Heidi Tai: They really did come from nothing
Australian-born Chinese writer Heidi Tai recently visited her father-in-law’s hometown in Vietnam. Through a personal reflection, Heidi explores the significance of knowing her family history and how seeing their stories with her own eyes has helped to foster gratitude for their sacrifices and to better understand the Eastern values they instilled in her from young.
“Why are you so ungrateful?”
Growing up, whenever I was lazy with my studies or complained about the ridiculous rules that were placed on my childhood (basically no fun, no sleepovers, no pocket money and no boyfriends until I graduated from a medicine degree), I would be reminded that I was so lucky.
“Why do you complain so much? You will never truly understand how lucky you are to be born in Australia!”
It’s true. I struggled to understand. I couldn’t understand why I was expected to do housework without compensation, when all my lucky friends received $20-$50 per week for existing. I couldn’t understand why my weekends were overrun with extra math tutoring and Chinese school, while my lucky friends watched movies, played in the park and enjoyed picnics and BBQs with their family. I couldn’t understand why my parents asked my Childcare Centre to design a ‘Homework Room’, which was used to contain my brother and I after school, while the lucky kids knocked themselves out with Pokemon cards, craft, and endless rounds of ‘Duck Duck Goose’. I couldn’t understand why our family hoarded plastic bags, takeaway containers, KFC wet wipes and any sort of freebie that would essentially save us 50 cents.
Whenever I questioned their authority or compared myself to my lucky friends, I would be lectured with dramatic stories that seemed to have come from another time and world. Stories involving unimaginable poverty, hunger, war, corruption, identity theft and even a group of naked bandits that burned down the family farm!
“This is why we came to Australia! Now you have everything we didn’t have! You will never understand what we sacrificed!”
There’s truth to my parent’s words. Perhaps, unless I can see and experience my family history with my own eyes, I will never fully understand how lucky I am.
Seeing with my own eyes
I spent the first 10 days of the New Year holidaying with my in-laws in Vietnam. We chose Vietnam because we wanted to visit the home town where my father-in-law was born. My father-in-law was born in Đầm Hà, an agricultural province in the north-eastern region of Vietnam. He grew up learning the ways of the land and continues to amaze us with his ability to grow and eat his own produce from his acreage in Queensland.
Like my own father, my father-in-law also has a collection of dramatic stories that he often tells with pride. One of my favourites is his personal connection with Ho Chi Minh! Growing up, my father-in-law had served as a body guard to ‘Uncle Ho’ and even shook his hand once! This story always leaves me gobsmacked. My father-in-law knew Ho Chi Minh – the man who led the Việt Minh, won the Vietnam war and has a city named after him!? Now that’s truly a story from another world!
Our family of 21 had spent a couple of days relaxing on Halong Bay, and had decided to hire a private bus to transport us into Đầm Hà. It turned out to be a rocky, four hour journey on a cramped mini bus (Vietnamese people are much smaller than us Westerners!) It was four, long hours of motion sickness and listening to bored children scream, cry and bicker over snacks and screen times. By the third hour I had plugged in my Spotify playlist in the efforts to drown out the unrelenting noise and to distract myself from the increasing nausea. Where are we going!? Why is it taking so long!?
It was interesting to see the change in scenery, the closer we got to Đầm Hà. The buildings looked older, the roads a little more unpaved, and the vegetation more lush. When we finally pulled into Đầm Hà, our mini bus had to weave itself through narrow streets which were lined with locals who appeared startled as to why a group of tourists would bother visiting their small town.
The first pit stop was visiting the house where my father-in-law had grown up, and where his younger brother was waiting to meet us. We were asked to call him ‘Fook Sook’ which translates to Uncle Fook. He was a jolly and well-dressed man who greeted us all with a big smile and a firm handshake. We learned that Fook Sook lived in China and had decided to cross the border for a day, in order to meet his relatives from Australia. As soon as my father-in-law and Fook Sook spotted one another, they embraced and began to jabber away in Cantonese. Separated by so much time and distance, there was clearly so much to catch up on and so many stories to be told. Back in Brisbane, my father-in-law may appear to be a quieter man but only because he’s restrained by limited English skills. It was wonderful to see him transform into a different person in Vietnam, speaking confidently with locals and proudly sharing that he was travelling with all 19 of his children!
As I observed the joy of this family reunion, I came to realise the significance of visiting my father-in-law’s home town. Here, he could use his voice and mother tongue to gain the respect of people. Here, he could connect with people who empathise with his history and cultural context. Here, he could freely share his heart with people who don’t think that he’s from another world.
After a quick lunch at a local restaurant, we were back on the bus to visit the farm where my father-in-law was born, and to pay a visit to his childhood nanny who lived close by. After driving through some back roads filled with patriotic pillars from a war once won, our bus pulled up on a muddy, one-way street which was surrounded by jungle vegetation and decrepit buildings. My father-in-law hopped off the bus with his younger brother, and together they began the search mission, asking farmers in the local area if they knew where his nanny lived.
As I stepped off the bus, I wondered how we would ever find this woman without the assistance of a smart phone or Google Maps. Holding my niece’s chubby little hand, we followed a long road that seemed to lead to nowhere. Since it had been raining all week, the soles of my Toms shoes struggled to grip the muddy and unpaved road, while my niece thought it funny to flick mud everywhere. Yuck! My new shoes are getting so dirty! I couldn’t help it. First world worries.
When we reached the end of road, we saw two shabby and run-down concrete buildings; the type that would make for a great backdrop for an alternative ‘hipster’ photoshoot; but definitely not a place that is suitable for living. Is this where she lived?! On a rainy winter’s day, the picture was bleak, cold and miserable; the complete opposite to the decadence described in my copy of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ which I was carrying in my backpack.
I edged closer to the building on the left and began to wipe my muddy shoes on a patch of grass. I took a peek inside and saw a dark and damp looking room which was held up by cracked, concrete walls. The floor was covered with some cardboard and the room was furnished with a shallow bucket, a steel bowl and a single green plastic chair. Did this house even have electricity for lighting or heating?
As I was confronted by the harsh reality of poverty, I immediately felt guilty for worrying about my muddy shoes and my ‘ambitions’ to ‘declutter’ with Marie Kondo when I returned to Australia. My thoughts were interrupted by my father-in-law who called out something loudly in Vietnamese. Suddenly, an old lady with a severe hunchback began to shuffle out of the same room that I had been peering into! She was so small, I wasn’t surprised that I had missed her altogether.
The image of this fragile lady inching towards my father-in-law, aided only by a splintered walking stick, will be forever emblazoned in my memory. It grieved me to see her hunched over and unable to comfortably see the people who had travelled many miles to honour her. I also felt a deep sense of shame, knowing that while my grandparents and parents were able to escape poverty through migration, this woman was living out her last days in dire and lonely circumstances, and there was nothing we could do to change that.
Kindness is unforgettable
We learned that this woman had helped to raise my father-in-law until he was five years old. Her family was extremely poor, so at the age of 13, she began babysitting my father-in-law in exchange for some rice. We learned that her hard work of carrying children on her back was the likely cause of her hunchback, and that at the age of 84, she still fetches water from the well and cooks for herself everyday. As I wrapped my scarf tighter to shield myself from the winter chill, I couldn’t understand how such an elderly lady could survive in such conditions. My father-in-law said that she was, and always will be, a survivor.
As I watched the reunion unfold before my eyes, it amazed me that my father-in-law and his nanny recognised one another, and could retell each other’s stories. I know that when I talk to my own father, he often tells me stories of friends who lent a helping hand in times of desperate need; unforgettable people who he still tries to keep in contact with whenever he visits Hong Kong. Seeing my father-in-law go to such great lengths to visit his former nanny made me realise that when you grow up outside of privilege, you never forget moments of kindness.
Over the next thirty minutes, gifts were given, photos were taken and then we were herded back onto the bus. We had only hired our private driver for 8 hours and we were already behind schedule. Time is cruel. By this time, I had completely forgotten about my muddy shoes, but my feet felt heavy. I wanted to take this woman with us. I wanted her to live out her numbered days surrounded by loved ones, with the same comforts that my grandparents enjoy in Australia.
As I forced myself to walk away, I found myself turning around repeatedly. Just one last look. Although she was truly a stranger from another world, I struggled to say goodbye. Without a passport, smart phone or a laptop, I knew that this was the first and last time I would spend time with such an incredible woman, who holds such a significant place in my in-law’s family history.
My trip to Đầm Hà helped me to see the significance of knowing my family’s historical roots. I’ve always known that my parents and in-laws came from poverty but when I saw it with my own eyes, the stories that I had grown up hearing, started to come alive:
“When your Ma Ma left China because of the war she lost everything – her family, possessions, wealth, and sense of safety and identity.”
“I never got to finish school. I was already helping your Ma Ma sell vegetables on the side of the road when I was in year 3. That’s why i’m short – I was so young and those baskets on my shoulders were so heavy to carry around.”
“I got to eat chicken once a year on my birthday. Your Ma Ma would travel for hours to pick one up and it would be as skinny as a rake – nothing like the juicy meat you can get from the supermarkets in Australia!”
“I arrived in Sydney in 1984 with only $70 AUD in my bank account. I couldn’t speak English. I don’t have a university degree. When I found a job, I was bullied by my colleagues.”
When I was younger, I often thought that these were irrelevant words from prehistoric times, used only to justify Eastern parenting methods and to shame me whenever I failed to meet my family’s expectations. Today, I have been humbled and able to recognise that their ‘mistakes’ in parenting was often due to a clash of cultural values. Perhaps if I had grown up in their time and place, I too would hold the same perspectives and have made the same decisions. I’ve come to see that my parents have spent the majority of their lives trying to assimilate into a new culture and to fit a mould that they were not born into. Perhaps taking the time to understand where they have come from is one way to reconcile cultural and generational differences.
The experience also helped me to further reject internalised racism and to appreciate my heritage more. After experiencing my family’s truth, all the values that had been drilled into me from young started to make sense: the undying work ethic, the need to save every penny, the call to be grateful and to make sacrifices for the family. Although I’ll always identify as Australian born, I’ve come to see that the best parts of me have been shaped by a family history that was born elsewhere.
As I buckled myself into our air-conditioned bus which was now en route to a restaurant prepared dinner, I found myself overwhelmed by gratitude. Perhaps in that moment I realised that my parents really did come from nothing in order to give me everything.
About the contributor
Heidi Tai is an Australian-born Chinese who grew up in Sydney, Australia. She loves a good coffee, getting lost in the Marvel universe and pumping 90’s R’n’B and Hip Hop beats. She is passionate about using words for real talk and shares unfiltered stories about life, faith and culture at www.heiditai.com.
This post first appeared on Heidi’s website. You can view the original here.