I’m sitting on a near empty Malaysian Airlines Plane bound for Penang from Kuala Lumpur. Outside a muggy haze covers everything, although it’s harder to see in the dying light of a sunset hidden somewhere beyond the smoggy horizon. The tarmac is concrete grey -probably actual concrete when you think of it – I wonder why they call it ‘tarmac’ The word has always evoked the colour of actual tar for me. In the distance, lights wink green and street light orange. I think that’s just the runway. I don’t think that’s houses out there. It’s too regular.
I haven’t been back here in years – over ten I think.
When I was a kid, I was always back in Malaysia on family vacations – AKA torturous endurance tests that lasted for weeks while my parents caught up with their family. They never felt like my family. Strange or not strange, I’m really not sure.
Asian families have this thing about calling close family and friends ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ (gender dependent) as a sign of respect. As a child, this meant being introduced to a lot of people I wasn’t related to, felt no connection with, and never saw again. Or if I did see them again in a few years I didn’t remember them. But more on that later. As a child growing up in western society, I felt this was a betrayal of the familial labels. As an adult I understand the intention, but the action that would have supported that intent was always lacking – or I always perceived it as lacking.These nebulous other relatives never felt like close family to me. They had no genuine interest in my life, my dreams or my goals. They didn’t know what I wanted or cared about. All they were concerned with was that I appeared to be happy to spend time in their presence, so that my parents would think their friends were good hosts.
Similarly, all my parents cared about was that their children played the part of good little Chinese kiddies so their friends would…actually I’m not sure. Possibly that they were good parents? Good people? Still Chinese despite living in a western country like Australia? Maybe it was an attempt to hold on to the facsimile of a close relationship? Reassurance that it was still there, however eroded by distance and time it may have been in the pre-social media era.
In any case, I was always given instructions not to speak too much (or at all, really), which for me is difficult as any of my friends will attest. They were afraid I’d say something culturally insensitive. Something…they were afraid I’d be too Western. There. I said it. Or wrote it. Whatever. I wasn’t to wear the wrong colour (black, which comprised about sixty percent of my wardrobe at the time and wasn’t mentioned when I’d been packing for any of the trips). I wasn’t to vocally dislike the strange foods if I actually disliked them. I wasn’t to fidget. I wasn’t to make any sign of boredom while people nattered on in one of the many dialects of Malay I didn’t know. I wasn’t to tune out and do something else like read a book. I wasn’t allowed to bring something that tempting with me either. I wasn’t to ask if they were related to me, how they knew my parents, or anything interesting that might actually have helped us build anything resembling a personal connection.
I was supposed to pretend I knew.
I was essentially asked to keep up the facade that these people were such wonderful friends that I knew everything about them. That my parents had regaled me with endless stories of their friendship or familial bond and I hadn’t just received a one sentence explanation in the car a minute before entering the house. Or restaurant. Or not at all if there were too many people showing up.
I only remember one of them in the end – my dad’s primary school teacher. And I only remember her because she broke the rules. I think her name was Miss Chin. She had glasses, black hair that came down to her ears and had a great smile. And she was wearing a dress when I met her. A peachy pink comes to mind. She asked me what I liked about school. She told me she understood how hard it must be to meet someone who was important to my parents but a stranger to me. She must have been a great teacher.
But she was one in I don’t know how many-scores at least. I think my concept of family was forever warped by those early experiences. Family was about appearances. Family was about making everyone else happy, about fitting in, about not offending.
Sometimes I wonder how hard it must have been for my parents. I’m sure they were barely cognisant of that ingrained cultural conditioning. I think the woman who gave birth to me is still stuck there, truth be told. But I digress. The upshot of all this is that most of my extended family know next to nothing about me.
Family means not telling anyone what you’re actually thinking.
9:50 AM and I’m sitting in a car with my immediate family, including my ‘mother’. I haven’t seen her in over a year. There was a wake for my grandmother–my father’s mother and until this week my last remaining grandparent. Malaysian Airlines managed to lose my baggage and there’s currently a motor cavalcade making its way from Penang to Ipoh in West Malaysia. It should take about 2 hours.
We’re on the way to the graveyard to bury my grandmother. There’s likely to be mosquitoes at what is apparently an overgrown graveyard, long reclaimed by grasses and butterflies. There’s there’s lunch and then life goes on. Somewhere in the vicinity of 24 hours of travel, about 3 hours of ceremony in Mandarin where my highly religious aunt pats herself on the back for getting grandmother into heaven while asking if her conversion of ‘genuine’. I’m understanding about 20% of what’s being said and hoping my ‘mother’ doesn’t have one of her patented one sided conversations with me which largely consists of her bible mashing and me insisting I don’t have a mother anymore. In my mind the woman I called mum died a long time ago. I’ve made peace with the fact that she’s gone. I’m still not at peace with the fact that another, religious fanatic is walking about with a face the same as hers. I don’t really like that at all.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture. There’s the way the one child policy in China has led to a rash of female infanticides and in some areas a gender ratio of 10 men per woman. For me it’s the thing where the first son of the first son is automatically given special status by virtue of carrying on the family name – any children would keep the surname going. Before I figured out about me I seriously considered subverting the trend by taking on the surname of my spouse. I suppose I still could at that. Now think about what would happen to the only son of the only son. You do the math.
On her 21st Birthday, my older sister got a small sum of money from my grandmother. On my 25th I got a fair bit more. My other cousins, who lived in the same small suburban Malaysian town as my grandmother, shared her life and in at least one case was basically raised by her…they didn’t get a look in from what I’m told.
Today I was expected to represent the grandchildren, raising an lowering a basket of flowers in respect and memory. Me. Not my youngest cousin who had far more memories after living in her house for years. She was relegated to the role of onlooker despite being easily more connected than I. It was sexist, blatantly unfair and we all knew it, but that was what the older folk expected to happen. And since it wasn’t about us, that’s what happened.
Once I was asked to visualise how I felt about Chinese culture. I said it was a big red blanket of thick wool with golden embroidery. A bit, red smothering blanket that bore down upon you and suffocated you in its heat and filled your lungs with the dust of ages past. I keep being told that I should go back to Malaysia and see my grandmother. Despite the language barrier and 10 minute memory issues, she’d be happy to see me. In her last years she asked constantly about my father. And if me or my ‘mother’ was around she’d then ask about me. Part of me felt it was kinder not to reminder her of my existence. Part of me didn’t want to subject myself to the constant stress of being closeted. Of scanning every sentence ahead for hidden landmines. Thankfully somewhere along the way the questions about girlfriends seem to have died a quick and painless death, but I hate being on guard for the question with a quick disarming sidestep and redirection of the conversation.
Family means constantly having to lie.