The old house in Malaysia had laundry lines strung across the first floor balcony. Through a small latched gate in the balcony railing, I could step off the balcony, onto the carport roof to make use of the additional space if I had more laundry than usual. It was an ideal spot, receiving the morning sun.
The house was on a no-through road and everybody else had lived there for one or two generations. I was the latest addition, having married into the family. It didn’t take long for all the neighbours to know I was pregnant, and everybody knew when I delivered because of the row of cloth nappies hanging over the carport. Those white flags were as good as any community broadcasting service.
When we moved to New Zealand, the laundry lines were located on the western side, between the house and the fence, a location chosen for discretion rather than sunlight receiving properties. It has been that way for every house I’ve moved to ever since, whether in New Zealand or Australia.
Does this mean that Malaysians value privacy less than New Zealanders? After all, in Malaysia, you can drop by for a meal unannounced, call after 9 p.m., and feast all day at other people’s homes during festivals like Chinese New Year, Christmas and Hari Raya.
Yet, in other ways, Malaysians, or more broadly, Asians, can be incredibly private. There is an unspoken code for what is private and what is public. Celebrations are public; family troubles are private. I think that this stems from a sense of family loyalty and the wish to maintain the honour of the family name.
Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston begins her memoir The Woman Warrior with the words: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you…” Her mother then speaks of an aunt who became pregnant in China. One night, villagers attacked the family home on account of what they conclude must have been an act of adultery. Maxine’s mother found the body of the aunt and the newborn child plugging up the family well the next day.
It’s clear from the opening line that Hong Kingston is about to disregard what her mother told her. She’s not only going to tell someone; she’s going to write a book and tell the world.
Why did she do that? I can’t speak for her, but my experience is that family secrets keep people caged up and prevent them from receiving support at times of great need.
It would be presumptuous to conclude that Asians value their privacy less than Westerners. In fact, the location of those laundry lines over the car port had more to do with the pragmatism of my mother-in-law’s generation in an era before neighbourhoods were prettified. You won’t see laundry lines as you drive by Tropicana Golf and Country Club bungalows today. Furthermore, the Asian welcome of the unexpected guest comes not from a scant regard for privacy, but from a culture of gracious hospitality.
As I grow older, I see the choice more clearly: if I have to choose between respectability and wellbeing, I would choose wellbeing. Better to confide in a trusted friend, than to suffer in silence. It is not to air dirty laundry that we speak of family secrets; it is to deny those secrets the power to confuse and cripple us.
Of immeasurable worth, anywhere in the world, in any culture, is the friend who will listen and not gossip, who will accept me as I am, tell me the truth, and walk with me through hard times. Some things are universal. True friendship is one of them.
Next week: the role migrants play in welcoming newer migrants.