I hate my skin. It isn’t fair and clear, with peach-tinted cheeks, like the girls in Chinese movies. Nor does it glow with the promise of summer like the caramelised beach babes on the covers of Dolly magazine. Large pores, inherited from my mother, speckle the space around my nose. I hate my hair, which sits against my scalp as flat and black as an oil slick. I spend hundreds of dollars to volumise it, texturise it, bleach it. I hide my broad forehead behind a sweep of fringe. And my bridgeless, button-shaped nose–a stunted runty cousin to the proud pinnacles of my peers–it can’t even prop a pair of glasses up. I hate the way my face prompts others to question my foreign, other heritage.
I love my olive skin. I love the way it deepens to brown at the merest touch of sunlight. Its subtle green undertones remind me of the cool colours of forest undergrowth, or a beach in winter. I love my eyes, which are almond-shaped and shallow with folded lids like my father’s. I like the shiny blackness of my hair. I like my cheekbones, which are high and wide like my mother’s. I cherish the unexpected angles of my face: the strength of the cheeks and the jaw, the wide forehead, the soft chin. I like that it holds both sharpness and softness, both inquisitiveness and openness. I like the way my face carries pieces of my ancestors, and invites others to wonder where I am from.
Her complexion is the colour of coffee grounds. No makeup except for a subtle pink on the lips, collecting in the creases. Hair wrapped inside a bandanna with a pattern of purple and green leaves.
She is still when she speaks. Her unadorned hands, with long tapering fingers, lie calmly in her lap. Her round, strong shoulders do not move. Only her full lips, beneath broad cheeks, shape the syllables. Her sentences come short and sharp. Concise. Full of meaning. Without wasted words. She stares at you over her sentences, waiting for a reply.
When she stands up, she catches you off guard. You expect her to be taller than you, but she only comes up to your shoulder. Beneath her colourful skirts, her legs are bowed–a permanent reminder of an undernourished childhood. She walks with a fierce rhythm, navigating the stairs one at a time, steadfast and swaying. She does not hold the handrail.
In a dark community hall
In a dark campsite
In the dark Australian bush
The Holy Spirit descends
Wistful chords from unplugged guitars
Spinning two-dollar disco lights
A forest of swaying teenagers
Straining towards the heavens
The pastor torrents with prayer
The room swells with amens
The girl starts to shake and mutter
Bent into a Z by her faith
I watch as they lower her to the floor
Shuttered face, pale and glistening
Afterwards, they tell us tenderly
She was overcome by the Holy Spirit
The top button of my mother’s work pants, a size too small for me, digs into my tummy. My shoulders feel like they are splitting the seams of my freshly-ironed burgundy shirt. They say puberty is a blossoming into womanhood, but my body must have taken a wrong turn. At fifteen, I am gangling limbs and pimpled brow and round gold glasses. They stopped calling me pretty when I was eleven.
I sit in a small office on the first day of work experience. Across the desk from me is a middle-aged man. He’s white. He carries a bit of extra weight around his middle. His green tie clashes with his shirt, which is the colour of old bread.
He talks about the company. He is an unfamiliar entity to me, and so I don’t say much. The office is ringed with open shelves, stacked with folders, bristling with papers. His coffee mug leaves a moist ring on the laminate surface of his desk. The room smells like dust and stale biscuits.
“Well!” he says, standing up. “I bombarded you with a lot of information. Hope you can remember everything!”
I stand up too, smile, and say thank you.
“Ah, you’ll be right. You young Chinese girls, I know you. You’re all extremely smart. Especially at maths!”
He grins expectantly at me. I think he thinks he’s paid me a compliment.
I smile and nod and say thank you again.
Like a snail, I drag a mountain of stuff with me wherever I go.
I have all sorts of stuff. It fills rooms. It wedges wardrobe doors open. It transforms the backs of cupboards into a black hole of forgotten condiments and expired food. I scour the shops in search of storage solutions: more stuff to solve the problem of stuff.
There’s the Stuff They Told Me I Needed. A pair of black boots and a pair of brown boots, because you can’t just have one pair–what if you want to dress down, for god’s sake?! A shiny computer, because to work on that old model would be an abomination, an absolute abomination. A set of $300 headphones, because that song deserves to be heard in high fidelity. It would be wrong otherwise.
There’s the Stuff That’s Supposed To Make Me Beautiful. Oil cleaners and foam cleansers and toners and serums and face masks and BB creams and CC creams. Lash-extending mascara and false eyelashes and lip stain and cheek stain and nail polish. It’s revolutionary technology, until the next revolution.
There’s the Stuff Other People Gave Me Which I Feel Too Guilty To Move On. Keyrings. Souvenirs from Paris from someone else’s trip ten years ago. A book you still haven’t got around to reading, you terrible person. A camera. A diary, unfilled. Sometimes I take out the items and admire their pretty shapes.
There’s the Stuff That Carries the Past. This is the hardest sort of stuff to discard. These items are heavy, even if they’re just pieces of paper. They pull you to the ground and swallow you in memories.
One day, I will peel off all this stuff, layers of it, and slither away like a snake leaving her old, lifeless skin.
Our fathers left their lands to look for better ones.
They left their lands and their loved ones and the lives they had built up around nice jobs and nice houses and the corner-shop snacks of their childhood. They went overseas, often alone at first. Searching for new homes and small money. Trading in the clunky words of a new language, trying not to look the fool. Modern day scouts for their fledgling families.
The weapons of our fathers were moderation and caution. For their families, it was better to have a safety net than an SUV. They learnt to calculate when not to take risks and when to hold their tongues. Because they could not rise in the ranks of a foreign company through youth or charm or eloquence or appearance, they learnt to put their heads down and swallow racism and work hard and complain little.
They weathered anxiety so that we would not have to. They absorbed worry, turned it over and over silently, wore it down. Buried it deep, heaped it over with other things. Traded their dreams for their children’s.
Our fathers put their cultural memories into a little box that they brought with them to the new land, and sometimes opened. The children laughed, thinking that there was no use for such things in this new, loud, opportunistic place. We dismissed their wariness, not knowing that it allowed us to survive, and ventured bravely forth into the world, believing it is ours.
The new girl was plump, gloriously plump, in a way that made Angie, who had always craved thinness, want to be just as full and shapely. The new girl had apple-round cheeks that tapered to a dainty chin. Her nails were painted gold and sat like gems embedded in her fleshy fingers. She had the sort of fingers that you liked to watch kneading dough, or braiding hair, or handling jewellery.
She neither flaunted nor hid her body. Her jeans followed the expanses of her buttocks and hips and fell cleanly to her ankles. Her fitted black top hugged the swells of her breasts and tummy. She wore the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, revealing chubby, smooth forearms and a bracelet from which dangled the letter J.
Angie watched as the new girl lifted her chin and laughed. The small of her lower back made a letter C, rising into the softness of shoulders, the softness of chestnut curls. Angie felt the corners of her own mouth tugging into a smile.