Sanaz Fotouhi is currently the director of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators. Born in Iran, she grew up across Asia and holds a PhD in English literature from the University of New South Wales. Her book The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution
was published in 2015 (I.B. Tauris). Her stories and creative fiction are a reflective of her multicultural background. Her work has appeared in anthologies in Australia and Hong Kong, including Southerly
, The Griffith Review
, as well as in the Guardian
UK and the Jakarta Post
. Sanaz is one of the founding members of the Persian Film Festival in Australia as well as the co-producer of the multi-award winning documentary film, Love Marriage in Kabul.
August 1997, one month after the historic handover from the British to the Chinese, as foreign businesses and banks were hustling to send their representatives back, we touched down in Hong Kong. We had left our relatively large unit in a complex of desolated chain-smoking coffee drinking Armenian exiles in Glendale, Los Angeles, packing up all that would one day become distant memory of America. We had gotten rid of the still grooveless and stainless sofas that we had not even had a chance to break into or stain with memories, and headed to a state that was now part of China.Tearfully I had broken this news to my then best friends. There was the Cuban beauty Rachelle. She refused to touch sugar and her skirt got shorter and shorter during the two years of high school as she kept rolling it on top, blaming her growing teenage legs when Sister Mary Jean, in her full habit, called her out on it; there was Grace, the Colombian. She lived in a zoo of a barely standing weatherboard house on top a hill with her dysfunctional family of a Catholic praying mother and drunk father. They cohabited with rabbits, cats, dogs, roosters, hamsters, and birds that flew and pooped everywhere in the house. There was the Armenian Maria who was constantly shamed for her overweight body. She lived on the last mansion on one of the long drives up the hill and used to compensate with stories of non-existent boyfriends. And the Filipino born Michelle. She escaped school from drive by shootings in her street and gang member brothers and friends, stinking of cigarettes in the morning, before we even said the first of the Marys.
A Muslim-born Iranian girl, after two and half years in LA, I had managed to find solace in the friendship of these outcast and marginal American girls. Without any sort of legal rights in the country, I was beginning, more or less, by the virtue having built a community and immersing myself into the culture, to consider myself American.
On the last days of Sophomore year on the grounds of the Holy Family High School, after we had finished our exam on the Bible, signing each other’s year books, my friends, some of whom didn’t and still do not have a passport, wondered about my parents’ sanity for accepting a posting in Hong Kong.
‘So, like why are you going back to Japan?’ Rachelle asked as we sat around exchanging and marking our memories on the back of each others’ books.
‘I am so not going to Japan. Hong Kong is totally not Japan!’
‘Totally Same thing. No?’
‘Totally not,’ I said eye rolling hands, gesturing Valley girl style.
‘Yea, whatever, and are you going to turn Japanese with eyes like this?’ Rachelle giggled as she pulled on her eyes to make them narrow and then signed ‘Wish you a great time in Japan haha!’
No matter how much I tried to explain that Japan and Hong Kong and China were not the same thing, they didn’t get it. But then I wasn’t very convincing. I wasn’t even sure if I got it myself. I had heard of what was to be some kind of a handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. Yet, to my sophomore brain preoccupied with other things, that meant nothing.
And yea whatever, unadmitted, was also as much my teenage understanding of Hong Kong then and it formed my attitude towards it. Pre-google days, with dial up internet, my only source of information on Hong Kong had been the school library. The only book on 70s Hong Kong described it as a concrete jungle with faded photos of tall buildings and pirate style ships.
After an ‘oh my God, we are going to crash into the buildings below,’ as the plane descended on Kai Tak airport in the middle of the crowded city, I landed in Hong Kong with yea whatever understanding of it. Unassuming, unexpecting. When the sliding doors opened and we stepped out, my glasses fogged up and it was like someone had opened a rice cooker mid-cook and I had voluntarily stuck my head in it and kept it there.
It was stinky, humid, raining, sticky, hot, and crowded.
If anything was worse than the moist entrance, it was the tiny shoe box of an apartment that my dad’s company had rented for us. The walk-in-closet in my LA room outsized, by far, the jigsaw puzzled space that was to be my bedroom. If I happened to leave my bag on the floor in the room, there was no space for the door to close smugly into the closet fitted right next to the bed framed at the bottom with a desk. And if feeling like an amphibian in the 99% humidity in a city that stank of dried seafood, and having to live in a shoe box as a room, was not enough to make me have a small bit of crisis, starting school gave me the last push into a tumble of identity crises.
Adjusting from an American school system to the the British HSC style; going to a co-ed school for the first time; encountering the boy species; and saying goodbye to most of my new friends at the international school at the end of two years after they left for various universities in the US, UK and Australia, and then heading to predominately Chinese populated University of Hong Kong to study English literature, are minor and mostly painful details of life that followed. While not in full, I mention these here because they contributed in someway or another to my transition and of later understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger in today’s transnational world.
It took me three and half years to come to terms with calling Hong Kong home. It was a gradual process evolving through disdain, anger, loneliness, confusion, to tolerance, acceptance, liking, loving and then feeling more at home in Hong Kong than I did in Iran, or America. Yet, I remember the exact moment when I felt like a Hong Konger.
By then I had moved into a tiny studio on Pokefield Road near the University with my best friend, Marina. She was a local Hong Kong girl, who had spent the majority of her life away and at international schools. We had become friends during university when we gravitated towards each other as the only people in our Spanish class who spoke English with an international school accent. From there we had met other confused souls around the campus who had found themselves, like us, stranded in a university that was meant to be English medium but which was often conditional in adapting that. By the end of the second year of university we had formed a group. We were the only bunch that could be heard speaking English at the campus café near the library, Oliver’s. While we all spoke in English, I was one of three in this group of fifteen or so, who was not local Chinese. There was really no need for me to learn Cantonese. However, by simply hanging out with my local friends, I had picked up a few words here and there and incorporated them into my everyday speech.
On the day in question Marina and I were standing in line at Café de Coral, a very local fast food restaurant that serves Chinese food. While an English menu did exist, by now I knew exactly what I wanted and could even order it in Cantonese when I was alone.
‘What are you having?’ Marina asked so that she could order.
‘Char Siu Faan,’ I said.
‘Yum meiya?’ – What do you want to drink. She asked.
‘Ling Cha,’ I said – Lemon tea.
‘Dung m Dung a?’ –Cold?
‘Always Dung ah,’ I said.
As we ordered and waited in line, we continued our conversation about a cousin of hers. ‘So, Ken is an astronaut child who has just come back from Sydney and he has been so maah faan. My aunty, poor woman, she has to deal with his attitude after she has spent all this time alone there for him and now she has come back to find that everyone knew that his husband has had that Mainland mistress.’
As I was listening to her, I saw that two blond girls were standing close by us and were trying to decipher the menu and overhearing our conversation, which I noticed, was probably not making any sense to anyone unless they had been localized in the diction and culture of Hong Kong.
One of the girls smiled at me and in an LA valley girl accent long forgotten by me and said, ‘You seem to be from here. Can you please help us make sense of this menu, or tell us where the closest western food is, like, other than McDonald’s. We haven’t been able to find anything to eat except McDonalds for the last two days. I can’t bring myself to eat off the street, I feel like barfing every time I smell the dried seafood everywhere.’
It was in that moment that I realized that I had actually become a Hong Konger. My immersion into the culture had been so gradual that I had missed the transition period and suddenly found myself transmuted on the other side as what my friends started calling, an egg – kind of white on the outside (or depending on where the eggs are from in my case olive) and yellow on the inside! My Chinese local friends, on the other side, referred to themselves as bananas – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. No matter which racially inappropriate metaphor we decided to imbibe, the truth was that together we were all Hong Kongers.
The strange reality is that while I stopped feeling like an American as soon as I left LA, even almost a decade after not continuously living in Hong Kong, I still feel like a Hong Konger.
Last time I was in Hong Kong it was a few months after the 20th anniversary of the Handover. During my absence a lot had happened. Hong Kong felt more Chinese in a way only locals can feel after a long absence. One of the most important changes had been the creeping of the Chinese government into the Hong Kong political system in ways that people had not anticipated. The ‘one country two systems’ had been a promise made by China at the time of the handover. It had meant that while still technically a Chinese state, Hong Kong was meant to have political autonomy. Individual rights and freedoms were enshrined in basic Hong Kong law. However, in 2014, the Chinese government declared that despite this independence the Chief Executive of Hong Kong was to be appointed by the Central People’s Government in Beijing. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets protesting. To guard themselves against police pepper spray people used their umbrellas as defence and the term Umbrella Movement quickly took on to describe the protests.
As the result of the recent events Hong Kong people found themselves increasingly confronted by the Chinese government and to a push towards a sense of Chineseness that didn’t belong to them. You see, while the majority of Hong Kong locals are of Chinese descent and ethnicity, the years of British rule, and Hong Kong’s exposure to the West, has made Hong Kong Chinese culture significantly different to the mainland Chinese. This difference is a crucial point of Hong Kong politics of identity. Although essentially of Chinese ethnic background, the question of Chineseness of identity for many local Hong Kong people is debatable.
In being back recently I found myself with a set of questions that stems from a similar origin. Yes, I feel like a Hong Konger but what does that even mean in the complicated terrain of identity politics and the larger Chinese question? Should I feel allegiances to any particular government, race or ethnicity to feel a sense of belonging in a place and construct my identity around it?
In a collection of essays, poems and fiction celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Handover, prominent Hong Kong writers, tackle this question from different aspects. In a moving piece, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s well known English writers with a complicated sense of identity herself, highlights the notion that identity politics should not be racialized or nationalized. As opposed to attaching identity to race or a nationality, she writes,
‘How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called Hong Kong from which I consequently derive an identity. Of course, if I happen to be Cantonese or Shanghainese or some other kind of Chinese, or perhaps, not even ethnically Chinese at all, but if I happen to exist here, this space will certainly lay some claim on me….Identity emerges from who we feel we are, who we have evolved to become over time, and is larger than mere nationality or political bias.’ (252)
In another piece, Umbrella Poetics, Jennifer Cheng describes best what I feel about my sense of identity in relation to Hong Kong. She writes,
‘As much as home is anchor in the body, a protected space no one else can ever know, we have always known how identity is yet also fluid, murky: how we have had to construct it and claim it with twigs we collected and terrains we named, here and there: how its boundaries shifted and burned with memories uncovered, histories relearned, linguistics transformed, distances and shadows narrowing and growing and looming.’ (193)
This has certainly been true in my case. As I grappled to come to terms with Hong Kong and my relation to it, I made it mine. It doesn’t matter that I do not have a Chinese ethnic background. What matters is that I too collected twigs, constructed a home, and built a community from which I derived, in Xu Xi’s words, my sense of identity not out of national belonging or race, but of spatial belonging. And in this I am not alone. There is a large subculture of people who share the same understanding of Hong Kong: expats, diplomats, long term travellers, and those who are actively reclaiming and reconstructing their identities and also along with it the meaning of what it means to be a Hong Konger. And Hong Kong, because of its transient sensibilities of the expat community, offers the perfect space for that.
Again I share the sentiments in Cheng’s words when she writes, ‘Hong Kong is the one place in the world where I can feel both familiar and lost in the best of both senses, where a sense of wildness and safety intersect.’ And I agree with her that ‘I’ too ‘have never developed a language beyond this to describe Hong Kong, deep inside my bones.’ (200)
There is a famous line from the colonial times of Hong Kong. To live in Hong Kong was being in ‘a borrowed place living on borrowed time.’ During the colonial times many expats knew that Hong Kong was a place that would eventually return to China and many of those who lived there never really planted roots of permanence. However, I feel that this statement still holds true, not in relation to its political standing but in other ways. Given Hong Kong’s transient nature, its fast paced lifestyle, continuously changing landscape, and the shifting nature of its population, it is hard to stipulate otherwise or expect anything that feels a sense of permanence in Hong Kong.
But then again, in reflecting on the larger question of identity politics and our sense of belonging, this is a statement that is applicable to our global lives and sense of identity. Which one of us can claim permanent full undisputed ownership on the land, culture, society, and a sense of identity that we live by, or claim immortal existence? If you think about it, we are all living in a borrowed place on borrowed time. Yet our human desire to construct meaning of this fleeting existence by giving it a sense of permanence has driven us to construct imagined homelands and identities.
Perhaps the natives of the Australian land know best to not claim ownership but custodianship it. Perhaps this is the approach that we should all embrace in approaching our sense of identity politics. Perhaps the sense of identity that we struggle to make so much sense of is is much less complicated that we make it mean. Xu Xi sums up this to the point when she concludes her piece by writing, ‘What I am is a Hong Kong yan, my gaze fixed on an evanescent home, trusting it will find form and footing somehow as a Chinese city.’ (258)
Jennifer Cheng, ‘Umbrella Poetics’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)
Xu Xi, ‘Keystrokes by Loong Hei,’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)
Wanling Liu (born 1989, China) completed her MA in Translation and Transcultural Communication at the University of Adelaide. She is a literary translator and teaches translating and interpreting in Adelaide. She has developed a passion for performance poetry and storytelling events and has won spoken word prizes with her poetry published in local anthologies.
It was nine o’clock at night. I was five and feeling bored at home, scribbling away with colourful pencils in my colouring book. There were never enough colours to choose from. I yelled out to Mum that I wanted to go to Mrs. Han’s to play with Huahua.
Mum glanced at the clock on the wall, “It’s already nine, and you still want to go out? And I don’t know the way to Mrs. Han’s.”
“I know the way! I know how to get there. I know how to get to Mrs. Han’s! You can come with me!” I persisted.
Mum sighed, “Fine, if you must go, let’s go.”
We took the No. 9 bus and after a few stops, I could see that we were almost on Zhongshan Road. “There, there, next stop is Triangle Garden!” I started yelling, “Triangle Garden is where Mrs. Han lives!”
Mum and I got off the bus and walked through the garden paths and a few dim-lit alleys until we reached Unit Block 3. “I remember she’s on Level 3, 303.” I said. Mum and I walked up the stairwell in darkness as the light was not working. When we reached level 3, I couldn’t wait to knock on the door.
The light from the gap between the door and the floor flickered. Someone was coming to get the door. The inner wooden door opened, glaring white light leaking out from inside. Mrs. Han appeared, with only her silhouette visible against the dazzling light. I dashed forward and banged on the door, “Mrs. Han, I am here to visit! Is Huahua home?”
Mrs. Han opened the door fully, and unlocked the screen door from inside. She smiled at me and didn’t seem very surprised. She called out, “Huahua, Dandan is here to visit you.” Mum nodded and smiled apologetically. Mrs. Han, still smiling, said “Hello.”
We walked into the living room. I sat right next to Huahua. On TV a group of kids were singing my favourite tune, “Not as sweet as flowers, not as tall as trees, I’m just a little blade of grass that no one ever sees….” We sat in front of the TV and watched attentively. Mum sat down, and Mrs. Han was busy making tea for us.
Half an hour had passed; I started to feel tired and bored. The songs started to grate on my ears. Mum and Mrs. Han were chatting away. My eyes started to wander: The fluorescent light was still dazzling, but everything in front of me seemed a bit dull.
Huahua offered to show me her picture collection, but realized there were a few pages missing. We started searching in drawers and chests. As we were looking for the missing ones, I noticed a yellow wooden door beside me with a silver door knob on it.
The doorknob lured me. The temptation was simply too great. I put my hand on the door knob and it turned effortlessly. Realizing I could open the door, I walked in. I could see a giant bed, with its edge high up and with a white sheet and a white quilt spread over it. Someone was lying under the quilt.
“Who is that?” I turned to Huahua, whispering, with my eyes still fixated on the person. Suddenly the black hair looked somewhat familiar. I hollered, “Daddy! What is Daddy doing here?” Huahua was silent. Mrs. Han did not utter a sound. My mum did not utter a sound.
After a few seconds, the head turned toward me, looking a bit purplish red, and with squinting eyes on it. The person mumbled, “I’ve drunk a little, I need rest.” Something felt wrong to me. I closed the door, went back to the living room, sat back on the lounge, and did not dare to speak.
Huahua, Mrs. Han, Mum and I just sat in the living room and watched TV for another half an hour. What was on TV did not make sense to me anymore. I felt like I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what.
Dad came out with his coat later and said, “Let’s go home.” I could not understand how the night got spoiled like this, and I was not ready to put up with this. I quietly whimpered, “I want to play with Huahua a bit longer”. Mum answered, “Then you stay and play with Huahua. I am going home. Your father can take you.”
Dad said, “It’s late, let’s go home.” On the way back, I felt sleepy and upset. No one spoke a word on the way back. Their faces showed no expression.
I thought Mum would be furious. I thought Mum would teach Dad a lesson. I waited in silence in my bedroom, with my ear to the wall.
After a long while, all that could be heard was the faintest, almost inaudible sound of weeping.
Cyril Wong has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, based on his ‘anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying’. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure and The Lover’s Inventory. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012.
False Labours: Eight Immortals Passing Through
Knuckles on chest, leg under heftier leg:
how we get trapped under and cannot move.
I seem to weigh less every morning.
My tibia is Han Xiangzi’s flute
whittled from golden bamboo
and played with a broken heart; his lover
imprisoned by her father at the bottom
of an ocean. My bones are hollow music.
That owl-hoot of an old woman
breathing beats during qigong
is He Xiangu between gulps of vomit
discharged by mendicants; suffering
without suffering at the hands of her mistress.
A meme of a baby swaddled by a mother’s shirt
and calming down mightn’t be about love
but about the bliss of repetition:
tenderness for what feels like nothing new.
Lan Caihe floats between genders over a basket
of flowers down a river of flux, a shoe
fallen off. Neither young nor old. Perpetual
child on the inside. Spirituality is a state
of mind as timeless, selfless affection.
You tell me how Sufis danced, rooted to the source.
My fingers do the flamenco across your waist.
After riding for a thousand li, Zhang Guolao
folds his donkey into a box or one of his pockets.
He declined invitations from emperors. I sit
all day at home beside you, staring into space.
Han Zhongli is like Budai with a fan,
fanning stones into gold and into stones again.
I imagine poems are pebbles in my skull
unloaded onto these pages, where they become
pebbles of gold. Lü Dongbin, multi-hyphenate—
Guanyin re-animated, re-emanated. I’m not
handsome like him, but I’m your baby in the dark.
Together, dim shape our bodies make is protean:
bag of rocks, mountainous terrain, discrete forms again.
In daylight, I remember you as ex-civil servant
but with only a towel to wrap your nakedness
before your gods on the altar, rudraksh beads
dripping from your wrist; covert prayers
chasing each other across your lips. What you
remind me of on a dry-iced stage inside my head:
Cao Guojiu in officious robes, even as an immortal;
after handing his riches to the poor for a brother’s sins.
Giving everything and gaining more than everything
in return. The stories the same: everyone flew
post-hermitage and upon private cultivation;
once realising that what they had to give up
was nothing at all. Truth as practice as awareness
as heavenward departure from cloudy conditioning.
I’m keen to fly beyond flying, like Tieguai Li;
suffering temptation, reborn disabled, a tramp.
(Are you surprised I relate to him most of all?)
Squatting quietly, irascible, mincing feelings
under a tree (I assume) before this recognition:
“All is farce, fuss-free, appearances, nothing
more.” Your stomach as resting gourd—replete
with medicinal serenity. Our life together
an iron clutch or vaulting pole I employed for lift-
off from shaky ground; hobbling free
of freedom, self, emotional fixities. Eight
immortals as eight-for-infinity; perhaps, Sufi-like
circularity. No more effort beyond love
without labour. How far from you I’ve been taken
towards Elysium without ever having moved at all.
How beauty, as we come to know it, is shaped by our circumstances is something men (gay men even more so, I’d argue) are more likely to forget than women. What does this mean for our sense of self? Self-belief is so overrated we don’t register that what we feel we feel against our will when we desire or love. Even as we recognise the cliché in this, we remain subjugated by circumstance nonetheless. Knowing or seeing clearly is not freedom, not at first.
Other things shape us—our moods, our capacity for intelligent thought, our actions—and not as a result of when we perceive ourselves as pilots in cockpits, calling every shot. Move a chair here, unfold a screen there, paint three lines overhead, wear more blues or reds, remove plants, place a bowl of water in the corner: create the conditions for a better life, a more beautiful mind. Not that there is no autonomy whatsoever, but where does it end and the pinball machinations of circumstance begin?
Then even when we’re happy, is it our happiness (neural alignments, dopamine production, serotonin levels) that speaks or is it us? Since nothing we feel or do may be because of us, then everything can be manipulated to grant us what we need. So call our feng shui specialist today, so we can be cleverer, happier, more in love, healthier, etc. Or do nothing and just watch as everything falls apart or comes together—watch without judging ourselves or the circumstances that will ultimately pack our bodies into neat little boxes and tilt us into the crematory fire.
Martin Kovan is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, which in recent years has been published in major Australian literary journals, as well as in France, the U.K., U.S.A., India, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Czech Republic. He completed graduate English studies with the U.S. poet, Gary Snyder, at UC Davis. He is completing a PhD in academic ethics and philosophy, and has volunteered in humanitarian work in South East Asia.
The Aid Worker
Long lines of people stretch as far as the first palm-trees on the horizon. The trees bend to one side, as if under-nourished, or importuning the earth. You have fed and sustained us, our roots are in your soil, but we are wanting. We need more, earth. Can you offer it, have you more to spare? The aid-worker is employed with the ground crew, meeting those first come from over the border. She sees the beseeching trees, hovering at an incline over the vertical figures beneath, and knows the thought is an idle fancy, mingling between their hazy contours and her own mind. Trees don’t make appeals to the earth; trees are just trees, growing, giving forth flower and fruit, diminishing, then dying.
Like the people themselves, she thinks: the burgeoning, the plenitude, the slow demise. She can see the long lines of figures, often in single file, traversing the raised, dirt paths between paddies. Smooth planes of low-lying water are lit blankly by the morning sun: sheets of electric light that flash, off and on, but convey no clear message. It has been raining for days; now the sky is a sheer blue above them.
The people are diminished, and many are infirm. Even the newborns, clinging to the girls’ arms, have begun the journey from a place of deprivation. The aid-worker’s job is to ameliorate the worst of the suffering, as much as it is in her power to. And her power is not something to be dismissed; she can even offer a little more than the earth can. Where the refugees have come from, they had water, pigs, flour and small crops. They enjoyed some natural, earth-given bounty. But it wasn’t enough, once the killing started. They needed more, then, than nature can provide.
They need the provision of food, and formula for the newborns, ointments and antiseptics the young mothers can’t find in the villages, even the well-stocked and well-situated ones. The people need medical aid and supplies, but still more, the specialized attention which knows how to apply the aid in effective ways. A certain kind of attention, it would seem, that they have not cultivated themselves. For they are poor, and have grown used to being deprived of things most others take for granted.
So that when the aid-worker meets the first of the young women, many of them carrying babies, who after descending the mountain ranges of the border have toiled across the vast flat and watered plains to her encampment in the green-zone, she is made aware, not for the first time, that she is the specialist, with a specialist’s skills, tending to people who themselves lack them. The girls are bent under loads, weighed down with babies or young children on their hips. Many of them are too young to be mothers; they carry nephews and nieces, the children of elder siblings, women who, the aid-worker knows, have died of unnatural causes.
The aid-worker notices, as she touches the children for the first time, relieving the girls of their various burdens, how beautiful the women are. Their strong, limpid eyes glow from smooth-skinned faces—weary, worn, still warm with the exertion of days and weeks on the mountain-paths. The aid-worker is neutral beside them, even nondescript: her pale limbs are concealed by synthetic fabrics to protect against insects and the fierce tropical sun, gloves and sometimes disinfectant on her hands, to ward off malign microscopic intrusions.
In her dun clothing, she feels diminished next to these exhausted, exquisite women, loosely covered in bright-coloured clothing. Their arms and wrists are finely-boned, adorned with childish jewellery, their smooth, dark feet often bare. The breasts of those bearing babies are also left bare, given to the open air. The women have no self-consciousness; they might not care if they did.
But this is how things are on the border: rich with contradiction, and the aid-worker has grown used to it.
Later that night, after the young women, and those who have followed them, have been treated and given shelter, fed and properly clothed, the aid-worker goes to the common area outside a tent-enclosure. There she meets with some of her colleagues: doctors and nutritionists, nurses and anaesthetists. All are tired but satisfied with the progress of the day. On the margins of the compound the palms bend and sway lightly in a mild breeze, hoopoes call from the adjacent stand of forest where, some have said, wild animals can sometimes be seen—elephants and even panthers.
‘So long as it’s not guerrillas, from over the border,’ one of them says, a man’s voice, jocular in the night. No-one can drink here, but many smoke, especially the European doctors, who might pride themselves on their immunity from the usual weaknesses. They are as if the gods of the place, who have come in from on high, and wield benign power over their domain. ‘I have heard all kinds of noises, in the night. Unearthly, incredible things,’ the same man says.
A voice says, ‘It’s the wild pigs, routing for food’.
Another opines, ‘Spirit-guardians of the place, disturbed in their rest.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ says a woman with a brassy voice. ‘It’s sex in the jungle. The call of the wild.’
‘Rhea the realist,’ the man says. ‘Always the basic needs with Rhea.’
‘And so?’ Rhea asks, lighting her own cigarette. ‘That’s our job here, isn’t it, to find the most realistic solutions?’
‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘You’re right. We’re the opposites of dreamers. We’re guardians of earthly sleep who allow the others to sleep in peace. Without us, they’ll come to harm in the night, and die.’
Birds cachinnate in the tree-tops; from deeper in the scrub surrounding, there are sounds of movement.
‘That’s putting it a bit archly, isn’t it?’ says a younger voice, a godling, his English still inflected with ivied walls, a consciousness of its own facility. ‘We’re only human,’ he says. ‘We need to sleep as well, you know. Speaking of which.’
He gets up and stretches his legs, as if to retire.
‘Wait, my young friend, not so soon. Let me ask you. We need to hear your opinion.’ It is the first man, with his garrulous, deep voice.
‘You have an expertise we older ones seem to lack.’
‘What would that be, great Hector?’ he playfully replies. His tone is ironic in a way apt to be misunderstood.
‘So, is that how well you think of me?’
The younger man laughs, and stretches long limbs, looking up at the black of the sky, dusted with constellations. ‘I was just poking fun. Probably not the wisest thing to do with the greyback of the pack, is it?’
‘Probably not, Achilles. It might look like you’re trying to diminish my authority.’
‘You could imagine that, if you chose to. It doesn’t really matter, though, does it?’
‘What does matter, in your view?’ Rhea says, blowing out plumes of smoke. The group sit otherwise in silence on the border, as if awaiting a tribunal. The people who have come to them from the other place sleep now, it seems peacefully, under plastic roofs and between hessian walls. The rain has stopped falling, though it might start again tomorrow.
‘What I mean,’ Achilles says, ‘is that if we are merely serving our allotted roles, then it’s not up to us, is it? To make the decisions, to call the shots? Someone else is doing all that.’
‘Oh, God,’ Rhea murmurs. ‘No politics, please. It’s too late in the day.’
The older man speaks again, interested now. ‘As if we were just—what? Puppets?’ Hector says, and makes a snorting sound. ‘You really are undermining my authority now!’ he says again, coughing on his cigarette.
‘Well, maybe we are. You just called me Achilles, after all. But my name is Tom.’
‘I’m sorry, Tom. Achilles seems to suit you better. I don’t know why.’
‘Exactly—I don’t know why I said it. Maybe someone else made me do it. I don’t know, I’m confused. I’m sorry, I have to sleep. Good night.’
‘And your advice, you’ll deprive us of that?’
There is an uncomfortable silence while those who have remained wait for his answer. But none is forthcoming. Tom, or Achilles, lifts his hand weakly to them, before departing the company.
The next day there is, as there always is, a lot to do. It is raining, and many of the lower-lying tents are inundated. Many of the people are sick, with flu and infections. The eyes of many of the older ones are inflamed with filmy sores. The children’s noses run, and because the people spit phlegm everywhere they go, illness moves fast. Some of those who have been more badly injured in crossing the mountains, who have met with mines, or whose wounds are too far advanced, must have limbs amputated.
Many others can barely walk and require crutches or wheelchairs, in short supply out here in the field. The latrines, too, are overwhelmed with use; food that has been prepared in rudimentary kitchens gathers flies, and children eat it sloppily, with their hands. Some of the older ones refuse to eat at all, as if they distrust food that has not come from the village, because it is foreign to them.
It is while she is talking with the interpreter, in the course of processing some new arrivals, that the aid-worker hears of a rumour. It has begun making the rounds of some of the refugees. The interpreter tells her of some of the first arrivals from a remote, lesser-known village, visited with massacre early in the outbreak of violence. They have recognised one of the newcomers: a young man, with a wound on his brow, who is generally silent and receives food and treatment without thanks. The aid-worker has come across him, but she has thought he is still in shock, the witness to events a teenager should not see.
‘No,’ the interpreter says. ‘They say he was one of the group of attackers—young men armed with machetes and knives. They came before dawn and left only those here now still alive.’ He has infiltrated the refugees, the interpreter says, to escape retribution over the other side, and to disappear on this.
‘He has slightly lighter skin,’ he says, ‘not as dark as theirs. He’s probably a half-caste.’
The words in the interpreter’s mouth are strangely of another time; he would probably have to describe himself as a half-caste as well, applying an old, foreign language to the people to whom he belongs, the once-colonised. But he has been away, in the West, and returned; he is one of a new class who are entitled to old words for ambiguous things.
‘They are fleeing,’ he says, ‘because they were never welcome.’ It is right that they should leave, he thinks, and return to the places they came from—just as the colonisers did. No-one likes having foreign interlopers on their native soil.
‘Have you spoken to him yourself?’ the aid-worker asks.
The interpreter shakes his head. ‘Not a good idea. If the others see me doing that, they’ll trust me less.’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But you’ll need to come with me, and report it. It will be confidential.’
In the afternoon, the aid-worker sees Tom, the young intern, working in the camp-area where the teenage refugee has been assigned. Tom tells her he’s seen nothing strange in the boy’s behaviour. ‘He sits quietly. Eats when he’s fed. Doesn’t talk to anyone.’
‘Some of them think he’s from the enemy side,’ she says. ‘Lured by the military…probably with favours. They think he’s a machete boy.’
‘He’s got the right kind of injury for that,’ Tom says. He’s cleaning hypodermic equipment, needles and syringes. ‘I treated him myself.’
‘Stay with him, Tom. Watch how he interacts. What the others say.’
‘OK. You’ll tell the chief, then?’
She nods. ‘Unless he’s heard already.’ The aid-worker leaves Tom alone with his equipment, and returns to the women who are under her charge. She tells the interpreter they might have to get the boy out of there at any moment.
‘Then I’ll have to go with him,’ he says. ‘There’s no-one else who can speak his language.’ Nor is there anyone who knows the people as well as he does.
‘What would they do?’ she asks him. ‘If they were able to?’
‘You don’t know?’ the interpreter says.
She doesn’t answer him. She’s spoken casually, as if they are discussing a revision of the roster. The women see him nod his head, and leave the aid-worker alone again. They wonder if the white woman and the dark man, almost as dark as they are, and so informal with each other, are in the privacy of their separate places secretly lovers. Where they come from, that would be reason enough for fear.
But under cover of darkness, where the staff gather to speak of the day’s events, such a thing seems more possible, and even the fear something to surmount. There is always escape, after all. The question of the teenage boy is broached, eventually, by Tom.
‘We ought to evacuate him, tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Anywhere but keep him in the camp.’ No-one speaks while the question hangs in the dense, humid air. It might rain again, that night; if it does, it might not stop for days.
The head of operations takes this in, calmly. He has begun, now, to smoke cigars; the aromatic smoke loops among the loose circle, sitting in a darkness filtered by the artificial light of lamps coming from nearby tent-enclosures. ‘I need my people here,’ he says. ‘We don’t have the resources to send people off on goose-chases.’
‘It’s a question of safety, not goose-chases,’ Tom says. ‘Can we afford that?’
‘You again. My friend Achilles. The humanitarian of high repute. No-one disagrees with you.’
‘I can go tonight, then.’
‘You can stay here, with everyone else.’
‘I’d prefer not to.’
Hector lifts his heavy eyebrows. He sighs. ‘We’ve been tasked to help these people, medically. That means all the people. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from, or what they’ve done before. We’re not here to judge people for alleged crimes. We treat their bodies and their minds. We’re tasked to save their lives, not to spirit them to secret locations in the middle of the night. No-one knows who this boy is. It might be just a rumour. These people are half-crazed, in shock. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The boy with the machete wound will stay here. I’ll see to him myself. No-one will dare to touch him then.’
‘You don’t know what you are talking about, Hector,’ the young intern says. ‘We train their armies. We sell them the guns.’
‘And so? What’s that to us? We can’t decide how they use them. We’re only here to keep them alive, if we can.’
‘If he stays in the camp he’ll be killed within days.’
‘Who asked you for your advice? Did anyone?’
‘Actually, they did. You did. But I’m just an intern. My job is to learn from you.’
‘Well, in that case,’ Hector says, ‘I have something to teach. If I hear more disrespect from you I’ll throw you across that border just over there, and leave you to the hospitality of that guerrilla army you probably sympathise with. You probably imagine they are your friends in the moral fight, because you are a nice, intelligent boy. But they’ll put you in a cage, feed you rotten birds and mice, and make you shit in your clothes. Do you understand? Then they’ll call me on their mobile-phones and demand I give them half a million bucks from our overflowing coffers, before sending you back to me. And I won’t hesitate—after hesitating just a little. Because I’ll ask myself, is clever Achilles worth that much? There are plenty like you, from your fancy colleges, that I can pick out of the pool any time, and maybe Achilles is really dispensable, maybe his privilege means nothing, and he is only a little scrap—a scrap of pretentious crap. Do you like the sound of that, Achilles, or Tom, or whoever the fuck you are? Do you like that—how literary it is? Now go and sleep your precious sleep of the intern, knowing as you always have that there are those who are more powerful than you who can be trusted to protect you and take care of you, should you come to harm from the wild animals of the night.’
Hector puffs furiously on his cigar and he really could be blowing hurricanes of wrath across the millennial heavens. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, young man. You’ll come to my quarters, at a time to be decided. For now, you are suspended from further duties. Now get lost, get out of here.’ He raises himself from his camp-chair, and throws the half-smoked cigar into the murky edge of the enclosure. But as soon as the younger man is gone, he smiles desperately. ‘Well, that was a bit of fun, wasn’t it? You all enjoyed that, didn’t you?’ Hector’s voice trembles, he is embarrassed by his outburst, and looks like he might break into tears. ‘A good thing it’s all play-acting, as he says,’ he adds.
‘I think it’s time you took a rest,’ Rhea says.
‘I do too, my dear,’ he says, relieved at his rescue. ‘What do you have in mind?’
‘Why don’t you come to my tent, and I’ll let you know there?’
An expansive, celestial smile traverses his broad Olympian features. ‘For real?’ he says, his eyes dilating with regained power.
‘As real as it gets,’ she says, stubbing out her cigarette.
In the morning, the interpreter visits the aid-worker again. ‘I was with the villagers just now,’ he says. ‘More than one of them remember him. It’s no mystery to them. He’s probably an orphan. Should I speak to him?’
‘Are they talking with any others? People from the other villages?’
‘Not as far as I can tell. But they will, when things get restless. As they’re bound to do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They always do, don’t they?’ he smiles. ‘Why don’t we go to lunch,’ he adds. ‘You’ve been working hard enough.’
But the aid-worker decides to stay in, and write her own account of events. In a lined notebook she writes of the cloying air, the mosquitoes, the sense of moist inevitability, seeping into everything. She is waiting for the rain to break, again, like a new mother with her waters. There is water everywhere, in her picture of things.
The picture includes the interpreter, the machete boy, and Tom, and the portentous leader of their crew, like figures in a film. But not herself, she stands outside it: to herself, she is just a worker, an aid-worker, in a place of need, and of privation. Everyone needs her; but no-one really needs her. Most of the people there barely remember, or even know, her name. Even in a fiction she would probably go nameless.
Like the interpreter, and the machete boy, who are perhaps her confreres. If she ran away with the interpreter, she wonders, would they set up a life together, somewhere, with the machete boy as an adopted son? There’s no reason why not, she thinks, it would be an acceptable outcome.
In her world, however, it would be a make-believe. What would she say to the suspected killer, a teenager with blood on his hands, and whose language she doesn’t speak? Would he care what she has to say, any more than anyone else would?
When she goes on rounds of the different wards, she takes care not to look in on the boy. No attention should be drawn to him. She agrees with Tom, and would help him make the escape, if anyone asked. But no-one asks her what she thinks, not even the interpreter. They expect her to do her job, dimly, as befits her bland and mousy appearance. Like someone in a lab, or a primary school, or a factory, doing a dim and minor job that few others want to do. She decides to go and find the interpreter, and take him up on his offer of lunch.
The interpreter is meeting with the teenager in his corner of the camp. Nor can she find Tom, who has been taken off work and is confined to his camp quarters. It is only after nightfall, when the electric lamps begin to come on, and candles are burning among the bivouacs of the refugees, many of whom prefer to sleep outside, that she hears there has been a disturbance.
One of the women comes to her, still wearing the ragged clothes of her journey over the mountains. She points briefly to her chest and shakes her right hand in a fluid, dismissive motion: there is something wrong with the heart, hers or another’s the aid-worker can’t tell. The woman looks quickly back over her shoulder, and points towards the authorised area of camp administration and central quarters.
The aid-worker goes there and among the doctors’ inner circle meets Rhea, regally taking control of the crisis. She gathers that someone has died: the head of operations, the hero Hector, found dead in his bed. She is not alarmed by the news. No-one has seen anything, there is no evident injury, he might have had a heart-attack.
But she is not so sure. Why would a healthy man in his prime, smoking cigars with a flourish only the night before, suddenly die without any sign? Rhea suggests that the aid-worker return to work, a meeting will be convened later. Returning to her designated wards, she sees the interpreter rushing up to her. ‘I can’t find him anywhere. The boy. He’s gone.’
She takes hold of his arm. ‘The head is dead,’ she says.
The interpreter nods, still breathless. To him it seems a clear thing, to make the obvious inference.
‘But there’s no sign,’ she reminds him. ‘No blood, no wound, nothing even broken. No machete blows.’
‘People can be strangled,’ he says. His hair is awry and sweat beads on his face, as if he’s been running, wildly, in circles, like someone searching for the end of a labyrinth.
‘He was found in a deep repose.’ The words coming from her mouth are as if spoken by someone else, she is sure she has never used the word repose before, it seems completely alien to her.
When Tom has entered the head tent he is already well-armed and mentally prepared, it is not at any arranged hour, it is premeditated but spontaneous and the head of operations is still in his bed, waking from a nap, he is surprised in his domestic repose, an intruder in his sanctum, and the boy, the intern boy, like Achilles with his spear, coming in without warning as if to surprise him in his sleep, and Hector says, ‘Who do you think you are coming in like that?’
‘You called, and I had nothing else to do,’ Achilles tells him.
‘I am still in my bed,’ Hector says. ‘You have not been invited here.’
‘I believe I was. But you can stay there, it is better that way.’
‘Better for what? For whom?’
‘Better for you, and for all of us,’ Achilles repeats, his normally calm eyes adjusting to the weak light of the sunken place. ‘Not much of a place to die, Hector. You probably had better plans for yourself. Instead of rotting in an obscure grave, on the border of someone else’s civil war, none of your business after all, just here to save the sick and disenabled, the ones who can’t save themselves. The irony, doctor, is that you can’t save yourself either. No-one can save you, now. Don’t worry, it will be swift and almost without pain. The only pain will be in leaving. In leaving this place of privation. Returning to your abode of the gods.’
Achilles lifts the large syringe held down by his side and quickly plunges the needle into the chest of the other man, its full dose of hydromorphine discharged directly into the heart.
‘And there will be no mark to show,’ Achilles says. ‘Maybe just a little blood, but I’ll clean it up. Barely a surface wound.’ Hector lies still in the bed, a large smile gradually transforming his face, that could come from a final wound of pride.
‘You are good, Tom. I could trust you after all, to do the right thing. Now go back to work, and leave me.’
Achilles looks down at him for a moment longer.
‘One day you’ll be where I am now,’ the doctor says. ‘And you’ll know that it’s right, like this.’ Achilles takes a last look at the doctor before leaving his sunken tent. The sun is high again, outside; the paddies stretch away in every direction. He can hear the noise of people, preparing food, moving from place to place. There are people talking, with urgency, engaged in life. There are still all the others to save, and those not to. Only a god can know how to choose between them, he thinks.
But Tom, or Achilles, as he has said, is only a kind of functionary, so he could not be expected to know. As he moves towards the people, he sees the aid-worker coming towards him. ‘I need you to do something for me,’ he says to her. ‘Can you help?’
The aid-worker nods, looking past him.
Nadia Rhook is a white settler historian, teacher, and poet, recently moved onto Whadjuk Noongar Boodja, WA. Her research is much inspired by her background in ESL teaching, and in 2016 she curated the City of Melbourne heritage exhibition Moving Tongues: language and migration in 1890s Melbourne. She’s published her poetry in Cordite and Peril Magazine, and is currently writing a book about Asian migration in colonial Melbourne, and researching the history of Vietnamese indentured labour.
a labourer met a merchant and now sense lives in a
capacious wood-split frame
Commercial Bank of [The [ Murder ] Case ] Australasia
right angled souls, the insanity of capital, this
diary lightly conquers that banknote; pens fire, and ink’s
unfurled from grainy words to characters, firm, in silken thrum
Cantonese dances with halycon English and
meanings are unhinged, by pounds, and history’s odd limbs
Jong Ah Siug never shook Lowe Kong Meng’s hand so in this world
triumph translates into the daily timbre, of prison, & Pidgin, as if carved words
flew to be cut by razored ears, as if when
nothing’s level loss is telling stories like they’re only one
two men, clear in open sunlight beyond a grave’s lines and muddy amalgam, deposit
perpendicular pains, & pride, but
even after all tongues are untied
some walls remain more soundproof than others
don’t be fooled; it’s neither competition nor some hapless union
but a greeting, to incense the border’s gilded innocence
Artist statement: ‘The Greeting’ is written in response to the work of Hong Kong-born Australian artist, John Young. ‘The Meeting’ is an embroidery that layers the material history of the Chinese diaspora in 19th Century Victoria, in particular that of two men, a labourer, Jong Ah Siug, and merchant, Lowe Kong Meng.
The Meeting, John Young, 2015. Single thread hand-sewn embroidery 41 x 42 cm Image courtesy of Arc One Gallery, Melbourne
when a sound wells from belly to tongue
like water, goaded by neoteric force
choose me, says this word, and your soul may inflate, like
flattened grass, to understanding
산을 갑시다 … 어디? 설악산… 가자
and when you travel from throat to word I look to
the roaring sky and listen for movement, round
in a circle … til I find us by this
tributary of meaning
sounds fly, winged breath round temple rooves
climb … 산 … listen
the river’s bemused. you flow past your syllables, and now
the river laughs … so? it’s your first time with
this word but I’ve heard it all before
I caught sight of you in District 1, bold, purple, by
the curved façade of Louis Vitton
“tự do”, I said to my friend, recognizing you, even then
in the delicious pause of late morning, between
coffee and … lunch
“tự do”, he said
trimming my elongated consonants
putting the Hà Nội ‘z-’ into my lazy Đà Nẵng ‘y-’
as if in trying to speak “freedom” I might just trap you in the wrong tone
and we’d be stuck browsing these boutique stores together forever
surrounded by silk and denim each pining for our true lovers
“đấu tranh giành tự do”, he said in his smoothest Saigon northern
accent, like this
was a word with status
in the middle of our sojourn down a Street named after that old French physician.
between the monosyllables
now, the fight for freedom’s a war against foreigners’ depraved pronunciation
I heard. Na ơi, my custard apple friend
for the next thirty seconds I’ll fight against your depraved pronunciation
and then I’m done. it’s up to you
to wield an accent
as shield as sword, but whatever you do
start. by listening
tự do is not a sign, painted on a façade for my tongue’s twisted consumption. it’s
not a fad either. it’s a question mark and
it’s not my job to teach you that the laziest of tongues may twist
but it’s too late
you’d already showed me
the most important roads are lined with tall words, struggle, fashion