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HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew

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Hope Farm explores the mother-daughter relationship between Ishtar and Silver in the unique setting of life spent on the fringes in Australian ashrams and communes. Thirteen-year-old Silver and her mother, Ishtar, live in a Brisbane ashram. Ishtar, prone to fits of boredom with the drudgery of everyday life and dead end partners, gives in to the thrill of having a new lover, Miller, and a new life at Hope Farm, a commune in Gippsland Victoria.

Hope Farm isn’t the vibrant, self-sustaining, wondrous life on the land that Miller promised. Instead Ishtar finds herself broke after buying Miller a car and funding the trip to Hope Farm. Silver finds herself surrounded by a group of bitter and apathetic adult hippies who aren’t living by the values they preach. She is unimpressed by her new surroundings:

‘…Hope was far and away the most uncomfortable, ugliest, and most depressing place we’d ever lived, with the most flaccid, uninspiring residents…’

Ishtar is caught up in her own search for personal happiness. Silver, left to her own devices in a life with no boundaries, resorts to attempting to look after herself.  Beautiful and sensual, Ishtar is accustomed to being the centre of men’s attention. Conflict and jealousy simmers among several of the women at the commune over Miller and Ishtar, and the sexual tension they create. Dan, a young new arrival to the commune, draws Ishtar’s attentions, further fanning the fires of tension. The arrival of Miller’s wife has explosive consequences.

Silver desperately searches for a sense of normality among the liberated attitudes and actions of the hippies. She befriends Ian, a boy who lives on a nearby farm. Ian is awkward, introverted and savagely bullied at school. He channels his energies into photography and planning revenge on his bullies. Ian and Silver form a friendship that’s strictly out of school only, and they roam the nearby countryside together after school and on weekends. As Silver struggles with life at Hope Farm, she also wrestles with the emotional turmoil of being thirteen, of her body changing, and her affections for Dan. All Silver really wants is to have a home shared with just her mother, to be a family of just the two of them. And maybe Dan. Her yearning for this one thing is tangible and heartbreaking.

We gain glimpses into Ishtar’s earlier life, how she first came to be at an Ashram in Brisbane, through flashbacks that are alternated throughout the current day story. This device adds depth to Ishtar’s character and allows us to see many of the motivations behind her actions.

Peggy Frew’s novel turns a sharp eye onto a young girl cast adrift and left to wrestle alone with becoming a woman in a world over which she has no control. An absorbing read, this beautifully written book conveys the ache and longing experienced by both mother and daughter, whilst simultaneously exploring the impact of an unconventional childhood and the devastating repercussions a parent’s actions can have on their child.

Rating:  4/5

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List of Awards

2017 International Dublin Literary Award – Longlisted

2016 Barbara Jefferis Award – Winner

2016 Miles Franklin Award – Shortlisted

2016 Stella Prize – Shortlisted

2016 Indie Book Awards – Shortlisted

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe Publications 2015), ISBN (e-book) 9781925113778

Short story series: Wavedancer

This short story is a creative piece inspired by living in beautiful Port Douglas many moons ago. The story is told through the various times of the day to convey the sense of ‘a day in the life’ and play on the sense that some parts of the day flow quickly, while others pass more slowly. Happy reading. 

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Four twenty-two.  The louvers rattle and shake, jarring me awake. Screech. A branch scrapes the side of the house. Damn, not another windy day. Glance at the window. It’s still dark. I snuggle under the blanket and let the swirling of leaves lull me back to sleep.

6:00.  The alarm bleats but I’m already awake, pulling on my togs. In the dim morning light I pick up the car keys, towel, goggles and head to the pool.

Five past.  Thirty laps today. Come on, you can do it. Don’t slacken off. One, two three, that’s it, get into the rhythm of the strokes. Best time of the day. Just me and the pool.

Half past. Legs stand at the end of my lane. A hand reaches in and taps me on the head. Nah, Mick, I’m not into pushing weights. I prefer the pool. Thanks though. Watch his ripped body stride into the gym. Definitely a ’roid boy. I smirk. Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the view.

Seven twenty.  Long shower to wash away the chlorine. No matter how hard I scrub, the smell won’t come out.

Eight o’clock. A scream has me running. Steph? You okay? Oh, tree frog’s in the toilet again. Hang on a sec, I’ll get him out. He’s harmless you know. Chuckling, I relocate Charlie to the garden.

Breakfast.  Toast with Marmite. Steph loves the stuff. Brought loads of it with her from the UK. I hated it in the beginning, but can’t get enough of it now. Definitely better than Vegemite. Sweeter, not so salty.

Five to nine.  We’re late. Grab our beach bags, slip on sunnies and thongs, and rush out the door.

9:00.  Cut, deseed and slice a box of pawpaws. Sneak a piece. The red ones taste so good. Sneak another. Arrange the fruit platters and clean up the mess.

Nine twenty.  Change into my uniform. Pull my hair back into a ponytail. Stash my bag in the staff room below deck. Sunnies. Shit, where are they? Run back to the staff room, rifle through my bag. They’re not there. Fuck! Where are they? Dash up the stairs two at a time. Toilets! Fling open the door. Bloody things are sitting on the cistern. Right, I’m ready.

Nine thirty.  Boarding time. Tour buses spew out their hordes of the day. A huddling mass of bright, fluorescent Lyra, towels, sarongs, hats and sunglasses scuttles along the jetty and up across the gangplank.

Twenty-five to.  Tea? Coffee? With milk? ask the hostesses behind the bar in practiced lilting voices. From big kettles, they pour the requested beverages into white mugs. The platters of red and yellow pawpaw-smiles sit on a nearby bench-top. Already full hands reach for the exotic fruit. Asian tourists account for a large portion of the passengers today. Women teeter and totter about on three-inch heels, their hair stylishly gelled, faces immaculately made-up and the latest fashions cling to doll-sized frames. Out on the lower back deck chatters a group dressed in short shorts, socks and sandals—they’ve got to be German. Melbournians with stark white shoulders, arms and backs, all begging for a liberal dose of sunscreen, are trading an early winter for Port Douglas’ eternal summer. Mick and I place bets that most will be the colour of boiled mud crabs by mid-afternoon.

9:57.  At last all three hundred and fifty passengers are on board, either lounging on the outer decks or reclining in seats within the cabins.

One minute later. Glance at the marina’s flagpole. The flag flicks in the wind. Twenty to twenty-five knots today, I reckon. Better push the seasickness meds. We could be in for a rough ride, says Janice, the head hostess. People laugh at me, point to the calm water of the inlet and say they’re fine. Please take it. Once you’re sick, it’s too late, I urge. More laughter. Crazy girl, they say.

Ten o’clock.  The engines churn to life and the giant catamaran glides out of the marina to the mouth of the inlet and past the sheltered entrance. Pete, today’s Captain, propels her into high gear and with a surge we’re off. Open waters, here we come.

Half past.  It’s choppy today and the catamaran rocks and rolls beneath my feet. My toes act as anchors and balancing weights, each one gripping and flexing in response to the waves’ rise and fall. The floor drops away suddenly. My stomach lurches at a moment of ocean-induced vertigo. Toes splayed, I rock on the balls of my feet and dance down the aisles. Grey faces seek my attention. Miss, miss, I’ll have some of that seasickness medication now. Too late. It won’t work now, I tell them. Go outside, get some fresh air, it’ll help.

Quarter to eleven.  Steph passes me a handful of white paper bags, which I tuck into the back of my sarong-skirt. If things don’t ease up someone will blow, she mutters. And there he goes. Steph thrusts a bag under his nose just in time. I survey the aisle. The smell alone is enough to set off a chain reaction. Five of us scan the crowd, bags in hand, ready to run.

Twelve past.  Scavenger time. I trawl the cabins and decks picking up mugs, cans, bottles and empty chip packets left on benches, under benches, on stairs, anywhere but in the bins. Poor Helen is on galley duty. Her face shines from the steam that pours out of the industrial dishwasher as she pumps through hundreds of mugs. The bins are full of food scraps, and tea and coffee dregs swirl around the sink. Gross. It’s the only place on the boat that still makes me queasy.

11:30. Arrival at the pontoon. Welcome to Agincourt Reef, everyone. As the deckhands secure the moorings, passengers gaze out over the water that surrounds us on all sides. We’re an island in this deep blue sea. Where’s the reef? asks a woman in a deep Texan drawl. Steph rolls her eyes. Out there, I point. Where? She raises a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, searching. It’s under the water, I tell her. Oh. She drops her hand. Steph laughs a little too loudly. I kick her in the ankle as the woman turns to glare at us.

11:35.  The passengers file, obedient as sheep, off the boat and onto the pontoon.

Noon. The seafood lunch buffet rouses them and soon they’re fighting like seagulls over king prawns, salads, cold cuts and more. It’s gluttony on a plate.

Twenty past.  Plastic gloves on, I weave between tables, stepping over beach bags, towels, and snorkelling equipment to clear plates littered with prawn heads and other food remnants. The snorkelling safety officers are checking equipment, and reassuring edgy passengers that sharks are not a problem. Don’t stand on the reef! shouts Mick to an Asian guy doing just that. I shake my head. Idiot. Every day there’s at least one.

12:30.  The helicopter whirs to life, then darts like a dragonfly over the reef, wheeling and turning through the air before returning to land. Its passenger alights gesticulating to his camera, a smile overtaking his face. Another satisfied customer.

One thirty.  Lunch is over.

One thirty-two.  Playtime. I change into my swimsuit, grab a set of fluro pink fins, a mask and snorkel, and plonk onto the semi-submerged snorkelling platform. Schools of fish dart around my legs; cheeky ones nibble at a freckle on my ankle. It tickles and I giggle. The water laps at me, calls to me. Kicking off from the platform, I push out into the water.

1:40.  A leak somewhere in the mask lets water trickle in, creating a second sea that sloshes at odds with the one that rocks my body up and down. I tug on the mask to stop the leak but flood it with water instead. Salt stings my eyes, burns my nose and brine trickles down the back of my throat. Yuck. Awkwardly treading water, I rip off the mask, scrape back my hair and reapply it. No leaks this time. Moments later, the reef disappears behind a humid mist. Cursing, I tread water once more, hawk back, spit into the facemask and rub the saliva over the glass. A quick rinse and I try again. At last the mask stays clear. Breathing hard, I float away from the safety of the pontoon, away from the dozens of tourists churning up the snorkelling area like paddle steamers on full tilt.

The waves lick over me, cooling the sun’s heat on my back. Below me, a rocklobster picks its way over some coral, its long, spindly antennae waving in front, leading the way. The tide is low and the coral is ablaze as the sun intensifies its colours. A school of parrotfish sail past their beak-mouths crunching on bits of coral. Awesome, a cleaning station—I’ve never seen one before. A large fish hovers in a coral valley while smaller ones clean it; others queue, waiting their turn. Fat nudibranchs, in stripes of starburst yellow, black and saffron orange, slug their way across the ocean floor. A tug on my fin. I swing around. Steph, the lusty sea nymph, has found me. She tugs on my arm. I follow as she weaves over the ribbon of reef, past coral clusters and giant clams with fat velvet lips. The reef suddenly drops off, sheer as a cliff. A blue-black nothingness races up to swallow me. My heart tattoos in my chest. Damn, it’s an illusion but the sensation of falling is real. I paddle backwards with my hands, reverse back over the reef. Cool huh, says Steph, with a wicked grin. Welcome to the edge of the Continental Shelf.

Two thirty.  Shepard the punters, tired and sunburnt, back onto the boat.

Three.  Lock the doors to the outer decks. Everyone, please stay where you are, comes the overhead announcement from Captain Pete. Head count time.

Three past three. People persist in going to the toilet and wandering around. Head count comes back wrong. We do it again. And again.

Twenty-two past. Tea? Coffee? With milk? chime the girls behind the bar once more.  Coral cuts, anyone? Ointment in hand, I scan passing limbs for cuts, scratches and nicks to the skin. Oh, it’s nothing, says a man, waving me away, not believing that coral cuts are poisonous. Septic, festering wounds are common, I warn, applying ointment to resistant body parts.

Three forty-five.  Gift shop time. Eager shoppers clamour around Steph to buy DVD’s, T-shirts, sarongs, swimwear and towels; mementos to be stuffed in the back of the wardrobe upon returning home. Slip outside and make idle chitchat with some passengers. The ocean is calmer, as if she too is relaxed after a day in the sun. Not a wave or ripple to be seen. Except off our bow-wave. A pod of dolphins playfully arch through the water.

Four ten.  Lean against a railing on the top deck. Admire the view. The wind tears through my hair, streaming a blonde flag behind me.

Four fourteen.  Purple mountain ranges creep into sight. The inlet. Chill time is over.

4:30.  Goodbye. Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoyed your day. Sagging tourists trip back across the gangplank and are hustled toward the line of waiting tour buses. Mick and the other deckhands roll up mats, connect hoses and wash down the outer decks, windows and clean toilets. I polish the banisters back to a silver shine, empty bins, pick up rubbish tucked in between seat cushions and wipe face-smeared windows.

Happy hour.  Knock off drinks. We all get a freebie. I sip mine, savouring the friendly banter of the crew. Another drink? Sure, why not.

Six.  See you tomorrow, guys. Yeah, have a good night. Amble down the jetty to the sound of rigging lines clinking against metal masts as boats gently sway on the incoming tide.

Dinner.  Steph and I sit at an outdoor table next to a voracious potted plant. Beads of moisture gather like sweat on my glass of sav blanc. The herbaceous smell of freshly cut grass and gooseberries reaches up to tickle my nose. Across the road, the tiny white chapel sleeps under the setting sun and the ground’s lush grass sighs in relief. Coconut palms, with big green and mustard coloured nuts nestled high in the crown, are reduced to silhouettes. The waitress, flushed from the heat but not rushed, delivers our platter of oysters and a bowl of lemon wedges. Flocks of starlings twitter and dive as they fight for space in a nearby fig tree. Fruit bats shadow their way across the dusk sky. The air is thick, heavy with humidity and the smell of darkness. Tart morsels of minerally flesh slide down my throat. Gooseberries and grass follow not long after. Here’s to life as a hostess, in paradise, says Steph. Her fingers brush briefly over mine. I toast my glass to hers. She smiles. I smile.

7:50.  Hey girls, fancy seeing you here. Mick pulls up a chair. Steph’s fingers slide back to her side of the table.

7:52.  The waitress brings over a beer. Mick chugs half of it in one go. Blah, blah. I stop listening. Steph laughs at his story. Her green eyes sparkle. More white noise. So, what do you reckon, Mel? Huh? ‘Drinks at the Iron Bar?’ I look over at Steph. She’s already reaching for her bag.

Eight ten.  Strobe lights. They’re new. I squint against them. For a small bar, they sure pack ’em in. Popular place this one. Must be the staff. Buff boys with cheery good looks and trim, tanned Barbie dolls pump out drinks.

Three past nine.  Order another Margarita. With a side shot of José Cuervo. Out on the dance floor, Steph’s hips gyrate in time to the music. Mick moves in closer. Letch.

Four past. Scull the tequila shot. Fire burns a trail down my throat. Yeah, that’s what I need.

Five past.  Hey, you’re that chick from the boat. Great, a punter from today’s tour. Nod. He’s not bad looking. Smile. Nice face, shame about the body. Glad you had a good time. Uh huh. Yep. Just keep nodding. I’m here with a friend. Point to the dance floor. What are we drinking? Frozen margarita for me, mango daiquiri for her.

9:15.  Come dance with me, a voice breathes in my ear as fingers find mine. Weave unsteadily through the crowd onto the dance floor. Pulsing, sweaty bodies push us closer together. I close my eyes, surrender to the music.

Later. Outside. The dull echo of music in my ears. A breeze blows across the thin film of sweat on my skin. Ah, that’s so good. Gentle hands cup my face as soft, mango-flavoured lips explore mine. Now this is paradise.

THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent

thegoodpeopleSimply brilliant. That’s how I’d describe this book. Evocative and touching with simmering darkness, Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a fabulous piece of historical fiction inspired by true events.

I’ve heard many good things about Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, which I haven’t yet read, and so I came to read The Good People as a first time reader of Kent’s work. I have to say, the rave reviews touting her writing style are totally justified.

The year is 1825 and in a small village near Killarney, in Ireland, Nance Roche is the village “handy women” or “keener”, a healing woman who aside from being the town midwife also works with natural remedies to heal all manner of ailments.

She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of starts. She was a pagan chorus. An older song.

Nora has unexpectedly lost her husband and, after the death of her daughter a year previously, is forced to raise her four-year-old grandson alone. Only Micheal isn’t like other children; he is weak, he cannot walk, he does not speak and he cries all the time. Nora is certain that something, a changeling, has taken over her grandson’s health and that with the right remedy he can be restored to his former health. She enlists Nance’s help to heal the boy. Nance is convinced that Micheal has been taken by the fairies, and she conceives of ways to “put the fairy out of him”. The path the Nora and Nance embark upon is fraught with peril and ultimately they must pay a price for their actions.

Through this engrossing tale, Kent explores 19th century Irish fairy lore and how folk lore formed a deep part of village life belief systems as did the use of herbal medicines. Kent has the ability to draw the reader into the world that she has created and keep you there until the very last page. Her characters are well crafted and although I could sense that tragedy was coming, I still felt compassion for Nance, who believed she was doing the right thing to dispel the fairy that had taken over Micheal’s body. She has the gift of healing and her intentions are pure. Nora, consumed by grief at the loss of her husband and daughter, and afraid of village gossip, will do anything to have her grandson returned to her. Therein lies the conflict between belief and madness and how far someone will go to be with the ones they love.

A truly touching, evocative story written by a truly talented author. I highly recommend you put this book on your reading list. The Good People has been short-listed for the Indie Book Awards 2017.

Rating: 5/5

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The Good People by Hannah Kent (Pan Macmillan Australia 2016)

EPUB format: 9781925483789

To find out more about Hannah Kent’s new title, or her previous titles, visit her website.

Other ways to connect with Hannah Kent:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HannahKentAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahfkent

2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge – I’ve signed up

The new year has started and with it begins the new year of the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve signed up again; this will be my fourth year participating and I’m as excited as ever to be reading great writing by great Australian women authors.

I’m still studying and working, and have the feeling that much as I’d love to read a stack of books, realistically I’m probably going to be quite time-poor. So, this year I’ve nominated to complete the level Stella – to read 4 books and review at least 3 books.

This year I’ve created a list of books that I want to read as a part of the AWW Challenge.

  1. The good people by Hannah Kent
  2. Hope farm by Peggy Frew
  3. The natural way of things by Charlotte Wood
  4. The watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower

I’ve already started reading The good people, and I’m loving every page!

If you want to know more about the Challenge, or want to sign up, then go to their sign up page.

Wishing everyone participating in the Challenge a happy year of reading! 🙂

 

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Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2016 – Wrap up

This is the third year that I have participated in the AWWC and while I didn’t meet my nominated challenge, I loved every book that I read.

I committed myself to the Miles Challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books.

I read 4 books written by Australian women authors, and wrote 2 reviews. I am sad not to have met my nominated challenge and it wasn’t for a lack of love of reading or a lack of good books. I simply lacked the time to write reviews. I read a vast number of books this year as a part of doing research for my honours project, but most of the texts weren’t by Australian women writers. While I love my honours topic and the texts I have read have been very enlightening, I have sorely missed reading literary fiction this year! I hope to have some reading time over the Christmas break.

The books I read this year are:

  1. The River House by Janita Cunnington
  2. The Anti-Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland
  3. More to the Story: conversations with refugees by Rosemary Sayer – This is a fabulous book that delves into what it means to be a refugee – the real life circumstances of trauma, torture, pain and suffering that are the impetus for people leaving their homeland, family, friends and culture, to risk everything out of the simple desire to live. To live, to have a chance at a normal life. The stories are told through the refugees’ own voices and make for powerful reading. For more information, see Margaret River Press
  4. Wildlight by Robyn Mundy – is a touching story of loss and love, as seen through the eyes of teenager Stephanie West, who is grudgingly facing several months on Tasmania’s Maatsuyker Island (where her mother spent her own youth), and missing out on her final year of high school, parties and fun times with friends. But as Stephanie comes to terms with her confinement on the island, she learns to love the lighthouse, the weather reports that she monitors, and the rugged wildness of the Tasmanian landscape that surrounds her. She also meets a young fisherman who will change her life. For more information see Pan Macmillan Australia.

I plan to take up the AWWC again in 2017 and look forward to having time to explore new women writer and their literary tales.

 

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Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 5)

Back in Ben’niu, Siso, one of my students, invites me to a family lunch. We’re at Aunt’s house because, she confides, Mother is a bad cook. Aunt assembles a banquet that includes two soups, various in-season vegetable dishes, gong bao ji ding (because Siso remembered it was my favourite dish), marinated jellyfish and a meat similar to corned beef. Siso points to the meat then shows me her electronic dictionary: donkey.

Over lunch Siso translates her family’s questions and comments at her discretion. Why are you so skinny when most foreigners are fat? Do you think Chinese babies are cute? Do you like living in China? Aunt vehemently explains that China has many poor people who do not understand how to behave around foreigners and she apologises if someone from China has behaved badly toward me during my time here.

Siso speaks candidly about her family as they sit around the table, right in front of us.

‘My father is fat and lazy, and he never helps around the house. My mother must cook and do all the housework even though she works too. Chinese men don’t do housework. That’s just the way it is. Do you think Cousin is good looking? I think it’s cool that Cousin has three girlfriends. I had a boyfriend in Shanghai last year but now we’re broken up. I love learning English. I want to study English in Canada but my father doesn’t want me to leave. He thinks I won’t study hard in another country. But, if I get good grades, he says he will think about it.’

***

In Shanghai, China’s largest city with a population bordering on 19 million, I embrace the rush of people, the plethora of restaurants, the multitude of towering malls. What once suffocated me now resonates within.

***

In English Corner today it is revealed that MP3s, iPods, mobile phones, laptops and love are banned at high school. If the electronics are discovered, they’re confiscated. If the relationship is discovered, the two students are suspended and sent home.

***

Chris, a teacher-friend from Foshan, comes to visit. We haven’t seen him in almost two years. He spent the past year in Australia but found the people, and the lifestyle, too materialistic and so has returned to China for the sense of community and the freedom that the way of life here offers.

***

I’m sitting at my desk writing an email when the study door starts to gently swing on its hinges. I stand and stumble slightly. Images of the ceiling collapsing around me tumble through my mind. Ash calls from school; he feels it too.

It’s not until the next day that we learn of the Sichuan earthquake some 1500 kilometres away. At the epicentre in the mountainous region of Wenchuan, and in nearby cities and towns, the devastation is incomprehensible. More than ten thousand are dead, countless buildings have been destroyed and several schools’ classrooms have collapsed, killing thousands of children. There are reports that one thousand students at one school, and nine hundred at another, were killed because of faulty construction work. The death toll eventually rises to 70 000 and approximately 4.8 million people are left homeless.

We have teaching friends based in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu. It’s been a week and still no word. Finally, on May 22, ten days after the earthquake, I receive an email from Rowena:

The aftershocks continue and the death toll increases, even as I sit here typing. I’ll know they’ve subsided completely when we stop noticing new cracks in our apartment. The old cracks from the initial earthquake seem to get longer and wider every time we come home. The city is still bustling with aid vehicles, soldiers and ambulances, and disease prevention teams are spraying everything they can find with hopefully non-toxic disinfectant. Life goes on, as many residents choose to remain in tents around the city, including many of the hospitals that moved their patients into tents, and everything appears to be as normal as can be.

 ***

Our classes are cancelled, without warning, a month before the semester’s end. Such is the nature of things in China. With their mid-semester results below district-average, the students must do extra study in preparation for their next-level exams.

Relaying this news to my students, all 450 of them, is an emotional moment, one that I repeat seventeen times for seventeen classes. By the last class I’m no longer capable of bravery or stoicism. Tears roll freely down my cheeks and my voice trembles as I announce that our classes are terminated.

‘You’ve been wonderful students… I’ll miss you all very much.’

The bell rings. Class is over.

A cluster of girls surrounds me. Some offer slips of paper with email addresses, several cling to me in a group hug, and others cry, unable to say a word.

‘Thank you,’ I say in a choked whisper.

Released from our contract, Ash and I decide to return to Australia to study, to get a degree; we want to improve our teaching options for the future. Ash hasn’t seen his family in six years and so, while we would both prefer Melbourne, we move to Bunbury.

***

Everyone looks so pale. And big. And fat. In Coles I stare at the wall of bread for so long that a shop assistant asks if I am okay. It takes me two hours to do the grocery shopping—reunited with products that I haven’t seen in three years I simply can’t decide what and which brand to buy.

Ash and I forget that others can understand us. We make inappropriate comments in public. People glare at us. The ‘foreigners’ here are abrasive, unfriendly, wasteful. I now understand why the Chinese think all foreigners are rich—the people here have so much and want ever more: two cars instead of one; houses with swimming pools, games rooms, home theatres and big screen televisions; and children demand mobile phones, iPhones, iPods, iPads, computers, designer label clothes and money for just ‘hanging’.

One night we go to a local Chinese restaurant. The waiter speaks Chinese and the majority of customers are also Chinese. The room sings with the chatter of Mandarin and the click of chopsticks. I smile at Ash; it’s the first time in a month that I’ve felt comfortable in Australia.

 

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Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 4)

Every morning I wake to the smell of burning plastic and rubber. My nose runs like a river undammed. At 6.30 am Susan, another Western teacher, and I walk laps around the school running track. Today the pollution-fog is so thick that I can look directly at the burnished amber disc that is the sun. Chanting echoes down through the fog. The students are already in class doing their morning reading.

***

Amber, one of the Chinese-English teachers, invites me to watch her teach an English class. Sixty desks are crammed into her classroom, each one stacked high with textbooks. The students sit on small backless stools and when I enter they rush to find one for me. I sit squashed up against the back wall, barely fitting between the rows of desks. The room is completely silent as Amber teaches. The students choral drill when prompted but out of sixty students only six stand to speak during the hour-long lesson.

 ***

My students constantly ask about school life in Australia. I distribute a letter from Rose, a student in Bunbury, who, at my request, has written to them about her school.

‘What do you think about school life in Australia?’

‘Australian students are so lucky.’

‘School in Australia is like a holiday.’

My attempt at cultural exchange has gone awry. Glum faces replace smiling ones. ‘Would you like to write a letter to Rose, telling her about schooling in China?’

‘Yes!’ they chorus and the room becomes silent except for the sound of pens scratching across paper.

 

Dear Rose,

I go to high school in Ben’niu, Jiangsu Province, eastern China. My school has approximately 2500 students aged 16-19 years old. We go to school nearly seven days a week, from 6.35 am to 9.45 pm. We have about half an hour for lunchtime. We also have a canteen but it isn’t very popular. We often eat rice, meat and vegetables for lunch. We have a lot of homework to do every day. We spend 3-4 hours on it.

Best wishes

Cherry

 

Dear Rose,

I have loved your school life and I want to go to your school to study. We have eight lessons in one day and three self-classes. We are very tired when school is over! We have two home-days once a month. On the Sunday afternoon we have two hours free time. We can go out of school and go shopping or playing. But at 4.30 pm we need to go back to our class and do homework or reading.

Best wishes

Snow

 

Dear Rose,

We have much homework and it’s very difficult for some students but we are very lucky because we can ask our teachers for help. They are patient and helpful. Most of the students live in our school and we go home once a month, so we often feel helpless and unhappy. In China, school life isn’t the same as yours in Australia, but people can’t live without knowledge!

Best wishes

Siso

 ***

We have a pet hedgehog, bought on impulse at the market. I’ve named him Russell because he constantly tips over the wastepaper bin and rustles around in it, kicking out every last scrap, looking for food. He also likes to bite Ash on the big toe.

 ***

One day, over lunch, I ask Mr Auden, the principal of Ben’niu Junior High School, why the students are pushed to work so hard.

‘Well, of the junior high students, only the top forty per cent can go on to senior high school. The rest will go home. For them, education is over. Only thirty per cent of senior students can go to university, and not all of them will be accepted. The other seventy per cent, they go home, get a job, maybe go to a college. But real education, and a chance at a better life, is over for them,’ he explains.

‘Why are so few university positions offered?’ asks Ash.

‘Because China has too many people. Even at thirty per cent there are too many students and not enough spaces at university. So the students must work very hard if they want a better life.’

‘So, what scores should the students get to proceed to the next level?’ I ask.

‘They should score ninety per cent or above. Actually ninety-five per cent is preferred. This will guarantee a student’s position at the next level of schooling.’

***

I awake to Ben’niu transformed. It snowed last night and our ugly town is quiet, white, beautiful. The snow falls and falls. For days it falls. My students race out of class onto the oval, squealing and shouting. It’s the first time any of them have seen snow. Still the snow falls. ‘China experiences coldest winter in two decades’ announces the China Daily. Some provinces are experiencing their worst winter in fifty years. Houses have been destroyed, crops frozen, power lines are down in many areas, transport and rail lines have ground to a halt and millions of migrant workers are stranded, unable to return home for the holidays. Silence descends over our industrial town as roads are closed. Determined taxis skid and slide down the main street. Bored hairdressers build giant snow-mice, complete with whiskers; it’s Chinese New Year, Year of the Rat.

***

Emma and Simeon invite us to spend the Chinese New Year holidays with them, in Beijing. The train lines are declared open just two days before our planned departure. The city pulses with energy, as much from the New Year’s celebrations as preparations for the 2008 Olympics, in six months’ time. There’s so much to see and do: the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Winter Palace, Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, markets, fake designer label stores, and English bookstores.

 

benniuschool