is we come with too much memory. We come with an ingrained knowledge of real lack, real poverty, real hopelessness, sometimes gleaned first hand. We also come with too much logic for refuting things like the need to prop up the lazy, stupid or undeserving – a first-world conundrum that seem to bother only the most unenlightened of arm-chair activists.

To be sure, we have ample compassion for the downtrodden but to say to us, marginalised and disadvantaged means to not have the money to go to a private hospital or private school because one’s parents breeds young they cannot feed, or to expect me to be responsible for young that don’t belong to me which I have fed through my taxes, forever and ever in some cases, is like waving a red flag at a very wound up bull. The animal will charge, I warn you. Best not be in the vicinity when that happens or it will be your entrails flying everywhere.

Tellingly, my best Aussie mates are other migrants or those with enduring memories of their parents hardships settling in a new land. They appreciate the difficulty of acquiring English as an adult (not that I’ve ever had that problem, as you can see), or adapting to the myriad of peculiar customs and ways the second generation find as easy as breathing. Defying the call of those unacquainted with such emotional baggage, to lay our pasts to rest, a precious few even remember the history of their people and what drove them to seek greener pastures. But they are in the minority and are few and far between – your troubles too deep, wide and high for them to comprehend, much less juxtapose theirs against comfortably.

Which is why we should all stick to safe topics like the weather, BBQs and holidays; especially before happy hour when everyone’s too sober for murder-conspiracies in far off lands, involving peoples none is particularly inclined to know about. Which is why I showed Amanda several videos on dole bludgers yesterday (people who rob your father, I told her) lest after a privileged childhood in this blessed country, her conversation is restricted to politically-correct, gender-neutral, colourless, position-less, statements about the weather, BBQs and holidays.

That’s not to say there aren’t any dull birds where I come from. There are plenty.  When checking out the pages my friends LIKE on facebook, I was consternated, alarmed and insulted in turn to find that in a land where political, social and economical issues are rife, “Lady of Liberty”, an elderly woman who puts herself in harms way to fight for political reform has fewer fans than the bimbos who cut their faces and take off their clothes.

Maybe this is the way of the future. Maybe we’re all meant to be bright and cheery and speak only of mundane things, in case we offend anyone, which, with uncountable, cross and semi-cross interests, that could be just about anyone. Maybe. A small voice inside my head says, “I’ll be damned if anyone expects me to keep quiet.”