‘You’re not Australian…are you?’ asks the Professor from White-Sands when she overhears me introducing myself to Roberto in the breakfast room in Guangzhou, on my first morning in China.
I know she is from the University of White-Sands because I looked up the other nine writers who were chosen to come to China for the month-long residency hosted by Sun Yat-sen University.
‘Yes, I’m Australian.’ I already know what she is hinting at but I don’t let on. I want to hear it. ‘Why?’
‘Oh,’ she pulls her chin in. ‘You just don’t sound Australian.’ She tilts her head and looks me up and down now as Roberto steps aside. ‘You know…your accent! Doesn’t sound Australian!’
‘It’s Aboriginal Australian,’ I say.
‘Oh,’ she cocks her head, ‘sorry! Just didn’t sound like any Australian accent I know! That’s all. I thought I was the only Australian on the residency. Looks like I’m wrong!’ she smiles.
‘So, you’re… Aboriginal Australian?’ It’s Roberto. ‘You just don’t… I mean I’ve never been to Australia,’ he breaks off.
‘There’s lots of stereotypes of what Aboriginal Australians look like,’ I say, coming to his rescue.
I am used to this. I feel like saying: there are lots of armchair experts who think they know what we should be like. But I don’t. I don’t because I know that when Aboriginal Australians point things out to white people we are described as rude. It is the default setting for white people, when we question their expertise.
Our host arrives to welcome us all and introduce those of us who haven’t met each other. Her name is Professor Lan Li. Some among the group have met her before. Some have not. I am a have-not.
The Australian professor embraces our host. ‘Li, it is so wonderful to see you again!’
‘You too Catherine! I have been so looking forward to this residency!’
Professor Lan invites us to take some food and sit.
‘For those who have not yet met me before, I am Lan Li. But, please call me Li.’ She is a small middle-aged woman. ‘Welcome to Sun Yat-sen University, the best University in China,’ she continues, ‘and to Guangdong in the far south of China. This is the inaugural gathering of international writers. It is my pleasure to host you all here at Sun Yat-sen and in Yangzhou, an hour away by bus. Here at Sun Yat-sen, you will be presenting at some public forums. At Yangzhou, you will have your own time to write for a whole week!’
‘Yes!’ her smile is wide. ‘I thought that would be a treat! I teach too and I know what it is like trying to find space for your own writing. At Yangzhou, you will be staying at a resort outside of the town itself, by the River Yulong. A beautiful spot where I like to go and write. We will be staying in a resort that is reserved for special visitors to the region. It’s not a hotel or a resort opened to the public. It is only for official business and important visitors. I wanted you to feel special and see only the best!’
‘Oh, thank you Li!’ It was Catherine. ‘We already feel privileged!’
Nods of agreement and murmurs of yes, yes, follow from the rest of the group.
‘I was able to arrange Yangzhou through my husband, who is the local Minister for Tourism for Guangdong,’ Li beams.
‘Before I ask you to introduce yourselves and leave you to settle in for the rest of the day, I need to point out a few important things about Guangdong.’ Li pauses. ‘The most important thing I want to say is that here in Guangdong we are not political!’ Her eyes sweep the room. I bite my lip. She goes on. ‘We don’t concern ourselves with politics, we just go about our daily lives, leaving the running of the country to the experts. In particular, we – the people of Guangdong, don’t talk about the three T’s. Do you know what they are?’ She raises her eyebrows.
I do. But I hold my tongue. I am well versed in appearance versus reality. There is silence from the group. I make eye-contact with no one.
‘Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen,’ she enunciates each one, looks up to check the reaction. I fixate on a flower arrangement, its surface beauty telling nothing of the origin of the flowers or their gatherers. There is silence. ‘I am not political at all and no one here is interested in politics! We like to talk about the weather, food, the tides, clothes, our jobs, our children, anything really! Now, let’s introduce ourselves!’
There is Roberto from Mexico, Leve from the Netherlands, Madeleine from Canada, Ricky from the Philippines, Philip for the UK, Patricia and Will from the US, Linda from New Zealand, Catherine and me from Australia. Introductions are brief.
We are all tired and keen to be allocated our rooms and unpack. Li distributes keys and we disperse. I am grateful for the space although I know I won’t sleep.
I unpack and walk out of my room across the campus towards the river Zhujiang behind the university. I walk along a path by the river and watch the brown water swirl. On the banks, there are men fishing with cormorants. Behind me in a park, birds hang from trees in wicker cages. Their owners sit in the sun, drink tea and play Mah-jong.
The path widens to a broad wooden stage. I see a macaque with a leash around its neck riding a bicycle. Tourists clap and cheer. Another macaque, on a longer leash, stands on two legs collecting money. Beside the man holding the leashes I see a cage of chickens. I wonder if they too will perform or if their sole purpose is dinner. I turn away and head back in the direction I came.
The next day we all present at the university. We each have a brief. Mine is to speak about Aboriginal Australia and my work as a minority writer. The map I show of all the different language groups draws blank stares. When I mention my collective memoir written of three generations of black women who I call Aboriginal feminists, a woman sitting a few rows back puts up her hand.
‘I run a bookstore in Yangzhou and host a feminist, activist group for women’s rights.’ Some of the students titter and smirk. ‘Would you consider coming to speak to us? I’ll arrange transport.’
I know we are going to Yangzhou. I feel Li’s eyes burning me. Catherine’s too.
I nod. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’ll do that.’
‘Let’s talk after,’ she says.
I listen to the other writers and avoid looking at Li. Madeleine speaks last. Her brief is to talk about being a writer who is part of a diaspora. She talks about her great-grandparents arriving in Canada from China.
‘We keep our migration histories alive,’ she says. ‘They are told and retold at family gatherings.’
I think she is finished. I drop my eyes and begin gathering my papers. I’m eager to meet the woman who spoke to me. But then I hear: ‘The Native Americans, they have many myths, but no migration myth of how they came to Canada.’
I feel the blood rising up from my feet. Surging. I can’t stop myself. I call out: ‘Because the Indigenous Canadians don’t have a migration myth. They have always been on that land! Indigenous peoples the world over have stories not myths!’
I feel the silence push in on me. The colour in my face burning. Madeleine stands and walks off the stage. The silence is broken by clicking tongues. As I make my way out of the auditorium I hear murmurs of rude.
Out in the foyer I feel the sweat trickling down my neck. The woman who put her hand up rushes up to me, hand extended.
‘I am Jing Qing,’ she says. ‘You were really good in there!’ She smiles, takes my arm and leads me outside.
I gulp the air. ‘I’m glad you think so,’ I say.
‘Let’s go to a tea shop,’ she says, leading me across the campus.
We sit outside drinking oolong tea. She is older than I first thought. She has the kind of porcelain skin that defies the years. ‘Lan Li,’ she says, ‘is powerful. She’s a third-generation academic who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, like me. Her parents kept their jobs through the revolution. Many didn’t and were sent to camps, or worse.’
She looks up from her tea. ‘China is a place of many walls. It’s not about the biggest voice. There are too many. It’s about the smallest person, the most unassuming one, who might just slip through a crack in the wall. Foreigners can say anything. That’s why I want you to come. I know some women who would like to listen to what you have to say.’
I tell her we will be in Yangzhou in a few days. She takes my number. ‘I know where you will be staying.’ She smiles, ‘It is organised by Li’s husband.’
I make my way back to my room on campus. In the corridor, I see Catherine. I nod and want to keep going, but she stops me.
‘You could have waited till Madeleine finished instead of correcting her on stage.’
‘It’s an insult,’ I say. I’ve already made up my mind about Catherine.
‘You could have waited. You didn’t have to embarrass her. We’re meant to be ambassadors here. Think what others will think of Australians!’
I keep walking. ‘I’m Aboriginal first,’ I say over my shoulder.
The next day we take a bus to Yangzhou, accompanied by students. I sit next to a young woman who tells me that she likes to be called Hazel because she is going to study in the USA the following summer.
‘Is it hard to organise international study?’ I ask.
‘Not really,’ she shrugs. ‘My parents are members of the Party. It’s not too hard.’
The bus rolls on through the streets of Guangzhou. I stare out the window. On the outskirts of town, I see men dressed in military uniform with batons. They are pulling women off the streets and pushing them into a van.
‘What’s happening?’ I sit forward and crane my neck back as the bus moves ahead.
Hazel flicks her wrist. ‘Don’t worry about it!’ she says. ‘In this part of town there are many prostitutes and drug-addicts, the police need to get them off the streets. Don’t worry. They’re bad people!’
‘But they are people!’ I check the edge on my voice.
She shrugs. ‘Here we have a saying,’ she smiles. ‘Kill the chicken to scare the monkey! You need to make an example of some. Sacrifice those who are lesser to teach many! It is simple. We all know it. Anyway,’ she leans across and draws the shade, ‘don’t concern yourself. Here in Guangdong, we are not political. Leave it to the authorities!’
The resort in Yangzhou is luxurious. I settle into my room and begin to write. A loud knock disturbs me. I open the door to Li.
‘May I come in?’ She is always smiling.
‘Sure,’ I offer her a seat and tea.
‘I came to say that it is your decision, but I wouldn’t go with Jing Qing to her bookstore. I know her. She’s a trouble-maker.’ She sips her tea. ‘She worked at the university. No one liked her so she left. She tries to be political. We are not political down here. But I am just telling you. You can make your own decision.’ She stands to leave.
‘Thanks,’ I say, ‘I’ll think about it.’
I decide to go. Jing Qing calls me two days later and arranges to meet me and take me to the bookstore. She arrives in a taxi, early afternoon. I am scheduled to speak at 4pm. We drive for what seems like ages into the heart of Yangzhou.
The bookstore is below street level under a grocery store. It is crammed with all sorts of books on women’s studies, many in English. The audience is already seated. I look out into a sea of women, all wearing black, all wearing sunglasses.
‘Everyone wants to look indistinguishable,’ Qing whispers to me. I am about to ask if I will cause more trouble than I am worth, but she launches into an introduction.
I’m nervous and I stammer as I begin with poetry I wrote that speaks of black women. I warm up as I sense empathy emanating from my audience. I’m on a roll when I hear footsteps on the stairs. I look up and see men dressed like the ones I saw dragging the women off the streets. They line the back of the bookstore. I stop and look at Qing.
‘Keep going,’ she says. ‘They’re here to intimidate. We can’t let them.’
I keep going. When I look up again just before I finish they are leaving.
Women come up to talk afterwards. Some give me cards and ask me to email. I see that Qing is anxious to empty the bookstore. I follow her to a taxi on the street.
‘Thank you,’ she says as she puts me in the taxi.
‘I didn’t do much.’ I feel useless.
‘You’ve given us much to think about.’ She smiles, ‘I’ll call again to say goodbye before you leave.’ She gives the driver instructions and they drive away.
That night I dream of headless chickens running. Blood spurting. Scared monkeys dancing.
With the exception of Ricky, the rest of the writers ignore me. Li is polite but curt. I spend most of my time in my room writing or walking by the river.
Qing calls on my last day in Yangzhou. ‘The women really appreciated you,’ she says.
‘Are you OK? Is everyone OK?’
‘We’re good, but I won’t be able to come to say goodbye. We’re moving the bookstore to a different location. We got raided last night. Some of our books damaged.’
‘It’s OK. We’re used to it. We can’t let them scare us. We have another crack to slip through. I have your email. You have mine. Stay in touch.’
‘Take care,’ I say.
We take the bus back to Guangzhou the next day. I sit alone and stare out at the Guilin Mountains. They reach up to the sky like rock fingers.
Back in Guangzhou I take a walk along the Zhujiang. I see macaques on leashes. Beside them cages of chickens.