I love meeting new people whenever I travel. As soon as I open my mouth, they recognise an “interesting” accent and the question inevitably follows: “Where do you come from?” I refrain from breaking out my Men At Work impression and I reply “I come from Australia.” That is the answer I have been giving for the past thirty years. Yes, it hardly seems real that it has already been thirty years since my parents packed up the family and moved us halfway across the world from Hong Kong to a city in a country we had never been to.
I never fully grasped the enormity of such a move back in 1982. At the time, I knew nothing about Australia – not even about the koalas and kangaroos that people ask me about nowadays when I travel abroad. The only people I knew who had even been to Australia were friends of my parents who had come here on a family holiday. I remember going to their house for a slide night but taking very little interest in what was on screen.
The only thing I remember thinking was that they spoke English in Australia. Having attended an English private school since kindergarten, I was not afraid of the language barrier, though if anyone had warned me about the accent, things might have been a little different! If only I had read Nino Culotta’s They’re A Weird Mob back then, I may have had a better understanding of the Australian slang!
The prospect of leaving behind all my friends and my grandparents, who I was extremely close to, never truly hit me until we were at the airport on August 15th, 1982, when I saw my grandfather cry for the first time in my life as we bade our farewells at the departure gate. Having always been an extremely sensitive and sentimental child, the sight of my grandparents and my parents in tears was the first sign that my life was about to change in a major way.
When we landed in Sydney, some nine hours later, we were greeted at the airport by Mum’s cousin, Irene, her husband Ray and their son, Ben, who was a couple of years younger than me. They had already been in Sydney for a few years and were the only family we had in Australia. We scooted into their borrowed station-wagon, crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge where the toll was 20 cents, with Ben insisting that his father drive through the booth with the toll collector instead of the automatic toll lane so that he could say g’day (I promise you I am not making this up!). To say I had never seen this much blue sky and open space is not an exaggeration.
The initial few weeks were busy ones as my parents busied themselves with searching for an apartment and schools for my sister and I, etc. Although Australia now prides itself in being a multi-cultural society, it wasn’t always the case. People had trouble pronouncing our surname and most did not even try to learn the correct pronunciation. Chinese food was considered exotic and I will always remember going to our local Chinese restaurant and being greeted by the owner with such excitement that he told us not to bother with the menu. “Whatever you want, we will make for you!” It’s hard to believe it now but in 1982, seeing burgers and fries at the back of the menu in a Chinese restaurant was not that uncommon.
Australia was in recession in the early 1980s and despite my parents’ considerable skills and experience, they were considered “unsuitable” for even the junior roles when we arrived. Their seniority in international companies back in Hong Kong counted for nothing. “I’m afraid you don’t have any local experience,” was a common reason for rejection. How does one get this so-called “local experience” when nobody gives you the first chance at gaining such experience? But there were no anti-discrimination laws to help my parents back then. The situation was not made any easier when my Dad was involved in a near-fatal car accident seven months later, changing our lives once again.
Were there times when I wished we hadn’t left Hong Kong? Sure. When things turn to sh*t, it is easy to question everything, especially when you’re only a kid. But I give my parents full credit for never giving up on the new life we had left everything we had for. While many couples might have chosen the easier path and given up, my parents stuck it through. It was not uncommon for families to emigrate, settle for a couple of years in their new country, then for the husband/father to return to Hong Kong to get a job while the wife/mother stay in the new country to look after the kids. While I do not judge those families who have to do what is necessary for them, I will be forever grateful to my parents that we did not follow that path.
School was a whole different world for me. Although I had studied English in Hong Kong and was fluent in the language, my principal put me into a special English-as-a-Second-Language class with a few other kids who I don’t really remember now. The one thing I do remember was being told not to roll my r when I spoke. Although Hong Kong was a British colony, we had many Filipino teachers, and if you know any Filipinos, you will know that they roll their r. I remember immediately hating that teacher.
Apart from that dreadful experience, school was a novelty. Coming from a regimental school system in a country where academic results were prized above all else, and not being a terribly academic student at all, I was happy to be given the freedom to be creative. Instead of having strict lessons, we had art classes that consisted of finger-painting and basket weaving (mine made for a very crooked waste basket that nobody, not even my mother, would ever like!).
We had tongue-twister contests in class, where I won two Minties, which are very chewy sweets (or as we Aussies say, “lollies”), as first prize. I was so excited that I immediately ate one – which took out one of my last baby teeth! (That experience was traumatic enough that I stayed away from Minties for many years after that!). We sang Australian songs and sat glued to the TV as watched Australia II cross the finish line and win the America’s Cup in 1983 – the first time the Americans had been beaten in the history of the Cup.
More than anything else, living in Australia made me realise how much I loved to read. We lived about five minutes’ walk from our local library and it was not unusual for me to go up there by myself on a Sunday afternoon and come home with an armful of books. My Dad had introduced me to the world of Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, and I devoured every single one of them the way my nine year-old nephew devours Harry Potter books these days. I don’t remember what else I read but I read a lot. And when my older sister introduced the family to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, I immediately went to the library to borrow that as well. I think I read it four times in one year.
To this day, my love of books has not waned, although my tendency to keep buying them faster than I can read them is a little disturbing. My sister has declared her love for e-books. So far I have resisted the temptation to move in that direction. Yes, it would mean my home would be less cluttered, but turning a physical page and smelling that new-book smell just has that special je ne sais quoi. It simply cannot be replaced.
My love for reading has led to my love for writing. And this is where, I hope, my story is just beginning. Maybe it is a little late in life to be trying to start a new career. But I don’t care. Even if nobody ever reads what I write, I hope I will never stop. Even if nobody ever pays me a cent to write, I hope to always write something. It may be thirty years in the making, but this is the fresh start and the new beginnings that my parents gave up everything for when we left the comfort of our lives in Hong Kong for in 1982. This is the future that they wanted my sister and I to have – the opportunities that we might otherwise not have had.
I will never say it enough but I hope my actions will always show my parents just how much I love them and appreciate all the sacrifices they have made for us.