He steps out onto the footpath, away from the damp smells of the market. This is the suburb of madcap Franco Cuzzo and his polished furniture, the suburb that made Russell Crowe rich and famous for shaving his head and beating up ethnic minorities, so it doesn’t really matter that these footpaths are not lined with gold but dotted with coruscating black circles where people spat out gum eons ago. “Don’t swallow the rubber candy,” mothers say to their kids. “Spit it out. Spit it out now—that’s right, onto the ground there.” Ah, this wondrous new country where children are scared of dying because they have swallowed some Spearmint Wrigley’s, not because they stepped on a condensed milk tin filled with ammunition!
Back where my father came from, cars did not give way to people, people gave way to cars. To have a car in Cambodia you had to be rich. And if you had money, it meant that you could drive at whatever speed you pleased. If the driver zipping down the country road accidentally knocked over a peasant farmer, he knew he had better zoom away quick because the whole village might come and attack him with cleavers. The little Green Man was an eternal symbol of the government existing to serve and protect. And any country that could have a little green flashing man was benign and wealthy beyond imagining.
Later that evening, in the bed that fills up the entire small storeroom where they sleep, my mother and father lie thinking about their full tummies. “Wah, who would believe that they feed this good meat to dogs? How lucky to be a dog in this country!” My mother puts her hand on her sticking-out stomach and smiles. Good-oh, she thinks. Her baby is going to be born with lots of Good-O in her. Good stuff.
“Your father was trying to tell them that the beds were made to be slept in, when suddenly he was told that he was needed at the hospital. Something must have happened to me, your father thought. Why would a hospital need him? He thought about bringing along his acupuncture needles just in case, but there was no time. When he arrived at the hospital, he discovered that the doctors just wanted him to be there to see the baby come out!” In Cambodia the husbands usually find a chair and sit in from of the room where babies were being born until they heard the wahwahwah sounds, and it was only then that they would know that the whole messy business was over and they could find out whether the child had the desired dangly bits or not.
“Have you thought of a proper name for the baby yet?” my grandmother asks her son. She has nothing but disdain for those parents who do not give their children Chinese names. Did they really think that new whitewashed names would make the world outside see that yellow Rose was just as radiant a flower as white Daisy?
Beautiful things do not need to be expensive, and precious things are to be kept hidden in case of burglars, or guests with kleptomaniac fingers. My parents could never understand those houses where the Royal Doulton plates and family antiques were displayed for every eye to see. After war, people learn to keep good things hidden. They learn that nothing is permanent, and that the most beautiful things are not necessarily the most expensive.
Many old folk who became family friends take good care of them, tell them who are the good boys, and the old women watch with a cunning eye to see which young woman would be best suited for the son or cousin of so and so. “Ah Ly, I know a good young man for you.” And they sing the praises of someone’s son or someone’s brother—never mentioned by name, they are always someone’s son or someone’s male relative, because they do not exist in isolation of their family. No one exists in isolation of their family, and if they do, there are plenty of old people to look after them […].
When I am a bit older, I don’t know whether [my mother’s] answer is a lament or curse: “Just wait till you get older and have a mother-in-law like mine. Then you will understand. You will understand.” What will I understand? I wonder. Suffering? There are far better things to understand than the inconsolable hardships of life. Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it.
Or perhaps my word-spreading is also the only way to see that there was once flesh attached to these bones, that there was once something living and breathing, something that inhaled and exhaled; something that slept and woke up every morning with the past effaced, if only for a moment. That there was a good beginning, and in this good beginning the stories would come like slow trickles of truth, like blood coursing through the veins.
My grandmother was possessed of healing powers, or so it was claimed by those who knew her back in Cambodia. Five sons, people exclaimed—seven children, all of them so bright! Of course, everyone chose to forget about the first two babies who died, because they were just girls.
When it came down to childrearing, they were her children, he had nothing to do with such prosaic things. Fathers were only there to plant the seeds, it was mothers who did the watering and the fertilizing. Of course, the paternal influence would occasionally return to lop off a few leaves for good measure, and smirk for photographs in front of his prize garden, but he made sure to leave immediately afterwards in case the cumquats only glowed orange but were black inside. It was never the pa’s fault if the kids went bad.
“She’s built like a boy,” said my grandfather, “and now you’ve given her that terrible name. She’s going to grow up like a boy if you’re not careful, and then no one will want her. Who wants a girl always running about this way and that? Keep that child still, and stop calling her Little Brother! What do you think it is—some kind of joke? Do you think it’s funny hah?”
A lady was the most abhorred thing you could become, because ladies were lazy bums who sat around wasting their husband’s money and walked down the street with perfectly made-up mien visiting the jewelry stores to which my mother delivered her wares. My mother was certainly not a lady. She worked and worked and worked, and when she wasn’t working she was cleaning, and when she wasn’t cleaning or working she was sick. You could always tell who was a lady by what they complained about, the length of their nails and whether they put milk or butter into their coffee.
Coming of Age was explained to me in books, and in the books Judy Blume characters waited with delirious anticipation for their period. I didn’t see what the big deal was when it happened to me. So what? It just meant I could make babies if I felt the urge, and of course that was the last thing on my mind. So I wrote the date in my diary, and dreary life continued on as usual. Coming of Age for boys was infinitely more interesting, I thought, when I watched Stand by Me and Dead Poets Society. Boys formed friendships by discovering cadavers. They walked on railway tracks, started secret clubs, cried over their own cowardice and occasionally shot themselves in the head when pushed too far. It didn’t matter if girls were cowards, there was no opportunity or reason for us to test our bravery. All that mattered was that we could make a good pot of rice, had a pretty face and were fertile.
To raise a girl, I realized, you’d need gallons of Social Conditioner with added Spirit Deflator. Rub onto every limb until limp, put the child into a chair and wait until she sets. When appendages harden, you know you have a perfect young woman—so still and silent and sedate that you could wrap your precious one up in cotton wool and put her in a cabinet. Ah, look at the darling geisha behind glass.
As the house was being built, my father took his only day off work to drive us to its foundations. This was our weekly Sunday trip, to watch the temple being constructed and to worship the fruits of our labour.
Nothing could look too peasanty. No dark wooden furniture, but rather white and peach and pale green. Family came to visit, not to celebrate but to do the tour so that they could get home-furnishing ideas for their own houses, so that they too would look modern and not too peasanty.
I sat slumped in the back seat of the car. It was true, I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the English, it was that I didn’t have the Chinese terms in me to be able to explain. I was running out of words.
“Good. There are some cultures that still do this, aren’t there?” Then she turned to me. “For example, the Chinese. They believe in and worship many Gods. Don’t you, Alice?” And I did not think of my grandmother and her many gods, the chants, the plastic blue meditation mat, the swirls and whorls of the pattern on it - ten thousand shades of blue like a frenzied ocean, the smell of incense in my pores. The red-faced sword-wielding God whom we kept outside. The good-for-business God whom we called Grandfather. The Goddess of Mercy with her China-white face, her royal porcelain contentedness sitting serenely on a lotus surrounded by bald little babies, pouring water out of a vase. And the dust falling on them in the new house, because we no longer had Granny to maintain the shrine, and we no longer needed to light incense to hide the smell of baby pee rising from the carpets.
“Why don’t you get on stage too?” my parents asked me. As if I could just jump on stage with people I had never spoken three words to all year and insert myself gracefully into their picture. And suddenly the reality must have sunk in for my parents, for all the parents on our table, that their children were not more popular, that we did not talk to the beautiful people. It must have hit them hard—that we were still sticking by each other, sticking with each other, and not getting out, not fitting in. They had thought of this new life in simple cause-and-effect terms: that if they worked their backs off to send their children to the grammar school, then we would automatically mingle with the brightest and fairest of the state.
My grandmother was meant to be a part of me forever, so that I would always know that there was a life before me, and a life after me. My grandmother and her stories. What would I do without them? She asserted my existence before I knew I had one—before I was conscious I had a life beyond the present—and she told me my childhood. “Agheare, when you were small you could recite long Teochew songs and poems.” “Agheare, when you were small you could speak in Cantonese.” It seemed as if I could do anything when I was small. We slept in the same bed, and it was always warm. Now there would be no one left to remind me of my roots, no one to tell me to be proud to be part of a thousand-year-old culture, no one to tell me that I was gold not yellow.
At Footscray Retravision, there was a propensity for some mainland Chinese to refuse to buy items made in China. Whenever they said haughtily, “O, zhonggno zuo de wo buyao”—I don’t want anything made in China—I couldn’t help myself. I would ask with salesgirl innocence, “But sir, aren’t you made in China?” Of course, I always had to feign that little giggle that sounded like two brightly coloured balloons rubbing rapidly up against each other. Unlike my younger sisters, who grew up in tastefully bland pastel dresses, I had spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into padded Mao suits and made me aware that I had to defend myself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside. My grandmother had warned me that those children grew up to become sour, crumple-faced lemons. I now believed her.
I thought, if I were a young man I would be scared of my parents too. Perhaps not my father so much, because he was able to sit down and reason things out. But my mother—there was no way she would be able to understand an alien, let alone an alien her own daughter had chosen. My mother saw the differences as insurmountable—she was only comfortable with the familiar, yet she still believed that Princess Diana was the most dazzling creature ever to grace the earth, and that white women were more beautiful than we could ever be.
Then, four weeks later, I decided that one of the little ones had to go. It was time. I imagined they were quivering in their cotton-wool padded prison, I was so excited. But when the drawer was opened—horror of all horrors, worse than finding my fortunes furtively stolen—ants spilled out and the bunny had melted and the goo that gushed from the eggs had wrecked my box. I didn’t care about the ants that would crawl up my arms, I pulled the whole drawer out of the cupboard and dug my hands in deep. While Alexander and Andrew watched, I started pulling out each egg one by one—or what was left of them—trying in desperation to find one that was not insect-infested, trying to sort through the foil and frustration, not wanting to believe that these squished tragedies were once my pride and joy, the things I had looked forward to most in the world for more than four weeks.