By Anita Patel
Ah Mui feeds me my breakfast egg—savoury brown laced with “kecap”. She mixes it in a glazed bowl patterned with roosters and peonies and spoons it into my bird like mouth. I am four years old sitting in my grandmother’s garden full of prize winning orchids and shaded by a huge rambutan tree. Decades later I find a replica of Ah Mui’s bowl in a shop in Dixon Street in Sydney’s China Town and I am flooded with nostalgia for my grandmother’s house in Kuala Lumpur—cream and green rising up behind a swaying fence of coconut trees. Presiding in colonial dignity over the moist green front lawn and sweeping gravel drive. The sight of a simple Chinese bowl transports me to my early childhood in a home full of people—cooks and maids, aunties, uncles and most importantly cousins. For a moment I am back in that ramble of rooms, bathrooms, hallways and landings—a place of hide and seek mimicked by chi cha geckoes scampering madly on wooden walls and ceilings leaving trademark tiny splats of pure white droppings like paint from a tube on the beams above our netted beds. I am back in a place where time is measured by the sound of a cockerel and the mysterious beckoning toot of a train whistle trailing its haunting note over a lush untamed mess of lantana bushes, tapioca plants and “touch me not” at the back fence.
As our ship pulled out of Singapore Harbour, the colourful sounds and shapes of my homeland blurred into the horizon. I saw my Amah fading away clutching half of a pink paper streamer, the other half slipped slowly out of my twelve-year-old hand and fell with my childhood, pulped and tattered, into the sea. Watching that fragment of rose coloured tissue disappear into the surging water, I could never have imagined the moment in a Sydney shop thirty years later when the sight of a porcelain bowl would swamp me with yearning for a place long gone.
Cronulla greeted us with a heart stopping blue sky and a flurry of seagulls. My father flung his arms open as if to embrace the wide bright space of his new country. He fell in love at first sight with Cronulla, that brassy show girl of the Sutherland Shire, dolled up in a tiny bikini, shamelessly parading her Anglo-Saxon complacency down the main street and along the beach. She was a tough talking moll, a bleached blonde surfer chick—a pie and chips kind of girl with a leathery tan and a smoker’s cough. She seduced us with her gaudy beauty and repelled us with her parochial prejudice, her crassness and her hard-faced suspicion of strangers, especially ones with brown skin and university degrees. We were delighted by the glorious necklace of surf beaches and sparkling bays that garlanded the suburb and dismayed by the bleak skyline of ugly home units over the esplanade. Brick eyesores built in the 1960s with names like Capri Villas, Seaview Mansions and Glendale. They jostled aggressively against a scattering of original weatherboard dwellings cast up like flotsam on the beachside streets. There was a curious shabby charm about these old cottages with their weather-beaten porches, spattered flyscreens hanging off rusty hinges and dusty hydrangea bushes in the front yards.
The frugal lifestyle of middle Australia was a shock to my Malaysian mother. She never got used to seeing frail old women clattering heavy shopping trolleys out of Franklin’s supermarket and catching the bus home on their own. She was fascinated by a culture that did not include an open-door policy for friends and neighbours and by families who ate in front of the television rather than around a table. She could not get over the fact that people would invite you to their home and ask you to bring a plate of food. Neither was she reassured by the nouveau riche residents of the wealthier streets in the Shire. She was filled with suspicion about the owners of enormous pillared mansions that teetered clumsily on the water front. They were a mixed bunch: sons of affluent pub owners and manufacturers of supermarket trolleys, Italian millionaires whose grandfathers had come from Calabrian villages and a handful of local professionals: medicos, dentists and lawyers swilling schooners and double scotches at the Yacht Club and buzzing raucously around the bay in expensive motorboats on the weekend. My mother’s wariness of this milieu was not shared by my gregarious father who became known as Dr. Bob and felt quite at home ordering schooners and sharing a yarn or two at the Yacht Club.
While I am now filled with admiration for my parents who had the courage to leave their comfortable and glamorous lives in Singapore for an unknown destination, I had no time to really consider their feelings in those early migrant years. This was because all my energy was directed towards my own survival in this foreign place. I realised that in order to get on in my new environment I had to fit in with the dominant tribe, so I immersed myself in Australian teenage culture. I longed to transform myself into a Melinda, Cheryl or Narelle. I was bedazzled by those gorgeous bad girls at my high school. They shocked and thrilled me with their boldness to teachers, their flouting of rules, their hitched-up sports tunics and unbuttoned blouses. I admired their long blonde hair, thick black mascara and sparkly blue eye shadow. I craved their freedom to flaunt themselves at the beach after school and chat to boys at the bus stop.
Two things get you into the gang—the right clothes and the right voice. My mother despaired as my sister and I accumulated a vast collection of untranslatable phrases: Deadset he’s such a spunk! Who dobbed me in? I can’t eat that or I’ll spew! That party was gas! Rack off! Get stuffed! Bull crap! She winced at the sound of our rounded vowels flattening like burst balloons. Our new voices were partnered by a fresh image. We bought embroidered hipster jeans, cheesecloth smocks and midriff tops. I desired a halter neck dress, a string bikini and some platform shoes. We needed hotpants, tie dyed T-shirts and boob tubes. These clothes were our passport out of goody two shoes ethnic daughter territory and gave us an instant visa into the world of our classmates. I secretly acquired some sparkly eye shadow, blue black mascara and strawberry lip gloss which I hid at my friend Sharon’s house and applied carefully before our furtive forays out to Shelley Beach, Miranda Fair or Caringbah Pool. There is more subterfuge in the day of a migrant teenager than in the life of an undercover agent.
My first halter neck dress was the real symbol of my Australianness. I loved it passionately—it was shirred white cotton scattered with pink and mauve daisies with a little ruffle on the hem. Recently when 70s retro dresses came back into vogue I saw a similar dress in a shop window in Bondi and I was swept away by the same kind of nostalgia that I felt when I noticed Ah Mui’s bowl in China Town.
I’m back on that hot main street in Cronulla enveloped by waves of salt damp air rolling off the ocean and mingling with the smell of car exhausts. We’ve just finished our last HSC exam and we’re sitting on the park wall baking our backsides and swinging our bare sandy legs without a care in the world. Sun melts like butter on our shoulders and we munch on hamburgers with the lot, hot chips drenched in tomato sauce and cream buns from Premier Baker. The icy trickle of a chocolate paddle pop runs stickily down my arms. Cronulla in the summer of 1976—lime green rubber thongs, a yellow string bikini, the tropical whiff of coconut tanning oil, glossy lips and glittery blue toenail polish. The freedom of a summer afternoon with no more school work—feeling as pretty as a Cheryl or Melissa; feeling as Australian as the unending blaze of blue sky and the steady stream of surfers finning their way across the pedestrian crossing; feeling that unrelenting niggle of guilt in my Asian heart as I watch out for my mother or one of the Asian aunties to pass by and see me talking shamelessly to a group of boys in front of Cronulla Station.
As I gaze longingly at a halter neck dress that would look great on one of my daughters, I confront my identity with sudden clarity. An identity that is as deeply embedded in Australia as it is in Asia. This is the reality for those of us who migrated here as children or teenagers. We are not just caught between physical worlds but between imagined worlds and remembered worlds. Shifting from one world to another means that we start to accumulate a different set of dreams and memories. We become new selves. The wistful recollection of my teenage self in an Australian beachside suburb is as inextricably tangled with my sense of place as is my reflection on childhood in my grandmother’s Malaysian house. Part of me sits forever on that park wall in Cronulla, long before that strident white chick scandalised the world with her appalling racist antics, eating chips in summer sunshine and dusting the sand off my bare legs and part of me remains in a garden full of orchids waiting for Ah Mui to feed me my breakfast egg from a beautiful Chinese bowl.