Life lessons from our Asian mother


Benjamin Law and Michelle Law

Author Benjamin Law.

Author Benjamin Law.


Ben: White people are always asking me, “How does your mum look so young?” And it’s true: Jenny is turning 60 this year, but even now, she has the miraculously smooth skin of an infant. Men who are technically old enough to be her children ogle her. It’s gross, but Mum just cackles when this happens, speculating that maybe she can become a “kruger” (“cougar”).

Author Michelle Law.

Author Michelle Law. Photo: Tammy Law

Part of her secret is something most Asian mothers have in common: a skin-care regimen that borders on the military. Because of the premium placed on pale skin, Asian women tend to be sun-smart and moisture-conscious from a young age. Even as kids, Mum told us to apply sunscreen during the day and moisturiser at night. In the ‘90s, when it suddenly became popular for men to use moisturiser, I was baffled.


“Wait,” I thought. “Doesn’t everyone moisturise already? What are you? Mud people?” Nowadays, when people ask about my Mum’s secret, I tell them, “Well, she’s used Clinique since the 1980s.” One of my friends scoffed. “No, Ben,” she said. “Your mum’s secret is that she was born Asian.” Well, there is that, I suppose.  


The authors' mum, Jenny.

The authors' mum, Jenny.

Take Your Shoes Off

Ben: In the early 2000s, I was going through a hippie phase when, rather than buying necessities like shoes, I simply went without them, denouncing footwear as bourgeois. I’d walk around my inner-Brisbane suburb barefoot, with a fire-twirling stick in one hand, weighing up the pros and cons of growing out my hair into dreadlocks.

When Mum saw me walking in public barefoot, she freaked out. “Put some shoes on!” she shrieked, like an alarmed bird. “What if you stepped on broken glass, or a needle filled with AIDS?” Asian mums have a thing about shoes. But while they’re mandatory outdoors, you must take them off indoors. Some people might think this is quaint, but our mother will tell you it’s basic hygiene. “Don’t people know where their shoes have been?” she says. “Standing near a piss trough, then they walk all over their carpets and spread germs all over the house.”

Now, whenever I see white people – in real life or on TV – hopping into bed with their shoes on, I basically want to vomit. Recently though, I visited some Caucasian Australian friends who live in Beijing, and they asked me to take off my shoes. Rather than being offended or taken aback, I thought to myself smugly, “Well, well, well. The world is learning.”


No sleepovers

Michelle: Due in part to Mum’s strictness and in part to her Asian-ness, she prohibited all of my siblings and I from attending sleepovers at friends’ houses. This wasn’t an ideal situation considering that we lived on the Sunshine Coast, a predominantly white culture where being an ethnic kid meant you were already on the outskirts. But Mum had her reasons, however unfounded and borderline racist they may have been.

“White people are very chi-sien (crazy-reckless)—you might get hurt or poisoned or even killed and then how would I live with myself?” She would relay horror stories she’d heard on the news and current affairs programs. “Didn’t you hear about that girl who went to a sleepover and saw that horror movie with the screaming mask? Now she is traumatized for LIFE. She will never be the same again!”

I never told her that once, at my aunt’s house, my older cousins had fallen asleep with the television on. SBS was playing a Chinese horror film about a vengeful ghost who also happened to be a rapist and I’d been haunted ever since.


Maintain your feminine hygiene

Michelle: In Ipoh, a small Malaysian town where Mum was born and spent her early childhood, she and her siblings grew up calling vaginas ‘pippies’. To this day, for me, the seafood is synonymous with female genitalia. Mum told my sisters and me that we needed to scrub our ‘pippies’ thoroughly every evening: put some elbow grease into it and work the scud out from underneath both layers of lips.

And don’t forget that women have two holes! So after using the toilet, we needed to wipe front to back to prevent contracting urinary tract infections. This very valid obsession with feminine hygiene also extended to using public toilets. “There are so many people in the world, and people carry diseases,” Mum warned. “People have yucky genital warts and fishy-smelling vaginas and you have to protect your virgin-pippy.”

For this reason, we were instructed to layer public toilet seats with thick wads of toilet paper before even thinking of sitting down. If no paper was available you squatted, even if it was a number two. Besides, it was good practice for the day we would one day have kids; start those pelvic floor exercises while you’re ahead.


Sh*t Asian Mothers Say by Benjamin Law and Michelle Law is published by Nero and available in bookshops from this Wednesday 26 March