When my mother passed away, the sisters asked me to give the eulogy. Fresh with grief, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. Writing it, crying over it, well that was easy. Reading it was even easier. On the altar of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Darwin, to a small crowd, I blocked out all of my emotions and read it. I paced myself, but inside I knew I read faster than I normally would, even if no one else could tell.
Mum passed away when she was 65. In some communities I guess that does not seem so old, but for me she was an Elder. I know from my Aboriginal side that Eldership is about respect and I respected Mum, because she was wise and had the type of life experience that could fill a novel. ‘She was a survivor and a fighter, despite losing this one last battle with kidney disease.’ That was what I said in my eulogy. My Aunty asked me for a copy to keep after the funeral. She remembered Mum as a fighter, too.
When I look back sometimes it hits me that as a child, I never realised that Mum was ‘different’. We ate Chinese food and went to the Chinese Association where my older sisters learnt folk dances and attempted to master Mandarin. We had Chinese family friends and the only other Chinese girl at school, Qui Yi, said to me one day, ‘You’re an ABC just like me – Australian Born Chinese!’ I remember being confused and going home to ask my parents what it meant. Dad had laughed and said, ’No you are an ABC, Aboriginal Born Chinese!’
When I think about that otherness I realise that there is one defining moment for me. On an airplane to Malaysia for the first time – just Mum and I – as an 11 year old I instinctively reached for the customs paperwork and filled it in for the both of us. That was the way it was. She would ask one of us daughters to read something for her and then she would commit it to memory, or to write a little for her. She never missed an appointment or had a single mishap with this system. Her English literacy level was never a deficit, it was just how it was and it worked for her, for all of us.
Language is a complex issue in my family. As children of a mixed race relationship, immersed in what is ultimately a foreign culture, we are dispossessed of all our languages. We speak smatterings of local Aboriginal languages, a very small touch of our own Larrakiah and Tiwi, and again a smattering of Teo Chew, Hokkien, Cantonese and what little of Mandarin stuck from all the attempts at Chinese Language School. My mother on the other hand was proficient in her native tongue Teo Chew; Hokkien as the dominant language growing up in her hometown Penang; Cantonese that she learnt in Kuala Lumpur when she moved there; and Mandarin as the formal language she had to use to cut across dialects.
English, though. English was a language that dominated her life after arriving in Australia. I remember my sister asking her if she dreamt in Chinese or English. She answered that she used to dream in Chinese, but over the years she had started to dream predominantly in English. Toward the end of her life, that was the only language to occupy her dreams. Her answer made me sad somehow. It still makes me sad.
As she got older and her health declined, I remember a visit to the outpatients at the hospital. I laughed with my sisters when we returned home. The nurse had pointedly directed her questions to me, but before I could answer, Mum very slowly and loudly answered her back with lots of meaningful eye contact. The nurse had blushed a little as she realised her faux pas.
Elderspeak or racial discrimination? I suppose only the nurse knows the answer to that question, but I would say a little of both.Racial discrimination was something Mum had always had to endure, that was a given. As an older person however, there was a new layer of age-based discrimination to deal with. Like being treated as though she were simple by sales people in shops or not being listened to by relatives who spoke only to each other at dinner.
Elderspeak includes such things as health care professionals talking directly to the children of elderly patients in front of them, as Mum and I had experienced at the hospital that day. It also involves younger people modifying their speech when talking with Elders so that it includes repetitions, slowed down pace and lots of pauses. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this kind of ‘speak’ is unfairly used by many native English-speakers when talking with non-native English-speakers. To that end, we as her children often leapt to her defense, whenever she was mocked for her perceived lack of mastery over the English language.
Mum was so proud of being defended by her children, not because she was not able to defend herself, but rather because she liked seeing us stand up to bullies. She raised us all to be as feisty as she was and this is my most enduring memory of her – her feistiness. As I said in her eulogy, she was a fighter. She would never let anyone put her down, although they tried many times to make fun of her accent, her Chineseness. As she got older she faced new discriminations, new attempts to take away her dignity. Coupled with the existing racial discrimination, her fighting spirit had to come out again, had to exert itself through us, her children. She was not about to let anyone treat her as though she had lost her mental ability just because she was older. She was alert to the very end and alert to how people treated her.
For that lesson in fight, I thank her a thousand times over in a thousand different languages.