My Chinese father’s first experience on our shores was of a very white Australia with prejudices as far as the eye could see. He experienced racism, yes. But he seemed to be extraordinarily thick-skinned, although there is one story that my father proudly tells that would suggest otherwise.
When my brother, sister and I were very young, a group of neighbours in the outer-western Sydney suburb they would choose to make their first real home would call my parents all sorts of miserably nasty names, simply because they were a mixed racial couple. It was rare in those days and the people chose to protest by bullying my parents.
Dad says he put up with it for weeks. Mum and Dad said nothing and continued to walk past these people each day, pretending they hadn’t heard what was being yelled at them. Dad tells the story that one day, as he alighted from the bus to walk up the street to his home, the abuse began with renewed vigour. He snapped and took on one of the offenders.
The guy was left battered and bleeding, but not life-threateningly so. None of that group again hurled racial abuse at my mother or father. The event must have changed everything for them because I have no memories at all of having people call us names.
My paternal grandfather lost my father in a mahjong game when his wife was pregnant with my father, her fourth child of seven. Until only a few years ago, I had no idea that my father had an entirely other family. The story was always that it was my father’s grandfather who had made a deal that would turn my grandmother’s heart to ice. Perhaps it was told that way to protect my father’s feelings, because who needs to be told that their own father gave them away so callously?
My paternal grandfather lost my father in a mahjong game when his wife was pregnant with my father, her fourth child of seven.
So the story goes now, my grandfather’s opponent was the woman who would become my father’s foster mother. She had borne three daughters and in the thirties and forties in China daughters were deemed useless. Families were nothing without sons to carry on names, family traditions and to literally care for them financially as they aged. So she told my grandfather that if the child his wife was carrying was a boy then she wanted that child should he lose the game they were playing.
When the baby was born she went to the house to collect the baby. Dad’s biological mother, who knew nothing of the promise, refused to give up her baby. Dad’s grandfather, upon hearing the commotion, wanted to know what was going on. He became very angry when he heard about the promise his son had made. Dad’s father explained that he was only joking but his father told him that he needed to honour his commitment because in Chinese culture “your word is your honour”.
“We can afford to raise another hundred babies,” he said. “I am the fifth richest man in Surabaya.” The baby was handed over out of honour. My grandmother was forced to give up her baby. I can’t even begin to imagine how she must have suffered and what she had to do to right herself mentally after that.
From the day I first met her she seemed a cold, distant woman. I didn’t like her immediately. She came into my life in 1977 via a surprise visit from my grandfather. My siblings and I returned from school one day to find an elderly Asian man on our doorstep with two enormous suitcases. In quite good English, considering it wasn’t his first or even second language, he told us he was our grandfather.
It was confusing. We had never known the man we thought was our paternal grandfather because he died years before we started taking our family trips to Hong Kong every second year for the entire summer school holidays. So who was this man and how could he be our grandfather?
When Mum and Dad arrived home from their respective workplaces we were informed that the man we had found on our doorstep was in fact our real grandfather. I already knew that anyway. I had an unexplainable instant connection with him. It’s a feeling that I hadn’t had towards any other person in my life until the birth of my sons. I recall it feeling powerful and overwhelming.
My mother had always described me as a distant child who would bore holes through people with my steely stare. From a very young age I refused to suffer fools and as I recall my parents had a number of close friends who I immediately deemed to be fools. I would politely say hello but if they wanted to cuddle me or joke with me, I would pull away and fix them with a stare that apparently made them feel uncomfortable. So it must have been disconcerting for my parents to then see me literally hanging off this man, who only hours earlier had been a complete stranger to us.
This is an extract from Break Through: 20 Success Strategies for Female Leaders by Marina Go (Ventura Press, $32.99).