Chinese in Australia


When we lived on Haines Street, Mama laughed when she spotted a whole mattress that someone had thrown out. It meant my father didn’t have to work an extra two months to buy the cheapest one down the road. The discarded mattress was mottled with mildew, but after a good scrubbing with a toothbrush and bleach, and then washing powder, they covered it in sheets and blankets my grandmother had sewn up as a parting gift when they’d left China. I threw a tantrum most nights because it was too cramped, but my mother told me it was to keep me from falling out of the bed and getting a big bump on my head.


When Mama still lived in China, her mother had a low-paying job in a factory that started at six in the morning. Regardless, Mama and her older brother went to school, they had a television with three channels, and each day, home-cooked dishes of stir-fried vegetables and poached eggs, despite how expensive eggs were. They were lucky, there was even the occasional pork rib soaked with soy sauce. If my mother took ten seconds longer than her brother to arrive at the dinner table, half the ribs were already reduced to bone.


When she lived on Haines Street, Mama worked under a tiny round window. She stared at the light from the window that went through the cracks in the little table where she worked, trying to ignore her back pain. Mama unpacked, inspected and packaged soap for a living. She learned how to tie perfect bows and brought home boxes of rejected soaps. She never worried about keeping clean— she showered only every second day, so the water bill wasn’t too high. Once or twice I saw her laugh with her boss, a woman with frizzy, burgundy hair. Most days though, after I finished kindergarten and made my way in, she was sitting there alone, surrounded by square soaps of lilac and peach, sheets of brown paper, and too much string. I was afraid the rickety little table would break, but it was stronger than I thought.


When Mama lived in China, both she and her brother had to be home at 4pm every day, or else it was the cane. 5 strikes. Every day after school, her brother scrubbed, dusted, mopped, wiped, folded and did his homework. My mother just did her homework. Girls didn’t do chores in the household, because the physical exercise made them naughty, my grandmother told me. After homework, my mother would take out her two long braids whilst my grandmother ran a comb through her hair. It was easy because my mother’s hair was never tangled, although my grandmother insisted it was messy. She asked my mother about school. I’m at the top of Mathematics class, Mama said. It’s my chance to see my name on the top of the scoreboard after this year’s exams.

 I want to get good grades so I can go to a university far away from home, Mama didn’t say.


When we lived on Haines Street, my father washed dishes for six dollars an hour from 5pm until 11pm. He learned how to tell the time in English by eavesdropping on the customers and his co-workers. He put the notes and coins he earned in a small tin jar. When I picked it up and rattled it, he snatched it from my chubby hands and put it on a higher shelf. This is Baba and Mama’s money, he shouted, don’t touch!

Mama used those coins, on top her wages, to pay for a TAFE course in accounting. Maths was her area of expertise, but her qualifications from China weren’t accepted in Australia. One day, my mother introduced me to Christie, a very thin girl who wore her hair in plaits. After school she would walk Christie and me to the park, and leave after five minutes. Mama told me to smile at Christie or she wouldn’t play with me anymore, and she always made sure I was smiling before she walked away. However, her mind was more focused on the order of MYOB Accounting textbooks that had arrived, along with the citizenship test—to pay the two thousand dollars to skip was out of the question.

When Mama began to study, my father was the one to walk Christie and me to the park. He left as soon as we got there, though. He had a PhD to finish and Christie and I were more than capable of walking home by ourselves. Mama passed the test and started her accounting course as a night program. To stop me from crying when she left, she told me she was going out to buy me a gift. I learned to tell the time in Chinese and English by watching the clock and counting down every hour until she came home. She brought back a big inflatable three-dollar dinosaur every time. I blew them up by myself and assembled them by the wall near the bed. Every night, I told them all about my day.


When Mama lived in China, in her university dormitory she befriended a small woman who loved to talk about chickens. Mama called her Chicky. My grandma thanked Chicky for the eggs she gave her as a gift. Chicky introduced Mama to a tall woman with a pale face, striking features and shiny hair. Mama called her Elfie. Elfie was the first to suggest what film they should watch on Sunday, and it was usually a romantic film, which ended with a lavish wedding and diamond rings. Elfie had a best friend who woke the entire dorm up if they slept past eight— my mother called her Annoying. Mama trained herself to sleep through the sounds of Annoying getting ready for Tai Chi while it was still dark. Every so often, Mama would walk in the long narrow corridor to her dorm, clutching some mail. They were letters from her mother and brother instructing her on how to hand wash her clothes. She wrote back that she wished she could have done at least one or two chores at home, but she didn’t write that it was a relief to be able to go see a movie without getting the cane.


When we lived on Haines Street, sometimes I heard Mama get up at night when Christie’s parents argued, and none of us could sleep. She’d turn on the lamp and read those MYOB books, and then she’d return to the bedroom when the swearing had stopped. Christie’s dad was a skinny bald man with rings in his ears. He took to standing by our door every day, even on the days Mama had to get up very early to walk to work because she didn’t want to take money from the jar to pay the tram fare. Christie’s dad asked either Mama or my father for two dollars. Both of them saw his arms, which were dotted with purple, and refused. When I asked about the marks, my mum said he had too much fun with the Magic Markers they had at Big School. She told me he wanted to be a leopard for Dress Up day.


When Mama lived in China, her brother, my uncle, who loved pork ribs and did chore after chore, passed away suddenly from a brain tumour. Eventually, they stopped saying his name, but my grandmother started cooking one more dish at each meal, putting it in his place on the table. It was always the pork ribs in soy sauce. This dish was always the last to be eaten, and sometimes not at all. Something was needed to break the silence at dinner, so my grandmother announced that Mama needed to find a man while she was still young enough to have her pick. She introduced various men to Mama. He has no table manners, Mama said about one man. I don’t like his mother, she said about another one. Mama refused to see any more. Later, there was someone who had obtained a university scholarship in Australia. He was short and scrawny, and never showed up on time for their dates, but he was one out of two, from a class of three hundred students, who managed to graduate from a rural school that was without heating and had seats made from concrete. My mother learned this as they went on more dates. One day, he showed up with a white gold ring with a sapphire. He told my grandmother he’d sold his bike and a cow. He’d also got some plane tickets, but my mother told him to save that news for another time. My grandmother smiled, but looked to my mother for an answer. Okay, then, my mother nodded.


When we lived on Haines Street, my parents bought their first car after Mama had passed the citizenship test, and my father no longer had to wash dishes because he had completed his PhD and secured a position in a university. The seats of the car were worn through and there was a dent in the passenger door, but my father polished and vacuumed it with great vigilance. Although Mama passed her driving test, she continued to walk to work and save on petrol money because my father had to drive to the city, and the parking permit was not cheap. I heard her sobbing in the bathroom on the night my father showed her the sixty-dollar fine for parking in an unused, but illegal space. She told him that they were wasting too much. They stopped cleaning with whole tissues and began wiping with thin strips of tissue instead. Even today, I find semi-ripped tissues in the box.


When Mama finally got married, my grandmother was delighted. My parents hired a big carriage, a suit, earrings and a flowing white dress with a veil for an hour and smiled and shuffled as a photographer took pictures and called out instructions. It had cost a lot of money, so they stood up straighter and widened their smiles as the photographer’s sighs and commands got louder. Then they went to visit my father’s parents. Their bathroom was above the pigpen, and whenever a person squatted, the pigs ran up squealing, heads bumping, their tongues extended. The floors in the house were covered in muddy paw prints, and the children clawed food into their mouths with dirt-caked fingers. Often, Mama had to flick the flies in her rice or pick the worms from her vegetables.


When we lived on Haines Street, Mama befriended another Chinese woman nearby. She had a daughter with Barbie dolls and plush toys lined up along her bedroom window. Mama looked at my inflatable dinosaurs, and went to the Chinese shop where everything was around five dollars maximum, and bought little plastic dolls with shoes and clothes and handbags. She scattered them amongst my dinosaurs. She was often invited around for lunch and, while her friend’s daughter and I played with our dolls in the other room, Mama’s new friend told her that her daughter could write Chinese characters and English words, and could also read entire picture books by herself. Mama looked at me dressing my dolls and didn’t have anything to say. She could only sit, nod and occasionally drink some of the tea her friend placed in front of her.


When Mama lived in China, she told my father, yes, Australia sounds lovely. She told my grandparents about how it was time to leave the nest, just like her friends. Chicky now had a vital role in a big firm, Elfie married a wealthy businessman and travelled overseas every month, and that annoying woman who woke them up too early sent photos of herself and her newborn son from Switzerland. My mother entrusted me to my grandparents and used some of my grandmother’s savings to visit Adelaide with my father. They took photos of each other standing next to kangaroos in national parks, dipping their feet in rock pools, and marvelling at a wombat. My mother’s favourite photograph was of herself in a pink dress, sitting on a rock amidst huge crashing waves and a lighthouse. They returned to China very tanned much to my grandmother’s horror. My parents took turns holding me, but they were only allowed to do so after my grandmother had held me first. She didn’t let my parents spend much time with me. When I was asleep, they couldn’t even read the newspaper around me without being criticised, because my grandmother said the sound of the pages turning would wake me up. The next day, they went to the embassy to fill out forms to become permanent Australian citizens. My mother cut her hair short and counted down the days until she was due to leave, right down to the very last minute.


X Chen

Author: X Chen

"Exxy Chen has an honours degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her hobbies are writing and drawing. She lives with two cats and a canary, and is glad they like her."

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