Something in the water

Michael Sun realised his parents were unlikely anti-vaxxers

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I have always been an unashamedly Bad Traveller. I have lost more important items whilst on holiday than I have digits. I am constantly scrambling to find my passport on the morning of my flight underneath piles of miscellaneous toiletries. And – despite my best attempts – I always end up in clothing that is more seasonally appropriate for my origin than my destination. It is this last vacation sin that I found myself committing in the middle of a Kuala Lumpur road in a masochistically tight thermal turtleneck from Uniqlo in the peak of Malaysian summer.
I sucked the last ice cubes from my teh tarik into my cheeks: a desperate attempt to cool down that involves a great deal of gnathic manoeuvring with very little success. I was so focused on my mouth that I barely noticed my friend, who shook my arm and took away my plastic cup in one swift motion.

“The water here has typhoid!” he warned, and before I was able to debunk his exclamation as another xenophobic exaggeration the whole group erupted in cries of “See you in hospital!”, “You can’t eat the ice here!” and, “I hope you’ve had your travel vaccinations!” I let out a laugh, but it was an uneasy one.

I hope you’ve had your travel vaccinations.

I hadn’t, and later when I texted my mum it quelled no fears. “We’ve never been vaccinated when travelling,” she messaged back, “Why would we start now?” The word anti-vaxxer immediately – and uncomfortably – intruded into my thoughts and as much I tried to dispel it, I can’t help but remember sitting alone in a high school classroom while all my peers received booster injections; my mother and father shaking their heads when I handed them my teachers’ note about the dangers of hepatitis B; their hushed, whispered warnings against the annual flu shot; the way that “it’s not effective” and “it’ll make you sicker” bookended every conversation I had with my parents at the beginning of every winter.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines for all travellers to Malaysia, but lying in my hotel bed that night, my concern extended beyond just my own health. As a child I believed instinctively what I was taught to believe, but this time something told me I couldn’t justify my lack of vaccinations with a Bad Traveller excuse and a breathy laugh.

No-one wants to confront the fact that their parents may be guilty of intentionally harming their child.

When I think about the anti-vaxxer movement I think of lunatics and conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians who despise modern medicine. My mother and father are none of those things, and perhaps part of the reason I still have yet to book a visit to the GP is that I will never be able to reconcile my dichotomous perceptions of them: my parents the loving, caring couple, and my parents the anti-vaxxers.