My family is one of workers. Over the years, Mum has told me countless stories of her own childhood: crouching in the dirt to feed worms to the family ducks, sweeping the floor of the family grocery store in search of a glint of loose change, helping my Po Po peel enough vegetables to feed her family of seven.
My maternal grandparents ran a grocery store in Malaysia for most of their lives – a tight, logistical operation. It was a humble empire built from sweat, patience and honest work. Both my Po Po and Kung Kung fled their homeland, China, to set up a new home in East Malaysia, the threat of World War II roaring at their heels.
Mum’s retellings of my family history have taken on a mystical quality over the years. I’ve never been to Malaysia; I understand only a scattering of words in my Mum’s native tongue. The shame of it is unsettling: I don’t always feel like I own my history. What do I know of fleeing from wars, of building a business from nothing, of working for survival? What do I know of the kind of work that involves killing rats ransacking your rice stores, or painstakingly counting out coins in the late hours of the night? I’m standing on the other side of a chasm of time, language and circumstance. I may as well be reading a bedtime story.
My Po Po passed away when I was ten. I remember her soft voice, the precision with which she would make a small incision on her stomach every night to draw blood for a glucose check. The hands of a businesswoman, a nurturer, a woman accustomed to work; hands which measured cash from a till, stocked shelves and carried children.
Po Po wore old age with graceful practicality: loose-fitting, silky shirts and hair cropped to short black curls. She spoke only a handful of English – her fourth language – while I could only manage a few choppy phrases in Mandarin. Mainly, our relationship consisted of her setting me one practical task or another – folding laundry, or plucking the tails off bean sprouts. She and Kung Kung lived in a sparse public housing flat in Stuart Park, Darwin. Even now I can recall the green linoleum floors and walls the colour of old teeth, the air that always wore a hint of incense and menthol. A stack of dog-eared Cosmopolitan and Cleo magazines, salvaged from the housing block’s recycling station, would always grace the coffee table.
It’s so strange to think that, over the course of only three generations, my reality has become so removed from that of my grandparents’. Where Po Po would save margarine tubs to store her sewing needles, I can barely sew a button. Po Po’s $2 tub of Redwin’s Vitamin E cream was a luxury, something she massaged carefully into her face each night. I could easily spend thirty times as much on a moisturiser.
These may only be material things, but I think they add up to colour our reality. As a child, I learned a value system that underpinned even something as simple as buying toilet paper: price and utility first. Even now, buying anything other than home brand feels a little bit luxurious, a little bit immoral.
As a uni student I worked as a cleaner. There was one apartment advertised in a ‘student jobs’ listing looking for someone to ‘tune the space’ before the weekend. I thought this was an elegant way to describe a rather inelegant task. What a luxury, to expect work to be done but to not call it work; to avoid any crass mention of the invisible hands setting things in motion.
I would let myself into the apartment every Friday afternoon, vacuum the carpets, scrub the toilet and wipe down the fridge. In the living room, I would lift each decorative piece and dust carefully underneath before placing it back, exactly in position, as though I had never touched it in the first place. Lady Justice with her scales and blindfold; a glass bouquet of tulips; wedding photos in iron frames. After each shift, I would leave sweaty-eyed with my backpack of cleaning supplies, leaving not a trace of myself behind in the gleaming apartment.
Last year, I moved to Canberra to start my first post-uni professional job. Suddenly, I had more money than I’d ever had in my life – more money than Mum ever had when raising both my sister and I as a single mum. I would even be paid on my days off, or when I was sick – something that to this day still baffles me slightly. The work I was doing was very often not the most taxing in the world. I would pass hours at my desk churning out things that, in the grand scheme of things, would amount to nothing in particular. And yet every fortnight, sure as sunrise, money would appear in my account like some startling magic trick. Suddenly, I was purchasing $4 coffees every day and absently-mindedly Paywaving, with impulse my only guide. It’s strange how easily one becomes accustomed to aimless little luxuries, how they begin to blend into the beige of the everyday. My family would flinch at how casually wasteful I had become.
Five months into this new lifestyle, I read Alice Pung’s Laurinda and came across a line that has stayed with me ever since:
How could I joke about tacky things without also laughing at my own mother and the way she cared for these possessions more carefully than Amber cared for the Leslie’s Moulinex blender? How could I buy a $3 chocolate croissant without feeling like I had wasted half an hour of her labour?
I don’t want to lose sight of my history and my family. That’s not to say that I want to deprive myself in some sort of flawed homage to my grandparents. But I do want to feel like they would be proud of my choices. I want to live mindfully, to acknowledge their hard work in building the foundations for me to sit in a Canberra café and ponder ordering $22 salmon for brunch. I don’t want to forget the invisible hands that so often set things in motion, ‘tuning’ spaces for others.
My history is steeped in hard work, in frugality, in making the most of what you’ve got.
My family is one of workers. It’s something I want to carry with me.