Conversations with my sister

Negotiating art, love and labour

ON THE WAY home from Brisbane airport, my older sister Tammy turns to me from the driver’s seat and asks an unexpected question: ‘So, are you going to marry him?’ She says this in a silly voice while pulling a silly face – a mode of speaking we adopted as kids when we wanted to express something serious to each other, like affection or an apology, without having to show vulnerability.

Our family is highly emotional, which happens when most of you have been mentally ill at some point, and Tammy and I have seen what happens when family members allow emotions to get the best of them: from screaming matches so fierce they cause neighbours to drop in to ensure no one’s been murdered, to decades-long grudges that will only be resolved in the afterlife. As the youngest kids in the family, forever observing, we learnt to be silent and mask big feelings with humour, though we always make an effort to be open with each other.

‘What are you talking about?’ I say, laughing, as I peel off my cardigan. I toss it on the backseat where it lands with a thud on my carry-on luggage. I’ve just flown back from a week-long trip to Sydney visiting my boyfriend with whom I’ve been doing long distance for a year.

‘I’m just saying you suit each other,’ says Tammy. ‘And I can see that he’s good to you. You deserve that.’

‘That’s nice, but we’re not getting married,’ I say, frowning emphatically at her. ‘At least not any time soon.’

Tammy smiles smugly, enjoying riling me up. I know that she’s only joking, that she’s just excited about how well things are going for me, but her question makes me uneasy. I’m not anxious about hurrying into marriage; my anxiety stems from the fact that I like the idea of marriage despite believing I shouldn’t. I haven’t admitted this to anyone in my family; not Tammy, not my parents and certainly not my grandmother, who has told me on multiple occasions since the last family wedding – without breaking eye contact as she points a wizened, jade-ringed finger threateningly into my chest – ‘You’re next.’ When my siblings and I press our grandmother to explain why marriage is important, she flounders.

‘It’s important because…because it’s just what people do!’

My grandmother was matchmade to my grandfather when she was in her twenties and he in his forties. Soon after she fell pregnant, my grandfather left China for San Francisco, where he directed a Mandarin club for Chinese ex-pats and wired the money he earned back to my grandmother in China, who was raising my dad alone. Tragically, my grandfather never got to be a part of his own family: he died of a heart attack the day he was reunited with them in Hong Kong.

‘He could have at least given me another child,’ says my grandmother bitterly when she reflects on her marriage.

Besides my grandmother’s traumatic experience and my own experience of growing up amid my parents’ messy divorce, I’m also resistant to marriage because it’s so politically and socially fraught. Same-sex couples are still fighting for marriage equality, divorce rates are rising and, personally speaking, I have no real need for it. I’m not religious, and thanks to feminism I’m an economically independent and educated woman, which means marriage is no longer a means of survival. If I do decide to get married, that’s exactly what it will be: a decision, a choice to be made.

There is a part of me that wants to choose a fairytale. It’s that part of me that takes screenshots of wedding gowns on Instagram for safekeeping, that wonders how having a husband might feel different to having a boyfriend, that makes mental notes of the floral arrangements and catering at friends’ weddings. I’m tolerant of but stern with this part of myself, like you might be with a misbehaving toddler, because I know fairytales can easily become nightmares.

Tammy is the only sibling out of the five of us who is married – a move that stunned the entire family. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of Tammy, in the years following our parent’s separation that saw the kids split between two households, dramatically proclaiming, ‘I’m never getting married and I’m never having children. If I could, I’d get a hysterectomy tomorrow!’ She’d say this for the shock factor, but also because she was against the idea of playing happy families.

Her wedding day was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It happened in a blur. Tammy, who rarely wears dresses, being zipped into a bodice. Me, as a bridesmaid, walking down a musty church aisle. Tammy thanking her husband’s relatives and other strangers I’d never met. Me tearing up while delivering a speech beside a slideshow of childhood photos. Tammy at the bridal table laughing with her friends. Me eating the beef main and getting progressively drunker. Later, during the reception, our dad stood before the crowded room in his rented tux and gave a speech in Cantonese laden with Chinese allegories about adulthood and married life. It was the most I’d heard him speak in my life.

‘I’m proud that Tammy has had the courage to marry. She has faith despite my bad example and disappointments,’ he said. Dad doesn’t drink, but his face was red, flushed with happiness, and I recognised in his expression a kind of pride I’d never seen before.

The day after the wedding, Tammy’s in-laws held a tea ceremony at their house. I watched as Tammy and her husband paid respects to their elders by serving them tea and, in return, receiving gold jewellery – symbols of affection and welcome from the gift givers.

‘Come here,’ said Mum, waving me over to stand with her by the kitchen counter. ‘I’m going to give your sister one of the dragon and phoenix bangles that I got at my own tea ceremony. It’s 24-carat gold.’

‘Cool, can I look at it?’

‘Oh, I’m not giving it to her today,’ she said, resolutely.

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’ve lost it.’

‘You lost it?’ I said, alarmed.

‘Well, not technically lost. It’s somewhere in the house underneath all the crap I accumulated during my broken marriage.’

We laughed darkly, still watching as older relatives layered gold chains on Tammy and her husband’s necks, and younger relatives cracked up laughing and snapped photos on their phones. For a moment, I watched Mum watching Tammy. Although Mum isn’t very traditional and at times more cynical than a moody teenager, I could see that she was moved. I remember during the wedding reception, in those moments where she wasn’t secretly rolling her eyes at me during Dad’s speech, that Mum looked deeply content.

I know that my parents love me and are proud of my achievements. They have no expectations of me: as migrants who moved to a foreign country for a better life, it doesn’t matter to them what course in life I take as long as I’m happy. But I saw then that the wedding had been an opportunity for them to share this milestone in their child’s life and to guide her through their own culture and traditions. It made my heart ache thinking that I might not be able to offer them the same thing.

‘You know,’ said Mum, as she started taking photos of Tammy and her husband posing goofily with their ridiculous amounts of gold, ‘the other bangle is for you, when the time comes.’


WHEN I WAS seven, I came home from school one afternoon hugging a Bible – something that had been added to the student book list for second-graders that year. I loved it because it smelt new and was hefty; owning one made me feel grown up and I wanted to show it off. Tammy observed me from the couch, where she’d already plonked herself in her school uniform to watch cartoons.

‘Check it out,’ I said, brandishing the Bible at her as she recoiled from me. ‘I used it in scriptures today and copied verses into my exercise book. Look!’ I reached into my backpack for the lined notebook that Mum had helped me laminate and flicked through the filled pages like a flipbook. Tammy’s expression darkened.

‘Do you believe in God?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, I love God!’ I declared with hand-on-heart sincerity. At that age I was still praying most nights, asking God to watch over my family and myself but mostly asking for things, like a dog and one of those motorised jeeps from Toyworld, as if He was an on-call Santa.

‘What did you say?’ said Tammy, disapprovingly.

‘I love God and He loves me!’ I said, beaming.

‘Don’t believe in God, Michelle,’ Tammy hissed. ‘God isn’t real; that’s just school brainwashing you.’

I stared at Tammy, not understanding why she was undoing everything I felt I’d known since kindergarten. Did that mean that no one was listening to my prayers? That everything my teachers had been telling me was a lie? That there was no heaven and hell? When Tammy realised what she’d told me had not only blown my mind, but also terrified me, she added: ‘That’s just what I believe. Believe what you want, but don’t stop asking questions.’

Our parents weren’t religious but they sent their kids to a Lutheran school because they believed we were less likely to be bullied there. (We were bullied anyway.) This particular school also had a reputation for great teachers and producing well-mannered students. Since starting preschool there, my days consisted of singing psalms during daily devotion and reciting the Lord’s prayer off by heart. Every Easter we’d watch gruesome biopics about Jesus’ crucifixion. I knew no different and so I was all in when it came to Christianity.

But from that afternoon onwards, when Tammy implored me to keep questioning, my relationship with God became much more casual. Slowly, I started drawing my own conclusions.

In Year 4, my teacher sat the class down and took us through the story of creation. She read to us from the Bible and then fielded our questions, from what space looked like to what exactly God had made.

‘God created the universe and everything in it,’ she said, closing the Bible. ‘Before that, there was nothing.’

I raised my hand. ‘But who created God?’

My teacher cocked her head at me, puzzled. ‘What do you mean?’

‘What was there before God?’

‘God was always there.’

‘But if there was nothing in the universe before God, then how did God exist? Did He create Himself? Was He just in the air?’

My teacher smiled at me ruefully, as if I was being silly, and then moved on with the class. I wasn’t trying to be smart. How did my teacher know these things for certain? I knew that historically Jesus was a real person, but how could you prove that he was the Son of God when the Bible was written by a group of mortal men who had their own prerogatives? It soon became apparent to me that believing in God came down to faith, and I wasn’t sure if I had it.

Going into high school, I continued wiping coal on my face on Ash Wednesdays, attending religious camps and leading services as a house captain, but my heart wasn’t in it. I did feel connected to something, but it didn’t feel anything like the God I’d been taught about.

I grew up with my mum, and although she attended a strict Catholic school she was never religious herself. She is, however, very spiritual; she’ll pay her respects and pray to her ancestors, believes in the supernatural, and still has strong, sacred ties to her deceased family members.

‘Mum, do you believe in God or Allah or Buddha or whatever is out there?’ I asked her one evening over dinner. I was in high school and working on homework at the table. An ad for the census had just played; I’d heard that the number of people identifying as non-religious in Australia was growing and growing.

‘I think I believe in a higher being, but not a god,’ she said. ‘God with a capital ‘G’ is so controversial, He says one thing and then does another–’

‘You mean contradictory,’ I interrupted, correcting her English.

‘If God exists why does he do such terrible things, like having paedophiles in the Church? And then God tells gay people there’s something wrong with them, but then Jesus says, “la la la, you must love and forgive everyone”? Like I said: so controversial.’

After leaving school, I dated a Christian man – someone who had studied the Bible extensively and was even training to become a minister. When we met, he hadn’t been to church in a year and was grappling with his relationship with God.

‘Say for example, same-sex marriage,’ he says over dinner on our second date. ‘In a social context and on a human level I totally agree that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, but as a Christian I still believe it’s wrong.’

I resist the urge to roll my eyes. For the most part, we agree to disagree – but when it comes to the topic of abortion and his pro-life stance, I blow up at him.

‘No one wants to have an abortion! If a woman chooses to it’s because she knows it’s the right thing to do, so you respect her decision because it’s her body and her life and you should value the wellbeing of a living human over an unborn group of cells, end of story!’ I bellow over our shared plates of sushi, eyes bulging at him, fists on table. Despite the fact I really liked this person, I’m not sure how I can face him again, let alone reconcile such fundamentally different belief systems.

I debrief to Tammy afterwards, needing her advice as someone who is agnostic but married to a Christian.

‘I’ll be as supportive as I can be when it comes to Christianity,’ said Tammy. ‘But the more people I meet, the more apparent it becomes to me that religion is a way for people to make sense of the senseless, or find meaning in chaos…’

‘Or come to terms with the fact there is no “meaning” to life besides making your own meaning?’

‘Yeah, so that’s what we believe. We look for meaning in all of those things that feel bigger than us or transcendent, like art and nature or whatever works for you, because we think we’ve only got one shot at life. But when you believe in a god, you’re working for eternal life. So it’s comforting to know someone’s got your back and holding you accountable or just listening to you.’

‘It’s a nice idea and I wish I could believe in it, but I just don’t.’

‘Me neither,’ says Tammy, shrugging her shoulders.


MY FRIEND AND I take the lift to the rooftop bar of a corporate building neither of us has stepped foot in before: we’re not the target clientele for this place. We smile politely as we pack ourselves into the elevator, which is filled with impeccably made-up women in stunning cocktail dresses. They’re all clutching bags from boutique stores and hampers bursting with toiletry packs and pyjama sets. My friend and I exchange uneasy looks, hopeful that these women aren’t attending the same event.

Is it customary to bring presents to a hen’s night? I text Tammy. She’s been to enough weddings to know the etiquette, whereas this is the first of my friends to get hitched.

In my experience, no, but that might be because everyone I know is a cheapskate, Tammy replies. Why?

The elevator doors pop open and the women in the lift spill out, hugging the bride-to-be and showering her with their gifts. My friend and I gulp, and in the area designated for presents we bury our meager offering between two bulging hampers. We bought the bride a ten-dollar scratchie and a card with a golfing design – obviously made for fathers – as a joke.

‘Just in case they’re doing presents,’ my friend had said, when we’d rendezvoused in the building’s foyer. We’d hastily scrawled funny messages onto the card and then stuffed it into an envelope with the scratchie. We’re both freelancers finding our feet; we can’t afford much else.

The bar reeks of money. It boasts a 360-degree view of the city, and the other patrons are evidently born of the kind of wealth I rarely encounter – all boat shoes and stilettos and futuristic-looking baby prams. We take a seat in a booth beside some friends of the bride we haven’t met before. Through general chitchat, we learn that all of the other women have full-time jobs and long-term partners. One of them is pregnant. They wear the kinds of expensive, brand-name clothing I imagine myself wearing once I’ve grown up. Except the problem is I am grown up; I’m already in my mid twenties. By my age, my parents had two children, a thriving restaurant and a house that stretched across two blocks of land. They had a plan and they
had money.

I don’t have a plan besides working hard towards long-term career goals and hoping that, with some luck, I’ll make it. I don’t have a budget because the amount of money I earn changes each week, depending on what writing project I’m undertaking or which publication decides to pay me on time. And if I’m completely honest, superannuation and the taxation system are greater mysteries to me than the whereabouts of flight MH370.

I’m mid conversation with someone sitting in our booth, a teacher, when she excuses herself and starts fiddling on her phone.

‘This is really rude of me, but I just got a reminder from my bank about my mortgage payments. I forgot to pay it yesterday, so I have to do it now. One sec.’

She says this with mock annoyance and a thinly veiled air of superiority. I glance at my friend and she pointedly takes another swig of her cider. We both order another drink and then someone suggests we take a group photo against the skyline. As one of the shorter girls, I squat in the front row and do my best balancing on a pair of scuffed heels I bought from a discount shoe store above a bus station.

Afterwards, I lock myself in the bathroom and text Tammy. The bathroom has sensor lights, marble walls, real potted orchids and a slanted, stone basin that makes me feel like I’m defecating in an art gallery.

Everyone bought presents! I type, in a panic. We bought her a scratchie, split between TWO PEOPLE.

Tammy responds with a row of laughing emojis. I’m sure your friend’s going to find the scratchie hilarious.

Later, when the presents are opened, there’s a huge amount of love and goodwill in the room, but there’s also an underlying competitive edge. Whose gift is most impressive? Who was willing to spend big money? I suddenly feel poor, which I am, relatively speaking – I’ve always lived below the poverty line – but I’ve always been able to afford rent and groceries and outings with friends; I’ve never wanted for anything. But I can’t shake the feeling that because I don’t have a salary I’m somehow inadequate. That I’m simply a child masquerading as an adult.

The moment I get home I scrub the layers of make-up off my face and hop into a hot shower. I lather soap into my underarms and think about how I’m home early because I can’t afford to take part in the rest of the hen’s night, which involves expensive drinks and paying to get into nightclubs. I think about how, unless I choose another profession or somehow make it big overnight or win the lottery, I’ll never earn anything close to what my peers with full-time jobs might. Again, I think about my parents and older siblings and what they’d achieved financially by my age: houses and children and private schooling.

As hot water stings my eyes, I will myself to stop thinking. Having money doesn’t equate to being successful, and it’s an exercise in futility comparing myself to my parents and people of their generation, who made their fortune at a different time, when money-making came with its own set of unique challenges. When I step out of the shower I check the messages on my phone. There’s one from the bride-to-be.

Thanks for coming today! Just opened your killer present. I cracked the shits laughing.


MY HEART IS thumping in my ears so I try focusing on something else – the exposed brick in the café walls, the framed artwork for sale, the air-conditioning tubes hanging from the ceiling – and will myself to relax, to enjoy spending this hour away from my desk. Tammy sits opposite me on our rickety table checking work emails on her phone as we wait for our lunch to arrive.

‘Day off?’ says the waiter who delivers our coffees.

‘Oh, not really,’ says Tammy, shooting me a pained look. Everyone else in the café is either a young professional in business attire or a retiree. We look out of place in our casual clothing, like we’re on holidays. We don’t want to have to explain ourselves.

‘What do you guys do?’

‘I’m a photographer,’ says Tammy.

‘I’m a writer,’ I say.

We speak like we’re at an AA meeting, our tones rehearsed, self-conscious.

‘That’s so interesting!’ says the waiter. ‘I always think people who follow their creative passions are super brave.’

Tammy smiles politely and I stare into my coffee, suppressing a groan. Conversations about creativity are a pet peeve of ours; we know we’re in a position of privilege to be making art in the first place, and being told we’re brave only reinforces the idea that art is a hobby and what we do isn’t serious.

When the waiter leaves, I drain my coffee in big gulps, willing time to pass more quickly. Tammy watches me, concerned.

‘How’s sissy?’ she asks. She suggested we come out for lunch because I’ve been running myself into the ground with deadlines.

‘Oh, you know,’ I say, wiping my mouth. ‘I feel like I’ve been on the brink of a nervous breakdown for the past four years, but otherwise fine.’

‘Welcome to my life,’ says Tammy, wryly. ‘Freelancing, right?’

‘I guess I didn’t realise until recently that freelancing is like being at uni forever. You’re constantly learning and studying and having to file things on time.’ I crack my knuckles loudly, which offers a sting of pain that helps distract me from my anxiety. Tammy flinches at the sound.

‘I know it’s hard but you have to remember to take breaks because no one else is going to tell you to,’ she says.

Our lunch arrives and we start swapping food across our plates; Tammy takes the capsicum from my salad and I take the chips that have too much sauce splattered on them.

‘I’m tired and stressed out all the time,’ I say, shoveling food into my mouth.

‘Don’t you ever just switch off?’ says Tammy. ‘You know those moments where you’re not thinking about anything?’

I stare at Tammy blankly and then shake my head: ‘No.’ I know the feeling she’s talking about but I haven’t experienced it for a long time. Since finishing university, I haven’t stopped working let alone thinking. I’ve filled the four years with writing for journals, pitching ideas to magazines, running workshops, delivering talks, applying for grants, entering competitions, sitting in writer’s rooms and working casually in a retail job to supplement my income. I’m always thinking about what needs to be done next – which emails take priority, which invoices haven’t been paid yet – and spend every spare moment I have from one project working on another one.

As a young artist I feel like I can never stop; I feel crushed by the uncertainty of irregular pay cheques as well as the pressure to be achieving greater things faster and younger. I’m sure this kind of insane work ethic applies to many jobs, but for artists it’s a lack of job security that feeds an imperative to be constantly moving, striving and hustling.

‘Would you ever work somewhere permanently?’ I ask. Tammy is a documentary photographer and photojournalist, but for a while she worked as a studio photographer and sometimes shoots weddings to make ends meet.

‘Working for a broadsheet paper would have been good, but those jobs don’t exist anymore because no one can afford their own photographers,’ says Tammy. ‘It’s not like how it used to be, where there were cadetships and placements. Now you have to forge your own path.’ Tammy finishes her salad and pushes her plate aside. We’ve been at lunch for almost an hour; to my surprise, I’ve lost track of the time. ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?’ she asks.

‘No matter what I did, I think I’d always come back to writing. It’s just how I make sense of things and it gives me a platform in a way that other things don’t.’

Tammy nods, understanding. In many ways, we’re in the same boat. As young people, it’s assumed that we’re inexperienced. As women, it’s assumed that we’re incompetent. As Asians, we’re often made to feel unwelcome. Most of the time, we’re only ever heard through our work, and even that can be hard when as minorities we have to try twice as hard to be seen half the time. Couple that pressure with a need to stay connected and relevant across social media, and then layer on high rates of mental illness (in Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged twenty-five to forty-four) and you’ve got a dangerous combination.

At a recent appointment with my psychologist, during which I sat in the middle of her couch hugging two cushions and having an anxiety attack about the amount of work I hadn’t done that week (‘It’s never enough,’ I groaned), she told me that I needed to designate at least one day of the week to doing nothing.

‘Like a weekend,’ she offered. ‘Where you can’t do anything related to work.’

‘I’ll try,’ I said, weakly.

‘Do something fun!’ she said. ‘You’re so hard on yourself.’

These days, I time manage so I’m only answering emails at certain points during the day. I don’t work in the evenings unless it’s absolutely necessary. I mark a day in my diary with stickers, filling the space so that I can’t write anything down – no appointments, no errands, and no work.

When I first introduced this routine, I didn’t know what to do with myself; I’d wander around the house, watch half of a movie, and then lie down on my bed staring at the ceiling thinking this ‘relaxing’ caper is a huge waste of time. But slowly I’ve been getting better. I cross-stitch. I go for runs. I see my friends. I make toys for my cat. I do small, basic things that remind me to stay present.

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