To jump ship or not to jump ship? The Migrant Experience

I’ll be the first to admit that the migrant experience varies considerably: if you arrive on these shores, indeed any shores, with enough gold bars to interest the US treasury, chances are you’ll have a swimmingly good time. Ploughing in feet first, you’ll find all the doors opened to you previously, still open, now wider, and then some. On the other hand, should you arrive with little more than a suitcase and appropriate working papers, then life will be as if once was, after the veneer of newness has worn off, complete with the same ol’ frustrations of being at the bottom of the pond, except if you’re eligible, they’ll be some tax-payer recompense, paid through Centrelink, to soften the blow. That, in a nutshell, is what most migrants encounter. Now for the burning questions, some of them thinly veiled protestations, I hear most often:

But isn’t Australia an egalitarian society?

Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? The truth is, we are a flattish society, in that I’d talk to the person beside me in the queue at Australia Post, perhaps even share a laugh with him or her about some trivial matter, but wouldn’t go so far as to invite the person over for tea, unless we belong to the same social strata; and yes, there is such a thing as social strata.

Having been a doctor’s wife for a good 12 years, I can tell you that I never socialised with the wives of HRH’s consultants while he was a resident or junior registrar. It’s not that they weren’t friendly or I wasn’t open to having new friends, but even within the same professional pool, there is a great disparity in incomes, and hence lifestyles, between those starting out and those already established.

While HRH was in training, my friends tended to be the spouses of other trainees. We all suffered the same neglect, enjoyed the same occasional perk of being tagged along to work conferences, all looked forward to the same green pasture we’d glimpsed when attending rare Consultant-hosted events.

So you see, Australian society, while not as egalitarian as one might think, is not intentionally discriminatory, unlike Asian society. In Asian society, it is an understood fact that those at the bottom and those at the top of the food chain, do not co-mingle, unless related by blood or marriage. Even then, co-mingling is ruled by one’s social status relative to the other. But this, my dear readers, is what has migrants – especially less educated ones – lured here by the promise of absolute social equality, disillusioned. They come here to get ahead only to find the same social obstacles to their progress.

But isn’t Australia about giving people a fair go (as in equal opportunity)?

Recently I received a comment from a new reader with regards to my post on the outcome to Australia’s Federal Election, bemoaning the discrimination one supposedly faces as an Australian-educated, Asian jobseeker. While discrimination does exist, it isn’t in all sectors of the job market and certainly not to the extent that one might presume from reading random stories in the news. Australians are generally fair-minded and if you have the goods, they’ll usually give you a go. However, as I pointed out to my new reader, even whiteys (as in white Australians), encounter great difficulty trying to land jobs in law and finance. This loops back to my earlier comment about “social obstacles.” For you to understand what they are, please read my post on the value of a private education.

The thing is, Asians think that the saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know” only applies in Asia when it clearly applies here as well. Moving with the times, I’ll add to that cleverly phrased sentiment by saying, “It’s not just what you know or who you know but who KNOWS YOU that matters.”

Of course, who knows you is hardly important if your skills are such that society can’t function without you. Except for the unicorn wunderkinds in each profession, we can’t all claim to be so indispensable, can we?

Why would I want to leave behind my family and friends then?

No one is holding a gun to your head saying that you have to but for my money, I think some people rather enjoy being as far away from family as they can – especially if family is controlling and meddlesome. I’m not referring myself, thank you very much, but inferring from the countless conversations I’ve had with other migrants. I live here because I enjoy the simple things one takes for granted growing up in a country like Australia, like safe streets, crisp, unpolluted, lung-fuls of air, clean water straight out of the taps, an uninterrupted supply of electricity, a dependable supply of untainted fruit and veg.

As I often tell anyone who will listen, public schools here are like private schools where I come from; the class sizes are half what they are in Malaysia, the number of classes for each year not even a third. In the schools my daughter has attended (okay, so we sent her to a private school for kinder), each class has a teacher and a teacher aid, proper-lighting, air-conditioning, computers, some have overhead-projectors and sound systems, parent volunteers to help with reading, trainee teachers to lighten the workload further. We have educational outings, school discos, a constantly replenished library, a multitude of “themed days” to encourage learning. When I was growing up in Malaysia there were close to 50 to a class, at least 8 or 9 other classes like mine, 1 teacher to each, and only chalk and talk. “Crowd control” was often unstinting use of physical punishment, from which none of us emerged into adulthood bruised or scarred or requiring counselling.

So how do I know if I’m suited to migration?

First things first: what do you want from it? If you come here expecting a Cinderella-transformation in lifestyle, you’re going to be left gnawing away on a rotten pumpkin. As you may have heard from family or friends who’ve already made the treacherous swim across from wherever they were originally, this is the land of Do-It-Yourself. Come prepared to take care of your day-to-day needs and you’ll be delighted by all the opportunities to show off and expand on your self-sufficiency. Come here expecting to be waited on by Yati and Maria (my mother’s favourite names for maids), and you’ll be humbled by what your income, hitherto perhaps large, can afford.

Most migrants I know live simply. Even those in pole position on the income charts don’t live as large as they would back in Asia. They might have cleaners visit their homes, but this is seldom more than once a week. Even if they eat out often, they rarely entertain in restaurants; something to note if you come visiting. For that reason, potlucks are very popular in migrant communities as almost everyone has something they are particularly good at making to contribute. Perhaps, when you are a migrant, what you miss most is not ostentatious restaurant fare – that’s widely available over here – but humble home cooking and the variety of delectable morsels from hawker stalls, which no one sells for lack of demand.

Yellow-facing in Cloud Atlas: is it offensive or simply art?

As part of our weekly husband-and-wife date, HRH and I decided to watch Cloud Atlas, which we’d borrowed from our local Video Ezy on the weekend. Since most movies run for an hour and a half to two hours, we thought we’d have plenty of time after Cloud Atlas to grab some lunch but little did we know, it’s one of those sci-fi epics that go for a full 3 hours!

Not that we complained. With 6 parallel story lines converging towards the end into one, arguing for the twin New Age beliefs of reincarnation and karmic resolution through rebirth, HRH and I were just too engrossed in the movie to notice the time. For a full synopsis of Cloud Atlas, please click on this link.

Being a wordy-person what I marvelled at most was of course the script, followed a close second by the boundless talents of the make-up artist to transform protagonists into people of different ethnicities, from various time periods. For instance, Halle Berry who appears in all 6 story lines plays a Native Woman, a Jewess, a Black woman (which she naturally is), an Indian party guest, a man and a coloured woman of undefined ancestry.

The make-up artist for Cloud Atlas did such a stand up job of  transforming the actors that we couldn’t identify most without looking on the internet for a breakdown of their roles in the movie. This inevitably raises the prickly issue of yellow-facing, which is the use of white actors to portray East Asians, a practise which has been in existence for as long as Hollywood has made movies. It would seem that without names known to the Western movie goer, none would see it, hence the need to yellow-face white actors.

As an East Asian movie-goer I’d usually be offended (hey, you think I don’t know what I look like!) by yellow-facing except that East Asian actors in Cloud Atlas also get the same transformative treatment as white actors, turning one Doona Bae, who’s ethnically Korean, white, then Mexican, then into a machine-birthed human slave. Now there’s a mouthful.

When I think about it, apart from misrepresenting East Asians in cinema or depriving East Asian actors of roles in Hollywood, the practise of yellow-facing itself is harmless. After all, if East Asians can take over-exposed pictures to wash out the colour in their skin, tape their eye-lids open and contour their faces with powdered bronzer and highlighters – so as to look white – what’s wrong with white people doing the reverse in order to look yellow?

With the number of cam-whoring East Asian 20 something females I see on facebook daily, all attempting to look some version of white, perhaps there will come a day when even we, East Asians, no longer know what we really look like. Perhaps then yellow-facing will exist not because Western cinema-goers refuse to be lured into the cinemas with foreign, unpronounceable names, but rather because there are no authentic-looking East Asians left. If you think that’s far-fetched, consider that a Korean director (I think he made the hugely popular “My Sassy Girl”) worried about being able to find an authentic-looking Korean girl to play the lead in his movie since the prevailing trend is for East Asians to try to “white-face” themselves.

Ethnic-bending aside, if ever there was a movie that could convince the audience of the existence of previous lives, this is it. Cloud Atlas is intelligent, well thought out, daring and bold. It’s singularly visionary. I haven’t read the novel by David Mitchell which the movie is based on, but now I’m raring to give it a go. If these borrowed lines from the movie are anything to go by, I reckon it’d be a damn good read:

“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” 

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

“I believe there is another world waiting for us. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.” 

Fantasy. Lunacy. All revolutions are, until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.” 

“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all i see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.” 

“. . .my dreams are the single unpredictable factor in my zoned days and nights. Nobody allots them, or censors them. Dreams are all I have ever truly owned.” 

Why roll up your sleeves when you can always hire someone?

Despite growing up in a house filled with the smells of freshly baked goods, lunches that were never the same as dinners, no less than 3 dishes of meat and vegetables at every meal, accompanied by soup that takes donkey-years to boil, I had scant appreciation for home-cooking until I left home. In the ignorance of my youth, my most oft-spouted response to being asked to help out in the kitchen was, “I don’t want to spend all my time slaving over the hot stove.”

After all, apart from having the physical dexterity of a chicken with duck feet, I was going to become a career woman. What need did I have for cooking when all the working women I knew had catered food delivered to the home or bought family dinners from the economy rice stalls?

When my extremely hygienic mother (she’s a former nurse, if you must know) asked me to help her clean for the umpteenth time, I’d grumble, “Why do I need to know how to mop and clean when I can pay someone to do all that for me in the future?

Oooh…the things you say that come back to haunt you. Little did I know that my future involved living in a land where cleaners command upwards of $25 an hour (about the same as or more than entry-level professionals) and economy rice stalls do not exist. Ha! And guess who I had to crawl back to for easy recipes on not-so-humble home-cooking?

After living more than half of my life away from home, I’ve come to see the wisdom of what my mother said earlier, in response to my many protestations: “When you can cook, you can make food taste EXACTLY THE WAY YOU WANT, instead of the way someone else wants.

When you can clean, you won’t be held to ransom by maids and cleaners.

Back then I had no idea what my mother was on about. Who would quit on me if I pay them? Why wouldn’t the chef make food the way I want it to be made?

Obviously I had to learn the hard way. This morning for instance, I discovered that although big fry-ups are a staple at most breakfast cafes, not all know how to make a proper one. Sure, the eggs were poached as I requested and there was a sausage, which I was looking forward to, but the eggs tasted of the vinegar put into the water to poach the eggs.

Now, I’m no master chef, but I can tell you that if the eggs were very fresh, the vinegar would not have been necessary. At any rate, they should have been rinsed and drained well enough after the poaching so I wouldn’t taste the vinegar. Meanwhile, I swear that the sausage came straight out of a microwave: it was split right down the middle from over-cooking and the ends where it had been cut from the other links had oozed out to form crusty “muffin tops.” On top of which, the sausage was as dry and chewy as a piece of bark. The other elements of the fry-up were all right, but as I said, fry-ups form the bulk of business for most breakfast cafes so they should know how to serve up a decent one.

Having said that, my taste buds are simply spoilt from all those years of home-cooking. My mother wasn’t just one to cook and bake, she’d go over the one recipe until it was perfected, totally convinced that the author of the recipe had left ingredients out or given erroneous measurements on purpose. Until today, many of her cookies, cakes, tarts and whatnot are still the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten heaps) but please don’t think of asking me to ask her what she puts in them because I haven’t the slightest interest in baking and the only people she’d tell are family.

Nowadays, the one who preaches the benefits of DIY is me. My mother practically rolled her eyes when a couple of years back I showed her Shannon Lush’s “Spotless.” That’s probably because, with few exceptions, I have someone clean my house for me. Nonetheless I do know how to roll up my metaphorical sleeves and dig in, should I need to. Since her accident, my mother has been having catered dinners. My father usually hops out at midday to buy lunch from the coffee shops near their house. Since we kids left home, she only makes the cakes, cookies, tarts and whatnot for church bake sales or when she comes to visit me, at Amanda’s request.

Amanda’s most recent request has been for her to make apple pie and apple crumble when she passes this way again in December. Last December when we went home, the two of them made 2 batches of walnut-topped, blueberry muffins together. I was chuffed to see grandmother and granddaughter working side by side, the two of them bonding over flour and butter, even as I sat there with my legs up, surfing the telly.

I suppose, regardless of where you live and what your means are, it all boils down to how badly you want something done. Because I had to have “keropok lekor” and no market stocks that over here, I scoured the internet for recipes, then using the amalgam of several, attempted to make my own. I’ve also made my own Chinese pasta from scratch, which I wouldn’t have thought to do if I could have just bought it ready-made, cooked and flavoured from a shop.

True, you can buy whatever it is I make in Malaysia or Singapore, but do you really know what goes into your food? Rumour has it that fried foods bought from the stalls stay crispy for hours because plastic is melted into the oil to form a coating on the food. I’ve also heard that tissue paper is routinely mixed in with flaked fish to bring down the cost of each bowl of Assam Laksa. And just yesterday, I read of the link between maternal nutrition and autism. While the author of the article didn’t say autism is caused by food per se, the only thing to have changed between 1990 and 2000, accounting for a 870% increase in the incidence autism, is our diet and the food chain. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. Perhaps it’s time to dust down that apron.

“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.




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.



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 docile Chinese female: a western fantasy.

I’m always amused whenever a middle-aged white guy writes to me asking me if I’m single, which, in the last couple of years, has been happening fairly regularly. For reasons I have yet to determine, it appears I give out “Asian mail order bride” vibes. At times, I don’t know whether to remove all my pictures from the web or simply say, “Hey mate. I’m not the right type of Asian girl for you.”

Not just because I’m married.

I think it is a white male fantasy fuelled by Hollywood depictions of us, Asian chicks, (Cue: Suzy Wong, the Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha) that we are all docile and subservient. That may be true of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino women – and even among them I’m sure there are many exceptions – but Chinese women in general are renown for  being tigers, not just as mothers but as spouses.

Ask any modern Chinese mother-in-law and she’ll tell you that her son listens to his wife just a bit too much for her liking. Aside from bringing home the bacon, many of our men cook, care for children and contrary to all the studies done on male participation at home, help around the house. If at all they do none of these things, it’s likely that we, as tiger spouses, have failed to train them. Either that or we must have been stupid to have picked someone who resists training. It does seem harsh but yes, you read correctly: stupid.

Comparing notes, we say to each other, “That stupid so and so, working like a dog for her good for nothing beep beep beep.”

Nodding, the most probable rejoinder to this would be, “Yes and she should just kick him to the curb.”

While our other Asian sisters take immense pride in how few hours of sleep they get catering to the various tastes and needs of family members, we get a thrill every time someone turns to us and says, “Wow. Your husband can not only make money, but he cooks and cleans too?

One of my friend’s husbands not only makes enough for his wife to stay home reading magazines all day, he calls when he is about to leave the office to ask what she’d like him to buy home for their dinner. Another cooks and cares for his children on his off-work days so his wife can have some time to herself. Defying gender stereotypes, many are so hands on with their children, you’d think they don’t have day jobs.

I’m not a white guy but I’m betting the Chinese tiger is not the type of girl one hopes to land when one goes searching for an Asian woman online. At any rate, should I return as a male in my next lifetime, I will probably go for a Vietnamese, Thai or Filipino girl. Why? Because in my next lifetime, I’ll still need someone who brings home the bacon and cooks it too! Don’t you notice how hardworking Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino women are?

The typical Vietnamese woman is expected to help support the family, cook for all her husband’s relatives while her man goes out drinking with his buddies. In Australia, she typically owns a bread shop, a nail salon or perhaps one of those $10 a hair cut places. Filipino women will help their men by running a highly successful take-away shop. Thai women I’ve observed have jobs as masseurs, hotel cleaners or restaurant operators. If I marry any one of them in my next lifetime, I’ll be at the back of the shop, sitting next to the till, counting money. No fierce, controlling, ball-breaking, Chinese woman for me.

Even HRH likes to joke about wanting me to be a good “Japanese wife” just to rile me up. He’s says I’m cute when I’m angry.

“What is that?” I bark.

“Someone who makes a nice warm meal for breakfast, bento boxes for lunch, washes my feet when I come home…”

“And?” I eye him with one raised eyebrow.

“And nothing,” he smiles. “I love you just the way you are.”

Now there’s a smart guy who knows it’s best not to piss off someone you have to sleep next to for the next forty years.

The common gripe of oldies: “They have their own life”

Sometimes, after my early morning trip to the loo,  I cannot go back to bed. When that happens, my mind usually gets into all sorts of high jinks, pondering the imponderable. Lately, I’ve been wondering what the oldies mean when they say their children “have their own life.” Do they mean it literally, as in the young un’s are very busy raising their own families and progressing their careers? Or do they mean it euphemistically, in that they, the oldies, have been excluded from this “new life”?

Back before I went to college, my mother once told me, “The market traders don’t want to send their children to college because then, these children will return, thinking they are too good for their roots anymore.”

At the time, I thought my mother was over-identifying with people 20 years older than herself and these market traders, selfish. After all, the very reason to send your kids off to college is for them to rise above their backgrounds, or is it not? I thought it was contrarian to the Chinese ideal of having one generation improve on the one before.

Then, as you are well aware, I grew up, migrated West, married and had Amanda, who’s eight and a half. During these early morning involuntary sessions of mental gymnastics, it occurs to me that one day, less than 10 years from now, Amanda will be (hopefully) in university having “her own life.” What this means causes me no end of anxiety, especially since I’ve discovered, from observing Aussie parents with university-aged children, this means she’ll flee the nest, possibly never to return, except to scrounge off me and HRH! Oh, horror of horrors!

It doesn’t help that like my mother, I’ve been accumulating friends a good deal older than me. In fact, most of the people I talk to regularly are older than I am. 3 are my mother’s age – which they and I, occasionally find hard to believe. I suppose the difference in my relationship with them and them with their children is that I am not their child. Who I am and what I am, filial or prodigal, is no reflection of their success or failure as parents. We’re just friends who talk a lot, quite often I’ve found, about their now-grown children.

Now and then they introduce me to their other friends, folks their age, who also say to me, “My children have their own life”, with what I would interpret to be a resigned look of melancholy in the eyes.

Then they’ll go on to tell me how they have to make appointments to drop by, how their children blame them for some shortcoming in their parenting, how their children want to borrow money off them, or blame them for not having money, or, most heart-breakingly of all, not want to have anything to do with them. Except for when they need a free babysitter or things fixed.

This is happening right around Australia,” a friend of one of my 3 much-older friends told me. “Our children have lives of their own and these lives don’t include us.”

One of my 3 much-older friends said, “I never thought I’d experience homelessness since 3 of my children each live in 4 bedroom houses.” But when she suddenly fell ill and was unable to work for a spell, that’s precisely what happened. “I ended up camping in my car by the lake in Shenton Park. If you go to the lake when it’s dark, you’ll see many cars parked around it. Everyone’s homeless.”

But what did she do to deserve this cold treatment from her children?

“My eldest blames me for being broke.” She has 2 postgraduate degrees, which I verified by googling her name so you can’t call me a sucker for a sob story. “My second says that he’s got his own life. He doesn’t have money to lend me.”

“Couldn’t he have sent you a ticket to go bunk with him for a while?” I asked.

“His partner wouldn’t have liked me living with them. She doesn’t have family staying over either.”

“What about your youngest?”

She put her youngest through private school by working 2 jobs.

“My youngest couldn’t accommodate me because her in-laws were visiting.”

Fortunately a kind friend of hers stepped in to provide temporary shelter. She’s since moved to one of the Eastern States, from which she hopes to complete her book on textiles for publication. She said she might send me an extra-special present at Christmas.

Then there is “long-backside” who corners me every time I leave the house. HRH and I nicknamed her thus because if ever she corners you, you’ll lose 2 hours of your time listening to her yap, quite often about nothing.

One day, Long-backside came up to me as I was enjoying the sun in front of my next door neighbour’s house. Right away I knew I was going to be stuck wherever I was for the next 2 hours. Long-backside first talked about a neighbour’s new baby – someone I’ve only said hello to once – then about her new teeth, then about the time when her own kids were young – how she bathed them, played with them, read to them – when I suddenly asked, “How old are they now?”

I didn’t want to stop this old lady from reminiscing but it seemed to me she was talking as though they were dead.

They’re all in their forties with lives of their own.”

And right there was the reason why she wanted to talk about them for a good hour.

“How often do you see them?” I asked.

“We meet up at Christmas,” she said. “The boys have always been close to each other but the eldest blames me for the divorce and the youngest wants nothing to do with me.”

I felt sad for her and thought about the many friends I have, my age, who are reading, bathing and playing with their babies, toddlers and young children. I thought too about my many educated Asian friends who extol the benefits of Westernised parenting: they say their children will have better social skills, be more independent, creative, open-minded. But how does one go from having this close relationship between parent and child to not having any relationship at all? If you give your child everything, will they appreciate you or turn around, as adults, to criticise your efforts using the the eloquence and lateral thought you nurtured?

People who’ve known me a long while say I’ve become a lot more conservative in my outlook of life. I think the word they’re groping for is “cynical.”

At the start of my parenting journey, I was determined to discard the shackles of my own conservative, very Asian upbringing. I was going to give my offspring the most Westernised of Western parenting: they were going to have complete freedom of thought, speech and action. They were going to be independent of me and my archaic views. When I grow old, they were going to be independent of me, period.

Then, while having coffee, or just minding my own business, I made friends with all these old, white, Aussies. The men seem to accept the empty nest situation well enough, but most women want to reminisce of the times when their children were young. I’m no psychologist but I sit there thinking that they want to relive the days when their children loved them unconditionally.