• I am more willing to open up to my parents now, about what I’ve been doing or things I’ve seen on television that made me laugh. (Getty Images)
My love of stories may have been ignited by my Chinese background, but I feel as though the same cultural upbringing has also prevented me from accessing any of my parents’ stories.
By
Yen-Rong Wong

9 Mar 2018 - 1:19 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2018 - 2:46 PM

My love for stories stems from my Chinese upbringing. When I was little, my parents told me stories about the race of the Chinese zodiac, Nian, the monster that terrorised villages and started the traditions we now follow to celebrate the new year, and Chang’e — the goddess of the moon, who drank the elixir of life that had been given to her husband. They taught me how to read and write Chinese characters. I learned that each character tells a story, and I learned to piece together stories of new characters by considering the meanings of their components. I learned that the entirety of the Chinese language is a never-ending, always unfolding story.

My parents encouraged me to write my own stories, and to read other people’s with relish. But it wasn’t until very recently that I realised I don’t know very much about theirs. I know the basics – where they grew up, where they went to school, that they came to Australia to study – but I don’t know any of the details.

I know they met in Australia, but I don’t know how they met. I know they went back to Malaysia and were married there after they finished their degrees, and then Mum moved to Singapore for work, while Dad stayed in Malaysia. I know they returned to Australia because they wanted to start a family, where Mum started her optometry business, and then I was born. But I don’t know much more than that. 

My love of stories may have been ignited by my Chinese background, but I feel as though the same cultural upbringing has also prevented me from accessing any of my parents’ stories. 

My love of stories may have been ignited by my Chinese background, but I feel as though the same cultural upbringing has also prevented me from accessing any of my parents’ stories.

They are generally very private people, but I concede I may also have contributed to this. After being hit with depression early on in my childhood, I tried to tell them about how I’d been feeling – how I felt like I couldn’t make any friends, how I felt sad all the time. But when their only response was to simply pray it away, I realised I could no longer rely on my parents for support and advice.

I had always been a big reader, but in that time of crisis, I retreated even further into the stories other people had written. Those narratives allowed me to escape into whole new worlds and to meet new people, to learn about a variety of experiences I would otherwise not have been exposed to. The gulf between me and my parents widened as I entered my teenage years, exacerbated by my need for more freedom and my parents’ refusal to listen to my perspective when it came to granting such freedom. Our relationship seemed almost irreparable until I moved out of home.

After I left, there was a period of time where I was scared of going back to see my parents. I didn’t want to tell my parents anything about my life because I didn’t want them to scrutinise it. I didn’t want a lecture on how I’d been spending my money incorrectly and how I should be saving more, or yet another reminder that I should be focusing on my education more and working less. But as the years passed, I became more willing to open up about what I’d been doing, or things I’d seen on television that made me laugh.

When I tell them about a book I’m reading, which is set in Malaya and features a Pontianak, their eyes glisten with acknowledgement. “Oh, really?” Dad asks. He then proceeds to tell me about other creatures in Malaysian folklore and how he found out about them. He tells me he doesn’t believe in them, but that some of his friends do, and that once they got spooked because one of them swore up and down that he’d seen one of these creatures in his bedroom.

Once, during dinner, I told Mum the story of getting issue two printed, and she looked up from her food. “I used to write for newspapers when I was in high school.

I tell them I’m starting a magazine for Asian Australian artists. At the time, Mum just nodded and smiled. Over the course of about a year, she only asked about it a couple of times. But once, during dinner, I told Mum the story of getting issue two printed, and she looked up from her food. “I used to write for newspapers when I was in high school,” she said. “Under a pseudonym, of course. I didn’t want any of my friends to find out. It’s kind of like your magazine stuff, you know?” She picked up the next spoonful of rice, leaving me to digest this seemingly innocuous comment with my mouthful of chicken broth.

I tell Dad I went to see a new GP, that she’s Indian, and that she’s hilarious. He responds by telling me about the time an Indian doctor saved his life in Malaysia, when a Chinese doctor ignored all his symptoms. “I’d probably be dead by now if that doctor hadn’t gotten me admitted to hospital immediately and ordered all those tests,” he says, his eyes darting to and from the road. It is all I can do to keep myself from crying.

So now I’m sharing more of my stories, more of myself. Even though I’m still cautious when it comes to over-sharing. But I’d never thought that telling them about the seemingly ordinary aspects of my life could provide me with such insights into theirs.

I know there will always be stories that will be theirs to keep, just like I have mine. For now, I’m just happy that I have started up this storytelling dialogue, that I have managed to coax some of their stories out into the open.

Yen-Rong Wong is the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by young Asian-Australian artists. Follow Yen-Rong on Twitter @inexorablist.

This article was edited by Candice Chung, @candicechung_, and is the first in a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Would you like to be involved? Email chung.candice@gmail.com 

 

Related content
‘No one is born hyphenated’: Meet the Asian-Australian writers you’ll be reading in 2018
We hear from the smart, subversive voices changing the Asian-Australian literary canon.
Omar Musa: “Our stories are beautiful and redemptive”
On the eve of the launch of his third poetry collection, Millefiori, the acclaimed Malaysian-Australian poet Omar Musa talks to Neha Kale about the meaning of flowers, the dangers of muddy language and the push and pull of being caught between two worlds.