The Upside of Illness: Beyond the Chinese Patriarch

Mother is the boss of our household and our family. She makes the money, the financial decisions. She had the last say on what my sister and I were allowed to do and where we were allowed to go. We knew it was no use asking Dad for permission because we’d eventually have to go and ask Mum anyway.

Many people are surprised at this. “That’s interesting,” they say before pausing. I’m supposed to fill in the blanks: I thought Asian fathers were authoritarian dictators. I thought women didn’t have any power in Asian families. And possibly the loudest question that remains unasked: Does that make him feel like less of a man?

Dad doesn’t have the makings of a typical Chinese patriarch – he doesn’t really have the makings of a patriarch full stop. He is too kind, too soft-spoken. He has silvery hair, with more white in it than black. He has a stern face, which makes him look perpetually cross, but more often than not it softens into a kind smile, complete with wrinkle lines. He is generous to a fault, which means people have been known to take advantage of him. Part of this stems from the fact that Dad’s never been great with expression, whether it be in Mandarin or English. He seems to have difficulty putting the words in the right place, which makes it difficult for him to assert himself – especially when he’s under pressure.

It is hard for me to tell which aspects of Dad’s personality can be attributed to assumed ideas of masculinity. Much of who he is could simply be the result of Chinese traditions, which seem to transcend gender and can be as strict, if not stricter, than ideas of what makes a man.

Mum was precise with the cane, but if Dad was in a mood, you never knew where the strikes would land

Family always comes first, and there is an inherent power in that. My parents will never disown me, no matter what I do, so I am beholden to them. Filial duties always come first. I am expected to jump when they ask me to jump, and it is almost always less painful to do as you’re told, rather than try to contest their requests with what you think is sound logic.

Dad also holds power by virtue of his age. It is impertinent to interrupt or vehemently disagree with him, as it is with all your elders, and I’m rarely allowed to be sarcastic around him – though he’s slowly gaining a tolerance for that. But I don’t think he ever subscribed to the notion that there are things for girls and others for boys. He taught me maths when I was younger, and was always supportive of my pursuits – even if he didn’t understand what they were.

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Dad grew up in a relatively poor farming family in Sarikei, Malaysia, and I don’t think he would have ever imagined he’d end up with a family in Australia. He is the ultimate middle child, with two older siblings, a brother and sister, and two younger, also a brother and sister. He was close to his mother, who passed away when he was eighteen. He doesn’t talk about his family much, with the exception of his younger sister.

Dad is intelligent. Both my parents have degrees – my mother in optometry, my father in land surveying. They both studied in Australia in the late 1980s, before returning to Singapore and Malaysia and carving out respectable careers for themselves. Dad was employed by the government, and at one stage was in charge of over 100 employees. During this time, he sent at least half his paycheque back to his family – to his father and his younger sister. He was fortunate to have had a quality Western education so it was his duty to take care of his family. When Mum and Dad immigrated to Australia, Dad found his chosen occupation virtually obsolete. Mum set up her own optometry business, and Dad found work as a real estate agent until I was born. Then he was a stay-at-home dad.

Throughout my childhood, he was the ‘typical’ stoic father figure. You could never really tell what he was thinking, and he didn’t seem like the type who would want to share. When he was angry, the sound of his voice made me want to curl up into a ball and hide in the nearest corner. He was also prone to severe mood swings, which were as unpredictable as they were dangerous. Mum was precise with the cane, but if Dad was in a mood, you never knew where the strikes would land. Later, we learned that he’d been very sick for a while. Maybe doling out punishment was his way of asserting control in a world where nothing seemed to be going his way – and sometimes he took it a little too far.

It often feels like you are beholden to people who love you, but who won’t ever, ever tell you that they love you

I’m pretty sure we were more scared of the threat of physical punishment than anything else. Some of this fear must have stemmed from the knowledge that we could not overcome his physical and psychological power – a dangerous combination of typically masculine attributes, and cultural attitudes that had been instilled in us since birth. It is difficult to describe the pressures of filial piety to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. Briefly, it often feels like you are beholden to people who love you, but who won’t ever, ever tell you that they love you.

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I’m not sure exactly when Dad got sick, because we weren’t told until it was serious enough for hospital check-ups and visits to the transplant board. But he was very sick. And then he had an organ transplant. Mum didn’t let us see him when he was in the ICU because she didn’t want us to get too distressed. My sister was eleven and I was thirteen, on the cusp of going into my second exam block. But I sat with him, studied in his room on the weekends. There were complications with the surgery, so he received two doses of steroids instead of one. That meant he hallucinated. Badly. The nurses had to hold him down once or twice to restrain him because he thought everyone in the hospital was trying to kill him. He thought he was going to die.

Dad didn’t care about wielding power or “being strong” for the sake of it. He just wanted us – his family – to be safe

He was, in those moments, the weakest I had ever seen him. But to me, he wasn’t any less of a man. He was just a different man. I will never forget the day he pulled me away from watching Pride and Prejudice to tell me to look after my mother and my sister after he was gone. It was the day I learned that Dad was like everyone else, and most importantly, that when it came down to it, Dad didn’t care about wielding power or “being strong” for the sake of it. He just wanted us – his family – to be safe.

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I don’t think Dad will ever know how much his diagnosis affected us, especially in our formative years. I know, for example, that Dad’s grateful for Mum’s support during that time, but in the same way none of us can imagine what it would have been like for him, I don’t think he will ever know what it felt like for us. Despite this, I know that all of his advice, no matter how misinformed, comes from a place of love, from wanting us to be as happy and content as we can be. The person I see today is so very different to the person I grew up with, and he’s happier now than I’ve ever seen him before.

So Dad is not your typical Chinese patriarch. He’s not the money-maker or the decision-maker. He is giggly, visits me unexpectedly because he wants to see me, and likes to take photos of absolutely everything, even though I’m almost certain he’s allergic to computers. Other, older members of the Chinese community may disagree, but I don’t think Dad’s actions and experiences have made him any more or less of a man. They’ve made him a better person – surely that’s all I can ask.

[Lead image: by Martin Gerrido, used under Creative Commons.]
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