Things you do when you have just one child.

A friend of mine recently postulated the reason behind my very-involved style of parenting. In case you haven’t noticed, almost every third or fourth post is about something I do or have done with Amanda. In fact, if you were to stay a week in my house – not that I’m suggesting you do for I make a bad, bad, host – you’d notice that the idiot box, inordinately small in this age of super-size everything, is relegated to a quiet section of my bedroom where it is gathering dust as I type this. That’s because with Amanda singing, dancing and trading on the inherent cuteness of her jiggly bits every night (kept nicely plump by a steady diet of gourmet cheeses, macaroons and Ben Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream), I have no need for, much less attention left to give, a TV.

So what does one really do with just the one child? And can it ever equal the work of having as many children as Old Mother Hubbard? Have a read and you tell me.

1) Starting in babyhood, you give her two dozen names – in place of the other children you will not be having. She has so many names, ranging from “delicious” to “sweet and sour” (you can tell I’m constantly thinking of food), that when the Maternal Child Health Nurse asks,  “Does your child know her name?” you blink and ask, “What name?”

2) You know all your child’s measurements, starting with her APGAR score, so when that same Maternal Child Health Nurse tells you your baby has grown 1 kilo consistently since birth and is a good 68 cm and 9.5 kilos at 6 months, you decide a massive banquet is in order. Your spouse arrives home to find his wife – who usually feigns any excuse not to cook – has made enough food to feed the entire village.

3) Top of the Pops is replaced with more child-friendly tunes, composed entirely by you, looking at your baby.

4) Your spouse overhears you spouting sweet nothings and sees you staring at the baby.

5) Your spouse gets jealous of the baby. Most spouses do, but yours has put the baby on the table and suggested she be added to the dish of roast pork.

6) Because your bundle of joy (and cause for prolonged sleep-deprivation) was born on a Wednesday, you decide hereafter that all Wednesdays (if only for a whole year) will be “picture-taking day.” The following year, you decide to go one further by recording DAILY the evolution of bub’s speech. By year’s end, you not only have firm proof that she has the vocabulary of a child a year older, or 10 times a child her age, very clear speech at that, but can pose and answer questions. And yes, you still think she’s the best thing since sliced bread.

7) By 2.5 years of age, you’ve read to her so much (try 3 hours a day) that she can recite the contents of 100 books, word-for-precious-word back to you. Just for good measure, you decide to record her using your over-used camera. The sound isn’t great but at least you have something for posterity, along with 1000 photos from the first year, many of them featuring her in various states of undress.

8) Unlike other children for whom toilet-training is a breeze, yours resists every trick in the book. She even resists sitting on the toilet so pooing and peeing becomes an hour-long whole family affair with Papa holding the thrashing toddler in place and Mama reading (yet again) or singing the “Shee-shee Poo Poo” song.

9) Your baby, who’s no longer a baby, agrees to use the toilet if she can go to school. FYI, this hard-fought agreement only comes about after the principal tells her (or her back since she steadfastly avoids any discussion of her toilet habits) that only “Big girls (meaning toilet trained ones) can come to school.” Within a month of this, your baby is completely out of nappies. Hallelujah! You could kiss the ground!

10) Now that she is in kindy, your days are spent trying to get pen marks off your beloved red leather sofa and that WIP she has next to the throne – it’s a picture of a birthday cake on which she’s stuck another picture of a birthday cake.

11) One morning, all 3 bunches of car keys go missing.  Your spouse asks the toddler if she’s seen the keys but she wears an expression that says, “I no speak Englishee.” You then spend the next 45 minutes helping him turn the house upside down for said keys only to find them – wait for it, wait for it – on the shoe shelf, behind her shoes.

12) When she goes to Prep, you arrive to find her on the mat with all the other kiddies awaiting collection, but unlike them, she’s reapplying her lip gloss in anticipation of your arrival.

13) She has so many play dates that you have a diary dedicated to whose house you’ll be visiting next. Because you only live 3 or 4 blocks from Southbank, your weekends are filled with trips to the Queensland Museum, Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery, State Lending Library and the adjacent fake beach. By the time she’s 6, your baby, now a baby only to you, has seen all manner of earthly creatures, dinosaur bones, mummies (neither of them alive), and cost you hundreds of dollars in exhibition-entry fees.

14) You can scarcely finish celebrating one birthday when she asks what is she going to have for the next one. It’s either that or she’s pestering you to go shopping for another birthday she’s been invited to.

15) When you’re not buying presents or helping her with “Show and Tell” or cleaning up the mess from her latest experiment (they are learning Science at school), you’re taking her countless questions on everything ranging from Boy-Girl-Relationships (I told her no boyfriends until at least 30) to life after death (she’s afraid of you dying, even though you’ve told her you have no plans to for a long, long time).

16) Even when you’ve been freed of all of the above, you still have to protect her from everyone and everything. That’s because you’re now a 24/7 bodyguard. This year you’ve had to deal with death threats in the playground, stalkerama issues, other girls being mean to her…You even have to accompany her to the toilet at home and wait outside the door, in case the “monsters” in her imagination come to get her.

** Meanwhile, 8.5 years on, you still have to defend yourself against accusations of “neglect” or “inappropriate mothering” from people who a) are not mothers b) are mothers but never raised their children c) are mothers but never breast-fed or co-slept with their children d) mothers who just have a different idea of mothering to you. Oh yes, and meanwhile, you keep receiving “sweetheart letters” from total strangers the world over. Go figure that one out.

17) The baby, who is no longer a baby, now complains you are “forever tired.” It seems that you are tired almost from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you close them at night; or in some instances at midday, when you have the house all to yourself. But since another full-day beckons, you dutifully down your vitamins, breakfast and a bottle of Chicken Essence. “Until the weekend,” you mutter to yourself. “Until the weekend.”

So do I ever worry I’ll be raising a very self-centred Little Miss? No. Quite the contrary. If you’ve ever met Amanda, you’ll know she’s a very giving sort of person; so much so that sometimes I think a bit of self-centredness would do her good. Because she’s never had to fight with siblings for her slice of the pie, she thinks that all children are as unconcerned about their possessions as she is. She doesn’t understand agenda or the games little girls play to manipulate each other. And for that reason, many of her playmates are male.

She knows she is lucky to have her father and I as parents, as we are very open-minded people. She knows we have afforded her many opportunities and spend a lot of time helping her make sense of what she sees around her. People with more than 1 child can do the same too, but obviously it will take more time, more stamina and more resources. For a long time I wasn’t convinced that I had more of any to give, that’s why I stopped at 1. That may change in the very near future. Do watch this space.

To tell or not to tell.

Intrinsic to the Australian education system is the weekly performance by children of an item known fondly as “Show and Tell.” Depending on the age of children and class size, most are rostered to stand in front of their peers for something like 5 minutes. When Amanda was in kindy, aged 4, her weekly “Show and Tell” had no designated topic; the purpose then was simply for children to get used to standing before an audience and opening their traps. As you may expect, being my child, Amanda had no difficulty doing this. Her first “public performance” was at the age of 2, unprompted, on a wooden dias of a Japanese restaurant, to which our fellow diners clapped afterwards.

As Amanda got to grade 1 and then 2, “Show and Tell” became a more structured activity. We parents were given hand-outs of topics our children had to prepare for in advance. We were to help them, if they needed help, which was almost every time. I began to suspect this “Show and Tell” to be an means by which parent-involvement in the upbringing of a child is gauged, if not why else was I – by no means an enthusiastic cook – spending the better part of a morning making Chinese pork jerky for 25 seven year olds, just so Amanda could talk about “Malaysian Food” for 5 minutes? You can click on this link to have a look at the recipe I used.

When Amanda, aged 8, entered grade 3 at the beginning of this year, “Show and Tell” became “The News”; but the basic premise remained the same – the child still had to present something to his or her classmates in the allotted time. In this new school of hers, children are free to choose what they want to talk about. This week Amanda wanted to regale her classmates with her new purchase from the newsagent across from our street, her favourite store.

“BOOOOOORRRRIIING!” I called out with a yawn.

As Amanda’s mother, I have to be honest with her. People showing off their new crap, as they do on facebook day in and day out – ball gowns, kiddy clothes, new cars etc – bore the hell out of me. I have worked in TV before and trust me kiddo, unless it is a very slow day, “Cat rescued by fireman” – honourable though it may be of the fireman to save a distressed cat – does not make it on to the evening news. We want action, drama, a pulling of the ol’ heart-strings to make the audience to ditch their day-dreaming over stale milk.

“But I don’t have anything else to present!” Amanda said.

“Who said so?” I countered. “You could tell your classmates about tempe, a staple food of Indonesian people, which you tried last night. Since I showed you the video, you can tell them how it is made, what it tastes like. You can mention how it has kept the poor of Indonesia well-nourished. Or how about that video (of Indonesia’s poor) eating KFC from the rubbish dump? Surely that will pique everyone’s interest? Or what “Children For Sale” in India?”

Here are some of the videos I showed Amanda over dinner two nights ago. The reason tempe came up was because I had scored a fresh piece from an Indo friend; a real treat because the ones sold in stores have a bitter aftertaste that like people, comes with age.

My Indo friend tells me that the poor eating KFC from bins is a fact, not fiction.

“Yes, but that’s what you want me to present. I don’t think children are interested in any of this,” said Amanda.

And they are interested in 235 piece boxed-set of art supplies you bought from Newspower?” I said, sarcasm-toned down specially for her age. “I’m not carrying that box home once you’ve finished your presentation, you know? I’m not gonna be responsible if someone nixes it or ruins it either.”

“Fine. Fine,” she said, sounding like what most women do when forced to do something they don’t like.

When we arrived at school, I chirpily informed her Thursday and Friday teacher, Mrs D, in front of the assembled class that I had saved them all from a presentation on arts supplies.

“Instead, you will be hearing about ‘Children For Sale in India’,” I said, rubbing my now-chubby paws (due to water-retention, causing carpal tunnel syndrome) with glee.

Amanda returned from school later in the day and said, “Mrs D requests that in future we only present ‘child-friendly’ topics.”

“What was wrong with your presentation?” I asked. I thought it was better than the same-old, same-old “This is what so and so bought me”, “These are the sausages I ate on the weekend”…inane topics one and all.

She said that “Children for Sale” scared the children.”

“And it should. This is what happens to children in India, Brazil, Nepal…all the poor places in the world. They get sold into slavery and prostitution. How about eating KFC from dustbins? Didn’t they feel so lucky to not have to eat from bins?”

“I told them to imagine a bin of chicken in our classroom. No one said they’d touch it. Mrs D said we are very lucky to live in a country where we have fresh food that hasn’t been consumed by someone else. But the talk may have offended Sophie (her classmate)?”

“Why is that?”

“Sophie was born in Indonesia.”

“Then Sophie is a wuss. A big fat tofu. She may be born in Indonesia but she doesn’t know the first thing about being Indonesian; she can’t speak the language, doesn’t know the culture, much less the socio-economic situation. It’s like you being offended because someone in Melbourne (Amanda was born in Melbourne) murdered someone else. Does that make you a murderer? What’s it got to do with you?”

“I think my classmates would have preferred to hear about the arts supplies.”

“Ahhh…all big fat tofus,” I said, despondently.

Somehow I have the feeling Amanda won’t be asking me to suggest topics for “Show and Tell” from now on; which is just as well. I don’t want to be making more Chinese pork jerky.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back: when hired help pushes you too far.

Up until very recently, I thought of myself as an exemplary employer: I took on a single mother on an AUSAID scholarship who agreed to come and work for me once a fortnight. Her hourly wage, which I should have asked beforehand, but thought would be reasonable since she is a devout Christian whose kid plays with mine, was AUD32 per hour, CASH ONLY. This, I discovered not long after our arrangement began back in April, is above the normal rate  of AUD25 per hour for a house the size of mine in our area.

Notwithstanding, I thought maybe she’d bring something extra to the job like outstanding work ethic (punctuality would be nice) or an eye for the finer details (like picking up ALL things from the floor when vacuuming). After all, she wasn’t the first cleaner I’ve ever had. Since I’ve had other cleaners in the past, and rolled up my own sleeves to straighten this pad, I have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and how long such a job will take.

It’s about now you probably wonder why I even hired a cleaner. I’ll give you two words. The first: laziness. The second: rhinitis. My nose goes all crazy on me for days after a cleaning marathon. Perhaps, the other two (as in Amanda and HRH) can create mess faster than I can clean.

Maybe my first cleaner set the bar too high for the others to follow: we met while I was living in Wanganui, New Zealand, nauseous with all-day-sickness from being pregnant with Amanda. A young grandmother, M, knew just what a house like mine needed. Asking only NZD12 per hour CASH, she would arrive on the dot to vacuum all the floors, mop the lino-ed surfaces, scrub out the shower stall, euphemistic throne and vanity, wash all the plates and pots mounting in the sink and dust and oil all wooden furniture in the hour and a half allotted to her. Afterwards, I’d fix her a cup of tea and we’d sit in my lounge for a friendly chat.

HRH’s only objection to having M clean for us was that he often saw her in Emergency: one of her sons used to routinely kick and punch her. Sometimes she brought in one of her grandchildren who was being abused by the child’s stepfather. As such, HRH saw her working for me as blurring the doctor-patient boundary. I saw ours as a very good deal.

Subsequent cleaners all did a passable job, but were no where near as efficient as M. Moving to Melbourne, I hired a Chinese lady who attended the same church as a friend of mine for AUD12 per hour CASH. The Chinese lady was newly-divorced and as such, probably had not made childcare arrangements for her daughter in time for her first clean with me. She asked to bring the child along and I acquiesce. The cleaning went well enough but there were too many times when she paused to give me “marriage advice” – extolling her situation as superior to that of a married person since she was no  longer hindered in achieving her “financial goals” as she’d gotten rid of the deadweight – ie. husband.

I allowed the Chinese lady to prattle away since I supposed she was simply venting, but decided not to hire her again when she said, “Your microwave is so cheap. Who can believe you are married to a doctor with such a cheap microwave?

My next cleaner was a friend’s sister, a university student, who was keen to work for AUD10 per hour CASH (since this was more than the Chinese restaurants, which only paid AUD7 or AUD8) but didn’t know how to do anything. I spent much of our first meeting showing her what was expected of her, what to use for each task and how to use an iron since at that point the dishes in the sink had been replaced by HRH’s crinkly work shirts. Also by then, my regular hour and a half had also morphed to an acceptable 2.5 hours.

After the friend’s sister, I did without a cleaner for a while. Amanda, then just over a year old, was napping on and off and I found I could get some tidying done while she slept. It wasn’t until we moved to Brisbane, after Darwin, Cairns and Townsville, that I decided to employ a cleaner once more. Our apartment in Brisbane wasn’t so much big as it was perpetually dusty. On my weekly visits to Paul and Tania’s up the road, I began to notice that their home was always clean and dust-free so I asked them to let me on their secret; were they hiring someone? And if so, could this person come clean for me too?

A couple of doors down from them lived 15 Indian guys, all in need of some form of work. Paul and Tania’s regular cleaner, who was an electrician in the old country, couldn’t take any more clients on, but he could pass my query along to one of the guys. Usually, I’d be hesitant to allow any male into my home, but my next cleaner, S, came with a indirect recommendation (for safety that is) from Paul and Tania’s cleaner, who I’d never met, but who did a good job. For AUD17 per hour CASH, S did what he was asked to do, but I felt the clean wasn’t as thorough as what Paul and Tania’s cleaner did for them. That, plus he was in the habit of leaving 10 minutes early. Hence, I used S only a couple more times before I had him swapped with another of his housemates.

My cleaner after S, R, also worked for AUD17 per hour, but was more open to instruction. With a masters in biology, R, was whiling away time post-graduation, until the Indian government offered him a job. Even though he wasn’t such a fantastic cleaner, R gave me many useful tips on the preparation of pulaos and biryanis, gleaned from his other job as a cook in an Indian restaurant, for which he was only paid AUD10 per hour.

After R came K of Nepal, who also worked for Amanda’s besties mum, Melissa. K charged AUD25 per hour CASH but brought a knowing for how to clean borne of experience to the job. Aside from showing her where I kept all the cleaning implements, I didn’t have to instruct her on what needed doing. I could sit there with my laptop at the dinner table, banging out a thousand words an hour while she went about her business.

Sadly, because K was so good, she was offered a full-time job 3 or 4 jobs in to our arrangement. To the job hunters reading this: that just goes to show you that if you do things well, someone is bound to take notice and offer you something better. K was courteous enough to call me up to inform me of the development and to my surprise, express how much she enjoyed coming to clean for me!

After K, I probably had another 1 or 2 forgettable persons come to clean, but as with M, the bar was yet again too high for them to reach. Which brings me back to my most recent cleaner. What broke this camel’s back was NOT that she routinely came late (sometimes by as much as 15 minutes) or finished early (by as much as 10 minutes) or didn’t do things without me pointing it out to her, tersely I might add (like wiping down the bathroom mirror, vanity and taps or vacuuming the staircase), or allowing some spots to go un-vacuumed, or using a broom to sweep downstairs when she could have used the vacuum in the time given to her…it was that after paying her AUD32 per hour CASH (which means she pays NO TAX on any of it), SHE OPINED she was too poorly paid for the job. She text messaged me to inform me that as of October, her hourly rate would be raised to AUD37.

I smiled to myself. Nay, actually my face broke into a Cheshire cat grin, for as you might realise by now, I’m not all strawberries and cream in the behaviour department. Certainly not when my tail has been stepped on more times than I care to recall.

My response was, “About your increase, your hourly rate is already $32 (TAX FREE!). My friend who works as anaesthetist (that’s a specialist doctor) only charges his patients $34 (which he has to pay tax on) for calls out in the dead of night. Someone offered to clean for me for AUD15 per hour (that’s less than half your rate) a month ago but I declined to take her on because I was sympathetic towards your situation (single mother on limited wage). I’m sorry but this increase is untenable. I will no longer be requiring your services.”

She apologised for having brought up the raise but the dye was already cast. The poor often say that the rich (which I am not) are out to screw them when, from observation, the opposite is more the case. Since then, we’ve run into each other a couple of times. Initially, she’d scurry away – in embarrassment perhaps – but as I’ve acted like nothing has changed between us, when everything in fact has, we can still be civilised in front of the children – which is all I really care about right now.

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.”

 

28 Questions You Might Want to Ask Before Migrating to Australia

Despite the pro or anti migration factions waging war around you, the truth is simply this: you ONLY need concern yourself with migrating to Australia if you have an “in-demand skill” recognised by an Australian professional body or have AUD2m or thereabout to invest in Australian government bonds or have proven business acumen and are able to replicate that success in Australia or the majority of your immediate family is domiciled in this country. Otherwise there is no point even agonising your poor brain cells over the matter because Australia just will not have you.

A friend of mine, who met none of these criteria but wanted to move here so badly asked what could he do. I told him to find himself a local wife. I wish I was kidding but I wasn’t. You might have heard of people being offered permanent residence visas at customs, but those days haven’t existed since the 70s. Since then, Australia has had to turn away thousands from her beleaguered gates. Moving on to those 28 questions  in the order in which they appear in my head. Thank me later. A pair of brothers want to charge RM25 for what I’m about to tell you for free.

Permanent Residence Visas

1) Must I have studied in Australia?

No, but your qualifications have to be recognised by a professional body in Australia.

2) What is on that so-called “in-demand list”?

People Australia wants delineated by profession. Click here to take a look for yourself. Generally you have to be no older than 45 at the time your application is processed.

3) Should I get myself a migration agent then, since this seems all so complicated?

You may if you’d like but I’d advice against it. All info you need to fill in the forms yourself are available in booklets; PDF copies are available online.

4) How much would it cost me to hire a migration agent though?

Excluding disbursements, which can easily add another AUD4k, expect to pay around AUD8k for representation.

5) What is the time-frame for processing my permanent residence visa?

It depends on the category. For skilled migration it generally takes 6 to 9 months, family migration (meaning sponsored by a family member) between 3 and 4 years. As always, there are exceptions to this: those sponsored by an employer generally only wait around 4 to 5 months, by a husband or wife, roughly 2 years (although a bridging visa allows them to remain in the country), by children, 3 or 4 years – however with a payment of nearly $43k for each parent this wait can be shortened to a matter of months.

6) What does a permanent residence visa entitle me to?

An indefinite stay in Australia, although you need to chock up a minimum of 3 years in every 5 for the powers that be to grant you a residence return visa (RRV) at the end of each 5 year block. Fail to do this and they might not be so forthcoming with the RRV. You’re also entitled to Medicare, delivered through the public healthcare system. Medicines are not included.

7) Do I get free education?

Yes, but only in public primary and secondary schools. PR visa holders are not entitled to government-funded study loans. These are only available to Australian citizens. As a PR visa holder, you are still a citizen of your country of origin.

8) How about welfare payments?

Apart from Family Tax Benefit, which is paid to families, none is available for new PR visa holders. Since you’ve been welcomed into the country, you’re supposed to contributing to Australia, instead of Australia contributing to you.

Finding a Job

9) How hard is it to find a job?

It depends on your area of specialty and where you are willing to relocate to in order to secure work. Junior doctors can find work instantly, as can accountants and engineers.

10) Where do most Asians find work?

Apart from nail bars and restaurants, as suggested jokingly by a lady I met this morning, we’re most often seen in square, sterile settings as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, various allied health professionals…outside of the health sciences in engineering, accounting, cleaning companies, milk bars, Asian grocery stores.

11) Where is it hardest for Asians to find work?

Law – but as I mentioned in a previous post, this affects white Australians too. Finance, marketing, public speaking, event management, media, arts, coaching sport…

12) But shouldn’t they give us jobs if we studied here?

Show me 1 country that guarantees graduates jobs and I will show you 10 that don’t.

13) Is it true that Asian job seekers are discriminated against?

A Sydney study suggests there is discrimination and there have been reported instances where employers refuse to hire a certain type of jobseeker but I don’t see that to be true on the whole. My brother for instance, was head-hunted by several firms upon graduation; but I should warn you that metaphorically-speaking, his CV sold itself.

14) What if I come with work experience?

It would count for something if this work experience is from Australia or some mecca of civilisation like London or New York. Otherwise, expect to lose a couple of years “seniority” from your carefully tended resume.

15) Why do Australian employers not recognise my qualifications or work experience?

It’s not that they don’t; it depends on what area you work in. HRH’s cousin easily found one professorship, then another, at 2 of Australia’s top universities, even without Australian qualifications because the area he specialises in has nothing to do with Australia. Everyone else has to prove qualifications and prior experience are equivalent to that of locally-trained professionals in a similar capacity.

16) What if I want to add to my training?

You can get your new employer to sponsor you or you can fund your own continued education. The latter is tax deductible.

Making friends

17) Will I be wandering the streets friendless for 5 years?

Are you a mangey stray dog? If the answer is no, I think you’ll make friends pretty soon, provided you put yourself out there. Australians are generally curious about people of other lands; titillate them with tales of mind-boggling, yet-unseen sights and you’ll have yourself very captive listeners, if not friends.

18) What do Australians like to talk about most?

Australian Rules Football, fondly referred to as “Footy” in winter and the Australian Open in summer. At other times, the weather is a safe bet, as is weekend getaway plans, shopping or if a parent like me, your kids.

19) Are all Aussies lazy?

Aussies are laid back, however I’ve known a fair few to put Asian workhorses to shame. My friend who owns a laundromat in Townsville, to cite but one, worked right up until she went into labour. 3 days after the delivery of her 4th child, she was at work once more; putting in 12-hour-days at her business and going home to cater to her family after that. And the woman had neither family nor maids to help her at either.

20) Sum up the typical Aussie in 5 words.

Fun-loving, jocular, adventuress, inquisitive, fair-minded.

21) What are Aussie get-togethers like?

When eating out, unless stated otherwise beforehand, it is presumed that each person will pay for his or her own self. If dining in a nice restaurant, each person will chip in a couple of dollars extra towards a tip for the waiter or waitress. If you get invited to tea, feel free to bring along a small gift for your host. However, do not expect there to be anything more than tea, coffee and biscuits. Adult-only events precludes the provision of food or entertainment for children, just as children-only events, like birthday parties, precludes the provision of food or entertainment for adults.

22) What do most Aussies do on the weekends in place of family dinners and extended gossip sessions?

They play or watch sport, have BBQ lunches and picnics with friends in the park, trawl shopping malls just like most Asians in Asia do. The only difference is that activities 1 and 2 are generally preferred as most enjoy the outdoors. Many reserve family shindigs for that long stretch between Christmas Eve and a couple of days after the New Year.

23) Is that why I can’t go back during Chinese New Year or Ramadhan or Deepavali?

Businesses here don’t close during any of those holidays – Chinese, Malay or Indian restaurants included – but that doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate our ethnic holidays. Some of us save our leave to go back during this time, to our countries of origin to be with family. Others celebrate in Australia with friends in place of family.

Comforts of home

24) Do I have to be a master chef to satisfy my own taste buds?

It would help but if you don’t know a chopstick from a cleaver, then you can always get yourself a good feed in either Sydney or Melbourne. To a lesser extent, Brisbane, Darwin and Adelaide have good Asian cuisine too.

25) What can I get  over there?

What can you not get? With enough dollar bills, you can get anything your stomach desires in Sydney or Melbourne. I’ve bought all manner of exotic fruit in Melbourne – rambutans, mangosteens, dragon fruit, longans, lychees… and countless servings of well-made, delectable kueh. If you visit one of the Asian enclaves, you can lay your hands on just about any spice, any pre-packaged food, any ready-made food, you can get back home.

26) Can I get Asian movies or newspapers?

Yes and yes.

27) How about Chinese herbs and our many esoteric health treatments?

We have Chinese “medicine halls” where you can have your pulse read and herbs prescribed. We have Chinese massage centres, Indian massage centres, Thai massage centres. You name it, we have it.

28) How about Chinese language schools?

Again, yes. In Melbourne we have a school with thousands of students. Where I live in Perth, Chinese language instruction is carried out through smaller institutions. You didn’t ask, but we also have Greek language schools, French language schools, Thai language schools etc etc…

Okay, last questions. They are not part of the other 28 but I think it summarises my opinion on migration. Would I recommend Australia as a place to migrate to? Yes. Compared to many other places? Bloody yes.

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.