Silent Country by Lynda Ng
Lynda Ng was born in Wollongong. She is a graduate of the NIDA Playwrights Studio and the editor of Indigenous Transnationalism: Essays on Carpentaria (Giramondo Press, 2018). Having lived in Hong Kong, Oxford and Berlin, she currently teaches literature at the University of Sydney.
When she was a little girl, Melanie’s secret power was being Chinese. She had been gifted with a straight black bob, dimpled smile and big, wide eyes that made her look like a doll. Other children couldn’t help themselves. They would cross the playground just to pick her up and cuddle her. People would stop on the street to exclaim to her mother, “She’s so cute!” and reach down to pat her on the head. The weekly shop was a social activity. Shopkeepers would hand her things – a frankfurter from the butcher, a lolly from the corner shop, a pencil from the newsagent – and laden with gifts, she would return home infused with a sense of contentment and wellness. When she was a little girl, the world was a place that promised benevolence, admiration and love.
As a teenager, Melanie started to look less like a doll and more like a woman, but she learned how to compensate for these changes. She grew her hair long and augmented her brown eyes with dramatic winged tips. Some of her Asian friends complained when people asked, “Where are you from?”, but Melanie always seized the opportunity to embellish. She spun tales for them about her past: she was descended from a ferocious line of Qing dynasty bannermen, or a warlord’s beautiful princess, or a tragic concubine who spent her years in lonely opulence. She gave herself more exotic blood: Mongolian, Hakka, Tibetan, Hui. In this manner, her Chineseness could still be effective. People would exclaim, “How interesting!”, “What an incredible story”, “You’re very beautiful.” This took her all the way through school and university, and still the world promised to be everything she might wish for.
It was only when she ceased being a student and became instead a young woman looking for a husband, or employment, that Melanie realized being Chinese could be a problem. There was the patronising way strangers sometimes spoke to her, in tones that presupposed she would never dare speak back. There were interviews where people commented on how good her English was. And then she went up for promotion and was passed over because ‘she wasn’t assertive enough’. The position went instead to an outsider, a young man who didn’t know her clients as well as she did but who could certainly throw his weight and voice around. As an adult, she discovered that those fairy tales about being an exotic Asian princess were not her dreams alone, but a common fantasy for many of the men who wanted to buy her drinks and work their way into her bed. Their willingness to ignore reality was frustrating, to say the least, and depressing in the event.
But this was not the fault of her Chineseness alone. It was also the general situation of many of her friends, working women who discovered that times had changed but things were not really that different. Men now wanted a partner who was educated and witty, who would bring home a salary to match theirs. But they also wanted this same woman to cook well, keep the house clean, to look after the babies and be able to iron their shirts in the morning. Melanie and her girlfriends commiserated with each other in laneway bars and hipster cafés over the high rents, the double-standards, and the general unwillingness of their dates to commit to someone who might earn more than them. Melanie and her friends had trained to be bankers, lawyers, government policy-makers. They found themselves now, five years down the track, in jobs that required them to work until midnight putting together Powerpoint presentations or assembling documents that few people would actually see. As the years started to add up they mentally adjusted their future families from three children, to two, down to one, and tried their best to keep an encroaching sense of anxiety at bay.
Some of her friends gave up, and moved to New York. In many ways, the dating scene was the same, but there was more work available, more opportunities in banking, and the rents were cheaper. Melanie toyed with the idea. She’d heard that Aussie girls got lots of attention in New York. By crossing the Pacific you became a different sort of exotic creature. In other ways, though, the idea of leaving terrified her. Her mother had always insisted, “We are from here. Your people go way back, back in time in this land.” Buried somewhere amongst the background noise of news and trivia, there were half-remembered anecdotes of Chinese maps showing that they had discovered and charted Australian shores long before the Europeans. Piecemeal memories of a time when China had been curious about the rest of the world, before the Middle Kingdom closed itself off and settled back comfortably into a self-indulgent, self-satisfied stupor.
She told herself she was too Chinese; she wanted to be close to her parents. She lived in a share-flat just a couple of suburbs down the train line from the family home, and returned for family dinner every Sunday without fail. She told herself she was too Australian. She had visited New York a couple of times and liked it, but she couldn’t imagine suffering through the cold there year after year. She couldn’t imagine life without the dry, hot summers, the beach, the gumtrees and the giant ibis rooting through garbage bins at lunchtime.
She listened to friends, and relationship columnists, and tried to be more open-minded as to who she went out with. She installed a dating app on her phone and met men from different parts of Sydney, men from different backgrounds. Two more years went by, and she was passed over for promotion once again, this time because she ‘wasn’t enough of a visionary’. The young man who had taken the Directorship last time was moved across to the bank’s Singapore office. Another young man took his place. This one not as loud as the first, but with the same overbearing confidence and tendency to ask Melanie to fix the lunch order when they had their weekly team meeting. She broke up with her latest boyfriend, who she had been enjoying very much, when he made it clear that he would never consider taking time off work to be a stay-at-home dad. He was an administrator who earned half of what she did and he told her all this while they dined at a fancy restaurant, where she was expected to pick up the bill. She tried to point out that the future, as he envisioned it, was impractical. He disagreed. There was not much left to say after that. New York began to look more promising.
One weekend, feeling fed up and despondent, she raised the possibility with her parents. There was a pause, a staccato beat that threatened to become a legato, finally broken by a gentle cough from Melanie’s father. Silence was a common means of communication in their house. In the spaces between words, no commitments were made but all judgements held. The cough allowed them to progress naturally to safer topics, such as the tenderness of the char siu pork, and who thought the Swans were going to win next weekend. She might almost have doubted that she’d spoken out loud – perhaps she had only uttered those words in her mind, a clear demonstration of the ‘lack of assertiveness’ that was holding her back – except for the mournful look that her father gave her when dinner was over.
He had come to Australia on scholarship, a skinny, nervous-looking nineteen-year-old whose long fringe kept flopping into his eyes. One of nine siblings, it had been a series of firsts for him. First time on a plane. First time in an English-speaking country. First time attending university classes. First time completely on his own.
Melanie’s mother had spied him wandering around the Quad at Sydney Uni, looking lost. When she stopped to ask if she could help, he looked at her with startled eyes and blushed. Her mother knew in that moment that she was going to fall in love with this sweet, gentle soul. To this day, her father maintains that he was simply looking for his classroom when a tiny Chinese girl dwarfed by her backpack emerged from the crowd and said something to him, “in that bloody incomprehensible Aussie accent.” He denies blushing. But he does admit he was rendered speechless.
Not being a man predisposed to retrospection, he hadn’t told Melanie much about those early years. He had a good life in Sydney, and he was quick to point that out. But at night, as he huddled over the phone, she would hear snatches of Cantonese and laughter that belied his homesickness. With three brothers and five sisters, these phone calls came frequently, especially now that they cost next to nothing. And after every conversation, without fail, he would pace the house restlessly.
Unlike others they knew, no one from her father’s family had followed him out to the West. They had come for visits and duly expressed their appreciation for the size of his house, the lawn, the double garage (“so much space, so much space!”), and yet it was clear that none of them really envied him.
He had made a life for himself, that is true, and found himself a beautiful wife. But his wife’s Chinese was heavily accented, nearly incomprehensible. His daughter’s even worse. The houses in Sydney were roomy but the streets were empty. It was a city that sprawled out to nowhere. A nice place to visit on holiday, not necessarily a place where any of them wanted to stay. Back in Hong Kong, in the vertical city of lights and fortune, was where they felt alive. Why would they want to give that up to come here, to simply wait their time out amongst foreigners? And besides, back in Hong Kong they all had each other. Life without family, what sort of life was that?
So he remained, an immigrant amongst other immigrants, a stranger feeling out his way alongside other strangers. He never lost the sing-song of his Chinese accent but over time it came to be overlaid with the broad, growling stretches of an Australian one, a combination that Melanie found at once acutely embarrassing and comforting in its familiarity. As he mangled the English language into new permutations, he tried to come to terms with the fact that he would likely die in this country, far away from where he was born. That he loved his wife and daughter went without saying, but a part of him couldn’t help but feel melancholic at the fact that they would never know him in his native tongue and therefore never know who he really was inside. He was increasingly resigned to being the quiet and dependable man they knew. The witty and animated version of himself had kept up its frantic chatter at the beginning but, with practice, he had learned to quieten it. To send it gently to sleep so that, on most days, it was simply a memory of someone he had once known but could now barely recognise.
As he walked her to the door he said, “It is difficult to start a new home elsewhere. Why leave unless you have to?”
The other indication that her words had been observed, if not remarked upon, came a week later when her mother asked if she would meet her at the Art Gallery. For her mother, who had worked as a dental secretary her whole adult life, one of the greatest possible joys was to sit with a single-serve pot of English Breakfast tea and a scone on the terrace, gazing out towards the water. When Melanie was a child, they had made the journey once a month. Even then, Melanie was able to connect her mother’s tea drinking with her own forms of play-acting. She wasn’t sure if her mother imagined herself as a colonial stateswoman, a lady of leisure, or simply a patron of the arts. But she swirled those dreams around in her teacup, doused them liberally with sugar and milk, and drew comfort from the warmth in her throat as she swallowed them.
Today there was no mention of tea, however. Her mother gripped her arm and steered her expertly through the gallery, past the whimsical watercolours and the bold impasto paintings, towards one of the more sombre rooms at the back. This one contained photographs mounted on vanilla cardboard. The black and white reminders of a colonial settler history.
They did a lap of the room in silence, her mother’s arm wrapped in a companionable way around hers. Melanie was surprised to see that the display hadn’t changed much over the years. There was one photograph in particular, titled ‘Aboriginal Mia Mia’ that she remembered from her childhood. Four Aboriginal figures, three women and a man, positioned next to a small hut made of bark and leaves. Two figures stood, two sat in repose on the grass. They were all dressed in formal Victorian garb: the man with a waistcoat, the women with corseted waists. One woman held a long stick that towered high above her head. Melanie wasn’t sure if it was a spear or another sort of tool, but she liked the way it made the woman seem warrior-like. She was an anomaly amongst photographs of white men with funny Victorian beards and Aboriginal men with painted bodies and elaborate masks. There was a postcard entitled ‘Australian wildflower’ that depicted a bare-breasted Aboriginal woman smiling expectantly from behind a carefully-positioned waratah bush.
“Do you know why I like this room?” her mother asked.
“Because it’s peaceful.”
They circled back to the photograph of four Aboriginal figures. Melanie’s eye returned to the woman who guarded the entrance to the hut with her tall stick, high collared shirt and defiant stare. Melanie knew that, in reality, the photographer must have positioned her there. He would have told all four people where to stand or sit, to hold their poses, and then to wait for at least thirty seconds while the sun imprinted the likeness of their bodies onto his film. He probably made them hold their poses for at least a minute, maybe more, just to be certain that he’d got the shot he wanted. But perhaps once their time was up, once he’d given them permission to move again and was gathering his equipment, that Aboriginal woman had expertly sent the stick sailing through the air, carving an arc that passed just by his cheek and landed over his shoulder. She wouldn’t have struck him, but her point would have been made. The woman’s angry defiance was there in her eyes, still burning over a century later.
Melanie’s mother wasn’t interested in the women, however. She pointed towards the man who stood amongst them, his gaze perpetually fixed on something just beyond the frame.
“I come here because that is your great-grandfather. My grandfather.”
In the silence that followed, even Melanie couldn’t be sure of quite what was being conveyed. She wanted to ask her mother to repeat herself, but that wasn’t their way. She had heard correctly. Her mother smiled, understanding of her confusion.
“It’s a secret. My own mother only told me after I had had you, when I had become a mother myself.”
“But how is it possible? I mean, wouldn’t we know?”
Melanie glanced down at her hands, unconsciously gesturing towards herself.
“Through what? Through skin? Through eyes? From the nose?” her mother was nearly laughing at her.
Melanie stared into her mother’s face. The brown eyes rimmed by severe black glasses, the hair that had long ago turned white but was carefully maintained in Natural Black (Clairol #122), the tan skin that had become freckled over time. Peering into that face, the panic suddenly welled up in her and she wondered if she would ever stand here with a child of her own or if she was destined always to gaze at an older version of herself.
“I was going to wait until you too had become a mother, but as you’re talking about leaving Sydney, I thought it was time. If something happens to me, you might never know. I wanted to stand with you in this spot and show you. We are from here. Your people go way back, back in time in this land. No matter what other people tell you, you will always belong here. Here.”
Together, arms enfolded, they stared at the photograph on the wall. There were many questions but all would be answered in time. There was a genealogy to be reconstructed, a story of how an Aboriginal man found a Chinese wife. Another story of how a Chinese woman with a mixed-race baby found her way back into Chinese society. A history of the Chinese in Australia, whose roots run deeper than anyone knows.
Melanie couldn’t be sure that this story was the right one. Her mother, after all, was a woman who prayed to various Daoist gods as well as in the Methodist church every week. Her mother was the one who insisted that, if you ate the delicate flesh out of a fish’s cheeks then you also had to pick the tougher bits off the bony tail, to ensure that your luck would ‘come back to you’.
There was something irresistible about this story, though. The crisp image of this man before her, the face of an ancestor. Unlike all the warlords or magistrates or sorcerers she had conjured up during her childhood, this was a man of flesh and blood. Someone who had dreamed, loved, walked on the very same ground she did.
She couldn’t be sure that this story was the right one, but when her mother clasped her hands and bowed her head three times to pay her respects, it seemed right to join her.