My mother was asked to call her Beth. Her formal name was Elizabeth. But she asked me to call her Aunty Bell. She was our live-in housekeeper, my nanny and she assisted my mother as cook.
She hailed from Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca has a colorful colonial history with both Portuguese and British colonizations, in addition to other European influences. Aunty Bell was Eurasian – a mix of Asian and European ancestry. Indeed, by the 1970s, Europeans had been colonizing, living in and occupying large parts of Asia for well over a century. Eurasians became more and more integrated into general South-East Asian populations as time went on. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_(mixed_ancestry)#Malaysia.
When Aunty Bell came to us, I was about six and a half years old, nearly seven. Aunty Bell had never been married. She lived in our house all week. She would spend the weekends with her sisters.
My parents both worked, so I spent a good part of my days with Aunty Bell. In those early days, I lapped up Aunty Bell’s stories with thirsty curiosity. She was a plump, olive-skinned lady with a curly mop of hair and a twinkle in her eye. So here was this Eurasian lady who became a big part of my world. She was vivacious, affectionate and had a colorful vocabulary.
The latter fact scandalized me because my mother was always particular that I not curse or swear, for fear that I would become rough and unladylike. But when my mother was out of earshot, Aunty Bell could swear with the best of them. But she only cursed when she was truly angry. I am sure that she did not want to curse excessively, given that she saw herself as a pious and dutiful Roman Catholic.
Independence and Dignity
My mother never let me talk down to Aunty Bell. Aunty Bell also, never let her relatively humble financial standing give anyone reason to pity her. She was fiercely proud. The fact was that she was independent and able to stand on her own two feet.
An interesting fact about children is that they don’t see race or color as a negative, if at all, unless they are conditioned to do so. So, while my mother had to be the employer and boss to Aunty Bell, I got to be like a niece to her. I hung around Aunty Bell, had endless conversations with her and could just enjoy our bond. And so, for five years of my childhood, Aunty Bell helped care for me.
Bonding and Affection
In a previous post, https://atomic-temporary-179067651.wpcomstaging.com/2021/02/07/acceptance-respect-and-understanding, I wrote about how I learnt to see and accept people over time. My experience growing up around Aunty Bell was also influential in shaping my worldview. Aunty Bell was a warm, generous and kind soul. She had as much influence on how I saw diversity, as anyone else, in those early years of my life.
She had earned that title of ‘Aunty’ by virtue of her affection and care towards the introverted, day-dreaming, occasionally mischievous child, that I was. I developed a deep affection for her over time.
I often wonder what I would have been like if Aunty Bell had not come into my life.
We are so much richer when we bond with people of various races, colors and backgrounds. When we don’t judge or reject people because they are different, we open ourselves to being deeply enriched. We are enriched by their natures, warmth and worldview. When we give people a chance to show themselves, we see their humanity.
In my case, my childhood was shaped by this incredible lady with so much affection, fun and joy to give. I will always be grateful for that.