The Indebted


Due to the ongoing pandemic, our annual ritual of flying back to Malaysia during Lunar New Year was postponed for the second time. My father, slowly becoming melancholic, longed to be reunited with the foods that never failed to bring him comfort. For him, home is not a place, but a palate. During lockdown, we were reminded of the abundance – the smooth rotation of sumptuous smells and festive feasts facilitated by the round turntable – how less can become more when shared amongst loved ones in an unending circle. In contrast with what is more commonly practiced in the West – the ordering of individual dishes, even when gathering in a group, for separate and discrete consumption – the communal experience of gathering around a turntable embraces everyone. Everyone has equal access to the food, which also means that everyone has equal access to serve others and be served. When you are young, you are served by your elders and when they can no longer serve themselves, you return their kindness. As a new migrant growing up with limited means, my parents always gave me the best of everything they had and took care of me before they took care of themselves.

The material and symbolic rituals of parental sacrifice are so ubiquitous in the migrant experience that they become inseparable from the inheritance of the second generation. No inheritance can come to fruition without sacrifice, the cost of which can come to represent a kind of debt. And as there is no guarantee a parent’s sacrifice will pay off, it is also an act of faith. One that is performed with the intention of reproducing the system of values inherent in the life parents strive to pass onto their children. When you are indebted in this way, you owe something to a structure that is larger than yourself and your obligation to your family. This is what you are now complicit in, this is what you are tacitly invested in perpetuating. The political implications of sacrifice shape a sense of futurity that is accountable to the past and even as the financial debt of the first generation is paid off, an uncanny debt lingers and accumulates, obscuring what the children of migrants are ultimately indebted to repaying. How do we disentangle our indebtedness to our parents from this unpayable debt, and who stands to gain from this pernicious specter of indebtedness?

In the final essay of her non-fiction collection, Minor Feelings (2020), Cathy Park Hong writes,

“If the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering. The indebted Asian-American is therefore the ideal neoliberal subject.”

Sacrifice is a giving up of something for what is perceived to be more important. For many migrant parents who are willing to sacrifice themselves to ensure a future for their children, capitalism is a system that is built on and maintained through their continuous sacrifice. When workers sell their labour in order to survive, who benefits from the pursuit of endless production and productivity? Even before the inception of the pandemic and hypervisibility of ‘essential work’ needed to sustain society, racialised bodies have always been controlled and considered disposable for the establishment and expansion of the nation state. Since the violent settlement of “Australia” dispossessed First Nations peoples of their land, lore and languages, the settler-colony has sacrificed Indigenous sovereignty to advance a white supremacist nationalism that regardless of the public health crisis, continues to sacrifice and leave behind the most vulnerable and marginalised communities. What does it mean to have a home where others have lost theirs? What does it mean to be complicit in the continuing legacy of colonial occupation?

In the future, white supremacy will no longer need white people”.

The historical expropriation of Indigenous lands and exploitative labour of working-class settlers and migrant-settlers are requisite conditions for the foundation of settler-colonial capitalism. Despite being subject to the same racist, colonial rule, migrant and Indigenous bodies are organised and managed differently by the state. The colonial project depends on the assimilation of migrants and their recruitment into capitalism to legitimatise and perpetuate invasion and genocide. It is concerned with asserting white sovereignty internally by incarcerating and murdering First Nations peoples, while keeping borders closed from the external entry of boats carrying refugees and asylum seekers. It is a legacy that migrants, indoctrinated with the promise of meritocracy and the model minority myth, are not always familiar with upon arrival. When migrants strive to accumulate wealth and private property as markers of success, their suffering in service of upward class mobility is perceived as honourable and part of a narrative arc that internalises sacrifice as a moral virtue. Submitting to the capitalist work ethic becomes the way you prove your worth to your family and country. It becomes the way you fulfill the destiny your parents inaugurated in their decision to migrate here.

“Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that destroyed us?”

In Minor Feelings, Hong makes a distinction between indebtedness and gratitude. While the latter generates an attentive living out of the present, the former fixates on the future, unwittingly reducing everything to an exchange that can be quantified and eventually paid off. The logic of indebtedness under capitalism is so pervasive that it leaks into our everyday interactions, dictating how we ascribe and measure value in our lives. The commodity form distorts and abstracts relationality into a cold and calculated transaction, whereas a gift only requires gratitude. The concept of the gift resists commensurability, suspending the assumed transparency of an exchange. Unlike neoliberal practices of the so-called free market, the gift economy’s value is not intrinsic to the materials, but the hands that they pass between. Anne Carson in The Economy of the Unlost writes about the gift economy as:

“Alternating disequilibrium, where the aim is never to have debts paid off but to preserve a situation of personal indebtedness… A gift is not a piece broken off from the interior life of the giver and lost into the exchange, but rather an extension of the interior of the giver, both in space and in time, into the interior of the receiver. Money denies such extension, ruptures continuity and stalls objects at the borders of themselves”.

When we are in lockdown, I teach my father how to play chess and we decide we will play a game every night until he wins. This becomes a new ritual of ours, giving us a semblance of stability amidst the rising case numbers. For once, the roles are reversed and I have the privilege of watching him learn. While we play, I do not always know his thoughts but I can hear him thinking and this feels more intimate. There is music in our shared silence and I have learned to listen for it more carefully. I later realise, the first night he wins, this music was a gift all along.

“Being indebted is to be cautious, inhibited, and to never speak out of turn. It is to lead a life constrained by choices that are never your own”.

After his first win, we continue to play and on one particular night, my dad ironically reflects on how it was only when we came to Australia that he felt more Chinese. It is amazing how quickly we can assert who we are when we are confronted with what we are not. The rise in racially-charged assault and harassment since the beginning of the ‘China virus’ reminds me that my existence here has always felt conditional. The conditions are not always explicit, in fact they are often so deeply embedded and rehearsed that they masquerade as personal choice. The trajectory of racial grief is interminable and ineffable. Both tangible and intangible, it is a debt that can never be repaid because your existence is the debt and you are the liability, born with and into deficit. I can accept that I am an unwanted guest in white “Australia”, but I cannot accept that I am an unwanted guest on stolen Aboriginal land.

In the growing aftermath of global migration, dispossession and displacement, the concept of home can become lost, or even imaginary and amalgamated from fragmented sources that unsettle clear notions of belonging and authenticity. Although I no longer romanticise a place of origin, I am learning to find other forms of collective belonging in diasporic un-belonging. The diasporic identities we develop can become a means through which we affirm our communities, form alliances and build anti-colonial, anti-racist solidarities. At its most powerful, identity is not a static thing but a doing, or rather an undoing – always in flux, always transforming and becoming something else. Diaspora is an unknowing, which can be disorienting, but it can also work towards a reckoning, a resistance, a re-imagining of lateral debts and de-stabilising of hierarchical powers.

In their essay “Infinite Debt” (2019) Andrew Narvin Brooks and Astrid Lorange of Rosa Press and Snack Syndicate write,

“Our debt is intergenerational: we share debt with those who have come before us and with those who come after. ‘Debt is social, credit is asocial’: (Fred) Moten and (Stefano) Harney reimagine debt as a form of exchange apart from the logic of accumulation, and as a way of describing desire outside the logic of credit. When we desire (each other, a future, the destruction of that which would destroy us) we get into debt. Desire is a type of dispossession that makes possible ways of being in common, ways of shaping together.”

When we desire together, destroy together, create together, it is not a zero sum game. We are creating a surplus to be shared, not hoarded. We do not want a seat at the table of our oppressors. We want our own tables, ones that are akin to the dinner round turntable of abundance and sharing, rather than scarcity and competition. Our lateral debts are not transactions, rather they are a form of mutual responsibility and care. My refusal to inherit the legacy of this settler colony does not mean I am not indebted to my parents for their sacrifice. I will never be grateful to “Australia” but I am endlessly grateful to my parents. My debt is not something I would ever be capable of, nor wish to, pay off. Instead, my indebtedness is something to be sustained and multiplied. Through the infinite gift of reciprocity, I envision coterminous futures alongside other fellow migrant-settler debtors, who refuse to be indebted to a system that sacrifices us for their gain. We listen and learn from those we are indebted to: the generations of ancestors that have sustained and nourished us since before our birth and the sovereign First Nations peoples of this unceded land.


This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.

Christy Tan

Author: Christy Tan

Christy Tan lives and writes on unceded Wurundjeri land.

Your thoughts?