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Mothering under different skies

I was a paranoid mum when my daughter was growing up. Raising her in a city/country/continent far removed from where I was raised made me paranoid. My daughter always knew which two people in the world she could trust implicitly, no matter what. One of them was me. I went through every scenario in my mind that could potentially harm her and told her how to save herself if that happened. This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. As a woman of colour living in Perth in the 80s and 90s during the ascent of Pauline Hanson, I needed my daughter to be prepared for the day someone would tell her to ‘go back where she came from’ as this happened to me on a reasonably regular basis. I also needed to warn her about the effects of drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, (this was the 90s after all). I attempted to enrol her in judo, karate and ju-jitsu classes but she drew the line at that. Once, I became hysterical because she was five minutes later than she said she’d be. She learned early to tell me things I don’t remember ever telling my own mother. Only people who had been through a stringent vetting process were considered safe to be around her. One of them was me.

I worried so much about the effects this policing of her young body would have on her. But what choice did I have? How could I raise her as I had been raised? In a country and a time so far removed I may as well have grown up on a distant planet. My mother had a relaxed parenting style. (I was her third and whatever paranoia she may have had was well and truly over by the time I arrived). And we were good girls, by and large, with no concept of drugs, sex and rock n roll. Our rebellion consisted of sneaking out for a movie when we were supposed to be at school. Or stealing loose change so we could buy berries from the old woman who wasn’t allowed inside the school. But we were never warned about what a tricky world it is to negotiate when you are young, brown and female. We were never instructed on how to protect ourselves when we were fondled and touched by people considered ‘safe.’ We did not know that our words would be automatically discounted because we were girls so we chose not to say anything. We had no idea that girl bodies were fair game to every male in the vicinity. We only learned about these things when we went to college and acquired a vocabulary for that which we felt but could not describe.

Yes, I became a paranoid mum because I had a name for all those things I did not want my daughter to know. Patriarchy mostly, and all that it covers, hides, discounts, allows, promotes.

And now, as a young woman, my daughter tells me that she knows how fiercely loved she was. How protected. How cherished. ‘You raised me without burdening me with gendered expectations’ she said to me once and my heart stilled at that. Of course she slashed at restraints. Of course we clashed. Of course she tested those boundaries. But she knew how to fight back. She knew how to prevent people from burdening her with their expectations. Sometimes she stopped me. That’s how I knew I could stop policing her body.

 

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Skin

When I read Bhaswati Ghosh’s beautiful poem this morning, I was reminded that the immigrant experience, in all its complexity, diversity and richness can still be reductive on some days. It was a while ago that I wrote this poem and sent it out into the (immigrant) world, and here it is below as well as in this anthology.

Every time
A check-out chick denies me
My right to be spoken to courteously
And the waitress at a cafe
In an upmarket suburb forgets to serve me

Every time
A bank teller speaks to me
Slowly and loudly
And my name is considered
Too much trouble to be pronounced correctly

Every time
An old man tells me
To go back to where I came from
And a woman at the supermarket curls her lip
At the green-eyed man who holds my hand

Every time
An academic questions the authenticity
Of my qualifications
And a writer says gently
I’m alright because I speak English properly

Every time
I teach a class on diversity
And a student wants to know
If I believe
In white australian christian values

Every time
I walk into a room
Where people talk about bloody muslim refugee terrorists
And someone says loudly
I don’t have a racist bone in my body but –

I wonder
If home is length of residency
Or accident of birth
Choosing to speak
Or silencing my

Skin