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:
- ciak peng: it’s time to eat (literally, “eat rice”)
- 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.