Spotlight: Golden beaches
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Spotlight: Golden beaches

Why my parents moved to Queensland's beaches in the 1970s is beyond me. For two newly married Hong Kong migrants – neither of them able to swim and hailing from a culture that prizes fair skin – you'd have thought roaring beaches and unblinking white-hot sun would've been nightmarish. By the time my Ma Ma (Dad's mum) joined them, she'd only go to the beach wearing UV-protective apparel – long sleeves and gigantic wraparound sunglasses, the kind of clothes you'd associate with welding.

I grew up hating the beach for other reasons. All the popular kids at my school were surfers; white, tanned, athletic jocks who took to the ocean like a birthright. I was the resident skinny, closeted-homosexual Asian runt who could barely swim 25 metres without clutching onto a lane rope.

North Stradbroke Island.

North Stradbroke Island. Credit:Alamy Stock Photo

It wasn't until I moved to Sydney that I fell in love with the beach. For the first time, beaches felt like they were for everyone. Flocks of gays huddled in their speedos; hijabi women confidently carved through waves in burqinis. After getting confident with swimming, I got surfing lessons in Bondi. When my instructor and I talked about where we both grew up, he looked amused. Fair enough. Why had it taken me so long to appreciate something I'd had my entire childhood?

This spring, my family decided to do a double-whammy: celebrate Father's Day and my birthday on the same day. Most of my family are in Brisbane nowadays, so the plan was for me to fly in from Sydney. We'd head to the beaches of Stradbroke Island, get some seafood, swim in the sea, hopefully spot some whales and no one would argue.

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We needed it. Everyone had been slightly broken by the winter months – literally, in the case of Ma Ma, who was recovering from a fractured spine. When we gathered at our meeting spot in Brisbane, Ma Ma looked more frail than usual. She doesn't speak English and I only speak broken Cantonese, so we struggled through our conversation as always. "What's the point of living?" she said. "I'm useless."

"Do not be saying this thing," I said in terrible Cantonese. "You is not useless." I guided her into the car, hoping the sunshine would improve her mood.

North Stradbroke Island is one of the best places in the country to see whales from land. You access it by gigantic vehicle ferries – the kind where you drive on. Once we'd parked, Ma Ma struggled up the steep stairs, her adult grandkids behind her to ensure she didn't fall. It was colder on deck than expected, but the view was serene: herons and pied cormorants, mangroves and estuaries. My grandma peered out through her welder's sunglasses and purple puffer jacket. I saw her smile. We disembarked and surrendered ourselves to the sun.

I might have hated Queensland's beaches as a kid, but now I see them for what they are: the quintessential Australian family escape. It's all about melted ice-cream on your fingers, salt cracking on scorched skin and eating fresh oysters and cooked prawns by the bag. Sure, it moves at a different pace, but that's the point. Sometimes you need to retreat to a place where wearing thongs gets you into most places and long pants constitute dressing up.

We didn't see whales that day, but from the highest lookout we saw a school of tuna darting through the saltwater as we ate gelato. Ma Ma watched from a distance, catching her breath. "Are you be the happy?" I asked.

"Pretty happy," she said, as we licked our gelato, watching the tuna swim away and out of sight.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.