By Yen Eriksen
The first time my dad explained to me that old people shrink it blew my mind. To me, this idea was such an unfair fate to thrust upon those who had already lived so much.
Everything about old age seemed cruel to me as a kid. Why was it that people who had seen the world change in front of them and lived their lives with vivacity and adventure must succumb to frailty? It has taken me a long time to unpack some of this perceived injustice, born from nightmarish anxieties about getting old myself. Contrary to my natural inclination to hide from reality, old age has crept up around me: uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents have all beaten me to it.
I grew up with many Chinese cousins. Nine in fact; one born each year from 1989 to 1997. We were a little microcosm, five boys, four girls, one, maybe two, queers, some chatty, some short, some clever, some stocky, some shy and all friends. My sister and I were the only ones with white skin, the ‘halfies’ of the crew, though we were never made to feel different.
My childhood memories are almost all of my grandparents Pou Pou and Gung Gung’s house, where all of us were left every school holidays, every other weekend, every other night.
One time my cousin Cynthia stuck a tic-tac up her nose. Her sister Gloria had bet her that she wasn’t daring enough to do it and of course she did. Chaos ensued. Gloria’s solution to the problem was to get Cynthia to try and blow it out. Of course, in the moment before blowing, Cynthia took a deep breath and managed to get the tic-tac stuck even further up her nose. We then proceeded to chase a wailing and crying Cynthia around the house, Benny-hill style, yelling out innovative ideas about freeing the tic-tac. “Squirt water up there!” “Stop running away” “Ai‐yaah!” “Sneeze it out?” “Suck it up further and cough it out!”
Turning the corner into the kitchen, my Pou Pou swooped Cynthia up, tweezers in hand, and fixed everything. This is the image of her that was etched on to my young mind: a strong, tall, capable Chinese woman, who knew how to deal with everything and all situations, if only because in China she had probably lived through all of them. After the eventful hype, she gracefully returned to the labor-intensive broth she was making. She was always peeling huge piles of strange plants, prepping medicinal beans or marinating and curing whole animals. Sometimes with help from the gaggle of Chinese aunts, but mostly solitary, sitting in front of the blaring Chinese TV patched into the kitchen.
When my cousins and I would sleep over, sometimes we were allowed to stay up past midnight, if only to watch a certain favourite Japanese horror show, where a young student would solve very creepy and very inexplicable murders. My Pou Pou, perhaps irresponsible as she was for letting such young children watch something so freaking scary, acted as our protector.
Her ambivalence to the tacky horror show drama and her unwillingness to accompany us to the bathroom, reminded us that what we were scared of was just fiction – demanding from us courage in the face of our make-believe nightmares.
When I was in high school, my Pou Pou’s best friend died. She was an old Chinese woman who lived over the back fence. Their family had immigrated from my grandparents’ rural hometown to Melbourne only a few years before my family had. The traditional Buddhist funeral was held in a Christian funeral home, monks chanting juxtaposed by the background of cathedral-style windows and rearranged pews. This was my first funeral. When I arrived I was thrown to see my Pou Pou so distraught. As a family we had never been overly emotional; everything was about saving face, keeping it together. I went over to her, but my translated condolences stuck in my throat. At a loss to help, I put my arm around her. For the first time, I realised we were now the same height.
When I visited home last time, my grandmother and I sat and talked for hours. With her oncoming dementia, she has lost a lot of filter. She will now talk of old China, in a way no one in my family has ever been willing to do. In search of a story, I asked about when she met Gung Gung. Instead, in a seemingly disconnected way, she told me about her father, my great-grandfather. It was obvious that she had loved him very much, this strong, principled man and shop owner.
When we go to yum‐cha with my grandparents, it is convention that they are treated as celebrities. As the younger generation we have always opened the doors for them and offered them our arms, as though we are fancy valets at the Ritz.
My Pou Pou has always been quite quaint. After 9/11, she wanted us to move in with them because our house was too close to a major shopping centre. In line with this conversation she told me that, if there was a terrorist attack, the only thing she would take when leaving her house would be a bag of frozen ‘zhong’: banana leaf wrapped sticky rice packages containing meat, beans and salty egg. Apparently in old China, if for whatever reason you had to leave your home or if there was famine, the sticky rice made in the autumn could last you all winter.
Last time I visited my sister I took photos and notes while we learned how to cut the fatty pork, add sugar and salt to the beans, mix the rice and wrap the banana leaf, to make zhong. My Pou Pou was not overjoyed by our sudden interest in her cultural practice. Rather, she was business‐like in her teaching of the steps and motions, and only vaguely complimentary of my firm hands and good wrapping techniques.
She was now too weak, too frail and too sore to sit still long enough to make sticky rice by herself. I was aware, that she was aware, that this event was one of guilty milestone, where the absent young repent their neglect by asking to be passed the cultural baton, a little too late. She declared at one point how it was good that we were learning this, so when she was dead we could still eat it. Blunt, ambivalent in the face of social faux pas.
This story originally appeared in Jumble VOL 1: Taste, by Rip Publishing in May 2014 and on Margin Notes in 2020, a podcast about memoir, race, feminism and identity.
Yen writes memoir dealing with themes of race, gender and sexuality. Growing up Eurasian in Australia with migrant parents in a colourful backwater suburban context. They have written and published pieces in Feminartsy, Jumble and Querelle. Yen also produces radio documentaries, which in recent years includes a feature length documentary CBAA finalist called City of Love, that looked at the long and short journey of the ACT Marriage Equality legislation. Yen was a long time radio broadcaster and trainer at 2XX where they founded Friday Night Lip Service a local queer women’s radio show. They have also broadcasted with SYN , 2SER and Woroni Radio. They currently cohost Margin Notes with Zoya Patel.