“You both need to understand this: if you’re not at the top of the class then you’re at the bottom”: a portrait of a Chinese family by Wellington writer Jackie Lee Morrison
Ali’s father loved to ask moral quandaries and ethical questions around the dinner table.
“A trolley comes down the track,” he would start, breaking an egg into his rice and stirring it with chopsticks. “Ahead are ten people. You have a magic button which will divert the trolley, but if you do you’ll kill one person. If you do nothing, you’ll kill all ten and everyone on the trolley.” He paused. “What do you do?”
Ali’s older brother Oliver was careful not to make eye contact. Engaging would mean longer at the dinner table, but Ali loved to consider the problems; they were puzzles to be solved and Ali loved puzzles. Her father tapped his chopsticks against his bowl, a metronome of thought.
“I think,” she said, “I’d press the magic button.”
“Hm,” said Ali’s father, metronome pausing. “Why?”
“Because isn’t it better to kill one and save many?”
Ali’s father pointed his chopsticks at her. “Very good. Eat your dinner.”
Ali’s parents had emigrated from the East. Whilst her mother showed her love through meals on the table every night at seven on the dot, her father showed his by making sure Ali and Oliver excelled at school.
“Your father will tolerate many things,” her mother often reminded them, “except laziness.”
The problem was that many things could be interpreted as “laziness”, so Ali always felt vaguely on edge, unsure if she wasn’t trying hard enough or if she was inherently stupid. Good things included: doing well in school. Returning lost and stolen things. Bringing honour to her family. Bad things included: failing tests. Drugs. Tattoos. Disobedience. There was no grey area, there was only what was right and what was wrong.
It was important, Ali understood, to not be a disappointment or source of shame. As the youngest—and a girl—there was less pressure on Ali, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have her share of academic weight, a cultural millstone around her neck.
Whilst some subjects were a challenge, Ali loved reading. Her favourite day was Friday because her teacher Ms Harrison would let her borrow books from the classroom library.
The stories Ali loved were all about rewarding the good and punishing the bad, which only served to reinforce what it meant to be “good”—this led to happiness, wealth and princes; being bad meant death, doom and destruction. The only part Ali wasn’t fond of was how the princesses always needed “rescuing”—Ali thought if they just tried harder they could probably rescue themselves.
“You should have her learn the violin,” her mother’s friends would say, inspecting her like one inspects a piece of meat. “She has clever fingers.”
“You know Susan Kwong’s oldest Julia? She learned the violin and it made her neck wonky and that’s why she can’t find a husband.”
“And not the cello either, because then she’ll be bow-legged and who would want to marry her then?”
The piano was decided as Ali’s instrument, and because she knew it was important to them, she studied the piano. But she wasn’t very good at it. When she finally quit after an unsuccessful four years of trying to become a musical prodigy, her mother’s friends shook their heads sadly.
“You started her too late,” they lamented. “To really get results you have to start when they’re about three.”
“You find a wallet full of money,” said Ali’s father, pouring a cup of tea. “Nobody will know if you take the money. What do you do?”
“Take it to the police station.”
“Because it’s not my money.”
Her father nodded curtly. Ali smiled, another test passed.
“Is it okay if I go see a film with some friends tomorrow after school?” Oliver said.
“You had a physics test recently? What were the results?”
“I got 99 percent.”
“What happened to the other one percent?”
Ali looked back and forth between her father and her older brother.
“Ai-yah, he works so hard…” her mother started.
“Not hard enough,” said her father. “You both need to understand this: if you’re not at the top of the class then you’re at the bottom.”
Ali pushed her broccoli around her plate with her chopsticks, feeling a lump of anxiety sitting in her throat. She sneaked a peek at Oliver, his fingertips pressing against the edge of the table so hard they were white.
“Ali, stop playing with your food,” said her mother, making her jump. “Finish your dinner and go do your homework.”
Ali forced the broccoli down, cold, greasy and tasteless, and her mother whisked her empty plate away.
“May I be excused? I’m done,” said Oliver. Their father waved his hand and Oliver disappeared upstairs. She made her own excuses and tiptoed after him, peering through the lock on his closed door. He had his back to her, fists clenched. She thought about knocking on his door but what would be the point? What would she say? It was better to leave well alone, so instead she tiptoed away again to her own room.
There was a park Ali and Oliver liked to go to after school. They loved these moments of freedom, screaming like banshees and clambering up huge trees.
“Don’t go too high,” their mother would warn, only keeping half an eye on them.
Oliver could climb higher—he was taller, stronger, older. Ali didn’t mind—she made friends more easily. For an hour or so they would play freeze-tag or English Bulldog, and in the lead-up to the cooler months they became firm friends.
One afternoon they ran to the tree, Oliver disappearing into the branches. Running to her usual spot, Ali stopped dead, finding a boy she didn’t recognise. He was holding a large stick, digging at something, his back to her.
“What are you doing?” Ali said and the boy looked at her.
“N’unya business,” said the boy.
“Why are you poking the tree?” said Ali, confused. The edges of his mouth twisted upwards but his eyes were mean.
“Wanna see? C’mere then.”
Ali cautiously peered over his shoulder. It was a dead baby mouse. The rigor mortis had set in and its body rolled stiffly as the boy poked it.
“Stop that,” she said. “That’s horrible.”
“Shuttup, nobody tells me what to do, ’speshly not a prissy-priss,” scowled the boy.
“I’m not a prissy-priss.”
“Are,” said the boy, and he turned back to the dead mouse, poking it again. Ali was torn between leaving and stopping him. The boy raised his stick.
“Hey!” Ali shouted. “I said stop!” and she pulled on the back of the boy’s shirt, sending him tumbling backwards. She snatched the stick, throwing it away. The boy stood. They glared at each other, a battle of wills.
“Alexander!” shouted a voice and his gaze dropped, guilty feet scuffing dirt. His mother appeared. “What are you doing?”
“It’s time to go,” she said, leading him off. Ali glared after him. He looked over his shoulder and she stuck her tongue out.
When Ali’s usual playmates found her she had just finished digging a hole. She rolled the dead mouse into the grave and pushed the earth on top, then stuck a twig into it, a poor imitation of a tombstone. They stood in a circle, holding hands.
“Dear God, this one’s only a very little soul but we hope you look after him too,” said Ali. “Maybe give him a mountain of never-ending cheese. He’d probably like that. Thank you. Amen.”
“Amen,” repeated the others solemnly.
“What are you doing?” Oliver dropped down from the tree branches suddenly.
“Mum’ll kill you when she sees what you’ve done to your uniform,” said Oliver. Ali looked down at herself, noticing the mud on her knees and sleeves for the first time.
“Ali, Oliver,” called their mother, “time to go.”
“There’s an accident,” said Ali’s father, her mother placing a steak in front of him. “There are two victims: an older woman—a famous neurosurgeon—and a young boy. You can only save one. Who do you save?”
Ali thought about it carefully.
“The older woman, obviously,” said Oliver.
“Because she’s a famous neurosurgeon, so if you save her then you’re saving somebody who can save lots of other people.”
“Hm,” their father began to cut his steak into bite-sized pieces. “Ali?”
“I think the young boy,” she said slowly.
“Why?” said her father, pausing.
“Because the older woman is old,” said Ali, “but the young boy is just beginning.”
“Hm. Both good points.” He resumed careful dissection of his steak.
“What would you do, Dad?”
Their father paused. “I would save both of them.”
“But you said you can only save one.”
“No, I said you could only save one. I’m just that good.”
“What a dumb game,” said Oliver, stabbing at a cube of steak so hard a pea flew off his plate. Ali laughed and her father winked at her.
Ali caught her mother stealing Christmas tree ornaments from a hotel lobby one year, before their annual Christmas lunch with friends.
“Mum?” she said. Her mother jumped and stuffed the crystal star she’d lifted into her handbag. “Why are you taking that?”
“It’s fine, it’s one little ornament. They’ll never miss it.”
“But it’s wrong.”
“No, it’s called ‘redistribution’.”
“It means they have a lot and we don’t, so I’m ‘redistributing’ so it’s more evenly shared,” her mother explained. “Besides, it’s so pretty. Don’t you think it’d look better on our tree?”
Ali had to admit it was pretty, but she wasn’t sure if her mother’s theory of “redistribution” fit in with the other things they’d taught her.
“Maybe I should ask dad…”
“Ali, it’s fine,” her mother’s tone had turned stern. “You don’t need to be such a stick-in-the-mud. Put your coat away, it’s time for lunch.”
The lunch was an opportunity for Ali’s parents to spend time with their handful of Chinese friends. Their children became Ali and Oliver’s friends by default, thrown together three times a year at Chinese New Year, Lunar Festival and Christmas.
“My dad wants to send me to boarding school in Switzerland,” said Lily Lee—a most unfortunate name choice and girl. Ali was always glad to be Ali Chu whenever she saw Lily Lee.
“Switzerland? That’s so far away.”
“He thinks it’ll be ‘good character building’,” she said miserably.
“The other day in the car my mum was annoyed at us, so she grabbed an umbrella and hit us from the driver’s seat,” said Bobby Wong.
“My dad hit me with a slipper.”
“My mum used a ruler.”
The other children looked at Ali and Oliver expectantly.
“Um, I quit piano,” said Ali.
“Oh my God,” said Lily, “how did your parents react?”
“My mum said, ‘okay’,” Ali felt herself blushing. The children looked disappointed. “My dad said I should try tennis.”
“Oh,” said Lily, looking miserable again.
Later, on the way home, Ali stared out at the Christmas lights as Oliver dozed next to her.
“Mhm?” Her parents didn’t turn around.
“You’re not going to send me away, are you?”
“What?” said her mother, confused. “Send you where?”
“To Switzerland?” Ali said, choking back a sob.
“Why on earth would we send you to Switzerland?”
“Ai-yah,” said Ali’s father, glancing at her. “You ate too much cheese. Go to sleep.”
The day of Ali’s Big School entrance exams rolled around.
Outside the exam room were hundreds of other little girls, parents whispering words of encouragement to pale faces. Ali’s parents stood stiffly next to her, taking in the room of candidates. Ali was sure her father was calculating the odds of how many of them she’d have to do better than in order to secure her place at the school.
“Have you got your pencil case?” Ali’s father asked again. She held it up, a small clear plastic folder with blue trim, containing a fountain pen, a pencil and an eraser.
“Okay, well, you just go in there and do your best.”
Ali nodded. She felt sick.
“Do you need a pee before you go in?”
“Okay. Well.” Her parents looked at each other, lost. Ali was sure that if they could’ve taken the exam for her they would’ve.
A woman in a grey suit came out of the exam room, double doors opening with a bang. The room jumped. The grey suit began to shuffle them into order.
“Here, my father gave this to me when I was taking my exams,” said her father, pressing something into her hand. It was a lump of jade, vaguely shaped like a dog, his Chinese zodiac sign.
“Line up, please. Parents: tea and coffee are in the adjacent room,” said the grey suit, and Ali was hurried into formation.
She looked at her parents, now being ushered into the holding room but they didn’t look back. She slipped the jade dog into her pocket.
At her exam desk, papers were passed back along neat rows. She didn’t dare look at the other candidates, focusing instead on the paper. “Entrance Exam” it read in large font. Her bladder ached. Should’ve peed, she thought.
“Candidates: you have one hour. You may begin.”
Paper rustled from every side. Ali turned over the first page and scanned through the questions. Basic maths, times tables, a few problems. The clock in the room ticked, the only sound the passing seconds and scribble of pen to paper. She started to fill in answers, carefully, methodically.
It was all fine until she got to the last few pages. She read through the question: “Fill in as many symmetrical patterns in the boxes as you can. You may find that you need more paper.” What followed were boxes and boxes of squares. Ali turned over the page: more boxes. Three pages filled with little boxes.
Ali was puzzled. How was this maths? She picked up her pencil, filling in the most obvious first, then the less obvious, and then she stopped, stuck. She had filled in ten boxes.
Panic set in.
There were three pages of boxes. Three. That meant that at the very least you were supposed to fill in those three pages.
A white arm stuck up in the air somewhere in front of her.
“More paper, please,” said a voice. Ali’s clammy hands were making it hard to hold the pencil.
Her mind raced, her future came down to these stupid little boxes. Another arm stuck up to the left of her.
“More paper, please.”
“Does anybody else need more paper?” said the grey suit and a quarter of the room stuck their arms up. Ali’s stomach churned.
She stared at the page in front of her, willing her brain to work. She looked up. A girl in front of her was filling in endless boxes, half her paper hanging off her desk. Ali could see her answers from where she was sitting.
She could see her answers.
She scooted down, breathing shallowly. Ali’s moral and ethical questions swam in her brain.
If you try your hardest and still fail, does that make you a failure? If you cheat in an exam and nobody knows, are you a cheater? Does it matter if you fulfil your familial duty? Do the ends justify the means?
Ali looked around the room with just her eyes. Everyone had their heads down, filling in boxes. Grey suit wasn’t paying attention, scribbling on a piece of paper. Nobody would know. She shifted her body slightly so she could see the pages in front of her a bit better.
Ali started to fill in more boxes.
The letter came in the mail a month later. It was thick, a good sign.
“Ali? Come here, please,” called her parents.
She walked into the living room, her feet heavy. They held the letter out to her. Numb fingers opened the packet. Her eyes scanned the printed words.
“I got in,” she said.
Her parents laughed, her mother clapped her hands. “I knew it, I had a good feeling.”
Ali started to cry.
“I know, it must be such a relief,” said her mother, hugging her.
Ali couldn’t look them in the eye.
“See? I knew you were a clever girl,” said her father.
Ali cried harder.
The day before she started her new school, Ali was in the park, hanging over the duck pond fence. Behind her she could hear the polite clapping of cricket spectators. In her hand, Ali held the jade dog.
In Chinese culture, the dog was considered to show faithfulness, courage, and warm-heartedness. They were also, above all things, honest. Ali stared at it, edges smoothed with years of fingers rubbing it. She imagined her father sitting his exams, holding the jade effigy, asking the gods to bless him—though he didn’t believe in Chinese gods. She wondered if he had ever considered cheating. She wondered what bad things he had done in his life, and if there had been repercussions. She wondered what her future would hold. The ducks had spotted her and were making a beeline for her. She held her hand out over the water and released the jade dog. It made the most unassuming plop as it landed in the water and sank beneath the lily pads.
“What are you doing?” Oliver called to her. She looked over her shoulder at him on his bike.
“C’mon. I’ll race you over the bridge.”
Ali picked her bike up from the grass beside her.
And pushing off the two children raced down the park. Ali felt the wind blowing against her skin, jet black hair streaming out behind her. She ducked her head and pedalled faster, feeling the ache in her chest intensify as she rode after her brother.