Writer and WV member Shu-Ling Chua tells the story of her parents’ introduction in this moving piece of memoir.
‘Maybe it’s a Chinese thing. You know, that dating show on SBS, If You Are the One?’
‘Yes, my parents watch it.’
‘They’re always thinking about the future. Australians, Americans, Europeans – we just live in the moment.’
I didn’t think to counter him, ‘Maybe you’re right. We’re brought up knowing we’ll have to look after our parents one day. It’s expected.’
Pale blue hydrangeas peek from his elbow as I peel at strips of dead paint. He kisses me with both hands in my hair. Months ago, in the budding spring, we shared a different bench. It was our first date then, chattering and laughing until the waitress started packing chairs away.
‘I want to take things slowly but I don’t know what that means.’
‘Well, how about we catch up again?’ he says.
I make him ginger-studded dumplings. He makes me roast chicken that tastes of sunshine. He likes the way my eyes twinkle, playful yet serious, as the conversation meanders from frappés in jam jars to the meaning of life. I like the dance of his wrists as he flicks the gears, leaving sleepy suburbia for hills where grass blades gleam silver and baby cypress watch on.
‘You’re such a tease,’ he whispers. I falter and draw my lips from his. ‘I like it.’
‘I like pushing your buttons,’ I confess, without feeling any better.
My mother’s words echo threateningly, ‘Gam haau...’ She would mutter this whether we were watching a Bond girl or an Imperial palace maid with bosoms bursting from her silk robes, in which case she added, ‘Historically inaccurate,’ for good measure. Deceptively innocuous when translated into English – ‘Such a flirt...’ – it smacked of a promiscuous ‘she’ who would seduce and fuck anyone, a ‘she’ with no morals. I was not that kind of girl. No.
‘Of all the men in world, why marry one in Australia? I don’t believe it.’ My grandmother refused to talk to her daughter for weeks. She was, after all, leaving them for a strange country with a man she had known only twenty months. Her brother happened to work with his uncle and she was planning a trip to Australia. The nephew’s address was passed on.
She takes weeks to write the first letter, introducing herself and stressing there was no obligation to reply. He assures her that you have to start somewhere to make new friends. ‘There is a demand for secretary here. How come you didn’t apply to emigrate?’
It’s not as simple as that, she needs a job and someone to sponsor her. She jokes that he sponsors her as a spouse and in the next letter, mentions throwing oranges into the river on Chap Goh Meh, the last day of Chinese New Year, a tradition practised by young women wishing for a good husband.
‘Will you be there at the river to collect oranges if I throw?’ she asks.
‘Yes I would be at the Yarra River to catch your oranges provided they are as sweet as you.’
‘What is the most precious part of your body?’
‘Your brain? Can you give away your brain only once?’
I know she is trying to protect me but remember also the horror, aged seven, when the teacher told me point-blank that my mother was wrong. Subtracting nine from twenty, you do not ‘borrow’, you ‘carry over’. It was the first time she had ever been wrong about anything.
‘I know you don’t like me having a boyfriend.’
‘You’re my daughter but I have to learn to let go. I can’t hold on to you forever.’
‘Mum, realistically, how many people do you think haven’t had sex by the time they marry?’
‘There must be a reason. Don’t just simply go and have sex.’
‘If you got pregnant, you’ll still be my daughter. I have to accept it.’
‘Each step I take with you is one I can’t take back.’
‘Do you want to go back?’
For two weeks, I shuffled home in the summer heat, from one shadow to the next. Why hadn’t he invited me to dinner with his friends? Why did he have to check his diary before saying yes to lunch? Don’t take it so personally, I swat helplessly at the buzzing. You are easy-going, not possessive. It’s only three and a half months. I’m sure he has his reasons.
‘I didn’t want to pressure you,’ he says, on the flaky bench, dull grey beneath the red. Of course, I had mixed feelings about sex – my mother’s disapproval, knowing there were girls who had satisfied him more than I could, and the fear that innocent kisses would no longer be enough.
‘We’re good together but we’re both also really good at being single.’
‘Heartbroken,’ she scoffed.
‘You’ve never broken up with anyone. You’re lucky, you married the first guy. You never had to date.’
But the story I’d been telling people for years, that they started writing only after she stayed with him, was wrong. ‘I didn’t realise you already liked him that much before you met him!’ ‘I told you, you just weren’t listening.’ Counting the days between letters, she too took a risk but hers had a happy ending. If it weren’t for that first letter, I would not exist.
For one whole year, I question taking the easy option and cutting my losses early. I convinced myself I had chosen my mother over my boyfriend. Wrong again.
It was never my mother’s decision, nor his. It was mine. Love, I decide, is not a matter of the deserving versus the undeserving. Nor is premarital sex a sin. My parents’ courtship – sweet and chaste, like the blush of a rosy clementine – will never be mine.
I’m yet to find my own love story but I like to think it’s out there.
And no, that’s not a Chinese thing.
About Shu-Ling Chua
Once a bookworm, always... Shu-Ling Chua spends her free time reading and enjoying music, travel and photography. She blogs about her favourite things at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to write one day. Her favourite writers are Alice Pung and Sylvia Plath. She dreams of living overseas. Soon.