I paced my bedroom back and forth, trying to shake off the nerves coursing through my body. Like Mulan, I felt like a fraud in the heat of battle. I wanted to appear unshaken, but my gut was flipping violently like pancakes. With a deep and final exhale, I burst through my bedroom door and made my way towards the living room where Dad was watching TV.
“Good morning!” I said curtly, feigning confidence.
I stopped briefly to scan the battle field. Dad was planted firmly on his throne; his posture was as stiff as a broom and his eyes as threatening as the Terminator. I coughed meekly in an effort to cushion the awkward silence before scuttling down the long corridor towards the kitchen sink.
Well that was awkward.
Like our uncluttered rooms, the silence in the house was a mirage of peace. Dad and I were in the thick of war. For the past month, we had been withholding words, eye contact, affection and anything that would serve to acknowledge the other person’s existence. Like most of our fights, this one began as an explosive screaming match, sparked by my ongoing failure to meet my father’s expectations of a respectful and honourable Chinese daughter:
“You always leave the house without finishing your housework! You are so lazy and ungrateful!”
“Is this house a hotel? You always leave first thing in the morning and come home late at night!”
“I don’t care what you want! If you’re living in my house, you follow my rules!”
Despite trying really hard to hold my disrespectful ‘Western’ tongue, there would always come a point where I would lose my cool and hurtle my ammunition across the trenches:
“Can’t you see that I just want a relationship with you? Who cares if our house is squeaky clean when the people living in it are so unhappy!”
“Why would I want to be home if I’m just criticised all the time? I do more housework than all my friends combined! You are the one who is ungrateful!”
“I’m twenty years old, you can’t control me anymore! My friends’ parents have given them freedom since they were teenagers!”
Once we both realised that dominating by sheer force wasn’t going to work, we would enter phase two of the negotiation process: Silent Treatment. Like disengaged zombies, we would settle for coexisting without contact, broken only when one party desperately needed the other for something: Hey Dad, can you unblock the toilet?
Growing up in a migrant home in Sydney, I craved the ‘messy love’ that all my Aussie friends seemed to have. In primary school, I spent many afternoons at my friend Susie’s family home. Her house was cluttered from floor to ceiling, her garden was overgrown, and to my horror, she wore shoes on carpet! In spite of the mess, there was something so intriguing about her family. Susie described her older sister as her best friend, hugs and kisses were the norm, and her parents would ask us: “How was your day?”
I remember one afternoon, Susie’s mum asking me what I wanted for afternoon tea. The question made me blush because I thought it disrespectful to answer. That day, I had a bizarre craving for flavouring, so I sheepishly asked for a plate of raw sugar and plain salt. Susie’s mum immediately scooped out the goods and served it on a small plate – no questions asked! Wow, was I in heaven?
Growing up, I couldn’t help but question why my family spent so many hours tidying up and fighting about housework, when our hearts were entrenched in turmoil. Susie’s home was a mess, but I knew that the doors were always wide open with love to welcome people home. In my last year of primary school, I learned that Susie lived next to a church and that she had been praying for me to know the love of Jesus. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I would soon find out.
I was born in the year of the Dragon into a migrant home in Sydney’s south. Although Dragons are revered and considered a source of success and good fortune, I was more like a small and noisy fly on a wall. According to Chinese legend, Dragons are natural fighters, and while they will give into love, they won’t readily give up their independence.
Far from being the compliant daughter of every Chinese father’s dreams, I’ve always had a passionate spirit that longed to push boundaries. Instead of putting my head in the books, I was always prancing around on stage. Instead of embracing quiet and more ‘feminine’ qualities, I was a boisterous and headstrong tomboy. In high school after being caught one too many times for skipping school and defaming teachers, I was placed on a monitoring system which only made me more defiant for freedom. Like a true Dragon, I pushed and provoked because I had no respect for rules and authority figures.
My dad was born in the year of the Rooster into a single parent, working class family in Hong Kong. According to Chinese tradition, Roosters are meticulous, ordered, and blunt with their opinions. They are goal-oriented, determined and protective creatures, who rarely back down from a fight.
In the best sense of the word, my dad has always been a fighter. As a child, he lived with his older sister and mother on the top floor of a stuffy, windowless unit in Wan Chai. Their floor was 65 square metres in size and partitioned into 8 bedrooms with the use of flimsy curtains. My father recalls at least twenty people living on his floor and having to wait until past midnight before his family could use the shared bathroom.
My dad was abandoned by his own father at birth. He was a frivolous gambler who would reappear only to steal from the woman he promised to love. Without a male figure around, my dad’s family was often the target of bullying by an unreasonable landlord and other tenants fighting for space and privacy. There were many nights when my grandmother was unable to stop my dad from crying. This would lead to her being thrown out onto the street to settle a newborn on her own. Dad grew up watching his mother wield knives against bullies, while his sister flinched in fear. As soon as he was able, he had to step up as the man of the house to fight for his family.
At the age of 15, my dad was forced to drop out of school because his injured mother could no longer work to afford his schooling. Without any formal qualifications, my dad managed to charm his way into the hospitality industry, starting with Room Service, before being promoted as a Hotel Manager. He quickly became a well-respected man, who could use his position and authority to command order. Upon migration, he would have to learn that this type of leadership would cause chaos in his new home in Australia.The truth is, in spite of my ‘Dragon’ strength, I have always felt crushed by unresolved conflict. When I was a child, I would try to make up for bad behaviour by slipping drawings or notes under my dad’s bedroom door at night. Over the years, as my attempts to be vulnerable were met with silence or rejection, I became calloused and defensive. In conflict, I learned to jab with guilt and flame with shame, before sweeping the problem under the rug, along with our ancestors’ secrets The fact is, behind my fiery facade was a girl who just wanted to know and be known by her father. Over time, it just hurt too much to care.
That morning, I had decided to bite the bullet and to say something in the hopes of ending the silent treatment. For so long, I believed that the goal of conflict was to win, and in our household, the most powerful person takes the prize. Over time, I realised that winning in such a way came at a destructive cost. Am I really ‘winning’ if I have to walk over people and burn relationships in the process?
Without me even realising, God was using this conflict to answer Susie’s prayers from so many years ago. Through a series of events, I had started reading the Bible in an effort to learn more about the claims of Jesus. To my surprise, God’s words began to chip away at my guarded and calloused heart.
What surprised me the most about Jesus was the fact that even though I had offended him, it was He who bit the bullet and made the first move to reconcile with me. Even though I had failed him, Jesus didn’t shame me with my record of poor choices, nor did he withdraw from me with the silent treatment. Instead, he stepped off his heavenly throne to show me the extent of his compassion and mercy.
I learned that because Jesus is perfectly just, he can’t be indifferent to my offences and he won’t sweep things under the rug. Instead, he shows me perfect love and justice, by being punished on my behalf on the cross. In a culture where authority figures have the unquestionable right to demand respect and obedience, this picture of a ‘Servant King’ who would lovingly withhold power for my sake, was life-changing.
Back at the kitchen sink, my heart was racing as I prepared myself to be humble before my dad. I was going to apologise, and the thought made me physically sick. God, will this really work? Running away would be so much easier! God, please use this conflict for good. Please help me to be gentle and wise and to not burn the house down with my Dragon fire.
I backtracked towards the living room where my dad was still seated ashen faced in front of the TV. I walked up towards him nervously and reached out to place my hand on his.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
Each second of silence was a blow to my pride, serving to humiliate me for backing down from a fight. Haha Heidi, you’re such a loser! Why would you put yourself in such a vulnerable position? As the jeers in my head grew louder, I let go of his hand defeated, and turned to walk away.
“I’m sorry too, Heidi.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. Dad had never apologised before. I spun around to face him as he relaxed his shoulders and began to speak.
“Heidi, I want you to understand that there are words that I have never heard before from my parents. My mother, your Ma Ma, never apologised to me. I never heard the words ‘I’m sorry’ even if she was very wrong.”
“Even if I disagreed with her, she was a single mother who sacrificed everything for me and that is why I owed everything to her. Ma Ma would tell me what to do and I would always obey.”
“I remember one day I passed her a cup of water and some medicine, and she thanked me for the first time. I was 37 years old. I felt so shocked!”
Dad’s voice trailed off. My eyes widened as I witnessed the fierce Rooster break down into tears.
“It was my duty to serve my mother the Chinese way, but I know I can’t expect the same from you. I need to learn to be a dad the Australian way, so I’m sorry too,” he finished roughly, embarrassed by his tears.
I swiftly ran towards Dad and squeezed him into a tight hug, savouring the honest words coming from his heart. His words reminded me of the days when Ma Ma was still alive. I was always nervous in her presence for she was a strict and tough woman. Despite her lack of words or affection, my dad’s respect for her was unwavering.
In Chinese culture, sending your parents to a nursing home is very offensive and seen as a form of abandonment. My Ma Ma lived with my uncle, aunty and cousins, who were owners of a successful family business that also employed my dad. The business had a private room just for Ma Ma, which was fitted with a bed and TV. Her room was next to my dad’s desk, so that he could serve her during work hours. After work, the extended family would come back to our house for dinner, and on Sundays we would treat Ma Ma to Yum Cha. Up until her very last breath, Ma Ma spent every minute of her life surrounded by her family.
Although my dad had loved and cared for his mother his whole life, he had to wait 37 years before he heard his first ‘Thank You’. After her passing, he had to accept that he would never hear ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’. As I hugged my dad, I was filled with gratitude knowing that he was already going to great lengths to share words of love and healing, even when they didn’t exist in his cultural vocabulary.
I’ll never forget the day Dad and I put our wings and claws to rest. That day, we decided to stop walking over each other with pride and anger, and instead learned to walk side by side with love and empathy. Dad had to learn that despite my independent Dragon spirit, my love for him was always loud with words and affection. I had to learn that despite my dad’s Rooster demands for meticulous order, his love for me was faithful with service and sacrifice. In our home so blinded by power, we are thankful that the Servant King stepped in to tidy our hearts, and to show us a better way:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” – Ephesians 4:32-5:2
This content originally published here. Used with permission.