I remember three things about my paternal grandmother:
- Her hands
She was always handing me gifts: two mandarins, one thousand yuan to buy clothes, a pedometer retrieved from the bottom of an imported cereal box.
- Her grandfather clock
On summer nights in Shanghai, 15-year-old me curled my body on a bamboo mat beside her, wide-eyed, awake to a dong, dong, dong, then a chime on the dot of every hour, keen in its mission to make a racket, except it wasn’t really a racket for her. In the ten dongs it took for me to sift through pockets for earphones and my mp3, her eyes had closed and her breathing steadied, and I thought it must be true that even loudness, when familiar to the ear, could soothe.
- The wooden stool inside her shower stall
In 2016, the stool was a reluctant addition to her bathroom, and a sign that her own movements were now failing her. Sometimes I imagined her bending to take a seat after running out of strength, 7800 kilometres from Sydney, where I also sat wondering if that had been the last time I would see her.
The call came just shy of 2017. At about 5pm on 28 December, our Toyota pulled into the driveway of a four-star hotel in Adelaide. Nine, ten, minutes later, while walking past a silver Christmas tree in the lobby and down a corridor to our room, my mum’s handbag buzzed. And buzzed again. She had had no internet reception all day, and now messages flew in like a ping-pong rally.
Still, my mum did not check her phone.
She went into the bathroom and out again. Then boiled water. Then sifted through shopping bags for cup noodles we had brought from home.
Rundle Mall was a five-minute drive from the hotel and had been described by a travel guide as one of the busiest shopping precincts in Adelaide. In reality most stores – retail, restaurants, and a visitor’s information centre – closed by 5pm so dinner that night became a spread of shelf food: instant noodles, chips, cereal.
We ate. Cold-turning-lukewarm water ran from the bathtub tap. My mum sat down, with glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, and opened WeChat on her phone. The messaging app had become one of the most popular ways for first-generation immigrants to keep in touch with family in China.
“It’s convenient,” one told me.
“It has video call,” another said. “I can still see their faces every day even though we’re not in the same country.”
And news travels faster, a third added.
“Aunty, contact us immediately when you get this.” It was my paternal cousin.
At 6.45pm, my mum handed the phone to my dad. At 6.47pm, he walked into the lobby, the area in the hotel with the best Wi-Fi signal. He didn’t speak. He couldn’t. He knew something bad had happened. He felt it in his heart. A drop. The sound of china hitting tiles.
The call came just shy of 7pm.
My dad is telling me about his childhood now. One spring festival, a neighbour accused another of smearing animal poo across her front door. His mother, slippers on and hair half done, raced out and pulled one of the neighbours aside while calling her friend to take the other back home. She reminded them both of the times they had helped each other. The times they had laughed together. She was the kind of person who could talk and people would listen.
At 5pm, my paternal grandmother left the world without a goodbye. My dad was pulling into the driveway of a four-star hotel.
He could have chosen Shanghai over Adelaide, he thought. He should have. He almost did after hearing from his siblings that their mother had been in hospital. But he took a left turn instead, a detour into a street that turned out to be a cul-de-sac, and that made all the difference.
At 9pm, he bought a plane ticket to China.
独在异乡为异客， All alone in a foreign land,
每逢佳节倍思亲。 I was twice as homesick on this day.
遥知兄弟登高处， When brothers carry dogwood up the mountain,
遍插茱萸少一人。 Each of them a branch – and my branch missing.
(Trans.: Witter Bynner)
Many first-generation Chinese immigrants fall into the routine of flying back once a year to visit family, says my dad. Perhaps it’s reassurance that you have done your best. That you may not be there for your parents in their last moments but you were in the moments before.
Betty Ping, a first-generation immigrant, shares visiting ‘shifts’ with her older sister. If she returns to China in March, her sister goes back in the second half of the year in September. It’s a compromise they have reached for their mother who is often ill and always wants her children by her side.
Family, for Chinese people, is as much about love as it is about duty. Or rather, love is a duty. 孝(xiao) or ‘filial piety’, a virtue in Confucianism, means to care for your parents once they’ve grown frail and white-haired. To ‘repay’ them, in some way, for all the care they invested in you when you were still young and tripping over your own feet. To exchange effort with effort.
China was an agricultural society for thousands of years and had no formal pension system, so filial piety emerged in place of a pension, Melody Qu tells me. “They relied on the next generations to give back to their parents because otherwise, how would aged people survive?”
Melody is a psychology specialist who moved from Beijing to Sydney over two years ago, and we first meet while she is giving a talk in Mandarin to a room of Chinese parents and grandparents. I sit towards the back, wanting to remain unnoticed, but my age gives me away, and as Melody speaks, her eyes flicker to me with a wondering look. We meet again after the talk, and then again at a café in Carlingford Court on a day of mild rain. She orders a large hot chocolate and I – in a panic of realising that card payments aren’t accepted at this outlet and my wallet only has $1.50 – go for a babyccino, an order that the waitress asks twice about by telling me it’s a child’s drink. The babyccino arrives with a marshmallow and a chocolate smiley face on top.
Melody pays for my drink before I can say no.
She’s sipping hot chocolate now, five fingers cradling the glass. “Even though [these immigrants] might say, ‘Oh, we can’t take care of our parents now’,” she tells me, “for many, it could secretly be a release.”
Betty prefers living apart. The longer she stays in Australia – it has been over 20 years – the further she drifts from her parents’ habits. It’s the little things: she hates when chopsticks used by different people touch the same plate of food, despite this being dining-table etiquette for Chinese people. She also disagrees with her 91-year-old father’s attempts to have a say in everything including “how we parent our children and our children’s children”.
“We pretend to listen even when we don’t end up following his advice. We don’t want to hurt his heart because we know that the reason for his controlling behaviour is because he wants the best for us.”
Still, Betty loves her father; tears glaze her eyes when she speaks of him. “He had an operation for stomach cancer, but after coming out of the hospital, he still took good care of my mother. He never put himself first.”
Betty’s father found time outside of his busy job as an art director to ride the bicycle with his children, do all the housework as his wife went through bouts of bad health, and scout the neighbourhoods of the men Betty would date to judge whether they would treat her well in the future.
Some may see it as care gone too far, but it’s also “the feeling that no matter what, our father will take care of us,” says Betty.
“And what more can we expect, really?” Eileen Chong, who is of Chinese heritage, writes to me via email. She moved out of her parents’ house in Singapore at 19 and then to Australia “for love” in 2007. At some point, she decided – to her own surprise and her mother’s horror – that she would renounce her Singaporean citizenship and pocket her future inside Australia. Today, she works as a full-time poet.
Eileen’s parents, both from poor families, started working at 16. Her mother was a bookkeeper, among other jobs, though she dreamed of being an artist. By the time Eileen and her brother were born, her parents had pushed the household into middle-class status. Since 2014, they have lived in Sydney, now as retirees; her father is “obsessed with keeping up with the news” while her mother paints.
Eileen’s relationship with her parents has had its cracks: “There were rough patches,” she tells me, “but they always supported me in my choices.
“I am grateful to them for all they have done.”
Home, for Eileen, is many things at once: physical space, a person, a memory.
“What’s interesting for me,” she says, “is that the Singapore I miss no longer exists except in my memory. Singapore is a city that changes so fast; every time I return, it’s nearly unrecognisable.
“I miss a particular time of a place, not the place itself.”
Her household today is a one-bedroom loft apartment in Elizabeth Bay, a suburb overlooking Sydney Harbour, a cosy space she shares with her husband and their two cats. I imagine her typing away on the sofa in her study – “my refuge”, she calls it – located on the mezzanine floor of their apartment.
Still, her sense of home is tinged with homesickness; perhaps to separate one from the other is to lose hold of an essence of both. When Eileen longs for her birthplace, she eats at Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants in Sydney or Melbourne, or she cooks the food herself: “If this is not a good example of remaking your identity, I don’t know what it is.”
This, here, made from my hands,
his memories – we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.
- Eileen Chong, ‘A Winter’s Night’ (Painting Red Orchids)
One winter’s night, I sit with my dad and we go through a book of three hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty. Many are written by travellers, far from home and dreaming of their return.
I remember that night not because we are reading seventh-century Chinese poetry together but because my dad is smiling and because, afterwards, he calls me over to watch a YouTube clip of a woman performing his favourite song ‘My Motherland’. It is a singing competition, and she wears a red hanfu with tight sleeves, her hair pulled back in a plaited bun.
“She’s really good,” he tells me. She looks ethereal amid gold and blue lights that spin languidly across the stage, and when she sings, each note stretches like limbs, and soars, as precise as a ballerina’s toes. My dad follows up with another cover of the same song. And another – “Just this last one,” he says. But he plays yet another.
I don’t mind it at all.
It is 2018, and two hundred years has passed since the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Australia. The recent census says the country’s population is at a “tipping point”: we are now more Asian than European.
But what does it mean for a minority to become the majority? Will we feel any other ‘tip’ in the scales besides numbers, or will we feel nothing at all?
Will the future you, who looks like the teenage me, still grow up wishing for blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin? Will the first Asian face you encounter in high school history textbooks still look subhuman, with eight limbs wrapped around white people and white institutions, strangling them? Will you still wonder why the TV screens who claim to speak for us never do? Will you also feel strangled by the silence and decide one day that you cannot be eaten by this silence, so you chew away at five thousand words, typing yourself and your parents and your grandparents onto paper?
A drab building, which used to be a hospital for US soldiers during World War II, sits on Washington Street near my family home. The elevator inside creaks too loudly for comfort. These days, it’s a Housing Commission site mainly lived in by Chinese residents.
In a community centre nearby, I meet Betty and Cindy Zhong, a 54-year-old grandmother from Guangzhou who has been on the immigration waiting list for four years. They are square dancing, waving pink silk fans through the air, their bodies curled and loafers pointed to the floor.
Half an hour passes. The dancers, all middle-aged Chinese women, take a break. They begin talking to – or rather, talking over – each other, speaking as though they’re arguing. But there’s a spiritedness to the conversation that reminds me of dinners with extended family: the flush-faced uncles and the chattering aunties and the nephew who grabs my sleeve while showing me ‘Plants versus Zombies’ on his iPad.
Cindy stands to one side, nodding, smiling, silent. When she speaks, her voice is so soft that I lean in to listen.
Family, she tells me, is “very important”. It fulfils you. When the rest of the world tries to tear you down like wallpaper, family frames you as an artwork and hangs you back up.
After the Cultural Revolution, Cindy never saw her father again; he, like other intellectuals in China at the time, suffered persecution for allegedly having the traits of a ‘counterrevolutionary’. Her family slid deeper and deeper into poverty. Neighbours looked down on them because of what had happened to her father – a “chain of scorn,” as Melody put it.
Still, her mother laboured for her four children. “Because we lost a father, she tried to make up for the lack. She wouldn’t even be willing to eat … she wanted to leave the very best for us.”
Once, someone stole the money meant for Cindy’s school fees. She trembled the whole way home, certain that she would be berated. Instead, her mother told her with gentle eyes, “It’s okay. If it’s lost, then it’s lost.”
“Looking back, I realise my mother must have been under so much stress … yet she never lost her temper with us.” Cindy’s voice shakes; her eyes shine.
Her mother died when Cindy was just 15 years old – collapsed one day, after a lifetime of holding up the weight of others. “Because my mother left us so early, there is no way for me to repay her love. So the way I treat and care for my daughter, it’s like I’m giving her what I learned from my mother.”
Her daughter, now 30, works at a consultancy firm in Sydney and has given birth to her own daughter.
“I’m so lucky already,” Cindy tells me before our interview. “I don’t need to buy a lottery ticket, because what if I win that one million dollars and God decides to ruin that luck?”
海上生明月, The moon, grown full now over the sea,
天涯共此时。 Brightening the whole of heaven,
情人怨遥夜， Brings to separated hearts
竟夕起相思。 The long thoughtfulness of night….
- Zhang Jiu Liang, ‘Looking at the Moon and Thinking of One Far Away’
I meet Jufen Wang at her home in Sydney. She is a first-generation immigrant and high school teacher. Years of frugal living have paid off: she owns a modest villa on a quiet street. Three university students have rented the space upstairs, while she lives alone downstairs. Her garden is untamed, an assemblage of an overturned washing basket, loose bricks, a pile of silver roof panels, compost bags by a tin shed, and a bed of soil lined with various breeds of cacti which my friend, also a first-generation immigrant, insists is a common feature in the backyards of Chinese Australian households (it’s a desire to decorate the garden without actually gardening). Indoors, a deep red-brown colour swarms the floor and the furniture. A mahogany wardrobe from England dating back to the 1860s sits to the right of her bed. A rosewood drawer from China stands opposite the doorway of her bedroom. On that drawer is a group photo of her Saturday class from 2015.
It is a home she has built from ground up since her arrival in 2000. Her generation of immigrants came to Australia with nothing – my dad often tells me and my siblings, with just $100 in his pocket – in an era before China had built its reputation as an economic power house and just after an ideological revolution that left the nation in tatters. In Beijing, the first supermarket did not open until the late 1980s. In Shanghai, the tallest building was a 24-storey hotel. Not long ago, housing was assigned; furniture was scarce; buying food required coupons.
“Before you come to Australia,” my dad says, “you think that because you know English and you have a good education, you can find a good job here. But the reality is, if you apply for a senior job which you are capable of doing and qualified for, they don’t want to employ you because you don’t have local experience. If you want to start from scratch and apply for a junior job, they say you are overqualified.”
Signs in Chinese reading “No vacancies” were plastered outside stores and factories around the city. Immigrants like my dad despaired. They had moved from a place where they had a house and a stable career to a country where they had nothing: no home, no friends, no income, and thousands of dollars of debt to pay off.
“How can you bear those differences?” asks Melody, the psychology specialist.
Melody calls them “micro traumas”, and they gripped first-generation immigrants like Jufen and my parents upon arrival. “They’re things you don’t really care that much about, but they make you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, every day … [like] fleas in your sleeping gown.”
And so, those frustrations grew and grew and continue to grow, until a “trigger event” causes them to erupt. Car accidents, divorces, job losses.
For Jufen, it is a list:
- Missing your parents.
- Being unable to talk to your parents, unless it’s to share “good news”.
- Staying quiet when your colleagues make inside jokes, because you did not grow up here and you have never read the novels, heard the songs or studied the textbooks they talk about all the time.
- Taking up bushwalking in your spare time and finding that you enjoy a pastime where people do more walking than talking.
- Being unable to talk to your father for five years because he thinks you’ve chosen yourself over family by marrying a man of whom he disapproves, and moving away from your hometown, a small village in the Zhejiang Province, to Beijing – and then to Australia.
- Realising your father was right to disapprove when your then husband – after doubting the doctor’s diagnosis that his “heart muscle infections” are a “cold” – has you stick a needle in his arm. You are untrained and you jab, and jab, and jab, until you hit a vein, and you are so relieved finally at the sight of blood, that you forget to pull back the plunge. You have to start the jabbing again. He is “psycho”, you think. Absolutely psycho.
- Not having the money yet to invite your parents over to see your home in Sydney, and they pass away before you have the chance. That was 2007, and it is still your biggest regret.
- Flying back to China earlier that year, but finding you still cannot really talk to your father, even in the final month you spend beside his bed – washing him, feeding him, turning him from one side to the other – while the cancer spreads across his back and leaves him paralysed.
- Having your heart broken three times. The third one of eight years – he cheats.
- Being unable to tell your siblings when they ask about the third one: “Oh, we’re still okay!”
- Wishing you could tell them, and in moments when your body forgets to keep moving, you imagine sitting beside them. It is silent and you are watching them do things: cooking, cleaning, ploughing the field. Anything.
- Missing your family.
Jufen is wearing a lemonade pink cashmere sweater, black leggings, glasses, a silver necklace, a jade bracelet on her right wrist, sky blue socks and checkered slippers, the kind you might find lined up in a shoe cabinet by the front door of a Chinese home. Her hair is frizzy black and when she ushers me and my friend inside, she has a white apron with floral patterns tied around her waist.
“There’s fruit on the table – eat some! – and you can take a look at the backyard through there,” she says, pointing down a narrow hallway. We walk past the bedroom; past the dining table where sliced pineapple and a circle of strawberries are arranged meticulously on a platter; past a piano with plushies – a pink rabbit, a neon-yellow duck and four brown dogs – balanced on top, and a quadriptych of Chinese paintings hung above; past the kitchen; past a smaller kitchen space; past a bookshelf where I spot eight copies of Chinese Made Easy for Kids, a binding that reads ‘Chinese Knotting’, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, a Macquarie Junior Thesaurus, 11 Encyclopedias of the Animal World, and the Holy Bible.
When my friend and I finish touring the backyard, we return indoors and sounds of sizzling reach us before the smell. Jufen has her back turned to us, washing utensils under a running tap. She is humming to a Mandarin song over the radio but stops when she spots us by the kitchen doorway. “It’s almost done!” she says, and a minute or two later, brings out three plates of savoury pancakes with guacamole on the side, placing one in front of each of us keeping the slightly burnt one for herself. You really didn’t have to, I want to insist.
But this is the Chinese way: once they see you as family, they will treat you like family.
Family always comes first, says Jufen. The surname before the first name. The country before the street.
It’s 4pm by the time we start our interview, and with each half hour her figure grows darker and the house sinks deeper into shadows. She switches on the heater by her feet, which crackles to life like a gas stove top, and then somewhere between talking about her love life and joking about her “own bad luck” in attracting the wrong kind of men into her life, she switches the heater off and excuses herself to grab a cardigan. Neither of us thinks to turn on a light.
“Maybe I’m just too worried about the future,” Jufen tells me as she slides into her chair, diagonal to mine. When she first met her (now ex) boyfriend of eight years, an Anglo Australian, he was renting a place for himself and his two kids. He didn’t think of buying property. He couldn’t imagine saving dollar by dollar to become someone who could afford to buy property and rent it out. He wanted to “just enjoy life”, to short-circuit through it without much of a plan.
“The way he sees it, I’m talking about money a lot,” she says.
But Chinese parents do not think of money for the sake of making more money. They think of it as an investment in their children, and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, and generations after that. Empty apartments become a projection of cluttered hearts – a way of saying ‘I love you’ without speaking the words: “If [my daughter] marries, I already have the place she will live in prepared.”
“I think family is just like that,” says Jufen. “You don’t calculate by money. You are willing to spend on them and they will not take this for granted.”
As farmers, her parents and siblings would labour day-in-day-out without knowing whether their next yuan would come from their current batch of crops. As a high school teacher, the salary is meagre but it’s steady. “They have money, but their money is harder to earn,” Jufen says.
So in 2016, Jufen funded her two older sisters and sister-in-law to come to Australia for six weeks. On a weeklong cruise to Tasmania, they crammed into a single cabin, playing cards until late, the way she remembers them doing as children, sprawled across a mattress far from the worries of the world. They didn’t talk much. They didn’t have to.
“I should have done this for my parents but they were not there anymore,” says Jufen. “I put that effort into my siblings, so it feels like I tried something.”
Now she visits her hometown once every second year. It’s a first step to patching up the gaps pried open by regret.
“If you wait and think ‘I can do it next year or the year after that’, maybe they just won’t wait for you anymore.”
近乡情更怯， As I cross the Han River, the impending homecoming unnerves me so,
不敢问来人。 So much so I shy away from asking about my homeland of the locals.
– Li Pin, ‘Crossing the Han River’
(Trans.: Betty Tseng)
In autumn 2014, my brother landed in Shanghai for the first time in 16 years to see our paternal grandmother. She had been in and out of the hospital, her kidneys troubled her, and no one knew how much longer she would live. It wasn’t long.
Autumn 2014 was also the last time my brother saw our grandmother.
Whenever I visited grandmother, she would ask me: “How’s Xiao Xiao?” Xiao Xiao is my brother’s Shanghainese nickname, pronounced like ‘smile’ in Mandarin. “Is he eating well? Has he found a job? Has he found someone he wants to marry?”
When my brother was five, our grandmother spoon-fed him congee, the staple of Chinese breakfasts, while walking him to the nearby bus stop for kindergarten.
On weekdays, she cooked meals for him, bathed him, picked him up from school and took him to chess class, while my parents worked their 9-to-5 jobs – my mum was a software engineer and my dad a finance manager – on Zhongshan Road in the Bund, which runs along the Huangpu River. Often, my parents could not return home until 9pm.
“He was practically raised by his grandmother,” my dad says.
But for first-generation immigrants like my brother who depend on welfare support from the government, visiting extended family is a rarity because it’s a privilege. Every time my brother travels outside Australia, his Newstart allowance from Centrelink gets cut. Two weeks means losing around $500.
If a person goes overseas to visit a family member who is “critically ill”, that money won’t be deducted. However, grandparents do not fit into the Department of Human Services’ definition of “family member”, which includes “your partner”, “your sibling”, “your parent”, “your dependent child” or someone “equivalent to one of these roles” such as a stepparent.So when my dad requests Centrelink to review my brother’s case, it upholds its decision. He then appeals this decision in tribunal, stumbling through a process that drags on for several months, but the tribunal member rejects the appeal because of a precedent: this has happened before. A Vietnamese man was also denied his welfare payments for visiting his sick grandmother overseas.
In traditional Chinese culture, family is multigenerational. Although households in mainland China are shrinking in size, many still live as three generations under one roof; the percentage of such homes has stayed almost the same since 1982. It’s not uncommon, my dad says, for grandparents to treasure their grandson more than their own son and to bend their backs sweating and toiling for family descendants. In fact, there is a Chinese saying: ‘the predecessors plant the trees for their successors to enjoy as shade’ (前人栽树后人乘凉).
Chinese grandparents have a “sacrifice spirit”, Donny Cheng tells me. Perhaps this mentality is part of the reason why many of these grandparents, including Donny himself, have migrated to Australia to take on the full-time job of looking after their grandchildren.
Donny’s day starts at 6am when he wakes up to make breakfast for his two-year-old granddaughter: cooking oats, boiling an egg and pouring milk. Then he prepares lunch boxes for his daughter and his son-in-law before they rush to work. Then it’s back to the granddaughter. He changes her nappies and helps her out of her sleepwear. At 8am, he sits down to have his own breakfast. After washing the dishes, he packs a meal of oats, milk, fruit and water as well as spare nappies before taking his granddaughter out to play in a shopping centre or a local park.
“When you look around the park, all the adults who are minding the children are not their parents but their grandfathers and grandmothers,” says Donny.
Donny’s granddaughter likes the swings, sand and water, so sometimes they take a train to the children’s playground at Darling Harbour. They come home for an hour’s afternoon nap before heading out again. His ‘shift’ ends at 7pm when her parents return from work.
“The day passes just like that,” he says. “And I’m quite happy.”
Happiness is being able to watch your granddaughter grow day-by-day and hear her declare, while hopping from foot to foot, that she’ll be sleeping beside grandfather tonight.
“Right now, I think I’m closer to my granddaughter than my own daughter, because I spend much more time with the young ‘un,” Donny tells me.
But often this means neglecting your own wellbeing, says Melody. I think of Cindy who leaves no space for a breath in her schedule: when I interview her, she timidly cuts our conversation short with a glance at her watch and a hesitant smile, because it’s 4pm and she has to hurry off to pick up her granddaughter from preschool.
I meet Donny at my family home. He foregoes his usual Saturday ping-pong session to speak with me. Weekends are his break from (grand)childcare: he attends dance class, sings karaoke, rides the bicycle, and goes on day trips. For a 62-year-old man, Donny is spirited: he walks with a bounce, his arms sweeping the air as he speaks, and when he laughs, the corners of his eyes fold like dumplings. He wears practical clothing: plain black pants, grey runners, and a blue blouse over a checkered one, the kind you see worn by retirees doing tai chi in the park.
Donny sees his role in the family as “a helping hand” – he doesn’t interfere with big decisions made about his grandchildren. He believes a hierarchy shouldn’t exist between seniors and juniors, as it often does in traditional Chinese households where the expectation is that everyone listens to and obeys the eldest. “It should just be a good relationship.”
Donny doesn’t expect his grandchildren to ‘repay’ him either. “We have until our limbs stop working to care for them unconditionally.”
And Cindy shares this sentiment when I ask her over WeChat why she spends so much time on her granddaughter, leaving only nights, after bedtime stories, for herself. She replies simply: “Love.”
In my paternal grandmother’s final days, when her mind slowly ate itself away, she would forget names, misplacing them the way one might misplace their keys. She confused my dad with his brother and thought her own daughter was a stranger. But never once, my aunty told my mum, did she fail to recall my brother. Xiao Xiao, she would say when they asked her for the name of her grandson. Xiao Xiao.