Writer Melanie Kwang pays homage to the resilience and determination of her immigrant Chinese parents.
The last time I felt betrayed, I was at Chinwag, a Thai restaurant in central Christchurch having dinner with my childhood friends. We sat in a booth passing drinks around while the lanterns above cast dancing red shadows on our faces. Kathy and Rebecca were back from Otago for the summer, and Amanda had just finished work at a computing company down the road. We had a tradition of meeting up at least once every break, but after two years away the homecomings felt more like a calculated routine than sentimental reunions.
I was mid-sip in a coconut iced coffee when Amanda got a call. It was just after 10pm and like all overbearing Chinese mothers, hers was calling to ask when she’d be home. We stared at Amanda knowingly, miming her mother’s anxieties in our heads, relaying the questions we were all familiar with. Where are you? Have you eaten yet? Who are you with?
“I’ll be back soon,” Amanda groaned. “I’m with Tofu-Ken’s daughter, don’t worry.” She clicked the phone off and sighed.
Kathy shot me an apologetic glance, visibly embarrassed her sister had just referred to my father by the derogatory title our community gave him. Her face blushed even deeper than the lights. She was a year younger than the rest of us, and the only one who attended church every week.
Rebecca reached across the table and gave Amanda a high-five. “LOL, that’s what we call him too! Always tell them you’re with someone they know, it’s the best reassurance.” Rebecca and I lived two minutes away from each other, and as always, she’d be my ride home.
Kathy sank deeper in her seat.
“Does he have a different name?” Amanda asked, feigning ignorance. I used to envy Amanda for being able to voice the comments we were all afraid to make, but now I wished she’d stop talking.
“It’s his nickname,” Rebecca said matter-of-factly, a leading expert on the topic. “But we’re not supposed to say it to his face.”
Everyone nodded. I played with my straw, waiting uncomfortably until the conversation reverted back to what we could order for dessert.
I’m no stranger to that alias. Grown men and women threw the slur around like some playground sneer. I’d heard it as a child whenever my Taishanese friends introduced me to their parents. They spoke it in hushed voices, faces wrinkling as if the words let off a bad smell. But what surprised me that night was not how Amanda said it with pure nonchalance, or that my best friend seconded her with obnoxious triumph. It was the first time I’d heard it as an adult, my dad hadn’t been “Tofu-Ken” in over a decade.
Up until I was eight, my parents were in the business of Chinese food products. They ran a small factory making noodles, pastry, and tofu for Asian supermarkets. Somehow this was beneath the respect of the Taishanese community, whose adults we knew were usually cooks or restaurant owners. My parents were the only ones engaged in this type of work, and Dad’s job became inseparable from his identity. Sam’s dad wasn’t “Vietnamese-Takeaway-Jin” and Vanessa’s mum wasn’t “Seamstress-Sue”. But my dad was “Tofu-Ken”, so inevitably I was “Tofu-Ken’s daughter.”
Taishan is a coastal city with a population of one million in the southern province of Guangdong. It has one of China’s highest emigration rates, with over 1.3 million people living overseas, yet I only knew about 15 other kids in Christchurch whose parents came from the same place. In such a small community, everyone knew everyone else. It was the same handful of people you’d see at Daphne’s for yum-cha on Mondays; the ones you’d always feel obligated to invite to your table, but simultaneously hoped would never take a seat. These people knew exactly what you did for a living and roughly how much you made, greeting you with a “how’s work?” instead of “how are you?” They had their noses so far up your business it’s a wonder they remembered how to breathe.
When the labour of soy production began to weigh heavy on my parents’ ageing bodies, they sold up and relocated to a fish and chip shop east of the city. Our new business lay in the middle of the Avondale strip, beside a gift shop that sold overpriced crystals and reeked of incense. It was a five-minute walk from the Avon River, beside the infamous suburb of Aranui. I’d heard some kids at school refer to it as the “‘hood of Christchurch.”
My parents are first-rate workaholics; too independent for a babysitter so every day was take-your-kids-to-work-day. After school, my brother Nathan and I sat on yellowed beach chairs in the back room of the takeaway shop, doing homework on top of a whirring chest freezer. In the early days, we didn’t know our uniforms were soaking up the smell of oil and defrosting fish. After someone brought it up at school, Mum had the foresight to bring us a change of clothes when she picked us up. I’d crouch in the backseat of her Corolla, making sure no pedestrians saw as I struggled quickly out of my blouse into an old hoodie.
To pass the time, Nathan and I would go feed the ducks by the water. Mum gave us change, and we’d see Stephen in the dairy next door for a loaf of fluffy white. Stephen was the kind of guy who didn’t care you were short on money, he’d still throw in a lolly mix and tell us to be careful. We raced off to the bank and made ripples in the murky grey river with our crumbs. Once our supplies were depleted, we plodded back to the store room and waited until nine o’clock rolled around so we could go home to wash the grease off our skin, ready to do it all again the next day.
When I was 10, our school introduced a module on careers. We had to record our dream jobs in a notebook, then in the following weeks interview our families for stories and advice on how to build a career. At the end of the module, we were to write a biography of our parents’ work history and share our findings with the class. It was a room full of frivolous pre-teens playing at being adults.
I spent the entire time agonising over how I would complete the project. My parents didn’t have “careers.” I couldn’t bear to tell my classmates that they were lowlife takeaway owners, and more importantly, what could they teach me about achieving my dream job as the editor of Total Girl magazine? I was so mortified by the idea of everyone finding out I came from a family of uneducated immigrants that I asked the teacher if I could interview my cousin Amy. She was a retail manager at a Sydney Westfield, but at least she’d finished high school. Ms Coleman refused.
On presentation day, I felt my body turn inside-out. Nerves pricked my skin in currents while the whole class sitting in a circle boasted about their inspirational parents. I debated frantically in my mind between “Tofu-Ken” and “Fish-and-Chip- Ken”, trying to decide which version of my parents would be less humiliating. After each student spoke, there was a round of applause. When my turn came, my throat seized and my entire face flamed. Ms Coleman waited expectantly, willing me to commit social suicide. I couldn’t make something up because she knew the truth.
“My parents own a fish and chip shop,” I mumbled. “They said the best advice they have is to work hard.” I glared at the teacher, begging without a sound for her to pester the next kid. The claps came out in half-assed dribbles before Ava went on to talk about her parents’ vegetable farm.
I never actually interviewed my parents, but I know that’s what they would have said. The biggest thing they emphasize to Nathan and I to this day is the importance of education. This was taken so seriously I can only remember a couple of days when I didn’t go to school.
It was Mum’s belief that white people exaggerated the severity of their sicknesses as a way to get out of work. This was lazy and irresponsible, and we were expected to be better. When I was six, I showed up to class with a severe case of chickenpox mottled on my forehead. Another time in high school, my health class was quarantined for a week because one of the kids’ aunties had possibly contracted swine flu. After Mum dropped Nathan off the next day, she came home adamant that “everyone was at school” and I was made to put my uniform on.
I wish I could forget the day I walked into class three hours late without my backpack. I stood in front of the other students sobbing as I explained to the teacher that I didn’t have my homework because my bag had been stolen from the boot of Dad’s car at work. I said I didn’t want to come into school that day, but Mum didn’t give me a choice. After spending the rest of the morning rubbing my eyes and asking classmates for a spare pen and paper, Ms Coleman pulled me aside for a chat. Her four eyes rested pitifully on my face as she told me that she understood my “challenging” private life. She said things like this happen when you have your car parked in an eastern neighbourhood, and she would always take my personal circumstances into consideration when it came to schoolwork.
While Ms Coleman meant well, the extra attention she paid me was unwelcome. I’d felt different from the other kids, but never disadvantaged. My parents weren’t dispossessed foreigners struggling to make ends meet. Their work didn’t take anything away from my potential. In fact, it was these “challenging” circumstances that gave me more opportunities than most kids with my background. Mum and Dad were chronic overachievers who saw no boundaries to success. I didn’t want Ms Coleman’s sympathy. I didn’t need her condescending tone. I didn’t want her telling me she understood something that wasn’t true.
In 2009, I visited my mother’s childhood home for the first time. I was 13, and Nathan a year older. We’d been to China before, but never the villages. We travelled for 40 minutes from the inner city to a small farm on the outskirts of Taishan. On arrival, I guessed the buildings hadn’t been maintained since she’d left them in 1989. Grey bricks had faded in patches until they were almost white and indistinguishable. The rooftops were a dusty pink, but I knew at one time they’d been the bright red all Chinese associate with luck.
Dozens of chooks and roosters roamed the alleyways between houses. Dogs walked off-lead, belonging only for a short while to anyone who threw them scraps. After 10 minutes of taking careful steps, I accepted that getting poo on my favourite Converses was inevitable. All the doors creaked as we entered. The place was as she’d described it in stories – isolated, run-down, and cramped. Still, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t picture her there, as one of the kids running along the polluted lake, sleeping in that sinking bed she’d shared with two other sisters, and sitting on the rusty stool that now held her designer handbag.
But even more surprised were the village elders, who hadn’t seen her in over twenty years. They hobbled over on rubber slippers, embracing her with wide arms and toothy grins, congratulating her on her self-made success. They reminisced about old times and spoke about my mother’s journey as if it was some rare miracle. Many of them looked at me and made odd comments about how I had a “foreigner’s face.” Later, Mum told me that it was because I didn’t have the tan they all had; the shade of brown that could only come from hours of working on the rice fields every day.
Coming from an impoverished family in China, Mum was made to provide for the family at the same age I learned to ride a bike. Education was a luxury they couldn’t afford, so her unyielding work ethic became her greatest asset. To her, productivity was the best thing a parent could offer because money was something she never had. I guess the fact I’m unable to reconcile her past self with the woman I see now is a testament to her determination. Because of their incredible work ethic, my parents have lifted themselves out of a difficult situation and into a better life. They’re no longer the underdogs struggling to make ends meet, but continue to work for fear of the past repeating itself. When I look back at that weary village in the middle of nowhere, I see a story worth celebrating and a life I’ve narrowly missed.
After Rebecca dropped me off from the Thai restaurant, I came home to find Dad slumped on the sofa watching a re-run of the six-o-clock news dubbed in Cantonese; a cup of oolong in hand. This was his post-work ritual. He said current affairs were the only worthwhile programming on television because it was the only way someone like him could keep up with world issues. I left my bag by the door and sat on the floor beside him, topping his cup up with more tea.
“How was dinner?” he asked.
“Fine,” I told him. “I got the noodles.” Dad nodded and went back to the screen. A petite woman in a cerulean suit was giving a preview of the upcoming schedule.
“Dad, does it ever bother you that people call you Tofu-Ken?”
He turned back to me, wincing as if the words were grating against his ear, and I almost regretted asking.
“People can say whatever they want,” he told me. “I’m the one who managed to put two kids through university.” It wasn’t the answer I expected. “Don’t worry about what anyone says. I’ve found my success, and you’ll find yours too if you work hard enough. Besides, you get kind of used to it after 25 years.”
It never occurred to me that I was my Dad’s marker of success. I’d spent so long denying who my parents were that I’d lost sight of why they were this way. Their attitude towards work was a product of their own traditional Chinese upbringing, a whole world of cultural practices I had failed to recognise. I’d felt ashamed because I was comparing my parents to a Western ideal, holding them up to a set of conventions they didn’t know how to meet.
My friends had let me down because they should’ve known better, but I should’ve known better too. I was guilty of adopting “Tofu- Ken” just as they had. As first-generation New Zealanders, we have betrayed our motherland without acknowledging our privilege. We identify as part of this community even though we’ve turned our backs on our mother tongue. None of us are fluent in Taishanese, and when we try to speak it the words are heavy in our mouths. Our speech comes out in fragments and there are always places where our language is limited, where the words aren’t stitched quite right or the translations don’t exactly mean the same thing. My dad was living the immigrant dream, the universal language reflected in all our parents. So what if he was “Tofu-Ken”? Weren’t all their fathers, too?
Previously published in the online literary journal Three Lamps.
Melanie Kwang is a Chinese-New Zealand writer from Christchurch. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Screen Production from the University of Auckland, and is currently completing her BA (Honours) in English.