My Friend

To get from my house to Redfern station you cut between two of the high rise public housing buildings that cluster on the edge of the city. It’s a grassy space, dotted with park benches, and in the mornings when I walk through it on my way to work, a group of elderly people do haphazard tai chi on the tennis court to the music from a tinny radio. I get the train to work so I go that way every morning. I moved to Redfern about a year and half ago to live with my boyfriend, the first time I walked to the station there was an old lady sitting in the sun on a park bench by the path. She was there the next day as well, and the next.

Growing up in the country I knew all the neighbours by name, but living in Sydney I’d gotten used the rushed anonymity of the city, in the same way I’d gotten used to being surrounded by cement and the constant noise of cars. But it seemed silly to see someone every day and just walk past, so I started saying good morning. The old lady seemed pleased, she smiled back, and we started greeting each other every day. There was often a twinkle faced man with her, sometimes I’d see them walk slowly along the path arm in arm. When I walked past their bench the lady would hit the man, to remind him to say hello. 

At the time my boyfriend was getting the train to work and we’d walk hand in hand to the station every morning. When my boyfriend started leaving early and walking to work the couple greeted me as usual, and then started saying something in broken English, but I didn’t understand. Next day they were ready, and asked where the boy was, and I don’t know if it was my words or my smile they understood, but they seemed relieved. It made me happy, to greet this white haired, smile-ready couple. I’d look out for them, and when the old man was by himself he’d tell me where his wife was, shopping or at the market the Salvation Army runs across the street.

 The last few weeks the couple haven’t been there, and I’ve been worried. I’ve looked out for them. I thought maybe the man was sick, the lady seemed too indomitable and permanent to be unwell. A few days ago the man was standing near a different bench, he greeted me, and then he kept on talking. I didn’t understand. His wife. Hospital. He exaggerated a frown, “kaputt, you understand?” He made a crucifix with his fingers and there were tears on his face, and then I did understand. He stepped forward and we hugged and he cried.

We stood in the sun between the towers and he kept talking, I tried to follow but mostly I didn’t know what he was saying. I knew it was important that he said it though, and that I was there. I didn’t have any words to reply but I had had a face that looked worried and sad, an arm to hold. I tried to follow. He’s going back to Minsk, he has a sister there. There is a son in Australia. “Your son?” No, but he speaks English. 85 years. She was a good wife. He gestures to the bench she always sat on. Smiles. We hug for a long time.

I buy a sympathy card. I want him to know how important his wife was. I think that maybe the son, whoever he is, can translate.

Your wife had a beautiful smile. It made us happy every morning, when we saw you both. We’re so sorry for your loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. 

Your friends, 

Rosie and Arthur. 

 The next  morning the Tai Chi people weren’t there, the man was by the tennis court doing arm exercises, he stopped and I walked over the wet grass to where he was standing. He hugged me and I took out the card. “Was ist das?” I took  it out of its envelope, to show him the carefully chosen picture of lilies and the words I wrote in my favourite blue pen. “Thank you.”He was sad again, and smiling and I knew my face was reflecting back the same thing.

He started talking.  He speaks German, it’s very hard in Australia when you don’t speak English. He was an auto designer, did I understand? I nodded. He asked what I do and I tried to mime “Student,” by writing on my hand with my fingers,  thinking it might be  easier than “Call Centre.” He’s going soon, in a plane, his fingers take off from his palm and fly across the sky to Belarus. In three days or three weeks, three something anyway.

“Good frau,” he smiled at me,  tapping my arm, “good wife.” When I turned to go he gestured to his heart, and then to me and I did the same thing. Then I ran over, to give him another hug and he kissed me just like my Grandpa used to.

We talk every morning. His name is Otto and his wife’s name was Rosa. I tapped my chest – “Rosie!” He opened and closed both his hands five times . Fifty years.

Today I was running late, but I kept my eye out for my friend. He was on the tennis court, part of the circle of people exercising, he was touching the ground and then stretching his arms up, standing right where the shadow from the tower met the sun, he was stretching into the light.

My friend is an old man who’s lonely now, and broken hearted, and in a strange place where he can’t speak the language. He must have planned on making a better life here, but not  anymore, not without the person who made it home.

He’s my friend and the things I gave him were little things: a smile in the mornings, a hug, and words he can’t read to carry across the sky.  But they were important, like a tiny grassy space in the middle of the city, like your face turned towards the sun.

Image from Isabelle Arsenault’s sketchbook  via The Jealous Curator 

Fictitious Dishes

Oh my goodness oh my goodness oh my goodness. I can’t describe how much I love this. Dinah Fried, a New York based designer and art director has recreated some of literatures most memorable dishes and made them into a book.  The goats cheese Heidi eats in the swiss alps,  Alice in Wonderland’s tea party, Oliver Twist’s gruel, one of the intriguing nordic meals served with black coffee that keep being described in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the opulence of a Gatsby feast and the breakfast Cal makes with Tom Robinson’s chicken in To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Descriptions of food are such a big part in the pleasure of reading. If Instagram existed in these fictional worlds, I hope at least some of the characters would like taking photos of their food as much as I do!

Oliver Twist Fictitious Dishes

Buy here

Beyoncé and Body Surfing

This summer I finally learned how to body surf. That feeling. The thrill of what your body can do, its latent power. Flying through fizzing water, skimming the hard, silky surface of the ocean, tumbled with salt up your nose and hair everywhere. That feeling of joy, when it’s just your body and the ocean and you’re kicking on the cusp of it and then you’re there, inside these big loving arms with a rush of endorphins like a train coming.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Beyoncé’s new album and that was summer: body surfing and Beyoncé and my injured knee recovering enough for me to run again. And this line: Goddamnit I’m comfortable in my skinBecause we’re not meant to be, billion dollar industries are built around us not being comfortable in our skin.

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And then you’re sunburnt and salt slicked and walking back to the car in your bikini and you look in a mirrored window and your thighs are wobbling and it just doesn’t matter, because they deliver so much happiness, and they can slice through the ocean and they can run 10ks and ignore the lactic acid and the blisters. God knows the last thing I want to write is yet another body image story, because we all know that models are photoshopped and big is beautiful, because we’re all trying to love our bodies in world where self hate and insecurity are normalised.

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But goddamnit, I do love my body. I love what it does and how it feels, and that day I loved they way my thighs wobbled and the way the warm wind through the window felt on my skin as we drove home, the way we sang at the the top of our lungs the whole way. Beyoncé, of course:

Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst

Perfection is a disease of a nation…

We try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see

It’s the soul that needs the surgery

Me, Lorde’s Boyfriend and Racism

In the light of some pretty awful behaviour on Twitter regarding Lorde’s boyfriend, I thought I’d repost his story I wrote about  how having an Asian boyfriend has changed my perspective about what it means to be white in Australia.  

I’ve never had think much about racism. I’m a white person who went to a school that was predominantly white in a country town that was predominantly white. In primary school we would have multicultural days when we’d bring in plates of dahl and fried rice and wear an approximation of a sari. When I was twelve my family went on holiday to Phuket. I read in the tourist brochure that Thai people had beautiful smiles and if you smiled at them they would always smile back. Experiments proved this to be true and I decided they must be lovely people. In high school I had a friend from Sri Lanka and one from Singapore, but I never thought much about their race.

When I first moved to Sydney I caught a bus with a new friend from the city to Surry Hills. Soon after we got on a woman started screaming that there were too many fucking foreigners in Australia. The bus driver didn’t say anything and she kept going. My friend and I sat quietly, pinned down partly by her rage and partly by our uncertainty. What could we do? It wasn’t until after we jumped off that we shook our heads over her raw anger, over the ferocity of the attack, over the little girl in a pram and her mother who bore the brunt of it. I felt sickened by my silence. It felt like cowardice. It felt like complicity.

I was living with my Sri Lankan friend from school. She was an extra in a local film and we got all dressed up to go to the premiere in Bondi Junction with her new boyfriend. Afterwards we went looking for a drink and a guy started following us, yelling “curry muncher” at intervals. My friend didn’t respond, she didn’t hurry. Her (white) boyfriend and I followed her lead. It wasn’t a new experience for her, but it was for us. She walked with grace and I curled up inside, speechless in the face of these words, flung with such certainty into our silence.

After a series of not-particularly-successful relationships with not-particularly-nice men, I fell in love. My boyfriend’s  family emigrated from Hong Kong when he was three. He didn’t fit my rugged Anglo teenage fantasy of a man, informed by the heroes of Hollywood films (after all where were the Asian men in the poster section of Dolly?), but he did offer a world full of laughter and acceptance, of care and kindness and a new, easy happiness.

A few weeks ago he went out of town with some mates. They dropped into a pub in a small country town. He went to the loo and a group of local guys squirted a hose at him through the window and yelled “take that Jackie!” As in Jackie Chan. Do you get it? It’s kind of witty, because all Asian men look like Jackie Chan in the same way all white men look like Ryan Gosling.

He tells me that it doesn’t really bother him, that he’s used to it. I’m not used to it. I hate the idea of people hijacking the tenderness of his body in that private moment. I bang around the kitchen, slamming doors and trying not to cry. “Hey,” he says, “it’s OK.” He hugs me. Tells me that it says much more about the other people than about him. That people are afraid and ignorant. But I still don’t want to think of his sweetness rubbing up against that hard, unfair edge to the world.

Recently there were news reports about an angry Anglo-Australian man who verbally abused a group of Asian tourists in front of a whole (mostly silent) bus of people. In an article about the incident in The Age, Waleed Aly pointed out that these random bouts of bile seem to act to exonerate the rest of the white Australian population from their entrenched and unacknowledged racial privilege – after all, we can tell ourselves, we’re not the ones going around screaming at people on public transport. Aly pointed to a study by the Australian National University that found if your surname is Chinese, you have to apply for 68 per cent more jobs to get the same number of interviews as someone with an Anglo name. 64 per cent if it’s Middle Eastern, 35 per cent if it’s Indigenous. After I read the article there is another round of banging kitchen doors and hugs. My partner and I want to have children. If we do, most likely their surname will be Cheung. Unless things change they’re going to be applying for a lot more jobs than I have had to.

I doubt many white people have considered that their skin colour or their name helped them get where they are, but here it is: proof of our unspoken, entrenched advantage. Despite appearances to the contrary, living isn’t innocuous. The act of being a human, of having skin and hair and eyes, still takes place within an old system of prejudice, exploitation and an irrational – but historically rationalised – notion of superiority. It’s a misreading of Darwinism on a vast scale, and it’s still leaving an indelible mark on the world. From the ridiculous (people calling their dog away from my partner because he’s Asian and obviously likely to barbecue it on the spot) to the tragic (the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people, the Cronulla Riots) and the whole vast, deep silence in between, Australia is rife with this falsely constructed intolerance and hatred. It makes me ache to think that if I’m ever lucky enough to be a mother, the little bundle I’ve borne in my body, carried since forever in my bones, will come into a world where there are still people primed to hate it. I feel ashamed because for so long I’ve been unaware that my skin colour is protecting me.

A few weeks ago my friend and her boyfriend (the same one from the Bondi Junction days) got married. A group of us had gone shopping in the Indian shops in Liverpool for jewel coloured saris, and the night before the wedding while my friend had her henna done, her sister took us through the complex system of putting them on. They had a traditional Hindu ceremony and then read their own vows. My friend promised to raise children who respect their Sri Lankan Tamil, Dutch, Australian heritage. For me the wedding was more than the union of two wonderful people. It was a sparkling, joyful antidote to the hard edge, the old inequalities, the racist undercurrent of the world. As I danced to the Bollywood music with my partner I realised that the world is full of a love that goes even deeper, that – just maybe – can trump that undercurrent.

Natural Fashion

I went into the mall today. It’s way busier than normal and full of Chanel and Oroton stalls that instantly make me  want to spend lots of money and take home a pristine, shiny box. The  coffee shops  have rolled out their Christmas cups to add a bit of festive cheer to our landfill (who am I kidding, I get over-the-top excited about Christmas coffee cups) and  the shops have huge posters exhorting us to give.  It’s only the third of December, but it feels like Christmas has already been around forever, and I’m feeling a weird mix of cynicism and excitement.

slide-12-1024A couple of days ago the  lovely Romy  Sai Zunde pointed me in the direction of Hans Silvester’s photos of the  Surma and Mursi tribes in the L’Omo Valley on the borders of  Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. These are nomadic tribes, who express their artistic creativity by decorating their bodies with pigments made from volcanic rock, flowers,  leaves,  grass, shells and animal horns. The beautiful images have stuck with me: the careful, elaborate self expression, the sheer joy of such exuberant adornment, the excitement of transfiguring found objects and vegetation into precious  embellishment.

Maybe they’re so haunting because it’s precisely the moment in our year when the pressure to buy things is most acute. These images are a  reminder that for us, beauty,  self expression  (and even the idea of demonstrating love) are heavily  commodified – they’re wrapped up in plastic and mediated through big brands. Brands with a high stake in our dissatisfaction with ourselves, whose sole aim is to get us to buy more  stuff – expensive, shiny, enticing stuff. 

Of course I like putting on a bit of my Chanel lippie (it is lovely lipstick),  but I can’t help but imagine a sense  of freedom in these images that’s missing as we buckle down and rack up the credit card debt in preparation for another Christmas.

P.S. Hans Silvester’s  book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa would make a really lovely Christmas gift!

Reading the signs

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I’ve been trying to write something about fairytales, the primeval forest in Europe – ancient and untouched. A wild place that still lives in the old stories: Hansel and Gretel, Snow White.

I quit my job as managing editor of an architecture magazine to focus on writing. To get by I’ve been working part time in a call centre, it’s an OK job, but I get sick of repeating the same lines a hundred times a day. On Wednesday a man told me he had no idea why they bothered hiring me, they should have just got a robot. I’ve been told I have no fucking feelings, that I should be ashamed of myself, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Not my fault I have to stick to company policy.

What I’ve written so far is big and sprawling, too many points of view, a strange shift from first person to third, way too many adjectives. It’s humid today, too hot. The outside walls of our apartment block are being done up and the workmen are yelling and crashing metal around. I can’t concentrate, and I don’t know what to do next. There’s so much research to do, so much I don’t know.

I walk into the city to go Christmas shopping. Retail therapy, it’s a thing. There’s a shop up the road from us that’s half florist half Aladdin’s cave. Shelves of vintage crockery and test tubes, a moose head, buckets of flowers, an ancient French military uniform, top hats. A basket of little glass vessels, each holding a slither of script. I’m on the lookout for signs today and “off he walked into the forest” seems significant. So does the statement “brilliant author!” with “but –––)” on the back. But –––) what?  But the doubt, but the shame.

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Brene Brown is my hero, in her TED talk about shame  she says:

“There’s a great quote that saved me this past year by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the “Man in the Arena” quote. And it goes like this:

“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly” 

… That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.” 

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It’s the but –––) that holds you back, the “but I’m not good enough, but I can’t do it, but I’m not talented or pretty and besides I have nothing to say.” You get stuck on the but –––) side of the paper. And on the other side there’s the self actualised statement, the living, the doing the brilliant author! in the arena, the one writing, maybe failing, but covered in dust and sweat and blood.

Image: Lettering by the wildly talented Carla Hackett.

So I continued on into the city. In the park a man sitting on a bench told me I looked gorgeous. He had a box of little rolled up papers he was giving away for coins. I wasn’t in the mood for being chatted up, but I was on a mission for signs, so I gave him a dollar and chose one.

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It seems like good advise.

Then I bought my sister’s  present (Eeep! Yay!)  and came home, made a strong pot of tea, opened my draft and started cutting out adjectives.