When I was growing up in 1990s Australia, I wished I had a more Aussie dad, the kind that played sports, manned the barbecue, took the kids camping. My Chinese dad did none of those things. At 5 foot short and no more than 50kg, he didn’t even look the part. He kept to himself mostly. He went to work 9-5 in a short sleeve shirt with a briefcase. At nights and on weekends, he would be in his hi-fi room, listening to Mozart, the Beatles and canto-pop. He had converted the garage for this purpose. The walls were covered in egg cartons and my “art” from drawing classes, for premium acoustics.
He was not a man of many words. I remember a primary school project where we had to interview family members. We had to ask them their favourite colour, their first pet, their greatest achievement, that sort of thing. My dad said he had no favourites, no pets and was still waiting for his greatest achievement. His marriage, the birth of his two daughters, his doctorate from the UK - none of those made the cut.
I never really understood what he did for work. I knew when my parents moved us from Hong Kong to Australia when I was eight years old, it was because dad got a job, as a lecturer of electrical engineering at a university in Melbourne. (It was much later that I understood we emigrated because Hong Kong would be returned to China and my parents were uncertain of what life would be like under Communist Chinese rule).
It wasn’t until I got to uni myself that I thought to ask dad what his classes were like. He said when he used to teach first years, the lecture theatre would be filled predominately with boys in their late teens. Some snoozed at the back while others threw paper planes across the room, at him and at each other. I nearly cried at the image of my mild and softly spoken father trying to control a room of rowdy young men. He wasn’t fazed as he recalled the story. It wasn’t so bad, he said. The students didn’t do it just to him. They did it to other lecturers, in other classes too. Besides, he was now teaching fourth years and they were much more invested in their education.
As the years passed, I finished my studies and moved out of home. Like a good Chinese daughter, I go home at least once a week, for soup.
I inherited the ability to natter from my mother. When I am home with an issue to discuss, mum always has a friend, who has a friend in the same situation. We would talk for hours. My dad never contributes. He drinks his soup and will later write a short email, usually in dot points, outlining my options.
Three years ago, I returned home to announce my engagement. Dad was peeling an egg in the kitchen. He continued peeling his egg until my mum demanded that he stopped to congratulate us. At my wedding, he gave a speech in 25 words, more or less. He said we arrived in Australia as a family of four nearly 30 years ago and today was the most important day of the last 30 years. Today, we became a family of five, but with a big, extended family. He gestured to the 70 guests in the room. He thanked everyone for coming and sat back down so we could eat cake.
My dad retired in 2012, at 61. Many thought he would be bored after a couple of years and would return. He has not, instead choosing a quieter life of tai chi, flat whites and music.
Last year, the quiet life was interrupted with the birth of my daughter, his first grandchild. As gung gung (maternal grandfather), there is less tai chi and more pram pushing. In his new role, he has shown emotions I never knew existed. He giggles when the baby roots at his chest. He is obsessed with keeping her warm, wrapping her up or putting on another layer as soon as he comes over. There is a hint of sadness when he says goodbye to her at the end of the day.
Recently, I reminded dad of the school project and asked those questions again. He said his greatest achievements are his two daughters. He couldn’t claim us as achievements before because he hadn’t finished raising us. He can now.
When I see my dad in his hi-fi room (now in a new house, custom built with sound proofing), making silly faces at his granddaughter, I think dad had emotions all along. Perhaps, he didn’t show them while he had a job to do. With the job now complete, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
Lucille Wong is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.