Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Thousand Toilet Ladies

A Thousand Toilet Ladies by Wai Ho (2nd Place) “Excuse me! These are the Women's toilets”, she instructs, in that too loud tone that white people use when they're talking to someone coloured, as if the darker your skin colour, the worse your hearing. A part of me wants to say “Solly solly, I no Engrish” and push past her. Instead I say “Yeah, I know”. Her whole stance shifts like a computer screen turning pixels into an image, as she takes another look at this pre-pubescent Chinese boy incorrectly in the Women's loos, and sees an masculine looking Chinese girl in her mid teens instead. “Oh oh, I'm so sorry”, she flusters, breaking my gaze. “It's ok”, I assure. This interaction happens to me on a semi regular basis. The toilet door with a blobby stick person wearing a cape, always a gaunlet through which I'm challenged within every few weeks. “Miriam! Why do you like those Samoan boys?! Ai yah! They are so naughty, and not very good at school”, Mum intones, folding the washing and yelling to the kitchen from the lounge, “And you should concentrate on study, not have boyfriend, you are too young!” I roll my eyes at my sister, just before she huffs out the kitchen not bothering to respond to one of my mother's many commentaries on life. “Mum! You can't say those kinds of things, they're just racist stereotypes. You know all the stuff that gets said about Chinese people; Triads, people smuggling, eating cats and dogs, all drive BMWs and good at maths and table tennis”, I say, setting down a cup of Earl Grey next to her neat piles of washing. “And Miriam is 16 Mum, plenty odd enough”. “Wa? You are good at maths, and we like to play table tennis on Sundays. And why can eat chicken and baby lambs but not dog? Silly gwai lo, dog is like steak”. Mum pauses, blowing on her tea “You know Hannah, when we ate food that was too hot, your Paw Paw would blow air in our mouth to cool it down”. She looks thoughtful, then jumps almost without pause to the previous topic. “No 16 too young for boyfriend! Must study harder. Hannah you know, when you marry, you must marry a white man”, she looks at me pointedly, one arm still within a out-turned cardigan. Miriam pulls a quizzical face at me. She's returned to the conversational hub in the lounge, and is ignoring mum, signalled by white earphones in her ears. I know Mum doesn't notice, but I can see those earphones aren't attached to anything. It's a tactic that works though, maybe I should try it.. “And you!”, she says waving a rumpled pair of pants at my brother, who's behind Mum's clothes towers in the hope she won't see him. “You stop always play video game, that's why you are so stupid. Never study. You go study!”. “But I've nearly got 10 000!”, complains my brother still playing, the tinny videogame music joining his protest. “No need 10, 000, what for? Only silly monkeys jumping on crocodile! Go study now!” she orders, pulling the game from my brother and sitting on it. “Ah ahahhaa Muummmm! You killed me!”, yells Caleb waving his arms. He glares at her before stalking out. The sad muffled mechanical death tune from under my Mum's bum, of a monkey being eaten by a crocodile, affirms his proclaimation. “Yes the white man is better than the Chinese. The Chinese is only think about money! And the white man does not hit their wives”, Mum concludes looking satisfied by the way she's snapping a pillow case flat. Pillow cases conform nicely to her structure of how the world should be, “Arrggh!”, yells my sister and stomps out. I think I should suggest earplugs to her, rather than earphones. “Muuuum”, I groan, “You've been watching too many rom coms. White men hit their wives too, that stuff 's chronic in this country within all ethnicities. And I told you anyway, I'm not getting married. I like girls”. “Hmm”, she grunts, “I don't understand you all. My children are like foreigner”. I'm sitting at small formica table with faded geometric shapes that look like they're hiding from me. I'm with Aunty Ida, who isn't really our Aunty. She's a family friend of our parents, and we've always grown up calling all our parents friends Aunty and Uncle so and so. I'm helping her peel the mountain of potatoes and kumaras that will be turned into the carb component of the quinessential pakeha roast. “You know when we first came here from Penang in the 70's, we didn't know what to expect. I thought about hills and sheep and old English buildings like Cambridge or Oxford. I didn't know what to think when we got here, and we were so shocked when all the shops just closed at five o'clock!”, she says, quartering a large kumara. “And they didn't even open on the weekend. What were we meant to eat late at night?! No shops open, no night markets and food stalls. We came here because we think more civilised and progressive, but then we see all the bland colourless food and think, oh dear”. “Well you must have gotton okay with the food Aunty Ida”, I say, dangling my legs from the plastic stool I'm on, “I mean now you have a takeaway shop that sells roast meals”. “Yes yes yes”, Aunty Ida says chuckling, “First we have Chinese takeaway shop because we think our food is more tasty and the Kiwi will like much more than yellow and brown food. But now we have Roast shop because four item on menu much easier than 75! Hahahaha. Actually, Roast is very good, I can see why Kiwi like”. Us kids are bunched close to each other round the dining table. Dad is pacing and glowering as he reads our report cards. It's like an unhappy family dinner, but without the the dinner. Mum is perched on a stool on the other end of the table, on a muttering monologue about how Kiwi teachers are too nice, and they say a child's work is good even when it's not. “How are they to improve if the teacher will not even tell them their work is bad and they have to do better”, she complains to no one in particular. Miriam looks like she's imitating those painted people who busk on Cuba St, pretending to be statues, then they move suddenly and scare you. Well, they scare little kids, not me. Caleb is making tiny scupltures that look like little pointy curly buildings, out of a blob of blu-tack I tried to stick to one of the ends of his dreadlocks without him knowing. He's actually trying to ignore Dad but I can see it's not working. He squashes his whole city of buildings with a clenched fist everytime Dad says something about him. I'm trying to transport myself somewhere else. I fail, so I switch to imagining dark angry cartoon clouds with lightning strikes, over Dad's head. Then comic symbols in a thought bubble, for the swear words he's probably thinking about, upon reading my brothers report card. I offered to change the grades for him using those scratch-on letters you can get from the stationary shop. I doctored many of my friend's School Certificate results to save them from the hidings they'd have gotton otherwise. Works a dream, no one suspects. But my brother thinks it's silly that we're expected to get all A's, when B's are fine. I think so too, but then I did get all A's. “We came here to give you a better life, a better chance, more opportunities,” yells my Dad waving the report card in my brother's face. “And what do you do?!”. I'm about to point out that what my Dad has just asked is a “rhetorical question” : one that isn't really meant to be answered, but is stated moreso to make a point. We learnt that in English last week. But then I think now is probably not the best time. “You waste your time skating and drawing pictures. Pictures!!!”. Dad pauses and stomps round in a semicircle a few times, then stops, planting himself over my brother. “You must study hard, SLAP, get good grades so you can get into university and get a good job. SLAP The Kiwi can waste their time, SLAP draw pictures, SLAP play at each other house, SLAP party all weekend. SLAP You cannot! SLAP SLAP SLAP We are Chinese! we must work harder than them to get the same opportunities!”, Dad yells, punctuating each sentence on my brother's head. Caleb holds himself stiffly trying to ignore the slaps, then shudders, like a dog's pelt when you lightly tickle just one of its hairs. He forcefully stands, his chair toppling backward, and shoves Dad away from us. The blinds make an agitated metallic declaration as Dad flounders onto them. The room inhales into itself and freezes. The colours ping off each other, and the straight lines seem almost too sharp, cutting your eyes. Tense and alert, almost anticipating the reign of rage that will unleash from Dad at my brothers physical defiance. Growth spurts must happen suddenly, as Caleb is now the same height as Dad. I can see my brothers fists clenched as tighly as the words that spit out his mouth, “I don't even want to go to university! That's what you've always wanted. And we're not even really Chinese! We were born here, unlike yous!” Miriam is curled into herself like a shell sitting on the edge of a table, sobbing softly. I put my arm around her, shielding her from the prickliness of Dad's angry hands and shouty eyes. My brother storms out, a vibrating ball of barely controlled fury. Words thump noisily through my arteries, past my ears, and choke making lumps in my throat. “It's different now Dad, we don't just have to make money. We can choose do other stuff. You're suffocating us with your Chinese rules”, I tell the floor. “You say you came here to give us opportunities, but you just want us to make us do whatever you want” , I finish quietly, not meeting his angrily confused eyes. “And you can't hit kids in New Zealand anymore, it's illegal!”, shoots my sister, as quickly as she hunches back into her shell like a poked snail. The blinds are playing a discordant harmony with the furious hum of thick silence. Dad looks strangely about to implode, and at the same time, deflated like a saggy wrinkly balloon. Mum is looking pinched and quiet. The blinds finish their crude song and I take my sister's coiled hand, slowly shuffling her out the room with me. My parents ascending tirade in duet starts up and follows us out, “No respect for elders.. learning bad habits from the Kiwi children... no discipline, teachers should be allowed to hit pupils, too relax, must follow Chinese tradition”. Nothing we all haven't heard so many times before. I pull back the hood of my hoodie as I step inside to a spicy fragrant warmth. Pad Thai, Bee Bung or Pho, so many choices. I see the lady from the toilets. two people ahead of me at the counter. Bah, why does she have to be here. Usually only Asians come here. The hot butch girl, the whole reason I always come to this place even though it's further from the bus stop, saunters out from the kitchen and takes over from the guy at the counter. She has this cute kinda bowlcut, but in an edgey ironic way. And she's real big and solid, strong looking, like she could wrestle bears. If people wrestled bears. This time I really am going to talk to her, not just order my meal. The toilet lady is taking ages.“D o e s t h i s d i s h h a v e M S G ”, she enunciates slowly and loudly, while gesturing wildly at a shiny picture on the menu. “No MSG”, says Hot Butch Girl, cutting the words with her dismissive smirk. “You know you really should have these menus in English”, Toilet Lady says, arching an eyebrow condescendingly, “After all, you are here in New Zealand”. “The English menu's on the otherside”, Hot Butch Girl says, taking the menu from her and turning it over. “And seeing we are in Aotearoa New Zealand”, Hot Butch Girl continues, firmly holding Toilet Lady's nolonger- arched gaze “Exactly how fluent is your Te Reo Maori”. A number of things quickly happen after the language shoot-off. The older guy bustles out the front, rapidfires a bunch of words and arm waves at Hot Butch Girl scolding her, who then, chastened, stalks into the kitchen. And all while Toilet Lady is doing huffing and blowing, and waving her arms too, not like Older Shop Guy was, but kind of like if you were doing a very gentle and timid chicken dance. That kind of arm waving. Toilet Lady orders a beef Pho. I order a Bee Bung from Older Shop Guy, double checking as I always do, that there won't be any coriander in it. Our meals arrive quickly as usual. Steaming happily in their colourful plastic bowls. Toilet Lady is looking around for the soy sauce that is usually on the table along with the chillis and other condiments. I have been trying to be nicer to old people, so I reach over and give her mine. “Oh, thank you”, she says, her smile crinkling her eye corners. “What a polite young man”, she tells the soy sauce being sprinkled into her broth, and glaring in the direction of the kitchen. Toilet Lady doesn't recognise me from earlier. She probably thinks all Asians look the same. I suppose that's kinda ok in a way, I know my Mum thinks lots of white people look the same and can't really tell them apart. Or maybe it's an old people thing, maybe they just stop noticing stuff. I've finished my Bee Bung and am reading, when a voice says to me, “Why don't you like coriander?” It's Hot Butch Girl. I put down my book, but it catches the spoon sticking out of my empty bowl, which then caterpaults out and knocks over the chilli sauce. I flounder around setting things back up while she watches and tries not to laugh. I decide to pretend that wee slapstick incident just didn't happen. “I've never liked it, makes me gag. My dad and brother can't eat it either. I mean I wish I liked it, people seem to like it.” I realise I'm rambling so I stop. It's nerve-wracking trying to think of cool things to say. I can't think of anything. “What are you reading?” she asks, looking at the chilli sauce offending item. “Sandman. I'm up to book three and there's ten I think. Though I think Neil Gaiman is working on a prequel.” She picks it up looking at the pictures. People call them comics because they have pictures but they're actually graphic novels. I take the opportunity to look at her. White plastic smiling crossbones dangle from her ears, and I like how her T-shirt stretches across her shoulders. “Hey I liked what you said to that lady. I wish I could think of quick things to say”. “Yeah, you get a bit of that working here”. The awkward pauses between us. “I better get back to work”, she says glancing over at the kitchen “Before Uncle has another go at me”. “Oh, yeah, choice. Um.. Hey I could lend you the first Sandman if you wanted to read them, they're really cool”. She stops and looks at me, for a few more seconds than people usually look at people. She makes it hard for thoughts to get to my brain. “Sure”, she smiles, “Bring it next time, I usually finish at 9 if you wanted to get a bubble tea somewhere after”. “Oh, ah, yeah cool, that would be awesome”, I tell the apron knot on the back of her waist as she walks away. She waves over her shoulder without turning round. I place my book carefully back into my bag and head out into the raucous weather. The door tinkles shut behind me. People are huddled like shuffling rocks waiting for the bus. A giant grin is plastered over my face even as the wind tries to take my hood off. I don't even care if a thousand toilet ladies think I'm a boy.

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