We’re lying in bed when we hear the front door unlock. I’m in my partner Andrew’s home. More precisely – his family home. When the door sounded, we are very much post-coital in his parents’ room. I panic because there is nowhere to hide. His parents sleep on a queen mattress directly on the floor, so I can’t crawl under the bed. The only thing I can do is hide under the covers as the door flings open and Andrew’s mum enters the room.
Understandably, she isn’t expecting us.
Andrew throws on his shorts and confronts his mum in the hallway. Meanwhile, I pull up the covers, listening to his mum yelling at us in two languages – English and Vietnamese – about the problem with pre-marital sex and how we’re both going straight to hell.
I wish I could say that we were teenagers getting lectured at, but we weren’t. At the time, we were 28 and 29 respectively.
I wasn’t exactly in her good books.
You know those moments in movies or on TV when white characters sneak their sexual partners into the family home, get caught by their parents and then they all sit together to have an awkward breakfast? Well, this doesn’t happen in an ethnic household.
For one thing, Andrew’s mum is a very religious Vietnamese-Catholic. A competitive Catholic who goes to church twice a day every day, does the full rosary every night and has a dedicated prayer room filled with Mary and Jesus statues that keep a stern eye on house guests even when she is not around.
So even though I was born and raised Vietnamese-Catholic, I wasn’t exactly in her good books.
Also, there’s the small issue that for nearly seven years, I’d snuck into their home every day. I ate their food, used their electricity and showered using water they paid for. To be honest, if I was them I would have been annoyed at me, too.
Andrew’s parents own an independent grocery store. They work seven days a week, 14-hour days. Because of this, I spent more time in the family home than they ever did. They are hard-working honest people whose adult son was sneaking his adult girlfriend into the house.
Why didn’t we move out? It was simple – we couldn’t afford it.
Why didn’t we move out? It was simple – we couldn’t afford it. I was made redundant from my job as a journalist and was retraining as a florist so I was on minimum wage. Andrew was still studying to be a physiotherapist. We just couldn’t work out how to adult yet.
Mostly, we were able to avoid Andrew’s parents, since they worked long hours, and the house was split into two separate sections: its front and back rooms separated by a door.
There were times, however, where our paths did cross. One evening, I thought Andrew’s mum had moved to the front of the house, so I walked to the backyard in nothing but an oversized shirt. Little did I know she was still in the back getting something out of the car. Meanwhile, I was walking down the driveway oblivious to her presence. When we caught each other’s eyes, I ran out in a panic and hid behind my neighbours’ parked Tarago. It wasn’t until I calmed down that I realised my neighbours were still in the car, looking curiously on.
So what was it like living in someone’s house for seven years, while the owners never acknowledged my presence?
It was tough on my mental health. I suffer from anxiety and insomnia sometimes as part of having bipolar mood disorder. Being trapped in one room in the dark, alone with nothing but your thoughts can be a scary thing.
For the most part things weren’t so bad which is how we were able to do it for so long. During the day we could play house cooking meals for each other. And after seven long years, Andrew’s parents must’ve realised I wasn’t going away, so they renovated the house so the two separate halves of the house each had their own bathroom, kitchen and living spaces. It gave us room to call our own. It’s so comfortable, in fact, that we’re still living with his parents eight years later. It’s the kind of inter-generational living that is usually only seen in ethnic households. But it works well for us – to be living separately under the same roof.
We wanted to continue living with Andrew’s parents for the first year after having a child. And now that we have our son Charlie, his grandparents take him for night feeds which has been so good for my mental health, getting a full night’s rest in. In those moments, it seems like those first few years of living in secret at my partner’s house are finally paying off.
You can see Madalene Chu talking about dating and mental health on the series The Swiping Game, available to stream on SBS On Demand.