Tuesday, 8 January 2013
"The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."
My mother grew up in a small tin mining village not too far from Ipoh, Malaysia, the fifth of six children. Being born into one of the more well-to-do families in town, (see this previous post for all the details), she might not have been born with a silver spoon in her proverbial mouth, but at least got away with a stainless steel fork.
That didn't stop her from needing to pay her way, though - everyone did in those days. By the time she was ten, my mother would return from the village school during lunchtime to help out. Although she and her siblings were considered lucky by most of the other kids for having a large home and a comfortable living provided for by my grandfather and supplanted by my grandmother, there was still a lot of work to be done in those days; while my aunts and uncles helped my grandmother out in the vegetable fields out back, my mother and youngest aunt would cook lunch for everyone, haul water, and heat up the charcoal irons for ironing her siblings' school uniforms for the next day. I remember her mentioning how my grandfathers' and uncles' pants had to be starched to the point where they could stand up on their own; and to think we have standards now. I've been to my grandmother's house and seen with my own eyes the huge charcoal-fired iron lying dusty and unused in the attic - compared to the modern electric irons of today.
After chores, it was back to the schoolhouse for afternoon lessons (if there were any for the day); if not, my eldest aunt would declare it a wash day, and all four sisters in my grandparents' brood would fill wooden tubs with the family's laundry and head down to the river. Well, not just the river - they had to trek some distance upriver, away from the tin mines, because no one wants to wash their laundry in mining waste, right?
It was a hard life, but everyone's life was hard back then; reality didn't care about quaint little concepts like "being fair". People did what they could and helped each other of their own free will, because it was a small village and people needed each other to get by. But my mother had to learn a whole bunch of skills just to get by - how to sun-dry anchovies and chillies, how to preserve fresh vegetables, how to efficiently prepare food for eight people on a regular basis. Being amongst the youngest, she was spared having to care for her own siblings as young children, but had to learn that later on anyways. My grandmother also insisted on teaching her the basics of tin panning, "just in case", and while it's been a long while since she's last done it, last time I asked her, she was pretty confident she could do it again if need be.
She didn't have to, though. When my mother turned eighteen and was still single due to a lack of eligible young men in the village (two of the most eligible had been snapped up by my aunts), about six of the local girls had gotten job offers from a recruiter looking to hire workers for assembly line positions in factories across the Causeway. My grandfather took time off from his supervisory post at the tin mine to escort my mother and the other girls down to Singapore, made sure they were going where they were going and got the jobs they'd been promised, then returned to the village leaving my mother 500 kilometres from home with a small trunk and a gaggle of young ladies for company.
The next seven years, as my mother put it more elegantly than I'll do, sucked.
The cannery owners were nice enough to provide a dormitory for all the working ladies; it consisted of a tiny room with just enough room to fit a mattress and for one person to stand. (Maybe I inherited my like of enclosed spaces from my mother, too. I already take after her physically, after all. A minor side story - according to my dad, my mother would spend her spare time lying or sitting about in the bedroom when she was pregnant with me, and there was little he could do to coax her out, let alone get out of the house unless absolutely necessary, something that didn't happen with my siblings.) My mother's wardrobe, as she described in great detail (she was trying to impress upon me how lucky we youngsters have it today) was what she could fit on a couple of hooks on the wall.
Six days a week, she'd get up at six in the morning and be on the job in the cannery by seven, which lasted until five with a half-hour lunch break in between. Rows upon rows of ladies in hairnets along the assembly line, in a hot, stuffy environment without the safety regulations of today, canning button and straw mushrooms from dawn to dusk. After work and dinner, it was an hour or so of free time, and then it was off to bed for the next day.
And she did this not so much because of feminism, but because life in those days was crap, the tin mining company was approaching full capacity, and if you didn't work you didn't goddamn eat. Nothing to do with empowerment, finding oneself, or being strong and independent. My mother needed the money, because there weren't men or jobs to be had back home, so she made the decision to strike out on her own. Of course, this was the era before comfy office jobs made their way to this part of the world, and we've never been very big on government largesse, either.
My parents were introduced via mutual friends, and both of them jumped at the chance for each other.
I've looked at my parents' wedding photos. My dad wasn't anything stunning physically - he was in his early 30s and already had a visibly receding hairline - and while my mother still had some looks left, she wasn't exactly beauty contest material. My suspicion is that she understood that at 25, she was already on the crest of the hill and about to take the plunge straight towards the Wall, and settled for my father, who had a stable, well-paying job at one of the local oil refineries. (Singapore doesn't produce any crude, but we sure do refine plenty of it.) She's complained every now and then to the family at large that she's had to cook, clean and wash in the vein of all those traditional feminine duties, but admits it's an easier job than her seven-odd years in the cannery were.
My dad, on the other hand, was (and still is) undisputably delta. Nice, stable guy, not so much aggression or dominance in him, an ectomorph as opposed to my mother's endomorph when it came to body shape. Receding hairline and okay features, enough to look decent in his wedding tux, but nothing to warrant a second glance, I'd wager.
So...yeah. You can see where this is going. Man approaching his peak value, although still not very high, woman realising her value is starting to drop, and both of them settle. The moment they were married, my mother dumped her job at the cannery with glee and eased herself into a life of housewifery.
To this day, she still doesn't like cooking mushroom-based dishes.
Fast forward a little less than a decade, and my siblings and I are born.
Although it's required by Singaporean law that all children be registered for primary school (Well, of course! The government here is so dependent on social engineering and we citizens are all so complicit in it! Technically, it's possible to go and apply for a permit to homeschool your kids, but the government can refuse you for any reason they like and even if you're amongst the six in the nation who do so, they still need to pass "national education" requirements, etc), and I was doing okay in school, she still took it upon herself to tutor me in Chinese - I can't say that I did amazingly well, but by all accounts her efforts resulted in me avoiding the mother tongue abyss that so many Singaporean students fall into. At any rate, it was more successful than her attempts to get me to improve my handwriting, which was a dismal failure despite her trying for eight years of my childhood.
When I look back on things and read about other peoples' accounts of their childhoods out on the net and 'sphere, finding out just how rare simple gestures that I took for granted such as having someone to come home to really are -
I suppose there's some truth in that you can only truly be grateful for what your parents have done for you after you've come into yourself as a person. A child can love his or her parents, but probably doesn't have the ability to grasp the magnitude of what they've done (assuming, of course, normal and stable parents). I'll probably be too embarrassed to say it to her face any time soon, but: