Every generation feels at odds with the ones before and the ones after. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I finally had to have “the talk” with Amanda. Born 26 years after me, her world is very different to that which I grew up in. Number of years aside, she’s being raised in the liberal West, whereas, until coming here some 14 years ago, all I knew was the conservative East.
What happened to prompt “the talk” was that she kept asking to use the computer. We were at the hospital, waiting for His Royal Highness to attend to a spate of new cases, when she asked me why had I not brought the white Mac (mine) down from the car.
“I use the white computer for work, Amanda.” If this were my mother speaking to me, it would suffice as an explanation.
“But I wanted to use it.” She saw herself as having equal rights to me, an adult. Equal say.
“But it might get lost or stolen here.”
“But I want to watch my videos!” She had packed a couple for our trip to the hospital without consulting me.
“How about reading the storybook you brought?” I suggested. “It’s about Barbie too.”
She proceeded to launch into a host of arguments for use of the computer, which, perhaps in her seven year old mind, sounded reasonable. Her father returned to the doctor’s room to take us out to dinner and after dinner, she resumed her calculated campaign of relentless whining to use my computer.
“Would you die if you don’t use the computer for 1 night?” I snapped, knowing the obvious answer.
“No, but I just want to use it.”
I decided it was time for “the talk.” This is the talk my mother had with me as a child, which many other mothers have had at some point, with their children. It’s about giving the child, a very much egocentric creature, some perspective of his or her situation, since they don’t have the benefit of years.
“You know, you’re always asking about what I did as a child…well, I’ll tell you today. ”
She sat up straight, her eyes shining as though I’d just announced she could have the computer.
“You are now seven and three quarter years old; I’ll say close to eight. I’ll tell you what life was like for me as an 8 year old. As you know, I have 2 older sisters and 1 younger brother; I was a middle child,” I singled out a middle finger on one hand to illustrate my point. “So my mother didn’t have a lot of time for me. Unlike you, life did not revolve around me. I would wake up in the morning, brush my teeth on my own, wash my face, have my breakfast and because kids at that age have their classes in the afternoon in Malaysia, would continue sitting at the dining table to do 5 pages of English, 5 pages of Maths, 5 pages of Malay from workbooks my mother had bought for me. My mother used to buy a whole stack at the beginning of each term.”
I distinctly remember her selecting them from a whole heap at this bookstore in PJ’s SS2.
“Unlike you, who I have to prod repeatedly to do 2 pages of weekly homework, I sat there doing all 15 pages, each and every single weekday, by myself. There were no rewards for finishing, only finishing itself. Then I would go and play the piano for an hour or two – usually and an hour because I didn’t like it – without my mother sitting there either. Afterwards, she’d tell me how lazy I was to only practise for 1 hour.”
“When did you get to play?” asked Amanda.
“After that, I’d have a shower to get ready for school. Unlike me waiting for you dawdle each day, I had to hurry up because my school bus only horned twice before taking off to pick up other kids.”
“You mean there are school buses?”
There are no school buses here, only buses hired by schools to fetch children to and from excursions. Up until the mid-80s, Malaysian school buses used to be black and white or blue and white. Perhaps due to American influence, all our buses became orange.
“Yes, there were school buses and if I missed my school bus, my mother would be very cross with me. I’d have to walk to school – a long, long, way from where we lived.”
“How far away was school?”
“Further than from here to Sunnybank.” Sunnybank is a Chinese enclave some 15 minutes away by car. We go there at least once a week to have food and do grocery shopping.
“And when did you play?”
“Well, school finished some time before 6 in the evening. I’d get home, have dinner, do my homework, brush my teeth, then go straight to bed. My mother never tucked me in bed, read me stories or listened to me read. She never kissed or cuddled me like I do you all the time and I most definitely never slept in her bed.”
I slept on my own from birth, whereas at almost 8, Amanda still sleeps with me. The only time I have ANY physical contact with my mother, even now as an adult, is when I greet her at the airport or farewell her there. I may be wrong, but it’s the same for most Chinese of my generation. This hugging and kissing is an entirely foreign concept to us.
At this, Amanda began sobbing.
“Why are you crying?” I asked, somewhat annoyed since I hadn’t said anything upsetting so far.
“I’m just crying for mama.”
“I’m not crying for me. Why are you crying for me?” I asked, bewildered.
“It just sounds terrible. When did you get to play?”
See, all this continuous talk of play is very much Aussie. At her age, I never talked or thought of play even half as much.
“My life at 8, is very different to yours. I wasn’t forever having play dates (the only people I played with outside of school were related to me), going to museums and libraries, going to see shows, going to have cake and coffee at cafes or going on holidays…”
My mother would say to me, “You think my life was as good as yours? We all had chores. The older ones had to mind the younger ones and help with the cooking and cleaning. You think we could just turn on the television and shake our legs in front of it?”
I said, “I didn’t have a computer until I was 15.”
Those early computers were very dear. All you could do with them was make colourful patterns using Lotus 1,2,3 – the little I learnt anyway. My favourite programme was Dr. Sbaitso, an early artificial intelligence programme built for MS DOS-based personal computers. I liked putting questions about “love” to Dr. Sbaitso and every time he would say in his awkward American voice, “I’m in love with the math-coprosessor.”
Amanda had since stopped crying and was regarding me with eyes as big as marbles.
“Most people didn’t have computers then, or handphones or this idea that it is necessary to have either. You don’t miss what you’ve never had.” Perhaps the reason why people in impoverished countries can be as cheerful as they are, despite the lack of good and amenities we in better off countries take for granted. They have no reference point.
“There was no TV during school days, only limited TV on the weekends, although I tried to catch snatches of Cantonese dramas when no one was looking. My mother would give me two tight slaps if I misbehaved, so I tried not to misbehave.”
“You mean your mother slapped you?” Amanda asked with disbelief.
We’re not allowed to smack children in this country.
“Yes, not all the time, but if I was very naughty…I was lucky.”
“Lucky?” Her eyes were now the size of saucers.
“My sisters got belted and caned until their legs bled. So yes, I was lucky only to get a few slaps.”
“Why were they belted and you only slapped?” Even she knows there is a big difference.
“Because I had my father to protect me. Life is very different when you have two parents instead of one.” I understood it even then: I was indeed very lucky.
“Lucky,” Amanda muttered to herself quietly.
“And I bet you will forget this talk in a few days time and we might have to have it again. But yes, I was lucky. I am lucky. You are luckier than I am. This year, in addition to play-dates, trips to the museum, art galleries, the beach, having cake and babycinos, you’ve been to New Zealand to ski, to the Gold Coast several times for the weekend, up to Hervey Bay to spend a weekend with Maia, Bella and Grace, Cairns to see Auntie Frances, down to Sydney for another weekend…soon, you’ll get to go back to Malaysia to see Grandma and Grandpa…What can you complain about? What do you have to complain about? Don’t you see how lucky you are?”
She smiled at me, got off her chair and came over to give me a hug.
“That’s because I have mama and papa,” she said.
“Right you are. So do you want to shorten our lives by irritating either of us?”
She shook her head.
As I had predicted, she badgered me for the computer again a couple of days later.