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Edition 49

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Memoir

Good things come in pairs

ONE OF THE first things you notice at a Chinese wedding reception is the Chinese character for ‘double happiness’. Among the swaths of vermillion red decorations, the symbol, often drawn in gold calligraphy, accosts you from all directions. There it is, stamped high on the wall above the bridal party for good fortune. Over there, it provides a stunning backdrop for official family photographs – the ones the happy couple will print on the ornamental glasses and crystal paperweights to be delivered to guests afterwards as a thank you gift. Featuring seng hei (double happiness) at your wedding reception is as essential to Chinese weddings as throwing the bouquet and the bride and groom’s first dance are to Australian weddings, the only difference being that if you excluded those traditions from an Australian wedding it would only be considered unconventional. To exclude seng hei from a Chinese wedding is taboo, its absence signalling future misfortune.

Traditionally, double happiness relates specifically to newlyweds and marriage, and the idea that pairs are significant because they lead to children and the continuation of the family line. However, the idea of seng hei lum mun (which directly translates to ‘double happiness arriving at your door’) can also be applied to two joyous occasions occurring simultaneously in everyday life. For example, a pregnancy and a promotion would be cause for double celebration, as would a birthday and graduation; it’s the belief that all good things come in pairs.

I never understood the significance of double happiness and how it applied to my life until I started learning more about its meaning from my mum. As I get older, I’m finding myself at last curious enough to question the cultural signifiers that peppered my childhood. I never stopped to consider the burning incense placed before photographs of my ancestors, or the Chinese wall calendars given to us by Asian grocers that my Ma Ma (my father’s mother) hung on her bedroom wall, or the rapid-fire Cantonese conversations overheard on the street on our numerous trips to visit relatives in Hong Kong. Like a piece of heirloom furniture that’s been in the family for generations, these signifiers – double happiness among them – were unremarkable to me because they are so innately a part of who I am.

The origin of double happiness dates back to the Tang Dynasty. The story goes that a boy with ambitions to become a minister travels to the capital city to take a ministry exam. However, he falls ill on his journey and is treated at a nearby village by a man and his daughter, who nurse him back to good health. As the boy regains his strength, he and the man’s daughter fall in love. So before he leaves for his exam, the girl writes him a couplet in the hope he will return with his own couplet to match hers. The boy makes it to the capital city, sits the examination and receives the highest grade. The emperor, impressed by the boy, tests him privately by writing a couplet for him to match. Fortuitously, the emperor’s couplet matches the girl’s couplet perfectly. The boy offers the emperor the couplet penned by his love, and the emperor is moved and appoints him as one of his ministers. But before the boy takes his post in the city, he returns to the village to deliver the completed poem to the girl, proving that they are indeed meant to be together. At their wedding, the couple writes ‘double happiness’ to describe how their joy has doubled with their union.

The notion of doubled happiness reminds me of a toast delivered at my cousin’s wedding by the father of the bride. He described marriage as being the union of two independent people forming a partnership, a strong pair, as opposed to the idea that marriage is the merging of two halves to form a whole. Marriage, he said, is the connection and exchange of two sets of values, traditions and life experiences between two individuals, so that those individuals may learn and grow from knowing each other.

I view my cultural identity in a similar light. Like the doubled happiness found in couplings or events, there are two separate parts to my identity. Neither part is more or less whole than the other, nor are they in opposition. But they can be vastly different in their ideologies, which can make understanding where I belong in this world very complicated. Do I relate more to Chinese culture and its insistence on tradition, reservedness and filial piety? Or do I more closely identify with the open and easygoing lifestyle of Australians? Is it possible for these two cultures to become intertwined? And will there ever be a time when I can identify wholly as Chinese or Australian without feeling like an imposter? These vast differences become most evident when honouring significant life events. Like most people with dual or more diverse cultural backgrounds, milestones in my life occur twice: first, they happen in the Australian way, and then in the Chinese way. Life’s best and worst moments receive an encore when who you are is split evenly in two.

THE LAST EXTRAVAGANT birthday celebration our family held was my brother Andrew’s disastrous eighteenth. Mum surprised him with a cake in the shape of breasts in front of all of his friends in a busy restaurant and although she meant well, and we all thought it was a hilarious joke (well, everyone except Andrew), from then on our parents vowed never to publicly embarrass us at celebrations again.

So growing up, I didn’t receive any cringe-worthy toasts or remarkable gifts on my birthdays, something I didn’t take as a sign of neglect or disinterest on my parents’ part. On the contrary, they’ve shown me so much love and support on a daily basis, often to an excruciating and inappropriate level, that I’ve come to realise over time that events like these are simply unimportant to them in the grand scheme of things – the grand scheme being that I’m happy, healthy and safe, which they contribute towards in other ways. Phone calls, random and unrequested bank deposits, and home-cooked meals reassure me that I’m loved. My parents are like Valentine’s Day naysayers, showing care regularly rather than overcompensating on the one day.

And yet, ungrateful child that I am, I still longed for something showy to celebrate my rites of passage. Unlike my friends, I wasn’t given bouquets and teddies at my graduation, or gifted jewellery and bikes on my birthdays. I didn’t get to witness my usually stoic father get teary during a slideshow of baby pictures at my twenty-first. I wasn’t interested in material possessions and big spending; somewhat stupidly, what I needed was the reinforcement that I was loved through symbols and grand gestures, and I felt ashamed and self-centred for having this desire. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing out.

I could understand my father’s disinterest. As an only child with a loving but unaffectionate mother, and a father who was abroad earning money for his family for all of his son’s life, Dad has always been awkward when he is alone with us, always unsure of how parents are supposed to act around their children. But I expected more from Mum. She’s always been overbearing in her adoration of us: filming every holiday on her video camera, documenting every outing with us on her iPhone, jotting down the silly things we say in the notebook she carries in her handbag. She’s always willing to create opportunities to embarrass us with her love.

By the time my twenty-first birthday came around, I was confused as to why Mum hadn’t made more of a fuss about celebrations. She hadn’t organised anything, let alone pushed the subject at all, and so feeling somewhat relieved, yet slightly disappointed, I organised my own get-together with friends. I chose a nice, inner-city bar that offered a bar tab and catering for guests, and spent the night circulating the room to ensure everyone was taken care of – too much to enjoy myself. My friends gifted me bottles of wine and thoughtful cards, but I felt oddly empty in this loud, crowded space. I tried ignoring the thought that it didn’t feel like I was coming of age, like all of these celebrations didn’t mean much because, despite the fact I was officially an adult, I still didn’t feel like one.

I figured that I would feel better at the birthday dinner I’d organised with family. I’d booked a private room in a Japanese restaurant, and there was lovely food and saké and then the evening was over. There were no embarrassing speeches, no public displays of affection, no baby photos projected on the walls to a crowd of well-wishers – none of the public validation you always witness at these kinds of milestones that I’d convinced myself were unimportant to me and yet I secretly craved.

It wasn’t until I turned twenty-four that I realised Mum was just waiting for the right milestone. Twenty-one doesn’t mean much in Chinese culture; as far as Mum was concerned it was an arbitrary number that instilled an expectation that people should act like adults when they were actually still children. Twenty-four, on the other hand, meant growing up. It meant being more mature. And more importantly, it meant the reinforcement of our mother–daughter bond.

Mum and I share the same zodiac sign: the horse. There are twelve Chinese zodiac signs, which means that your zodiac year is celebrated once every twelve years. Our first shared zodiac year, when I was twelve and Mum was forty-eight, was celebrated in a big way, with the two of us taking a three-month trip to visit Mum’s family in Canada and Hong Kong. We spent the entire trip in each other’s company, day in, day out, sleeping in the same bed and sharing the same bathroom as we visited one relative after the next. The claustrophobia alone made that celebration one to remember. So I should have realised that she would make as big a deal on my twenty-fourth birthday.

The moment 2014 rolled around, Mum took pleasure in reminding everyone in our family that this was the year of the horse – her and my year. But I was still surprised when she presented me with special gifts on my birthday. Mum sat with me, just the two of us, in my home office in Brisbane and watched as I opened her presents. The first was a special edition postage stamp collection to commemorate the year of the horse. The second was a wooden toy – a palm-sized royal guard soldier with a kind, cartoon face and a pin glued to its back so it could also be worn as a brooch.

‘It’s a family heirloom,’ said Mum. ‘It was Gong Gong’s [my mother’s father] job in the Hallmark factory in Hong Kong to glue the pin to the back of the toy. They’re very good quality; he had good eyes to handle something so small.’

I remembered Mum telling me stories about these pins. Back in the 1980s, when she’d been living in Australia for less than a decade, she allowed my sister Candy to wear one of the pins to school. One of Candy’s classmates bullied her into handing it over to them, and Mum never saw the pin again. Anything of her father’s that was in her possession now was priceless, so I knew how much giving me this pin meant to her.

‘I only have a couple of these left now, but I know you’ll treasure this,’ she said.

‘Why are you giving it to me now?’ I asked.

‘You don’t turn twenty-four everyday.’

Her final gift was the suggestion that we go and buy a piece of jewellery for myself; we’d shop together so she’d know for sure that I liked the piece. The offer shocked me. Since splitting from Dad twenty years ago, Mum never had much money to spend on anything that wasn’t essential. I didn’t know much about her finances now, but I knew enough to know that she certainly wasn’t wealthy and this kind of gesture meant a significant splurge for her.

‘I have a limit, though, so if you find something you really like and it’s over a hundred dollars, you’ll have to pay for the rest,’ she said matter-of-factly in Cantonese, anticipating my questioning.

As we shopped, Mum told me how proud she was of me and how, in just the space of three years, she believed I had matured greatly and was more respectful towards her (most of the time). She talked about how, as her baby horse, I shared her habits and principles. And how I was both intelligent and beautiful, and how of course I was those things because she gave birth to me.

She pulled out the photos that she always keeps in her wallet and brandished them at whatever shopkeeper was unlucky enough to step into our path. Here were the two passport-sized photos of me and her at the same age (‘Everyone says, you resemble me the most out of all my children!’) and then the school photo of me in third grade with a perfect bun atop my head (‘You used to throw a tantrum and get me to do your hair over and over because you were, and still are, such a perfectionist’). When I settled on a necklace, she helped me clasp the back.

‘It’s beautiful in a classic way, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Just like you. Did I tell you that you look the most like me out of all my children?’

Here she was, giving her own embarrassing speeches about me on my birthday, in private, like she always has, and I didn’t need a roomful of onlookers present to know that I was loved.

THE FIRST FUNERAL I attended was for my dad’s aunt – a woman in her seventies who died very quickly after a cancer diagnosis came too late. I was nine or ten years old at the time, and stood as far back in the room as possible, still able to make out the woman’s waxy complexion in the casket.

Dad had brought me with him to the ceremony to pay my respects, and although the idea of being there frightened me, I rarely saw Dad properly after my parents split and I wanted him to think well of me. The atmosphere was reflective and serene, and reminded me of when Dad would piggyback me in the house late at night and bai joh sin (pay his respects) to a mounted, framed photo of his father, who died when Dad was an adolescent. Dad would bow at the photograph several times with me still clinging to his back, and then he’d deliver me to my bed. Our family has never been religious, but we have a strong sense of spirituality.

As mourners arrived at the funeral, we were given an envelope containing a piece of candy and a gold coin, a tradition unique to this woman’s province. The candy (something that offered sweetness and comfort during a distressing time) needed to be consumed during the ceremony, and the money (which could be donated or spent on someone more disadvantaged than you, to brighten their lives) had to be spent that day.

What I remember most vividly from the funeral was Dad’s cousin, the deceased woman’s daughter, breaking down before the open casket as her husband and two young sons tried to console her. I’d never seen someone so unrestrained and openly distraught in public before; it was next-level grieving. It unnerved me, but I would experience it again at fifteen when my Por Por (my mother’s mother) died.

When I ask Mum about what she likes most about Australian culture, one of the first things she lists is the Australian approach to death and grieving. ‘Chinese people are so repressed when it comes to expressing themselves. It’s not healthy emotionally – it’s like being constipated,’ she’ll say. ‘I like how in Australia you can kick and scream about the person you lost and get it out of your system.’

Por Por died from kidney failure in Hong Kong in 2005. In the last few years of her life, she moved from one nursing home to the next, from one area of Kowloon to another, desperately unhappy about being unable to live with one of her seven children. Some of Mum’s siblings had already housed Por Por for many years after Gong Gong died; others had no space in their one-bedroom Hong Kong apartments, and the rest were perhaps unwilling. For years, Mum had lobbied to bring Por Por to Australia to live with us, but after she and Dad divorced she couldn’t raise enough money to sponsor Por Por’s permanent residency. When Mum describes Por Por’s living conditions in her final nursing home, where people stole her possessions and the single bed-sized rooms were separated by rickety partitions on the one, sprawling level, I change the subject because it’s too awful to comprehend.

Mum travelled to Hong Kong for Por Por’s funeral, distraught that she couldn’t be there for her mother as she raised five children in another country, and full of resentment towards her siblings for not doing more. When she saw Por Por’s body in the funeral parlour cold room, she chose not to cry. Surrounded by relatives with whom she shared strained relationships, and in such a formal setting, she couldn’t grieve on her own terms. Held in an up-market venue, the funeral felt so austere, with strict seating arrangements for the children and grandchildren, and every personalised action, like laying flowers in the casket, enacted by the funeral director and not the relatives. No eulogies were given. No stories about Por Por were shared. Mum felt so numbed that she couldn’t utter a sound.

What I remember from the following year back in Australia is Mum wearing only black clothing (traditionally, you must wear black clothing for three years, as a sign of mourning and respect), eating little and waking me up as she paced up and down the hallway in the early hours of the morning when she couldn’t sleep, wailing and calling her mother’s name into the ether. In the daytime she was teary, holding back enough so that she could still function. She saved most of her tears for late at night, when she thought I was asleep; I suspected she knew that the sight of her unravelling frightened me.

The following year, Mum, my brother Ben, my sister Tammy and I made a special trip to Hong Kong to collect some of Por Por’s ashes. After filling in mountains of paperwork, Mum was given a small urn and burst into tears at the collection office. She didn’t stop crying for several weeks. We knew it was going to be a depressing trip, so we tried filling the days with fun, touristy activities to distract ourselves. But the extent of Mum’s repressed grief, bottled up since her mother’s funeral, was only becoming evident now. She cried at restaurants. She cried in the train station as we waited for the MTR. She cried on the toilet. She cried on the train to Disneyland. She even cries now when she thinks about the funeral; she’s still making up for lost time.

I’ve since attended other funerals for Chinese friends and family that uphold the traditions of numerous cultures and provinces: eulogies are given, Western or Eastern music is played, there is a funeral procession and then the burial or cremation. And then incense is lit, paper money gets burned (it’s believed that when burned, the paper money or items are taken into the afterlife with your deceased loved one), candy is eaten and there is a wake, usually at a Chinese seafood restaurant.

But those funerals have taken place in Australia. It wasn’t until after Por Por’s funeral that I realised how westernised we had grown up, and how living in Australia meant that we had the freedom to grieve on our own terms. I’ve been lucky enough to have never lost someone very close to me so far in my life. But having experienced my mother’s grief, it’s been important learning that there is no right way to grieve and no culture that does it better or worse. There are traditions to follow, but you don’t always have to follow them; death and grieving can be adjusted to suit your needs.

GROWING UP, MY family celebrated New Year by lighting a bonfire in our backyard. We’d start off by loading the outdoor-living set with chips, marshmallows, sparklers and piles of old junk mail, and then we’d set off around the garden in search of firewood. We called our backyard ‘The Forest’ because it resembled just that. Surrounding our sprawling and rapidly decaying house, and stretched across two blocks of land, The Forest boasted a woodland of huge wattle trees and hibiscus bushes, and enough rugged terrain for us to cover laps on our three-wheeler bikes.

We’d comb the forest floor for sticks and dead leaves and then reconvene at the dead patch of lawn by the trampoline. As mosquitoes buzzed thirstily around our ears, we scrunched junk mail into balls for kindling and surrounded the pile with bricks that had fallen off the house. As the fire grew, we smacked mosquitoes dead against our already bitten and bloodied skin.

By nightfall, we’d have a roaring inferno from which to light our sparklers and roast marshmallows on the leftover sticks we’d found in the garden. We’d run around the lawn, circling the Hills Hoist and cubby house as we spelt our names and swear words in the air with fire. Inside the house, Mum would sip on ginger beer or the leftover cask wine from Christmas as she watched the countdown on TV. Once the fireworks on television died out, she’d run out onto the lawn and join us, clinging to the fence, trying to catch a glimpse of the fireworks display from the hotel across the road. We lived right on a main road, a noisy passageway for most of the Sunshine Coast’s traffic, but on New Year’s Eve it was always dead quiet except for the fireworks. As they burst above our heads, we waved sparklers at passers-by. And then it was back to roasting the rest of the marshmallows, our teeth furry from sugar and our faces wet from humidity. It never bothered me that it was almost always 30 degrees; sparklers were magic and reminded me that no matter what had gone wrong that year, a fresh start and new possibilities were just around the corner. So I relished that we got to celebrate New Year’s twice.

Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year depending on the position of the moon, and is celebrated over three days. Now that my siblings and I are adults and our lives are scattered across the east coast of Australia, I long for the days we celebrated as a family, watching firecrackers pop in Chinatown and sharing a feast lovingly prepared by our Ma Ma. On bai lin (the day for paying visits and exchanging red packets) we’d drive to Ma Ma’s place, an old brick house with vomit-green awnings, where we’d be met with loud greetings and well wishes for the new year, hard pats on the back instead of hugs and handfuls of red packets filled with money. The stove and kitchen countertop would be packed with dishes that Ma Ma had prepared over the course of several days, which she transferred to the dining table once it was set with bowls of rice and chopsticks.

Outsiders have told our family that the only time we are truly quiet is when we’re eating. So, on Chinese New Year the silence would be punctuated by our chewing, belching and the clanging of cutlery. We’d pick at sweet and savoury glutinous cakes made of sweet potato and sago, pickles and vegetables; jai, a vegetarian dish comprised of shitake mushrooms, fungi, clear vermicelli and bean curd; and a whole steamed fish garnished with ginger and shallots. Mum would encourage each of us to eat every part of the fish, including the eye, as Ma Ma sucked away at the decapitated fish head like a cat. Nothing should go to waste. But our favourites were the fried dumplings that Ma Ma only ever made for New Year’s. Served on a steel platter, and stacked high on top of each other like a pile of rocks, the dumplings looked like brown, flat stones, having been deep-fried, flattened and then rolled in sesame seeds. The savoury dumplings were filled with pork and preserved pickles and the sweet ones contained red bean. After dabbing the excess oil off the dumplings with paper towels, we’d hold them up to the light, making bets about what was inside.

CHINESE NEW YEAR was one of the points of difference about myself and my family that I loved and was unwilling to be embarrassed about. Despite my siblings and I having been born in Australia, people in our hometown were always hell-bent on reminding my family that us and our lot weren’t welcome. Sure, they’d take the Chinese food and the tourism, but anything else was a violation of our nation’s ‘You Flew Here, We Grew Here’ campaign, despite its gross irony.

I had never felt different to anyone else until people outside of my family began pointing it out. Classmates teased me about my facial features; strangers stared at us at the shopping centre as they caught on to our Australian accents; men and women yelled things about rice out of their car windows as we raked and weeded our front garden. But ask me if I would cheer for Australia or China at the Olympics and I would say Australia in a heartbeat. Ask me about the comfort and relief I feel once a plane I’m on touches down on Australian soil.

Having dual identities is exhausting because it means existing on the outskirts of both Chinese and Australian culture. I don’t fully belong to either culture; rather, I occupy an undefined space in-between. There is no reprieve from this feeling of homelessness except for the understanding of my family. But there are seven of us – Mum, Dad, my four siblings and me – and growing up, that was enough of a community for us to feel safe and proud about who we were. Our difference made us interesting and encouraged us to question the status quo, and belonging to two cultures meant that any doubled pain was met with doubled happiness. We’re lucky enough to be experiencing life twice, simultaneously, and for those handful of times when that’s felt like a hindrance, it’s more often been a profound gift.

And besides, no one else I knew received packets of money when it wasn’t Christmas or their birthday. No one else got to eat a delicious feast and scream in terror and delight as their older siblings told stories about how their grandmother once found a stray cat’s stillborn kittens and did what she would have done in China, which is to flush them down the toilet. No one else got stronger every day by tolerating other people’s ignorance on a daily basis. Nobody got to watch fireworks and firecrackers. Nobody ever had as much fun as we did.


From Griffith Review Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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