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A Life, Passing

My father's death spurred a reflection on growing up Asian Australian.

A Chinese writing workbook the page shows the word for dad as well as the Mandarin and Hokkien pronunciations of the...
Illustration by Rachel Chew

My father passes when I am 28. My father, a small, papery man, the smell of tobacco deep in his skin, born in Singapore and buried in Midland, Australia, in a graveyard much like one he’d liked as a boy — stumbled upon when he rode the wrong bus — a peaceful place, he’d said, because all the headstones were the same, uniform heights and shapes.

I tell my sister that at least our dad had many adventures, and she says, “I don’t know if he saw it that way. He said to me, ‘I feel like I’ve been fighting all my life.’”

My father passes, and over the next month, people come up to me and say that he sponsored this family or that family when they migrated to Australia, that he was the reason they migrated in the first place; they say he paved the way for Asian lawyers in Perth. People talk of my father before he was my father, before he was Charles the migrant — a dockyard worker in his teens, a scruffy long-haired rebel, a ringleader of sit-in protests, a cash-strapped hitchhiker peddling counterfeit watches and blood.

I am born in Perth a few weeks after my father’s own father passes, well after my due date — my mother says it’s as if I knew that things were already stressful, and I was waiting for a more convenient time to appear. I am christened Elizabeth Jia-Chi Tan, but my father also calls me Penguin because of the waddling, side-to-side way that I learn to walk. I am born soft around the edges and seem to stay that way, a pliable, flightless sort of child, Charles’s third, the baby.

My father passes, and, at a memorial service, his friend wonders why an anti-colonialist would name his daughters Elizabeth and Victoria; indeed, our father’s decision to leave his beloved Singapore for Australia is a topic of bitter reflection in our childhood. He scrunches his face up at Western food; he never permits us to sleep over our friends’ houses; when he discovers I have a white boyfriend, he asks my sister if she can introduce me to any nice Chinese guys. He refuses to give his blessing to my sister and her white fiancé.

My father and mother never teach us Hokkien (let alone Mandarin); it is instead their preferred language for arguing with each other when their children are within earshot. Nevertheless, I come to understand two important expressions:

  1. ciak peng: it’s time to eat (literally, “eat rice”)
  2. ang mo: white person (literally, “red-haired”)

But, with age, we start to understand our father’s suspicion­ — or, perhaps, we had always understood it, in encounters so mundane that they slip from memory: passed over as a teammate, a customer worth attending to, a friend.

In third grade, my French teacher asks the class if our parents speak a language other than English at home. When I say Hokkien, she says, “Do you mean Chinese?”

My father passes, and his casket is adorned with banksias.

My father passes, and, at the family barbecue after his funeral, my uncle rubs my shoulder and says, “You’ll always be his penguin.”

In primary school, I am ashamed of my Chinese middle name — I lie and say it is Jennifer; after too many years of muddled pronunciations, I have my middle name removed from my university records. My sister says that the “Chi” is an Anglicized approximation of the actual pronunciation — the ch sound is closer to tz. She tells me that the first character means a precious piece of jewelry; the second character means auspicious, lucky. I practice saying my name, and I can never get it right. My own name cannot fit inside my mouth.

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Every child of a migrant learns this without knowing how they learned it: You have to do more than pass. You will be an exemplar, whether you like it or not. So I strive, and excel, and my reputation not so much precedes me but is perhaps decided for me. My first-grade teacher balls up my letter to Santa and hurls it across the room in front of the entire class because it isn’t sophisticated enough. In high school, I am unwittingly drawn into rivalries with smart boys who track my test scores like stock-market speculators; I am nicknamed Squid.

My father passes, and we play hits from the Beatles at his funeral.

My father passes, and his friends in Singapore sing “The House of the Rising Sun” in his memory.

The first time I don’t pass is in Chinese school, worrisome hours on a Saturday afternoon, a test returned with a red 30%. My sister rises quickly to the advanced classes while I flounder alone in indecipherable characters; my pencil strokes lean like poorly built houses on stilts, as if blown over by the broad Australian vowels my mouth cannot help but create.

English: the only way to prove myself. “You speak very well,” says a customer at the cake store where I work in my early twenties. When I inform him that English is my only language, he backpedals: “No, I mean, you speak very well, very clearly.” At university, I sense that my classmates are quick to turn away from me when it is time to form groups for assignments. “Make sure you answer a question in the first class and speak loudly with your Australian accent,” my boyfriend at the time says, and though he jests, I wonder if this is the strategy that I’ve already unconsciously adopted my whole life: speak up early, demonstrate Australianness quickly. Is it real or imagined, that softening in strangers, once I speak and they realize I am one of them?

My father passes, and my mother says to my sister, “I didn’t get to tell him that all is forgiven.”

My father passes, and I have to wonder what my mother was like before she was my mother, before she was Cynthia the migrant, Cynthia the wife of Charles. I wonder what my mother is doing in alternative timelines — Cynthia the mathematician, Cynthia the cross-country runner, Cynthia the artist.

Cynthia the mother of Timothy, Vicky, and Elizabeth is an ambiguous figure, a closed oyster, brittle syllables and silence. It is only with food that she can show love, thrusting boxes of chicken rice or sushi into our hands, piling the steamboat high, scraping the last of the stir-fry onto our plates because there’s only a little bit left you might as well finish up.

How devastating, then, that in the final eight months of my father’s life, he could not eat.

In our childhood, my mother, embarrassed by the Singaporean cadence of her voice, makes me or my sister order pizza on the phone.

My father passes — this is a common euphemism, to pass. What I mean is: my father dies. For me to pass as an Australian, a little bit of my father has to die, and a little bit of my mother has to die, and a little bit of me has to die.

I am a euphemism, a stand-in for an unpleasant reality.

My father passes, and, too late for him to see it, I have a piece of fiction published in Best Australian Stories. As I hold the golden volume, I want to know what he might make of it, his daughter passing unquestioningly as Australian. At no other moment do I feel more keenly the sum of my parents’ sacrifices.

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My father passes, and language fails.

I am born shortly after my father’s own father passes, at the convenient moment. I grow into a chimera, an omen of good fortune instead of disaster. In my dazed penguin walk, I follow my sister and brother through the life our parents fought to give us; like my high-school namesake, I spread my many arms and leave my mark with ink. We are traveling toward a place that is peaceful but not immune to heartbreak; the soil is hard, the sun is hot, the vowels are wide. I sign my work with my first and last name, printed small and careful, following as much as possible a straight horizontal line — such hard-won letters, uniform heights and shapes.

Elizabeth Tan (@ElzbthT) is an Australian writer and the author of Rubik. “A Life, Passing” was first published in Westerly 62.2.