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Essay

Thousandth miles

PHUC COMES TO give me flowers and my husband a bottle of wine. He has to catch two buses and walk a fair way from the city to deliver his gifts. His reason for coming this evening, he says, is that Richard was one of the first people he met when he arrived in the country, last year. Since then – until this week, when his lease expired and he found a cheaper alternative – he had rented one of our investment units.

‘For the future,’ he had explained to me on the phone earlier. ‘I have to save for future.’

He is neatly dressed and a lot younger than he sounds on the phone. Accepting only a glass of water for refreshment, he sits erect on our couch, backpack beside him and hands tucked tight between his knees. He nods at Richard. ‘Him...he,’ he says. ‘For me...that man...he something like father.’

At most my husband would have seen him a couple of times over the year, and spoken to him over the phone once, maybe twice.

Battling to express himself in our language, he explains that he is now sharing a house with a group of Vietnamese students.

‘Ah, much better for you than the flat, I think,’ I say. ‘Not so lonely.’

He shakes his head. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘Not like that. Not like that.’

Combat might have ended with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese, nearly thirty-five years ago, but the hostilities continue. The week before, Phuc had applied for a job as a chef at a Vietnamese restaurant in the city: ‘"Where you from," they ask me. "Vietnam. Just like you," I say. They wave hand. Very angry now. "No, where you from in Vietnam. Where." "Northern part," I have to say. And so they tell me, "Not wanted here. Go away. Quick, now, go away."’

It is the same, it seems, with the students in the house he is now sharing: generations later the war continues to fester in the minds of both sides.

Phuc stays for an hour, during which he speaks of the poverty of his background, his culinary ambitions and his desire to make good. He is from a small province in the far north of the country and, as he talks, I can’t help being reminded of Li Cunxin’s powerful story of growing up in communist China. Phuc’s homesickness, I surmise, is not so much for his country as for his wife (who had come out briefly and returned to Vietnam), for his friends and for his mother.

‘But my name, Phuc – it mean lucky. Lucky man. I will have luck.’

When Phuc is ready to leave, Richard drives him to the bus stop. He hasn’t touched his glass of water.

Two days later, as we ready the flat for the next tenant, I happen to see something written in blue ballpoint pen across the side of a polystyrene plant tub on the small balcony: THOUSANDTH MILES. It seems to tell a story, this phrase that stands between me and the view of the steady stream of people making their way up and down the steep steps of the adjoining hillside.

Turning back into the dim unit, I see, clear as he’d been a couple of nights before, Phuc sitting on the single chair in the middle of this one room, a glass of water between his knees, staring out past the carefully blocked words at his view of middle Australia.

 

A SCRAP OF ruled paper, curling, edges furred as if torn against the edge of a ruler or a knife, arrives with the mail that evening. House help available. Energetic, reliable woman. Can do cleaning of all sorts. Also ironing or look after children. Call Shanta. It gives two phone numbers.

After several tries, it’s obvious that the landline number is wrong or not connected. The mobile is turned off. I give up and slip the piece of paper into my erratic filing system.

When I come across it by chance, a few days later, I try once more. This time the phone is answered and there is a male voice the other end of the line.

Yes?

Shanta? I’d like to speak to Shanta, please.

This is her husband. I am husband. Please tell to me.

I have some work for her. I may have some work. Can she call me, please?

She will come to see you. The next night. Is all right?

Thursday? Yes that’s fine.

I give him my address.

On Thursday, around 6 pm, there’s a knock at the door and they are both there. They follow me upstairs and I talk to him: either his English is better or he is her negotiator. He is dressed in khaki slacks with a white open-necked shirt, while she is clothed more traditionally, her folded arms tucked tight into an orange sari. She is in her early thirties and stands quite rigid, a slight frown on her face, her eyes the only movement as she follows the conversation.

This is what I’d like help with. This brass and copper cleaning, some silver. I have lots of pots and planters. As you can see. Does she, does your wife, know how to do this?

He shrugs.

I can show her. She will learn. What else?

I look around. The two of us manage quite well until visitors descend.

That, mainly. Maybe the windows. Sometimes ironing. That sort of thing.

I turn to his wife.

I think once a month for three or four hours would work well. Can we try that for a start?

She nods slowly.

Is all right, he says.

What do you charge? What are your fees?

He is about to answer when she speaks up.

But bathroom? Do you have need for bathroom?

No, bathrooms I can do. Not necessary.

She smiles, almost.

Then my price is $20 for each one hour. Normally $22, but no bathroom, $20.

The first day she comes, he accompanies her. I leave them with plenty of pots, pans, rags, Brasso and Silvo at the dining room table and they chatter away between them, their voices background to the jumpy rhythm of the computer keys under my fingers. Edward Said would have called this alignment of sound contrapuntal, I say to myself – and then wonder at the orientalist connections my subconscious has pieced together.

As they leave I attempt to arrange a visit for the following month.

She shakes her head.

I will telephone, she says.

True to her word, she calls a few days before the end of the following month.

You want me to come? Again?

Yes, fine.

For the next little while there’s silence, a few seconds only perhaps, but long enough for me to take the phone from my ear to look into it and then wonder at myself for so hopelessly primal an action.

Her voice comes back on the line. She clears her throat.

And, Tangea?

Yes?

Eh...I can bring my daughter? Is all right?

She arrives the next day with a child of three, maybe four, a bright-eyed, shy little girl who hides her face in the skirt of her mother’s sari.

I am a little dubious. In Hong Kong I had an amah who asked if she could bring her young son one day. Having been a working mother all my life I empathise with anyone in this situation, so naturally I agreed. It had been a particularly torrid day on the magazines, with deadlines on all three editions imminent, and I had a two-hour commute back from Central to our flat in the New Territories. I arrived home as she was ready to leave, but she wanted first to show me one of the bedrooms we had painted the weekend before. It wasn’t a good moment standing exhausted in front of that wall, which had been covered child-high with crayon. It was a rental apartment; I was horrified, and it wasn’t until much later that I realised her laughter at my reaction was caused by embarrassment. At the time it made things worse. Later I thought of lots of things I could have done with that wall, including making a feature of the graffiti. But at the time...

Did you bring some toys?

I glance at her empty hands.

She has her own ways, Shanta mutters. Resolutely she moves on past me into the house; the little girl’s head turns back towards me as she climbs the stairs, clinging to her mother’s sari.

I return to my desk, my attention fragmented. But the sounds that come from the other room are again quite musical: mother-daughter chatter, the little girl’s voice high and ending each time on a question, the mother’s a soothing tempo in between. When I break for a cup of tea an hour later I find she has moved a small rug into the dining room and the child is sitting at her feet amid the gleaming brass.

 

ANOTHER JOB LOOMS and it occurs to me that Shanta may want the extra work.

I call the mobile and her husband answers.

I may have some more work for your wife – a one-time job. Could she please call me?

She will call you.

A little while later there’s a ring at the door and she stands on the bottom step, her breath coming quickly, as if she has been running.

I explain the job. Cleaning for four hours. A friend’s flat in a suburb on the other side of the city. I can drive her there and my husband will bring her back. Since it’s once only, a better rate – say, twenty-five dollars an hour.

Yes, she says. I can do. I can do it. Tomorrow?

She goes to turn away, looks back over her shoulder and there’s that suggestion of a smile again.

Twenty-five dollars, she says. Very good for me.

When I arrive to pick her up from an address on the edge of the next suburb, in a street appropriately enough named Hope Avenue, she emerges with her daughter from the rear of the house.

I can tell she is nervous, that there is a high degree of trust vested in me as she settles the child quickly in the back seat and belts herself in beside me. She stares straight ahead, hands clasped tightly in her lap.

Before we get to the first roundabout, she speaks, still staring in front of her.

You like Indian food?

Anyone who knows me knows I love Indian food. My response is enthusiastic.

Your telephone. Not working?

I think there’s no problem with the phone. Why?

I try to telephone. Many times. Now, too late. We have party early this month. But now gone. Good food. I want you, your husband...

Once I’ve eased onto the motorway I have a question of my own.

How long have you been here?

She counts on her fingers. Six. Six months.

Do you like it?

Some is good. Other...matters not so...

For the first time she shifts her gaze from the road ahead. She looks sideways out of the window and something tells me that it’s not the Swan River she sees swirling past her eyes.

When I leave her at the flat, I suggest she slip the lock on the screen door. She stops me as I step out, and hesitates.

This here...is safe?

She glances along the concrete of the corridor and then quickly down at the child.

As I reassure her, I am reminded again how difficult it must be in a country in which you still feel a stranger to get into the car of someone you’ve met only a couple of times, be driven to the other side of the city and be left for four hours in an empty flat with a young child.

 

SHE COMES TO clean another couple of times, calling ahead to confirm the day, bringing the little girl, who is still shy, who still chatters and who is still so unspoiled that she can sit on a rug playing with bits of paper for hours at a time.

For some years now we’ve held an annual party that, over time, has turned into a fundraiser for one charity or another. This year we hope it will be bigger than ever and I think for the first time of getting some help with the food. The next time she arrives, I ask her.

Shanta? Some time – no hurry for this – can you make some food, a small amount, for my husband and me to try? And then, maybe, later, perhaps a couple of big dishes for a party? Naturally, I pay...you tell me how much.

She beams at me. A full-scale, wide-open, gleaming smile that lights up her eyes.

But what? Many dishes to choose. What you want?

I shrug.

Chicken, maybe?

She looks quickly sideways, her smile collapsed.

Vegetarian. We are vegetarian. Therefore I can do only...

All right. That’s fine.

Before she leaves, she comes to me.

After one day, I bring? All right?

No hurry. Just small.

That evening, the phone rings and it’s Shanta.

I can bring the food? In twenty minutes I shall come.

A short while later she bustles up the drive wearing gold bangles and earrings and a pink sari trimmed with silver thread, holding a plastic ice-cream container carefully in front of her. I go to take the food, but she asks to unpack it, as she needs the containers – so up the stairs she goes.

She places the container on the kitchen bench with a small flourish. As she decants the contents into my own bowls, I try to recall where I’ve seen that degree of concentrated anticipation before. Although she’s totally focused on what she’s doing, she’s driven by a certain thrill. Of pride in her work, yes. But there’s something else, too.

Shanta sets down a glass jar of pickled brinjal; from a margarine container, she deftly decants the potato and cauliflower dish I know as aloo ghobi, but which she refers to as something else, along with two different versions of dahl and a double serving of Glad-wrapped chapatti. She sets it all out quickly, packs up her empty containers and stands back twisting her open palms one against the other, her eyes glistening into mine.

When I ask her what we owe her, she protests, makes a gesture as if she would pack it all up again, and rushes off. The tail of her hot-pink sari streams out behind her as she hurries down the driveway towards her husband’s waiting car.

As I watch her go, I remember where I’ve seen that look before, that look of anticipation. I witnessed it many years ago at a school prize-giving, on the open face of a young girl who, as the winners were being announced in the usual suspenseful way, held her hands pressed together under her chin, trying not to breathe so as not to disturb the fragility of the moment, having to hold herself in check, because the fizzing inside her body was not located in her veins or in her brain but somewhere altogether more central. Because the happiness that might lie beyond the present hope and fear of it all was beyond imagining.

I understand that this food offering is more than a trial run for a party dish, and more than a gift. It’s a symbol of her culture, a statement of identity, the prideful bringing of her home into mine.

 

ONCE I WAS an immigrant, too, one of many who sailed to Australia in the days of the ten-pound passage on the Fairsea. But I had advantages over Phuc and Shanta. I spoke the language, my skin was white and my father was Australian.

The other advantage, less observable but of no less benefit, was my lack of roots. If you don’t have a sense of home as a place, perhaps it’s not quite so difficult to pack up and move on. Or perhaps the tribal instinct, the desire to join, to be a part – for once – of something or somewhere becomes so strong that any disadvantages of a new country are set aside. I don’t think it’s ever easy to make new friends, to start again, but when there’s no strong and lasting attachment to the place you’ve just left, no real familiarity, it certainly removes one difficulty.

In my case, no place had been home for very long; any friends I’d had time to make rapidly became penpals. Tea chests and cardboard cartons were a constant in my life from the beginning, and my earliest memories are of being the family scribe responsible for the interminable listing of items in each trunk and packing case. At quite a young age, I imagined myself as one of the coloured crystals in a kaleidoscope which, when twisted, fell through the air into another space – sometimes I landed upside down, surrounded by a totally different set of neighbours, friends and circumstance.

Because I had no real motherland, no geographical place of belonging or familiarity, my immediate family – my mother, father and my sister – were my home. They became the nucleus of my life, a sort of seashell of shelter, food and comfort, such that I became dependent to a greater degree than normal or healthy, I think, on their love and acceptance. So long as I was with them, wherever they moved was home; being removed from this comfort zone, as in my several spells at boarding school, was traumatising and disorientating. I spent a term boarding, for example, as a six-year-old. When I left the house, we lived in Tororo, Uganda, but by the time my parents collected me at the end of the term, our new home was in Mombasa.

But unlike me and like Phuc, like Shanta, my Aunt Nora did have roots – a strong comfortable taproot in English soil. She lived in a small village in Middlesex surrounded by all the other aunts. They had, with the exception of my rebel mother, spent most of their lives there. Several years after Aunt Nora’s younger son migrated to Perth, she and my uncle decided to sell up and follow. Why, I often wondered – and I asked her once.

Well, dear, she said, I can’t say we have very much in common with the others any longer. We’re looking for a new life. Different things, you see. We have one son here. And there are your mother and father, of course. We’ve sold everything back home. A clean break.

One problem they didn’t anticipate was that my mother didn’t have a great deal in common with Aunt Nora; an age difference of thirteen years was one reason, and having seen her only rarely in the past thirty was another. Their son had been leading his own life successfully for many years and was unlikely to welcome any parental interference, even interest, in his affairs. But perhaps the most compelling explanation for what quickly went wrong lay in her words ‘back home’. If there’s a place that once was home, how hard must it be to put that behind you? Can you ever achieve that ‘clean break’? If you have a motherland where family and friends still live, can you ever look back without longing?

Having never left home, my aunt and uncle were unfamiliar with homesickness; immigration meant replacing what they’d left behind. So within a short time of landing they had bought a house in the hills, a new car, furniture, fridge and washer. They replaced everything material they’d had in England. They joined the local bridge club, and dined regularly with my parents. I believe they made a great effort to ‘fit in’. It took eight months, that first time, before they admitted they had made a mistake. They missed the folks, they said, and Australia wasn’t quite right for them. So without further ado, they sold everything they had just bought and went ‘back home’.

Imagining everything back in the village to be exactly as they’d left it, they could be forgiven for expecting a warm welcome. But it wasn’t so easy. Most people’s lives – however grand they may appear – come down to the minutiae that make up each day. For one person it might be a regular workout or afternoon tea on Saturdays with the family. For another it might be the daily discussion in the office tearoom of the prior evening’s television. I remember a friend of mine who had returned to England for a quick visit after one of his many tours abroad protesting at the behaviour of his extended family.

They’re delighted to see me – for the first ten minutes, that is – and then they go on to talk about their wretched blocked pipes or the price of bread, he ranted. And the television! They don’t even have the good manners to turn it off; it’s flickering away there in the background, turned down low...

The reality is that – delighted as they undoubtedly were to see him, to establish that he was well and enjoying life – he was less important to their daily lives than the next episode of When the Boat Comes In. What appeared incidental to him was part of the warp and woof of their lives.

The other sisters had been less than happy – openly wounded, you could say – by my uncle and aunt leaving, and they weren’t about to forgive the desertion easily. Nora and Burt had to work hard to get things how they used to be. Then, after six months, they decided they had given up on Australia too quickly, so they sold up and returned to Perth where, once again, they bought everything anew.

This happened a number of times, and with increasing speed, so that in one case their container of household goods was still on its way to England when they were making plans to come back this way. In the end – in this quest constantly to rejoin – they spent their savings; my uncle died from the strain of it all, and my aunt ended her restless life in a tiny unit huddled in front of a one-bar heater, anonymous and alone.

 

IN SHAME, SALMAN Rushdie writes: ‘When individuals come unstuck from their native land, they are called migrants. When nations do the same (Bangladesh), the act is called secession. What is the best thing about migrant peoples and seceded nations? I think it is their hopefulness...And what’s the worst thing? It is the emptiness of one’s luggage. I’m speaking of invisible suitcases...we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time.’

Is that what happened to Aunt Nora, or what can happen to any of us who leave our homeland? Do we float upwards and leave the rest behind? Do we exist for those we’ve left? If they think of us at all, do they see us as we were or as we are? What a lot the new country or diaspora has to live up to, and make up for.

Aunt Nora’s immigrant story is as much about loneliness as Phuc and Shanta’s, because in the act of leaving her land of origin she ripped up roots she didn’t know she had. She was unaware, too, that once she had torn the roots that held her to home, once she’d left, she could never return – because, in the interim, the place had changed. She was as homeless back home as she was in exile. Having established that, she returned to her new country, secure in the knowledge that the bonds of the old no longer existed. Yet the bonding here hadn’t happened either, so she swung between one state of mind and another, between one country and another. A pendulum, constantly moving, but going nowhere. Just counting time.

Immigration is not only about quotas or judgements or opinions about whether or not we should accept people from other countries into our own. It’s not even necessarily about the geography of being a long way from home. A large part of it is about belonging, the innate human need to be part of a tribe. Another part is about identity, about not losing the bits that make us who we are. Whether through ambition, dislocation, search for self, exile, war or whim, the great majority of us, or our forebears, migrated to Australia. It’s easy to forget that we, too, once were immigrants. 

 

Phuc, Shanta, Nora and Burt are not their real names.


From Griffith Review Edition 29: Prosper or Perish © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review