“We’re not even really Chinese! We were born here!”: a short story by Wai Ho
“Excuse me! These are the women’s toilets.” The woman uses that too-loud tone white people use when they’re talking to someone coloured. As if the darker your skin is, the worse your hearing.
A part of me wants to say, “Solly solly, I no Engrish,” and push past her. Instead I say, “Yeah, I know.” The woman takes another look at this pre-pubescent Chinese boy incorrectly in the women’s loos and sees a masculine-looking Chinese girl in her mid-teens instead.
“Oh oh, I’m so sorry,” she flusters.
“It’s okay,” I say. Every few weeks I’m challenged at the door of the toilets by a blobby stick person wearing a cape.
“Miriam! Why do you like those Samoan boys?! Ai yah! They are so naughty, and not good at school.” Mum is folding the washing in the lounge, yelling to the kitchen where Miriam and I are making tea. “And you should concentrate on study, not have boyfriend, you are too young!”
I roll my eyes at my sister as she huffs out of the kitchen.
“Mum!” I set down a cup of Earl Grey next to her neat piles of washing. “You can’t say those kinds of things, they’re just racist stereotypes. You know all the stuff that gets said about Chinese; that we’re Triads and people smugglers, we eat cats and dogs, all drive BMWs and are good at maths and table tennis. And Miriam is sixteen, plenty old enough.” “Wa? You are good at maths, and we like to play table tennis on Sundays. And why can eat chicken and baby lambs but not dog? Silly gwai lo, dog is like steak.” Mum pauses, blowing on her tea. “You know, Hannah, when we ate food that was too hot, your Paw Paw would blow air in our mouth to cool it down.” She looks thoughtful. “No, sixteen too young for boyfriend! Must study harder. Hannah you know, when you marry, you must marry a white man.”
Miriam pulls a quizzical face at me. She’s entered the conversational hub in the lounge and is ignoring Mum, signalled by white earphones in her ears. I know Mum doesn’t notice, but I can see those earphones aren’t attached to anything. It’s a tactic that works, though. Maybe I should try it.
“And you!” Mum says, waving a rumpled pair of pants at my brother, who’s hiding behind the clothes towers in the hope she won’t see him. “You stop always play video game, that’s why you are so stupid. Never study. You go study!”
“But I’ve nearly got ten thousand!” My brother continues playing, the tinny video game music joining his protest.
“No need ten thousand, what for? Only silly monkeys jumping on crocodile! Go study now!” She grabs the game from my brother and sits on it.
“Ah ahahhaa Muummmm! You killed me!” Caleb glares at her before stalking out. The sad, mechanical death tune of a monkey being eaten by a crocodile plays under Mum’s bum. “Yes, the white man is better than Chinese. The Chinese is only think about money! And the white man does not hit their wives.” Mum snaps a pillow case flat. Pillow cases conform nicely to her view of how the world should be.
“Arrggh!” My sister stomps out. I think I should suggest earplugs to her rather than earphones.
“Muuuum,” I groan, “you’ve been watching too many rom coms. White men hit their wives too. That stuff ’s chronic in this country with all ethnicities. And I told you, I’m not getting married. I like girls.”
“Hmm,” she grunts. “I don’t understand you all. My children are like foreigner.”
Us kids are bunched round the dining table. Dad is pacing and glowering as he reads our report cards. It’s like an unhappy family dinner, but without the dinner. Mum is perched on a stool at the other end of the table, muttering a monologue about how Kiwi teachers are too nice. How will children improve if the teacher will not even tell them their work is bad and they have to do better?
Miriam looks like she’s imitating those painted people who busk on Cuba Street pretending to be statues and then they move suddenly and scare you. Well, they scare little kids, not me.
Caleb is making tiny sculptures, which look like little pointy curly buildings, out of a blob of Blu Tack I tried to stick to one of the ends of his dreadlocks without him knowing. He’s trying to ignore Dad, but he squashes his whole city of buildings with a clenched fist every time Dad says something.
I’m trying to transport myself somewhere else. I switch to imagining dark, angry cartoon clouds with lightning strikes over Dad’s head. Then comic symbols in a thought bubble for the swear words he’s probably thinking as he reads my brother’s report card. I offered to change the grades using those scratch-on letters you can get from the stationery shop. I doctored lots of my friend’s School Certificate results to save them from the hidings they’d have got otherwise. No one suspects. But Caleb thinks it’s silly that we’re expected to get all A’s when B’s are fine. I think so too, but then I did get all A’s.
“We came here to give you a better life, more opportunities,” yells Dad, waving the report card in my brother’s face. “And what do you do?!”
I’m about to point out that what my Dad has just asked is a rhetorical question. We learnt that in English last week. But then I think now is probably not the best time.
“You waste your time skating and drawing pictures. Pictures! You must study hard, SLAP, get good grades so you can get into university and get a good job. SLAP. The Kiwi can waste their time, SLAP, draw pictures, SLAP, play at each other’s house, SLAP, party all weekend. SLAP. You cannot! SLAP SLAP SLAP. We are Chinese! We must work harder than them to get the same opportunities!’ Dad yells, punctuating each sentence on my brother’s head.
Caleb holds himself stiffly, trying to ignore the slaps, then shudders like a dog’s pelt shakes when you lightly tickle just one of its hairs. He stands, chair toppling backward, and shoves Dad away. The blinds make an agitated metallic declaration as Dad flounders into them.
The room inhales into itself and freezes. The colours ping off each other and the straight lines seem almost too sharp.
Growth spurts must happen suddenly. Caleb is now the same height as Dad. I can see my brother’s fists clenched as tightly as the words that spit out of his mouth. “I don’t even want to go to university! That’s what you’ve always wanted. And we’re not even really Chinese! We were born here, unlike yous!”
Caleb storms out. Miriam is curled into herself like a shell, sitting on the edge of a table, sobbing softly. I put my arm around her, shielding her.
Words thump through my arteries, past my ears. They make lumps in my throat.
“It’s different now, Dad,” I tell the floor. “We don’t just have to make money anymore. You say you came here to give us opportunities, but you just want to make us do whatever you want.”
“And you can’t hit kids in New Zealand anymore,” says Miriam. “It’s illegal!” She hunches back into herself like a poked snail.
I take my sister’s coiled hand, slowly shuffling her out of the room. Our parents’ tirade follows us out: “No respect for elders . . . learning bad habits from the Kiwi children . . . no discipline, teachers should be allowed to hit pupils, too relax, must follow Chinese tradition . . . ” I pull back the hood of my hoodie as I step inside to a spicy, fragrant warmth. Pad Thai, Bee Bung or Pho – so many choices. I see the lady from the toilets. She’s two people ahead of me at the counter. Bah, why does she have to be here? Usually only Asians come here.
The hot butch girl, the whole reason I always come to this place even though it’s further from the bus stop, saunters out from the kitchen and takes over from the older guy at the counter. She has this cute kind of bowl cut, but in an edgy, ironic way. And she’s real big and solid, strong-looking, like she could wrestle bears. If people wrestled bears.
This time I really am going to talk to her, not just order my meal.
The toilet lady is taking ages. “D o e s t h i s d i s h h a v e M S G?” she enunciates slowly and loudly, while gesturing wildly at a shiny picture on the menu.
“No MSG,” says Hot Butch Girl, cutting the words with her dismissive smirk.
‘”You know, you really should have these menus in English,” Toilet Lady says, arching an eyebrow. “After all, you are here in New Zealand.”
“The English menu’s on the other side,” Hot Butch Girl says, taking the menu from her and turning it over. “And seeing as we are in Aotearoa New Zealand,” Hot Butch Girl continues, firmly holding Toilet Lady’s no-longer-arched gaze, “exactly how fluent is your te reo Māori?”
Older Shop Guy bustles out the front, rapid-fires a bunch of words and arm-waves at Hot Butch Girl, who stalks into the kitchen. All the while, Toilet Lady huffs and blows and waves her arms, not like Older Shop Guy, but kind of like if she’s doing a timid chicken dance.
Toilet Lady orders a Beef Pho.
It suddenly feels too warm and I try not to flinch talking to Older Shop Guy. He looked too much like Dad. I order a Bee Bung, double checking as I always do that there won’t be any coriander in it.
Our meals arrive quickly as usual, steaming happily in their colourful plastic bowls. I eye Toilet Lady over my food and I notice that she looks much older than I’d thought. I feel a millisecond of compassion before I recall the toilet incident and how rude she was to Hot Butch Girl.
Toilet Lady is looking around for the soy sauce that is usually on the table along with the chillis and other condiments. Not finding what she’s after, she eyes up my bottle. I take a deep breath on my insides, recalling that I have been trying to be nicer to old people. I reach over and give her mine.
“Oh, thank you,” she says, her smile crinkling her eye corners. “What a polite young man.” She glares in the direction of the kitchen.
Toilet Lady doesn’t recognise me from earlier. She probably thinks all Asians look the same. I suppose that’s kind of okay in a way. I know my mum thinks lots of white people all look the same and she often can’t really tell them apart. Or maybe it’s an old people thing; maybe they just stop noticing stuff.
I’ve finished my Bee Bung and have started reading when a voice says to me, “Why don’t you like coriander?”
It’s Hot Butch Girl. I put down my book, but it catches the spoon sticking out of my empty bowl, which then catapults out and knocks over the chilli sauce. I flounder around setting things back up while she watches and tries not to laugh. I decide to pretend that wee slapstick incident just didn’t happen.
“I’ve never liked it, makes me gag. My dad and brother can’t eat it either. I mean, I wish I liked it, people seem to like it.” I realise I’m rambling, so I stop. It’s nerve-wracking trying to think of cool things to say.
“What are you reading?” she asks, looking from the chilli sauce to my book.
“Sandman. I’m up to book three and there are ten, I think. Though I think Neil Gaiman is working on a prequel.”
She picks it up, looking at the pictures. I take the opportunity to look at her. White plastic smiling crossbones dangle from her ears, and I like how her T-shirt stretches across her shoulders.
“Hey, I liked what you said to that old lady. I wish I could think of witty things to say on the spot.” My ears go hot as I feel back to all the times I wish I’d said something to Dad, or done something, rather than letting my brother or sister take the heat, or slaps.
“Yeah, you get a bit of that working here,” she says as her eyes flick to Toilet Lady’s empty seat. There is an awkward pause between us.
“I better get back to work,” she says, glancing over at the kitchen, “before Uncle has another go at me.”
“Oh, yeah, choice. Um . . . hey, I could lend you the first Sandman if you want to read them, they’re really cool.”
She stops and looks at me for a few seconds longer than people usually look at other people. She makes it hard for thoughts to get to my brain.
“Sure,” she smiles, “bring it next time. I usually finish at nine if you wanted to get a bubble tea somewhere after.”
“Oh, ah, yeah cool, that would be awesome,” I tell the apron knot on the back of her waist as she walks away.
She waves over her shoulder without turning round.
I place my book carefully back into my bag and head out into the raucous weather. The door tinkles shut behind me. People are huddled like shuffling rocks waiting for the bus. A giant grin is plastered over my face even as the wind tries to take my hood off. I don’t even care if a thousand toilet ladies think I’m a boy.
“A Thousand Toilet Ladies” is taken from the superb anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Alison Wong and Paula Morris (Auckland University Press, $50), available in selected bookstores nationwide. Another story from A Clear Dawn will appear next week: “If It Were Not for the Rain” by Mikee Sto Domingo.