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When I talk about my family

September 30, 2018

 

       In life, there are certain things that are best kept separate. Your phone password from your friends, for example. Or chocolate from your dog. In my case, it was boys from my parents. (Boyfriend’s edit: “Boys should be singular not plural. Wait...are you writing about me?” “Yes, I am writing about you. Babe, stop looking!”)

Before judgement is fired and chaos descends, kindly allow me to present my case.

      As a second-generation Asian-Australian educated at Victoria’s top selective-entry high school – a proudly liberal school riding on the waves of modernity and grounded in the ideologies of individualism and female empowerment – I spent my formative teenage years living amongst the internal debris of a head-on collision of two vastly different cultures.

      Yet for the best part of my childhood and early teenage years, my identity was comfortably nestled in the velvet cushion of my family’s cultural heritage of academic success and filial obedience - virtues which, I was taught, distinguished us from “Westerners”, a blanket term that was often used with disgust and condescendence. Perhaps unconsciously, my parents used their perception of “Australians” as a foil for their own ethnic superiority. Universally upheld values such as hard work and dedication were emphasised and internalised as trademarks of the Chinese culture, a point of distinction that set us apart from the lazy, complacent gweilo. Although this distorted worldview would have served me when I was eight, sitting at the piano after school and wistfully glancing out of the window at my neighbours, skating up and down the street or playing basketball next door, at eighteen, this method of safeguarding one’s identity through the “othering” of other cultures strikes me now as myopic and unsustainable.

      My parents were not stereotypical, but they were Chinese at their core. Although they tried to be open-minded, my father’s rural upbringing and antisocial personality lent him a worldview that I secretly ridiculed as parochial and narrow, while my mother’s lifelong parental absence deprived her of preconditions for emotional maturity. She was a turbulent and insecure girl trapped in the body of a forty-year old mother, and as a result, I distrusted her judgement and dismissed her overreactions.

      When my parents immigrated from China to New Zealand, my father squinted into the future and saw that it was bright. Although he had previously completed a Masters in Psychology at Peking University - widely considered to be China’s most prestigious universities - and had spent several years working as a lecturer, both he and my mother decided to enroll in a brand new accounting course at Massey University in Auckland. Rather than climb the language barrier, which proved to be much too steep and prickly, they took the longer, harder route of completing a second degree, whilst raising a two-year-old daughter and working on the side. Brimming with optimism and armed with an ironclad work ethic, my father began to pave a path for himself, brick by brick, towards a better future for my mother and for me.

      Yet despite his high hopes and determination, my father’s career was severely hindered by his inability to compromise and adapt, a fatal flaw which eventually led him to resign from his accounting position due to workplace conflict, conveniently timed with the arrival of my baby brother. When my brother was old enough to be sent to daycare, my father spent many years job hunting, but without success, eventually causing him to spiral down a dark tunnel of depression. He reeked of hopelessness and self-loathing, and he became irritable and temperamental. With only my mother working part-time, and three kids to support, financial stress stretched both of them to breaking point. I woke up to the sound of arguing, studied to the ambience of muffled shouting, fell asleep to the stubborn silence that follows a bout of fighting.

      Slowly but surely, my respect for my parents deteriorated. Affection soured into resentment which hardened into hostility. With each scathing criticism, delivered with the sensitivity of a Japanese scientist harpooning a whale, I withdrew further into my shell which I had built to protect myself from the warzone that was my home.

      Meanwhile, I was crushing hard on a boy two years my senior. When I was implicitly rejected in the form of an Instagram “unfollow” after one year of flustered meet-ups on my part and nonchalant breadcrumbing on his, I decided to move on, in class and style.  

      There’s a delicious montage in the movie Legally Blonde, after Elle Woods is scorned by her ex-boyfriend Warner at a party for believing that she has a chance in winning an internship with Professor Callaghan, where our vicarious hunger for vengeance is satisfied as we are served scenes of the former fashion merchandising student buying a new laptop for class, typing up her assignment late at night, trying to reach law books in the library, tentatively but correctly answering questions in class, doing readings while sweating on the treadmill and studying in the hair salon - essentially proving to Warner and the world “how valuable Elle Woods can be.”

      Thus began my transformation, in the summer of 2016, a brand new year knocking at the door. I immersed myself in the world of “self-development” and became obsessed with personal growth. I picked up running, buried myself in the masochistic pleasures of studying, involved myself in the hustle and bustle of extracurricular activities, and devoured books and podcasts on social dynamics and entrepreneurship. So intense was my newfound craze that it bordered on comedy - but it worked.

      There’s a speech by David Foster Wallace which he delivered at a graduation ceremony at Kenyon College titled “This is Water”. In his witty exposition of the value of a liberal arts education, Wallace draws awareness to our natural hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this blinkered lens of self. The problem with this mode of thinking is not that it is ‘bad’ but that it is unconscious and involuntary. In other words, it isn’t a choice. And freedom – that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - lies in choosing how to think, rather than being programmed how to think.

      Looking back, I conflated independent thinking with instinctively rejecting any opinion that threatened my own. Rather than understanding and evaluating my parents’ opposing views, I would sink further into the sofa of my own beliefs and choose comfort over growth. Yet I stand by opening gambit: that some things are best kept separate.

      The day my parents read my diary, all hell broke loose.

 

To be continued - stay tuned for part 2

 

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