Short Story Series: Outback Bravado

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the film, The Hotel Coolgardie, and reactions have been strong. It’s a documentary that looks at the experiences of two backpackers working in the pub in Coolgardie, in the goldfields of Western Australia, and the girls’ experiences with the locals. I went to see the film (which I recommend seeing) and it reminded me of when I worked at a pub in Kambalda, a long time ago. Kambalda is south-west of Coolgardie, also in the goldfields region. Several years ago, I wrote a short story about the experience and I thought I’d share it with you. It was an experience that taught me a lot about myself, about judgement based on first impressions of others, and that ultimately we are all human. 

 

I’m a long way from home. The breezy beaches of the Sunshine Coast are far behind me, fast becoming a distant memory. Flat plains dotted with saltbush shrubs have replaced green mountain ranges. Tall eucalypts stand in place of pandanus palms. The smell of salt on the wind is gone. Instead, dust tickles my throat. Here in the ‘one horse town’ of Kambalda, as my dad calls it, there’s a pub, supermarket, post office, Chinese restaurant and not much else. Five years ago, my parents moved to this western side of Australia and I’ve decided to visit for a year or so.

‘I’m bored. I need a job,’ I announce at dinner.

Mum frowns at me. ‘You just got here. Why don’t you take some time to relax?’

‘I think I’ll apply at the pub.’

Dad puts down his fork and knife. ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’

‘I’ve got four years’ bar experience.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘Well, what did you mean?’

He clears his throat. ‘I just don’t think a bar full of drunk miners is a good place for you to be right now… especially after what you’ve been through.’

‘I want to do it.’

‘They’re a rough mob out here.’

‘I’ll be fine, Dad. The customers aren’t Steve. They aren’t going to hurt me.’

My father looks away. ‘Fine, do what you want.’

‘Dessert anyone?’ asks my mother.

I sigh. Neither of them is comfortable discussing my alcoholic ex-boyfriend. Perhaps I was wrong to confide in them, to burden them with something they can’t comprehend, let alone fix.

From the outside, the Kambalda Hotel is an unassuming building that gives no indication of the true goings-on within. During my interview, the manager brags that the hotel has the longest bar in Western Australia. While there’s no denying its length, I’m more surprised to see that it still holds to traditional Australian culture with the men’s public bar separated from the ladies’ lounge. The rules are no longer enforced, yet on my first night at work not one woman comes through those doors. The bar has that all too familiar smell of stale beer, the carpet is worn and stained, some plastic tables and chairs huddle near the windows and banks of stainless steel fridges line the back wall.

‘Why don’t the beer fridges have glass doors?’

‘Because on a rowdy night these bastards are likely to throw barstools and glasses over the bar,’ answers Tracey, the girl assigned to showing me the ropes. She’s a skinny thing with a rubbish tip mouth.

It’s Monday night, traditionally the quietest night of the week. Where I come from, anyway. Slowly, a few customers drift in for the six o’clock knock-off drink. By seven the place is packed.

‘What’s going on? Why’s it so busy?’ .

‘It’s skimpy night,’ Tracey replies, pushing past me to serve someone.

‘What night?’

‘Skimpy night. The new skimpy arrives every Monday. It’s the busiest night of the week.’ She gives me a look that I can’t read.

The demand for beer ends our conversation. A crowd of burly bodies radiating testosterone jostle for space at the bar. Gouged and creviced faces leer at me and I notice several smiles punctured by broken teeth. Kambalda is not where the pretty people live.

The energy in the room escalates. When I stand on a milk crate to get a can of Emu Export from the back of the beer fridge, a cheer goes up from the rabble behind me.

‘Oi, luv, what’s your name?’ asks one of the hard faces softened by beer.

‘My name is Heidi, ya,’ I answer in a German accent, flapping my long blonde plaits for emphasis.

‘So, Heidi, where are you from?’

‘I’m from Germany, ya.’ I’m certain he’s going to call me on my game, but he doesn’t. He believes me. Oh, shit.

The name sticks and for the rest of the night I answer to calls of ‘Heidi, give us a beer’, using it as a cover until I can work these men out, because they’re a scary bunch. There’s a hardness to them, a menace that I’ve not encountered before. Their language makes my ears burn, and I’m not a girl easily embarrassed by the words bitch and fuck.

A roar erupts from the crowd. My jaw drops and my heart stops. A young girl, dressed only in a black lace bra and G-string, enters the bar and starts serving beers. The men are in a lather now, cat-calling, waving money and whistling. The girl works the bar from end to end, pulling beers and playing a game of tossing one and two dollar coins. If she wins the call, she keeps the money. If she loses, she shows the man with the money her nipples. For a fiver she’ll rub ice on them. I don’t understand the appeal because the entire bar gets to see her nipples when she loses a coin toss but the men vie for her attention, eager to have their turn.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask her. We’re pouring beers from the same bank of taps; it feels rude not to talk to her. Plus, I’ve noticed that Tracey’s been giving her the evil eye for a couple of hours now.

‘I’m Sarah,’ she says with a wink. ‘You?’

‘Heidi.’ I wink back.

I find out later that her name is Emily. She never uses her real name for these skimpy jobs. She’s only twenty-three, same age as me, and started travelling around Australia a year ago. Her visa expires soon, but she’s out of cash, so she’s doing the skimpy gig as a quick way to pay for her ticket back to the UK.

As the night progresses, Tracey gets more aggressive. The death-glare morphs into her ‘accidentally’ shoulder-nudging both Sarah and me. One drunken miner waves a fiver in the air to tempt Sarah over. Tracey snatches the money from his hand.

‘I’ll show you a decent set of tits!’ She whips up her T-shirt and waggles her breasts at him.

The men howl with appreciation.

‘See, I’ve got better tits than you, bitch,’ she hisses at Sarah.

‘Blimey, what’s her problem?’

I shrug and roll my eyes.

‘See you tomorrow, Heidi.’

I nod.

As the last call announcing ‘Bar’s closed’ echoes through the room, Sarah slips away into the bowels of the hotel.

It’s my day off and, in need of some alone time, I decide to do a little exploring. The land here is so different; like the people, it’s rugged, hard and uncompromising. The wind blowing in off the desert carries the heat of a fan-forced oven that extracts all moisture, turns skin into tissue paper and evaporates all energy leaving lethargy in its wake. Sparse eucalypts and saltbushes struggle to protect themselves from the onslaught of the sun. Red Hill’s ochre earth brazenly juts up against a cerulean sky, its crowning metal tower a surreal sculpture in this landscape devoid of human presence. Out on Lake Lefroy, a blinding glare reflects off the thick saltpan, which crunches beneath my feet. I pick up a handful of salt and the flakes shimmer like crystals. It’s barren out here; the only evidence of life is in death. By the banks lie poor, wretched creatures trapped in salt-crusted sarcophaguses. The desolation is palatable. My mind drifts across the horizon, back to Mooloolaba and I flinch at memory. It’s too raw. The last thing I need is time to mull over why I’m here, in the middle of nowhere. Dusting the salt off my hands, I drive to the pub and ask for extra shifts. That should distract me for while.

Mum’s started fretting about the amount of time I spend at work, or more precisely, in the pub and so to appease her, I offer to take her out for lunch.

‘Dad, how far is Kalgoorlie from here?’

‘Oh, not far. Just down the road,’ he answers.

For me, just down the road means a five-minute drive. I discover that five years in outback Western Australia has changed my father’s perspective on distances. It takes almost an hour to get to Kalgoorlie. After a morning spent window shopping and walking the streets of ‘Kal’, as my mother calls it, I decide to stop in at a pub for a counter meal and a beer. Mum hesitates. She might be used to cleaning the Kambalda Hotel but she certainly doesn’t frequent pubs. The place is empty except for two men bent over their beers at the bar. I find her a table overlooking the street, with plenty of light, and order drinks at the bar. The two men look up from their ales. I nod a greeting and give a quick polite smile. They continue to stare. I pay for the drinks and am about to walk away when one of them speaks.

‘Your hair’s beautiful,’ he slurs.

‘Pardon me?’

‘Your hair, it’s beautiful.’

‘Oh, thanks.’ This is awkward.

‘It’s so long and blonde.’

‘It looks so soft,’ interjects his buddy.

Okay, now it’s getting creepy.

‘Can I touch it?’

‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘Can I touch your hair?’

‘Ah, see that stuff on your head? Feels just the same, boys. Honest.’ With that I walk away and hustle mum out the door to find a café for lunch instead.

As the weeks pass, I get used to skimpy nights, the showing of flesh and men’s desires laid bare on the bar. I even get used to the vibrant language that the customers use as everyday discourse. My rising popularity with the miners stings the egos of the local girls, however, and they retaliate by relegating me to what’s known as the animal end of the bar. These drinkers are more feral and ferocious than the general crowd. I’ve seen beer cans and glasses pegged at the bar girls and fights are common. I don’t relish my new section, but I’ve been taught well in the art of pulling a beer and I can sass with the best of them. The ‘animals’, it turns out, just want a little attention and their beer served with a smile. My relief at winning them over is short lived.

‘Hey, Heidi, will you go out to dinner with me?’ asks Mick, one of the most foul-mouthed men I’ve ever met.

Crap.

‘Sweetie, that’s very kind, but I can’t.’

‘Why not?’ Bloodshot eyes glare at me as scarred fingers crunch in the sides of a beer can. His friends lean in to listen.

‘Well… it’s against company policy.’

‘Ay?’

‘I’m not allowed to date the customers because if I say yes to you and no to someone else it could cause problems in the bar. You see?’ I hold my breath, wait for his response.

He eyeballs me as he thinks it over. ‘Yeah, I get it. ’Cos them other arseholes would get jealous and I’d have to fuckin’ kick their heads in.’

I give him a quick wink. ‘That’s right.’

Of course, there is no such policy at the hotel, but this becomes my standard response whenever a drunk patron asks me out.

During quieter shifts these fierce men lose their bravado. I discover that they are damaged: they’re men with broken hearts; men who’ve lost loved ones to break-ups and friends to suicides; men who have known abused childhoods. Bawdy behaviour is their shield. They’re here to make big money at the mines and dream of a better life, once they’ve done their time. But when they aren’t working, they’re in the pub drinking to forget, searching for a little kindness, a woman’s touch, something to take the pain away. I know a thing or two about bravado—my own wounds are carefully hidden behind a repertoire of bar-bitch sass, smiles and flippant remarks.

‘So Heidi, I reckon some arsehole hurt you real bad,’ says Mick, through his alcohol-induced fog.

‘Why’s that?’

‘You don’t date anyone and you’re hangin’ in a bar with a bunch of bastards like us. You deserve better.’

His keen perception hits a nerve and I blink back unexpected tears. ‘We’re all running from something, Mick.’

‘You got that right.’

A sense of understanding passes between us. We’re similar creatures, protecting ourselves in the only way we know how.

‘Heidi, give us a fuckin’ beer,’ snarls Pete, pulling up a stool next to Mick.

‘Mind your fuckin’ manners, Pete. This is Heidi, not them other bitches.’

Pete’s face loses its aggression. ‘Sorry, Heidi. Can I have a fuckin’ beer, please?’

‘Sure thing, sweetie.’ I flash him a smile. It’s time to get back to the business of beer and tending to thirsty men.

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.

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.

 

benniustudents

 

 

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

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 3)

‘Have you ever eaten dog?’ asks George, a student in Business English, a class of mixed-level speakers.

‘Umm, no, I don’t think so. I’ve never ordered it in a restaurant.’ How has he deviated from writing letters of introduction to dog meat?

‘Do you eat dog in Australia?’ he continues.

‘What about cats?’ comes a call from the back.

‘No. We don’t eat cats or dogs in Australia.’

My normally reserved class unfurls a string of questions and comments: Do you catch pigeons or birds in the park, to eat? What about snake? Why don’t you like dog? It tastes good. Dog is good to eat now in the wintertime; it’s very warming.

‘Sonja, why don’t you eat dog in Australia?’ It’s George again.

‘Well, because we keep dogs and cats as pets.’

Consternation wrinkles their faces.

‘Pets are special to us. We love them like members of the family. Ming bai ma?’

A discussion, in Chinese, ping-pongs around the classroom. George concentrates as he speaks, ‘So, it’s your Western sense of connection to these animals as… surrogate children… that makes the concept of eating them… abhorrent.’

Dui la.’ That’s right.

‘Ahh,’ is the group response.

‘Any more questions? Yes, Jenny?’

‘I don’t understand the exercise on page fifty-two.’

***

Everyone stare, stare, stares at my ‘yellow’ hair. Strangers on the street photograph me, the waiguoren, with their mobile phones. I’m in a clothing store, browsing, when a woman shoves her phone in my face and takes my picture. As I complain to Ash, she turns around and says, ‘Yes, I took your picture!’ In English. I loathe this imposed celebrity-status. I long to be inconspicuous, invisible.

***

I can now tell the time, buy shoes and clothes, book a massage and say ‘I am not an American’ in Mandarin. Ash has started speaking Chinese in his sleep.

***

Walking home after work one day, I look up, stop and stare. Orange and pink fairy floss clouds are teased across a deep blue sky. It’s the first sunset I’ve seen in over a year.

***

There’s no pollution in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. At the Pagoda of the East Temple, groups of elderly people play heated games of mahjong while outside the Yuantong Temple, the 1200 year-old Buddhist complex, a sea of beggars is sprawled and prostrated on the footpath, and at the street market there are chickens dyed green, red and yellow, buckets seething with beetles, and a man makes edible art out of caramelised sugar.

The next day Ash and I explore the matriarchal town of Dali, where the women dress in long dark blue trousers topped by a royal blue long-sleeved tunic. I buy some bright, hand-dyed and painted wall hangings and we eat yak cheese pizza and yak meat stew.

The bus north, to Lijiang, climbs steadily higher through to a landscape of deep oranges, ochres and browns to tiered, terraced farms and green fields dotted with cattle and yaks. A maze of hutongs and cobbled streets, Lijiang old-town sprawls out, over and down a rambling hill. In the distance snow-covered mountains add a romantic touch.

We take a taxi to Shuhe, an ancient town now turned tourist theme park, which sits on the old tea trading route that ran from the south of Yunnan all the way to Lhasa, in nearby Tibet. Once a prosperous town, Shuhe is now known as the place where the beer is kept cold in baskets submerged in the gurgling canals, which crisscross the village.

Zhongdian, renamed Shangri-La in 2001 after James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, is just another concrete block box-style town with a road running down the middle. The taxi to Ganden Sumtseling, a 300-year-old Tibetan Monastery, bounces along a dirt track past farmhouses, woolly cows, fat black pigs and a shaggy white yak. A flat plain, the colour of honey and dark chocolate, rolls off into the distance. The monastery rooms are decorated with prayer flags, silk scarves, tapestries and intricate murals depicting Buddha’s journey to enlightenment; monks in burgundy robes, which flap and flutter in the wind, pad softly past on leather sandals.

***

Our second year at Lingdong over, Ash and I decide that it’s time to move on. We accept a position at Ben’niu Senior High School, where we will teach with two other Western teachers. A small town three hours west of Shanghai, Ben’niu has only one very long main street, which is lined with cheap restaurants, hairdressers, several supermarkets, and stores selling pipes, paint and other industrial products. Everything is covered in a thick layer of black grime. Unlike Foshan, there are no parks and no trees lining the streets. Buses crammed with people and trucks overloaded with aluminium products or coal roar down the main street, horns blaring.

***

I push the last desk into position. Instead of neat, precise rows there are now five groups of desks spaced around the edges of the room leaving the centre free for activities. The bell rings and a group of teenage girls knock and ask if they may enter. I smile and wave them in. More students trickle in through the door. A whispering huddle forms in the centre of the room.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Where do we sit, teacher?’ one girl asks shyly.

‘Anywhere you like.’

Squealing with delight, they race for various tables.

When I ask what they are interested in, what they want to learn about, eager hands fly up, arms straight, fingertips wiggling. When I turn on music and play a game of ‘hot potato’ as an icebreaker, they cheer each other on.

All week the students bound like excitable puppies into my classroom.

I’m going to like it here.

 

 

IslBG

View from Ganden Sumtseling, the 300-year-old Tibetan Monastery

 

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 2)

Foshan is a city of contrasts. Crumbling brick hutongs hide behind pollution-stained high-rise buildings; teashops on every street offer free tastings—there’s jasmine, pu’er, gunpowder, oolong, white tea, tight little dried rosebuds for infusions and more; fresh produce markets bursting with vibrant colour and pungent aromas are crammed into tight spaces throughout the CBD; motorcycle butchers speed down the streets with pigs—sliced in half from snout to curly tail—slung over the back racks; and on street corners mobile fruit vendors display their produce on the backs of adult-sized tricycles. They sell sweet sweet peaches, lychees, rambutans, watermelons and dragon fruit in the summer and barbecue pork buns, steamed corn and roasted chestnuts and yams in the winter.

***

In the autumn I am allocated new conversational English classes—Children’s Beginners aged 6-8. I must maintain their attention for two hours and so abandon the traditional-teacher mode in exchange for a dramatic persona and English-focused games. The goal is for the students to speak eighty per cent of the time and limit teacher talk time to twenty per cent. I have a teaching bag full of flashcards, coloured magnets, two balls, music CDs, balloons, hand puppets, a ‘sticky ball’ that when thrown sticks to the white board, and numerous whiteboard markers. In class I mime, act, play the clown, sing and dance my way through the teaching materials—it’s playschool on steroids. The kids love it. They race up to greet me and I walk the last few metres to class with children clinging to my legs, arms and hands. An excited rabble, they rush me into the room.

***

At the supermarket an old woman rummages through the contents of my basket, inspecting my baguette, noodles, soymilk and other purchases. I stare open-mouthed at her, too shocked to say anything.

***

Ash and I are learning Putonghua (Mandarin), the official language of China, even though we live in Guangdong, the old Canton, where many people speak only Cantonese. I can count to one hundred, buy bus and train tickets, order dumplings and noodles in a restaurant and introduce myself.

***

The pollution cuts the horizon in half, pushes down and envelopes the city. At the end of the street Bia Hua TV Tower is reduced to a shadow of its former self. The sun and blue skies are a distant memory.

***

One day Sinny, my teaching assistant, invites me out for lunch. We go to a noodle house that I’ve nicknamed the Three Kuai Place, because that’s how much most dishes cost. Sinny orders chicken and it arrives chopped into bite-sized chunks. Bones included. I still can’t eat chicken on the bone using just chopsticks. Sinny deftly pops a piece into her mouth, swishes her cheeks as though rinsing with mouthwash, then extracts a clean piece of bone and places it on the table. Behind her a man in a suit is doing the same, only he spits his bones directly onto the table.

‘How do you do it?’ I ask.

‘Just use your tongue to help suck the meat off the bone,’ she replies.

I try but can’t get my tongue to wiggle the meat loose and, on reflex, chew, mashing meat and bone together. My face flames red as I spit the mess into a tissue.

Ai ya, I wish there was chicken without bones,’ I complain.

‘Westerners have lazy mouths, that’s all,’ Sinny shoots back with a grin.

***

December arrives and with it hints of Christmas emerge as stores put up festive decorations, tinsel streamers and Christmas trees. Christmas carols, sung in Chinese, are piped through supermarket speakers.

Helen calls a staff meeting. Lingdong will host a school Christmas party, she announces. There will even be a turkey. Adult students will be encouraged to buy tickets to the party, the selling point being to experience a true Western Christmas. We, the teachers, must provide some form of entertainment for the paying guests.

‘You’ve gotta be kidding, Helen! I’m a teacher not a performing monkey,’ bellows Kinga.

The room is a rumble of discontent.

Helen asks us to define entertainment at a Western Christmas party. ‘Basically, it comes down to three things: food, alcohol—lots of alcohol—and music,’ explains Kinga.

‘That’s it?’ she asks.

‘Yes!’ the ten of us chorus.

‘Helen, our Christmas parties are very simple. We eat, we drink, we dance, we drink some more, talk to people, drink and dance even more, and then keep drinking,’ offers Ash.

‘Chinese people would not enjoy such a party,’ frowns Helen. ‘They need guided entertainment. They need to have an activity to be involved in, to be told what to do next.’

And that’s how we find ourselves poolside, with a stage, Christmas tree and fake snow machine in the middle of winter. The glistening pool stirs up memories of golden beaches and sunshine; I haven’t seen either for five months.

‘Next,’ announces Forest, Helen’s second in command, ‘is the candy relay race. Rules of the game are: the first runner dips a spoon into the bucket of candy, takes just one piece, races back to the team and passes the spoon to the next person. The team with the most candy is the winner.’

I move in closer to watch. I’ve played this game with my younger students and while they love it, they are unable to show restraint; cheating abounds.

Forest blows her whistle, ‘Go!’

In under a minute the adults resort to stealing candy, tripping up competitors, pocketing candy and, yes, trying to steal the candy bucket for their team. Forest screeches into the microphone in an attempt to get everyone to play in an orderly fashion. It’s too late for that. The stilted, stiff Chinese guests are laughing and having fun.

 

lingdongclassroom

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 1)

The job offer in my inbox reads:

Teach English in China! No experience necessary. Must be a native speaker. TESOL/TEFL certificate required. No university degree needed. One-year contract. Teach 24hrs/week maximum. Salary: 6500RMB/month plus end of contract bonus of US$800. Round-trip airfare reimbursed. FREE accommodation, Chinese classes and gym membership. Start ASAP. Contracts are attached.

Ash, my boyfriend, and I accept this job over ten other, similar offers.

 ***

Beads of perspiration line my top lip. I brace my knees to stop them shaking but can’t suppress small tremors rippling through my fingers. My throat refuses to let sound pass. The air conditioner thrums and water trickles from the drainage hose into a red bucket. A dark green stain on the carpet betrays an earlier spillage. The smell of stale sweat infuses the room. Twenty blank-faced students stare at me. They’re all about thirteen and most wear blue and white nylon tracksuits. Parents crowd at the hallway windows, my judge and jury.

Today is my third day in China, my first day of teaching at Lingdong English School, and my first day of teaching. Ever. My gaze flows over faces then freezes. Helen. My boss, pen in hand, sits among the students. She mentioned assessing my teaching style. But my first class? My heart races, the air conditioner whirs. I smear clammy palms across my skirt, take a deep breath and split my lips into a stiff smile. ‘Good morning boys and girls. My name is Sonja.’

Time falls away. The minutes pass with excruciating slowness as I plough through my lesson plan. The students are mostly mute, unless asked to repeat a word in unison; then they become champion choral drillers.

‘If Tom is tall and Bill is taller, then what is John?’ I ask.

No answer.

‘Tom is tall. Bill is taller. John is the… ?

Silence.

‘Can anyone tell me?’

Twenty pairs of brown eyes avoid my blue ones. The air conditioner chugs. Water trickles. Parents glare at their child, and me, through the windows. Later in the semester I cover those windows with drawings done by my students, to give us some privacy, but for now we’re all on display.

‘Anyone?’ I ask again.

Still no volunteers.

It’s death by silence.

***

I’m not sure why I’m here. China was never on my list of ‘must see’ countries. I recoil from the chaos and confusion, the congestion of traffic and people; all of it presses up close. Too close.

 ***

 Plastic tables and chairs from several restaurants crowd the footpath. Ash and I stare up at a picture menu plastered on an external wall. The diners stare at us. So do the staff. Our decision on where to eat is made by a table becoming vacant. We sit, become less conspicuous. People continue to stare. Laowai, they whisper. We are white foreign devils. A waitress rushes up with a pot of green tea and menus in Chinese.

Cheeks flushed, she asks us something.

Ting bu dong,’ I say. I don’t understand.

She speaks again, points to the menu.

Ash flicks through our phrase book. ‘Wo yao ji,’ he reads.

The girl speaks in a rush, her cheeks blush brighter.

‘Yes,’ we nod, not understanding a word.

She whips the menus off the table and disappears into the restaurant.

‘Do you reckon we’ll get chicken?’ asks Ash.

A chicken complete with feet, head and rosy red comb lies on the plate before us. How does one eat a whole chicken with chopsticks? The blameful eye of the chicken watches me as I poke at it. I plunge my chopsticks into the bird’s breast. Stringy chunks of meat come away from the bone. The leg meat is more resistant. The tendons at the knuckle refuse to give way to my jabbing and I resort to using my fingers. A nearby group of diners stops eating and stares.

***

Early morning shoppers slowly cycle past me as I walk to the gym located next to Lingdong School. One woman’s front basket is brimming with leafy greens and a still-flopping fish in a plastic bag while another has a live chicken, legs tied, hanging upside down from the bicycle’s handlebars. Toddlers wearing split pants, their little buttocks on display, teeter down the street grasping their mothers’ hands. (The Chinese don’t use nappies, so when nature calls the child is held up over a shopping mall bin, a garden bed or sometimes just left to squat on the footpath.) At the gym middle-aged women walk backwards on the treadmill and men in suits work out and smoke.

***

English has not yet infiltrated Foshan, a city of five million people. Street signs, product packaging, menus, newspapers and books are all in Chinese. I am illiterate—my communication is limited to miming and the use of a phrase book. I need help opening a bank account, buying bus tickets, organising dry cleaning, connecting the internet, getting water delivered, going to the doctor and buying medicine.

***

I peek into the staffroom to see who’s around. There’s Emma, a brown-eyed Brit with an effervescent personality, her boyfriend Simon, a blond, blue-eyed computer geek who is taking Kung fu lessons and Kinga, a large-in-every-way Aussie.

‘My teenage students won’t speak,’ I announce.

‘Welcome to teaching English in China,’ retorts Kinga.

‘But what do I do?’

‘You just have to suffer through it,’ answers Simon.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘We all have the same problem. It’s almost impossible to get the teenagers to speak,’            sympathises Emma.

‘But why?

‘Saving face,’ says Kinga. ‘You can’t fight it. It’s so ingrained it’s like it is part of their  DNA. Trust me, I know. I’ve been here for five years. They won’t talk because they don’t want to look like an idiot in front of the others. It means they make everyone look like idiots. Something about the group “face” being more important than the individual. That’s why if you ask “Do you understand?” most times they’ll say yes, even if they don’t. For the Chinese it’s better to leave the conversation confused than to “lose face” by saying they don’t understand.’

‘So what can I do?’

‘Nothing,’ says Kinga.

‘Endure the silence as best you can,’ adds Simon.

Emma shrugs.

***

We’ve been here for over a month and, apart from the Lingdong teachers, I haven’t seen another foreigner’s face.

***

foshan-31