The trauma of discipline - Griffith Review
Memoir

The trauma of discipline

What constitutes a reasonable chastisement?

THE TILES IN the kitchen were white, with a grey diamond pattern. The grout was a light greying brown – I’m sure it had been white at some point, but we didn’t mop the tiles as much as we should have. They were cold on my feet, especially in winter, especially when I’d forgotten where I’d left my indoor slippers. I spent a lot of time looking at those tiles, my eyes downcast. I was afraid to meet my parents’ eyes, especially when they were angry. When I became a teenager, this anger would manifest in the form of prolonged yelling. But when I was a child, my punishment, more often than not, was a specific number of strikes of the cane.

There were other punishments, too. They included ‘罰跪’ – kneeling on the tiles, facing the wall, for a specific period of time – and I was once locked out of the house and made to sit outside while the rest of my family ate their dinner. But the canes were my parents’ most commonly employed tactic against my sister and me – probably because, in their eyes, they were the most effective.

I think the canes were strips of bamboo. I don’t know how my parents acquired them, or how they kept getting fresh ones, but the ones in use were stored next to the bread and the fruit bowl in an alcove next to the pantry. They were about a metre long, skinny – as thick as a HB pencil, and a light tan brown, with dark-brown bands encircling them intermittently. One end was tied off in a looped twist that looked like a Q – this was the end that would be gripped in calm, white-knuckled fury. The other end was for inflicting punishment.

The fresh canes were tied up neatly with a rubber band and lived on the top shelf in my parents’ walk-in wardrobe. Each one began straight, but after a few uses, a slight bend would appear. It was preferable to be hit with a fresh cane, because the old ones would fray after a couple of uses, creating a cat-o’-nine-tails effect that allowed the split bamboo to generate what I can only describe as an aftershock.

When I talk about being caned, I don’t mean a rap on the knuckles or a few light taps. The strokes were usually unleashed on my bottom, the number determined by a combination of the mood of the administering parent and the severity of my wrongdoing. Backchat meant one or two strokes, with more added if I was silly enough to keep going. Failing to finish my maths or Chinese homework could get me a few strokes, too. Banging around and carrying on in frustration – an imitation of my parents when they were angry – was another sure-fire way to earn five or ten strokes, depending on my parents’ mood.

Sometimes I was given a choice – to be caned on my bottom, or on the palms of my hands. Mum always managed to convince me that it would hurt more on my hands: ‘因為屁股上有比較多肉’. Logically, this made sense, as there was indeed more flesh on my bottom than on my hands. Once, Dad was so angry the lashes ended up on my lower back instead of my bottom, and I remember running my hands along those raised red welts for days afterwards. The strokes were usually administered in places that wouldn’t show when I went out in public, barring the occasional strike that accidentally landed across my thighs.

Being caned, like any sort of physical punishment, is an experience that triggers all five senses. There is the smell of fear, of knowing what is about to happen, knowing there is no escape. I often kept my eyes closed, but if I wasn’t fast enough, I would sometimes see a flash of light brown before I felt the cane strike my skin. There is the sting, a sharp pain that reverberates outward from the point of impact. This was always compounded by the next stroke, which came too quickly for any endorphins to kick in. And there is the sound of the cane – the thwack – with maybe a few smaller thwacks if the cane is split at the ends. There is the taste of blood in my mouth, the taste of tears as they roll down my cheeks and meet my lips. And then there is release – physical, emotional and mental, all at once. But this only came after the strokes – an allocated number, or however many the cane-wielding parent deemed appropriate at the time – had been delivered.

I don’t remember how many times I was caned during my childhood, but I remember how the threat of it loomed over everything I did and said. As a result, I became very good at shutting down, very good at staying quiet even if I knew I had a case to argue, or if I thought I was in the right. The less I said, the faster any altercation would be over, and the smaller the chance I would have of being on the receiving end of a cane. I was already a quiet, shy child, and knowing the cane could be brought out at any time, for any reason, made me withdraw even further.

I also became stoic. I resolved that my parents would not get a reaction out of me. I would be quiet; I would not make any noise. I might flinch, but that would be the extent of my response. I would not cry out loud, I would not complain. I would calmly pull up my pants after it was done and walk out of the room. I might cry later, but I would cry into my pillow. I would not give my parents the satisfaction of seeing those tears.

My sister did not have the temperament to stay quiet. She would snap back at my parents, which made everything worse; then she would argue all the way, wailing and screaming, trying to bargain her way out of her punishment – and when that didn’t work, trying to bargain her punishment down. My parents would laugh about it afterwards, which seemed cruel to me. They would imitate her cries of ‘我們可以商量一下?’– ‘Can we discuss this?’ – as a joke, a joke we were expected to laugh at. I remember pulling my sister aside one day after she’d been hit and quietly telling her that all she had to do was keep her mouth shut and not talk back. Then it would be over more quickly. Then she could go back to doing whatever she had been doing.

‘I just can’t do that,’ she replied, tears dropping from her eyes. ‘I know you can, but I just can’t.’ I didn’t know what to say in response. I nodded, gave her a hug and walked away.

I was maybe eight or nine years old – only two years older than my little sister. I wanted so desperately to protect her, but I was just a kid. I remember thinking pain and physical punishment couldn’t possibly be the most effective way of getting a child to do the right thing. I remember thinking kindness would have been a better motivator than fear, that maybe if I was spoken to like an adult – respectfully, and with a chance to tell my side of the story – then maybe we could all learn from the experience. I remember thinking it seemed wrong – and I was sure that other kids at school weren’t subjected to the same kind of physical punishment. I still felt this when, as a teenager, I encountered the terms ‘domestic violence’ and ‘child abuse’. At the time, I wondered if those definitions applied to my parents’ disciplinary approach. But I didn’t think about it for very long – this wasn’t real domestic violence or real child abuse, I thought.

I also didn’t know who I could talk to about it. I suspect there was an element of shame associated with telling anyone. The very act of pulling down my pants to expose my bottom was humiliating, especially for a young girl. And a strong, ingrained sense of filial devotion doesn’t just mean no backchat or no striking back – it means the thought of doing so never even crossed my mind.

I did want to tell someone, but I knew that doing so might get my parents into trouble, and the consequences of that would be worse than just a caning. I imagined scenarios where my parents were taken away from me, where my sister and I were split up, where I’d never see her again. I imagined scenarios where my parents would be investigated, let go, and after their return, I would get into an unbelievable amount of trouble for reporting them in the first place.

The concept of seeking revenge didn’t occur to me – although I did think about taking the canes and hiding them, or cutting them up and putting them in the bin. I never put these thoughts into action; maybe I was too scared of being caught. Maybe it was simply because I knew my parents would find more canes – wherever they got them from – and the punishments would continue.

I kept my mouth shut.

Sometimes I wondered what our neighbours thought of the sounds that would emanate from our house. I knew they could hear the strains of our piano and cello and violin practice, so they could surely also hear the thwacks of the cane, or my sister’s cries and screams. I hoped someone (and in my imagination, it was always a white woman) would walk by, hear our sounds of distress and rush in to save us: my version of a modern-day fairytale.

 

I DO NOW see what happened to me as a child as domestic violence, as child abuse, but this is not a thought I can hold in my mind for very long. For one, it doesn’t match with the images I associate with domestic violence and child abuse: black eyes, broken limbs, sexual assault. I was caned when I was a kid – that’s nothing compared with the seventy-nine women and twenty-two children that Impact for Women have reported dying in Australia in 2018, most at the hands of someone they knew or loved.

It’s been more than fifteen years since I was caned, but I still carry the subtle trauma of those punishments. The sound of a whip crack can bring me to tears. I get nervous when a parent spanks a child who’s having a tantrum in the supermarket: I think about what might be happening in the privacy of their own home, but then I remind myself that my family was always a picture of domestic bliss when we were in public.

Dad became a stay-at-home-dad after I was born, and as a result, he saw more of my sister and me – the good and the bad. I didn’t realise until much later how unusual this was, how the casual conversations we had while he drove me to cello lessons or abacus lessons would colour his understanding of me as a person in a way Mum, more absent, would never truly have. Some of my favourite moments with Dad were when we were in the car together – I remember him driving straight through a red light as we talked through a particularly tough maths problem, the two of us dissolving into giggles when I pointed this out to him, and him making me promise I wouldn’t tell Mum when we got home. But this closeness didn’t bridge the divide between adult and child, between what we knew and what my parents decided we didn’t need to know in the name of protection.

Dad was sick through much of our childhood: he had a collection of small cancerous metastases in his liver that meant he eventually needed a liver transplant. This cancer was a result of chronic hepatitis B contracted while working in Malaysia – a story I only heard eight years after his transplant. We were, again, in the car, the conversation sparked by an offhand comment that I had started seeing a new GP who was Indian. ‘An Indian doctor saved my life,’ Dad began, while I listened to his story in stunned silence and tried not to cry.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to negotiate young children, some level of culture shock in moving to a new country and a disease with no cure that could – and did – result in the need to replace an organ. I understand now that Dad’s irrational outbursts may not have been proportional to our actions – that we were not wholly responsible for the level of anger directed towards us. He probably didn’t have much control over his emotions and their physical manifestations at the time.

Even though my parents kept things from us, they didn’t keep any secrets from each other. If we’d done something wrong on one parent’s watch, we knew the other parent would know as soon as they saw the other again, and they almost always discussed any punishment before it was doled out. Dad hit me more often than Mum, and he often hit much harder. In my overactive imagination, it seemed as if Mum was the queen, the one in charge, calling the shots, while Dad, the executioner, acquiesced to her requests. And as an adult, I’m glad no one did rush in to ‘save us’ from our parents. If this had happened, it might have further complicated my conception and understanding of the white saviour complex and reinforced some problematic social norms.

Still, my childhood home feels like a site of mild trauma that probably won’t ever truly subside. It is a place of silences, assumptions and absolute obedience, a place where the past is acknowledged in smiling family photos and amusing anecdotes. Even now, my parents still joke about the fact that the two phrases my sister knows how to say in Fuchow, their dialect, are ‘Have you practised the piano yet?’ and ‘Hit on the bottom’.

My parents aren’t bad people. We always had enough to eat, we had great educations, we were given almost all the opportunities we wanted – and even some we didn’t. I believe, wholeheartedly, that they thought they were doing what was best for us. Like all humans, they are nuanced, with their own experiences and biases. And so I harbour a sort of cognitive dissonance around all of this; it’s hard to reconcile their genuine love for my sister and me, their desire for us to do well in life, with this violent act of caning, and their willingness to sweep away the consequences of such acts through a combination of jokes and silences.

Over the years, I have wrestled with an ingrained compulsion not to talk about these things – to save face on behalf of my family. But I’ve also wanted to reach out to others who may have had similar experiences, to tell them they are not alone. There are still large silences and gaps in the conversation around this kind of domestic violence, especially when an interplay of cultural values is present.

My parents grew up in Malaysia, where caning is a form of legal corporal punishment. Like the colonial European architecture that fills the George Town skyline in Penang, and simmering tensions between the Malays, the Indians and the Chinese, caning as a form of judicial punishment is yet another remnant of British colonial rule. It’s still used against both adults and minors, and is widespread throughout primary and secondary schools. Technically, only boys are allowed to be caned, and under strict rules – including the stipulation that only the headmaster can administer the caning, that it is to take place in a confined area for privacy reasons and that it can only occur on the palm or over clothed buttocks. Even so, there is evidence that girls are also routinely punished in this manner. In one article, I’ve read about a girl of primary-school age whose teacher caned students for spelling mistakes and other minor infractions. In another article, I’ve read about an eight-year-old girl allegedly caned on her hands and legs by a teacher at a tuition centre in Malacca because she hadn’t finished her homework.

My mother’s father was headmaster of a Chinese primary school, and both my parents attended Chinese schools in Malaysia during the 1970s; I’m sure they would have met the wrong side of the cane at least once in their childhoods. At the very least, they would have seen classmates and friends punished this way – this form of punishment would have seemed normal to them.

In Australia, corporal punishment is banned in all government schools, but in Queensland, it’s still legal in non-government schools. There have been no reported incidents of such punishment occurring in these schools, but some advocates – such as former teacher and New South Wales MP Alan Corbett – are concerned by the lack of an outright ban, as it means caning could technically be reinstated at any time.

In Queensland homes, corporal punishment is legal if it constitutes ‘reasonable chastisement’. More specifically, the section of Queensland’s criminal code (Criminal Code Act 1899) that deals with ‘domestic discipline’ states that it’s ‘lawful for a parent to use, by way of correction, discipline, management or control, toward a child or pupil, under the person’s care, such force that is reasonable under the circumstances’. But what does ‘reasonable’ mean in this context? Who determines what is reasonable and what isn’t? Another piece of legislation, the Child Protection Act 1999, states, ‘a person must not use corporal punishment or punishment that humiliates, frightens or threatens the child in a way that is likely to cause emotional harm.’ Who determines if the punishment administered has caused, or will cause in the future, emotional harm? This question is complicated by the fact that as children, my sister and I weren’t encouraged to talk about our emotions or engage with them in any sort of reflexive way. I’m sure my parents would have thought their level of discipline was reasonable, and that it didn’t really cause us any emotional damage. If you’d asked me or my sister at the time – especially if we were out of our parents’ earshot – we would have disagreed.

The debate over the propriety of physically punishing children as a method of discipline has been going on for years, and will probably still be going on if and when I become a parent. I won’t administer any kind of physical punishment: my own experiences have informed that decision. But I hope I would still think this if I hadn’t been caned as a child.

 

RECENTLY, AS MY dad was driving me home from dinner, he admitted that he regretted hitting us so much when we were children. We were near the same intersection where he’d run that red light so many years ago, and he told me how proud he was that my sister and I had grown into such great adults. As he continued to navigate the traffic, with the streetlights winking at us, he told me he wished he’d been given us a more carefree childhood; that if he could do it all again, he’d make sure we had more time to play and go on holidays. I struggled to keep back my tears, knowing a sob might break his train of thought. I’d always known him as a man of few words, and I wanted to give him the chance to talk for as long as he wanted or needed.

I was touched by his admission, and even more so when my sister told me they’d had a similar conversation. I’d always known my dad to have a kind heart, even if his outward expressions and actions have suggested otherwise. I don’t think I truly realised how being sick had changed him, and how, after getting better, he’d had cause to reflect on his past. It must have been hard for him to admit any of this out loud to one daughter, let alone two, and I am grateful that he shared his thoughts with us.

I don’t remember exactly when the canings stopped, and my parents never told us why. There was just more yelling, more angry silence. Perhaps they realised the caning was doing more harm than good. I don’t know where those canes went, and I probably never will.

But every time I visit my parents’ house, I look in the alcove next to the pantry. There are the brown paper bags, the dried orange peels, the assorted seasonal fruit, maybe a loaf of sourdough. And even though I know they’re gone, I still half-expect to see the curve of a bamboo Q peeking out from the left-hand side of the alcove, a reminder that even seemingly reasonable chastisement can leave indelible marks that never really scrub clean.

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