The pound of hands and flour on the kitchen counter sounded, and Grandpa Paul stuck a finger into a blob of sugar, butter, and all sorts of other magic to taste test the progress. He licked his lips and smiled with eyes closed, enveloped in the bliss of a successful baking afternoon. He was preparing his English family's shortbread recipe, while Trish, Mom and I sat at a table across the kitchen island, sipping on cups of Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea.
My mom and Trish having a conversation when we visited them in January 2017
Mom said that living with the Roberts as a new migrant was exhilarating, exhausting. She was learning and expanding every day – tasting Sunday Roast, mashed potatoes, cookies, crisps, teas that she’d never had before. It was completely indulgent and terribly different. I wonder if she craved home cooking, the taste of her father's steamed fish and rice. This was home cooking as well, but one of a different sort.
Growing up in Hong Kong, my mom always gave me treats of croissants, pound cakes, sugary layers of indulgence. I later made connections that these were adopted placeholders of home for my mother in her new migrant life in Australia; teaching me and Tessa to find comfort in the same things that were soothing for her. My great-grandfather in Saigon was an entrepreneur who sold sweets and sugary drinks on the streets of Chợ Lớn, a large reason why my grandmother developed diabetes at such a young age.
Twiddling her fingers around the dainty holder of her teacup, Trish started to speak:
“You know, they are teaching all sorts of things in the schools these days,” she remarked, her voice low but certain.
“Yes?” my mom probed.
“Yes, the state's health education curriculum has been changing so quickly. The younger generations are pushing for material that ought not to be taught in schools.”
I sat quietly in my wicker, cushioned chair, both unsure yet certain of where this conversation was heading. I softly place my teacup back in its holder, fingers grasping at the shortbread bits that sat on a dainty little china plate in front of us.
“They are telling the students that they can fool around with anyone that they want to! It's downright ridiculous. They are even saying that you can decide to get rid of a baby that you have, that you can choose to kill that life growing inside of you,” Trish sternly said, eyes staring into my mother's, willing and compelling her to know that agreement was the only thing she would accept.
I don't know what my mom thought in that moment, what she would say if it wasn’t Trish saying all of these things.
“Ah, I see, I see. Yes, that seems very different,” my mom responded, with all the blandness and indifference that she could only assert herself with.
How do I begin to speak? To maintain voice? To say that it's not sinful to have choice over your body? Not sinful to love someone that you have intuitive feelings towards? Moreover, to even make the idea of love a more inclusive, open, and giving concept — not something only allowed in the social constructions of family and marriage.
A few years later, we had a big tri-family reunion where we spent a weekend on the Mornington Pensisula with Trish and Uncle Le’s families. A similar conversation about what and who Australia is becoming came up again. Trish expressed some frustration at how many Australian immigrants choose to be buried in their country of origin instead of in Australia – when they'd lived in Australia for so long.
This opinion clearly irked my mom. In response to Trish, she started to reference Chinese proverbs to explain how roots and homes are more complicated than the direction of one’s migration. It was one of the few times I'd seen my mother be more assertive towards Trish, as the softness of her gratitude had always seemed a higher path to take.
When reflecting on the frustrating conversation later, my mom began to invoke how Trish could be narrow-minded, especially because she’d lived in Australia her whole life. However, our privileges of being transnational elites are laid bare in such reasoning. The Roberts were the ones hosting my mother when she needed help, and here we are, flying in from Hong Kong and the U.S., with more than enough to be self-sufficient.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
I have Australian citizenship by descent, but citizenship does not necessitate identity. My Australian linkages are appendages of sorts, fun facts that I whip out of a toolbox, facets that make me seem to be an interesting (read: exotic) person. I made a friend this semester who jokingly speaks in an Australian accent to me sometimes. I’m not sure if he expects me to laugh, cheer, or slip into one myself.
I do actually slip into an accent sometimes. It is without intention, without questioning. This happened when I met an American cousin’s other Australian family at her wedding in New Jersey a few weeks ago. They all spoke in both smooth and adopted Australian accents, and I found myself falling into the accent as well. My vowels in “about” were less pronounced, my “yeah” turned into “ye”. I heard it once said that the Australian accent is sloppy, relaxed, lazy. Like they are forming half sentences, disregarding the consequences of seeing something through.
My parents getting married on May 3rd, 1987 in Sydney.
The girls to the right (after my aunts) are mom’s closest friends, who still live in Sydney to this day.
This nonchalance reminds me of my own process to claim ‘Asian Australia’. That’s a phrase I hear throughout my Ethnic and Colonialism Studies classes in college – of claiming identity and place, such as claiming ‘Asian America’. However, I don’t want to claim, to own. I want to question, explore, learn, expand. I am learning about the context of immigration in Australia, how the twists of British colonialism are still knotted throughout the country and its systems today. I want to spend time in Fairfield, the working class Sydney suburb that my mom lived in for several years before she got a job in the burgeoning tech industry that provided her and her family with financial relief. I want to taste the Cantonese dim sum and the Vietnamese bánh mì, to understand that my footings in the worlds of Asian Australia and Asian America don’t have to be so separate, so geographically apart.
Geography is one thing, but I don’t think my emotions towards home and belonging comprehend physical space. The pickled carrot tastes similar, the strips of Vietnamese salons and produce markets in both San Jose and Sydney carry the same air. I want to keep on walking, keep on talking, keep on learning about these political worlds that we continue to inevitably live in.
Raised in Hong Kong, Emily is the daughter of two Chinese-Vietnamese refugees that found home in Sydney, Australia and the Bay Area, USA. She is interested in how transnational Asians can trace their socioeconomic conditions (and often privileges) in relation to complex colonial legacies. For a day job, she works as a User Experience Researcher at Squarespace in New York City.