One game-set-and-match phrase my parents often ended our arguments with was ‘Don’t ever think we’ll become white parents.’ It was as if they had read my mind and every single chapter of it was prefaced, ‘If only I had white parents I would…’
When I was a kid I used to think if I had white parents, I’d be eating Fruit Loops, Coco Pops and Roll-Ups for breakfast, not watery congee with century egg (egg preserved so long the whites turn black). As a kid it was always the little things that worried me – white school-friends noticing our weird ways of cooking Western food, like Campbells Cream of Corn Soup with little slices of frankfurter floating in them, poured generously over a plate of rice. But as I got older it was the bigger problems that filled my self-absorbed teenage brain. One of the biggest questions I had was, ‘Why don’t my parents ever tell me they love me? Don’t they love me? Do they…hate me?’
The short answer to that question is that they did love me and (despite my dysfunctional everything) continue to love me today. The longer answer begins like this: My parents loved me but sometimes love, like medicine, came in the forms of things that made me cry and question the clarity of their conscience. Love in my household was making me cook dinner with no recipe and little advice, then half-criticizing, half-laughing at me when I forgot the cardamom in the curry. Love came in the form of sitting me down at the kitchen table every night as a kid and making me go over maths problems, because, as they put it, ‘your brother is very smart and you’re two very different children, darling’. Love came in the form of silence to my face at so many of my grades/awards/prizes, then laminating the newspaper clippings and bringing them to work to show their friends. Love was tough in my household. But I always thought of it as that bit in Hercules when he fights the many-headed hydra – just as the more Hercules cut the heads off, the more they grew back, so my parents cut me to make me grow back bigger, brighter and maybe even more forgiving.
Though often referenced in the media, whether in response to Benjamin and Michelle Law’s Shit Asian Mothers Say or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the concept of ‘Asian parenting’ is problematic. Not because of its hysterically condemned effect on Asian kids but because I’m not sure what it means. It’s a label. But it’s one which interests me because not only am I the child of Asian parents, I will one day become an Asian parent. And if my parents are Asian, then shouldn’t I take after them? I don’t know about that. I’m not Made in China, after all, I’m the Genuine Aussie Product. But what do I mean by ‘Aussie’ anyway? I have advanced far enough from my 6-year old mind, to know that not all Anglo-Australian parents are soft White pillows of praise and loving affirmation. And while we’re at it, what are ‘Asian parents’? My parents are Malaysian-born Chinese migrants from the country town of Butterworth, Malaysia. They are considered Asian Parents. Other people that would fall into this category are Japanese, Indian, Korean and Thai parents. Just as you wouldn’t blend miso soup, curry, kimchi and sago pudding together to make a delicious Asian broth, so the attempt to blend our perceptions of this plurality of races into the one category of Asian is ridiculous. What’s more, it’s dangerous. Somebody might get food poisoning or worse still, mind poisoning.
So far I have tackled the problem of the way in which my parents loved me but in doing so, I have blundered my way into the problem of how I show love to my parents.
I love them by promising to bring my hypothetical boyfriend back home to meet them.
I love them by promising to honour the tradition of taking care of them in my home when their hair has started to soften and go, dare I say it, White.
But, best of all, I can love them by knowing them well enough to see beyond a stereotype. Beyond that stereotype, they are burningly self-sacrificial and big-hearted and I am the only one who can verbalize this for them. They are so much more than just ‘Asian parents’ to me. They are Mum and Dad.
I leave you with this one last anecdote: today I left this article on the dining table for my parents and they said nothing about it. But when I went into the kitchen to get it, it was gone.