In the middle of a football field I am having a panic attack. It is an ugly scene of goggle-eyes and flapping arms, of pursed lips and pasty-white cheeks. Sister Mary Julian runs from the boundary to help. Everyone else plays on. Ms Bradford, the umpire of this ludicrous game, keeps one eye on me and one eye on everything else. I’m making gagging noises, and appear to be choking. It’s not the first time this has happened, and despite my hopes (my scheming and past appeals) it won’t be the last.
‘If only you’d put your hands up,’ Sister Mary Julian says, gripping me, shaking against my donkey sounds. ‘So you could protect yourself.’
Mum says the people who died in Tiananmen Square were stupid. ‘We are lucky,’ she says, her neck extending like the tortoise Cory McNamara brings to school and tortures. ‘Australia is good, peaceful place.’
‘It’s full of ignoramuses,’ I shout in reply. ‘And those students in Tiananmen Square were shot for standing up. The Fallon Gong, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans! China tramples over people and calls it progress. I want to stand up, be at the frontline, rally against all that oppression.’
Today, like always when I’m on the field, I tried to keep away from the ball. But I got distracted, caught up in my thoughts. And the ball…? Well, even when I’m concentrating it’s hard to know which direction to go in to avoid it, not to mention the other players: collisions often happen.
Ms Bradford blows her whistle. ‘Out of bounds!’ Everyone turns to see Sister Mary Julian slap me sharply across the cheek. It sounds like a gunshot. I grab one full breath, and she shuffles me away towards the barrier.
‘Quon!’ she says, breathless herself now. ‘Think!’
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think, so I watch the way her cheeks redden to match the colour of her lips.
I’m living the wrong story, I want to say. But I feel the brand of her hand hot on my face, and it reminds me of what is at stake. So I concentrate on pulling air into my chest, and I stare into her speckled eyes. Something tells me she wouldn’t understand anyway. The wrong story, dear? I imagine her saying. Whatever do you mean?
I look Chinese, but if you ask me if I feel Chinese it would be like asking me if I feel like a horse.
When I first came to this school I thought I had been transported back into the 1950s. That was when Chinese people were synonymous with lemon chicken. Or, even further back, into the 1850s when the gold rush began, and Chinese people were seen as lackeys, dirty and unworthy, fleas on the planet. Bullies took up both causes. I was spat at, birdied to, verbally abused and drawn on – thick black Texta making round circles over my slits. Once, five oval-faced boys held me against a wall, calling me the hired help and saying they’d drop their laundry off Friday and would appreciate it back – cleaned and folded – Monday. I know their words hurt more than their violence but what haunts me (the image coming back again and again) is the way they pushed my Chinese eyes together, my face squeezed almost into the shape of theirs, up against the wall of the toilet block.
Some of my Australian-Chinese friends, friends who were born in Hong Kong, say they are not Chinese. I tell them to buy a mirror and then a history book. Hong Kong is China and China is Hong Kong.
Sister Mary Julian and I sneak like two refugees into the school buildings. The game rushes on behind us.
‘Heaven help anyone who says anything.’ Sister speaks reassuringly, her warm breath evident in the cold air. ‘They know you’ll bellow back. They know!’
Kids in my class think I’m crabby. I don’t care. I want a reputation that keeps them from biting at my heels. They’ve learnt not to fire me up. It’s only on the football field I crumble, and my lungs fill with concrete.
‘Can I come up to your room?’ I ask, looking crestfallen.
‘You should go to sickbay.’
‘I want to tell you something.’
Sister’s head wobbles, and her tic – as if someone is pulling at her right cheek with a string – starts up. Her face twitches involuntarily.
‘I’ll make you a cup of tea,’ she says. ‘It won’t hurt to break the rules this once.’
When I was three, my father was killed at a level crossing somewhere in country Victoria. A train slammed into the car he was in. The two people he was with died as well. In a way I lost being Chinese then. I became a person of no origin, a person of no future. I would not fit in if I went to live in Shanghai but equally I’m a stranger here. Australia isn’t as cosmopolitan as people think.
I look around Sister Mary Julian’s room. On the walls are posters, pictures of school kids from different countries, smiling and holding hands. Under the pictures there are directions for friendship: ASK IF SOMEONE WOULD LIKE TO JOIN YOUR GROUP. SMILE TO LET SOMEONE KNOW YOU LIKE THEM.
‘Some kids could really use those hints,’ I say, knowing that kids in this school would say I should read those messages, learn from them.
When Nelson Mandela was in jail for twenty-seven years, I wonder what he did with his despair. Surely a person with such conviction would have suffered despair? But then, maybe not, maybe he was always positive, always determined to have good thoughts, even when he was asleep. That’s what I want to be like, calm but wilful.
‘Some kids are immature,’ Sister says. ‘Some kids aren’t worldly or experienced like you.’
‘Where’s my patience?’ I sing. ‘Where’s my equilibrium?’
‘No sign of it.’ Sister Mary Julian lifts her eyebrows, and pulls a face much as if she’s seen an apparition; something surprising like Jesus dressed in a football jumper, a ball in the crook of his arm.
‘There’s a kid in my class,’ I tell her, ‘called Andrew Moro. He has no idea he’s being teased. Cleverest kid in the school, and he smiles at his tormentors like they are throwing chocolate treats to him.’
Sister is settled back now, her eyes glazed over. ‘Brains,’ she says as if everything is already known between us, ‘there’s never one brand!’
‘He’s in another world,’ I say. ‘It’s the same with the teachers. “That’s called the pecking order,” they told me when I spoke to them about Andrew. “He’ll sort it out.” And when I said, “What if he doesn’t?” they said, “You tell him to come to us.”’
I can say things like that to Sister Mary Julian. She thinks I have a special window open to me that is rare among people. For instance, she told me once, ‘Most kids have trouble seeing past their day-to-day lives. But not you! You see the bigger picture.’
‘They have no idea what’s going on in the world,’ I’d added. ‘I should feel compassion for them, but they disgust me with their uninformed remarks.’
Now though I say nothing, and look into my cup. There’s a circle of rainbow colours on the top of my tea like an oil spot. I add to my story, In the middle of the football field I am having a panic attack… And then I think of something, something that might be helpful.
‘I doubt the principal will pardon me from sport altogether,’ I tell her, ‘even though I think I have the right. But I was wondering, Sister, if you came with me, it might make him more open to the idea. I’m happy to do the talking.’
I say this last thing because I know that Sister’s presence will give credence to my request even if she just stands there wringing her hands and twitching her Godly tic. Her attendance – just doing what she does – would be better than anything she or I could say.
She contemplates this, says, ‘Are you prepared to tell him everything? The whole truth?’
My eyes narrow and I feel my chest tighten. I’m wondering if I’ve missed something. Even the fact that I’m sitting here asking myself this, disturbs me.
I stand up, put my cup on the table. The tea looks thin and weak and unappetizing anyway. ‘If you think I should,’ I say. ‘But right now I’m going to go to sickbay and lie down. I feel like I could faint.’ And I guess because it isn’t the first time this sort of meeting has ended in exactly this sort of way, she lets me leave without further words.
I walk past sickbay though, past reception and through the fancy electronic doors at the front of the school. I amble away, down a few streets to the train station to sit on the platform and watch for trains; to contemplate the force one would pack if it hit a car. But my mind wanders, gets back to its mainstay, which is all about what’s going on in China, the way it looks like the future already, the way it jangles with life and the young people seem so at home, so in their own skin and full of what’s to come. And then there are the appalling things, the things they don’t see from the inside, the things they could change if they tried, to make it the best nation in the world, bigger and better than America, more exciting than Dubai. But I’m stuck here; stuck in middle-class mediocrity and ambivalence, in ignorance at the bottom of the world!
And I begin all over again, repeat my whole wrong story silently to myself, stopping and pondering on the bit I’ve just now added…
Sister Mary Julian would like me to tell the whole truth, which is closer to a dissertation than a fact or a piece of actual news. This whole truth entails me expounding on the subject of good and bad crossing paths. And, when they do, when good and bad collide head on, it doesn’t equate to them cancelling each other out. On the contrary, they often happily stand side-by-side, laughing at each other, dancing in and out of each other’s way. It’s a bit like a ball that becomes a dangerous missile when it’s meant to be part of a game… Yes, just like that…
Note: This story was published in The Australian Newspaper on the 26/12/2015, titled, Feeling out of sorts in the game of life.