The school’s international students – meaning
Chinese – sit under another tree nearby. Many boast on-trend Korean-inspired
streetwear, black long sleeved tops with stark white logos, flowing pants, the
look that works well in Swanston Street’s rooftop bars and karaoke joints where
Asian-Australian scions play. It seems odd in treelined suburbia. Other kids
wear tracksuits with a cacophony of patterns, bleach-blond hair or hair pulled
into high samurai topknots, austere glasses or expensive sunnies. There’s a
round of polite applause from them, and I notice a couple of weeabos – white
geeks drawn to Asian culture – join the group.
We sit there in companionable silence watching
the Asian kids talk and the African boys erupting into horseplay on the track.
A girl plonks herself down next to us. “Hi,” she says. Southern European
parents, I’d guess. Sharp chin, sharp eyes, activewear. Alex, the chancer,
immediately plunges in. How did she win so many ribbons? “I’m fit from karate
and taekwondo,” she says. “I used to do ballet but I got over that. Not useful.
I got beat up by boys in primary school when I stood up for my friend – so I decided
I had to learn to defend myself.” She watches the African boys as they laugh
and chase and wrestle along the track. “Those idiots are fighting again,” she
says. Alex shrugs. “It’s just play.”
When she moves off, Alex sets me a test.
“How’s your research going,” he asks. Too early to say, I tell him, in my best
pseudo-expert voice. He raises his eyebrows, unimpressed. “Huh. Tell me – what
can you see?” he asks. I look across the track and stands. I tell him I see
distinct groups and lots of mingling. He seems disappointed by my lack of
vision. Give me a hint? He relents. “It’s easy. The banter.” He points out the
social flows – how people move in and out of groups that don’t match their skin
colour. It’s clear that to him, my curiosity is pointless. There is nothing to
see here – only people hanging out, with culture no issue. And then, to make it
totally obvious, he plunges into the Asian group – buffeting one, tackling
another, to worried laughter. They know him but how well? Alex barges between a
Chinese boy and girl flirting gently, teasing each other – and brute-forces the
issue. “Sunny! You should ask him out,” he says to the girl, to simultaneous
scarlet blushes and an immediate end to any further contact. Everything is
simple and everyone is the same and colour and culture are no issue and Alex is
showing me this in these demonstrations of How We All Get Along. But there’s
something else here, in how the politeness of the international Chinese runs up
against his willingness to breach their norms, how their smiles are wary
placeholders, how his physical Eastern-Euro macho attacks are confronting.
After Alex’s public demonstration ends, he takes off, satisfied. His work here is done. I stay to talk to Percy, a Malay-Chinese guy with clear dark eyes. “I was very nervous when I came two years ago,” he says. “This was my first Western country and people are so different here. I’d never met foreigners before. It took months to feel comfortable.” Was it that different? He inclines his head, draws air through his teeth. “It’s a good question. Western people aren’t scared to express their opinion – they say what they want to say, and say it out loud,” he says. Then he recasts that, aware it might sound critical. “I mean, they care what people feel but they say the truth. They don’t keep it in their heart or mind. Asians keep it inside. They care about other peoples feelings and don’t want to make someone upset.” Intrigued, I ask him if he’s experimented with speaking openly, Western-style. He gives a slight nod. “I’ve tried to express my feelings more. It feels strange at first, but you get used to it. I haven’t gone too far though.” Percy’s good friends are all Chinese background, and most are very similar – overseas Chinese from South-East Asia. He has Anglo and African friends but doesn’t see them outside school. When you’re new, familiarity matters above all else. And who is to say that’s wrong? Anglo-Australians group together in London, in Hong Kong, in San Francisco. Familiarity is a type of home.
It’s the second last week of term when I meet Kevin.
I’ve seen him around – a redhead, his bomber jacket a size too big, a goofy
smile plastered on his face. He approaches Tim, begging for a spare mee goreng
packet for lunch. Tim stops slurping down his noodles, sighs and fishes out a
packet. “I could make serious money selling mee goreng for a dollar a pop,” he
says. Kevin offers a giant shit-eating grin. And then, in the common room, his
true nature becomes apparent. Kevin is an agent of the God of Chaos.
Kevin has never made instant noodles before,
and undercooks them. “They’re still raw,” he complains to Tim across the room.
This earns him guffaws from Dalmar, Omar and Aadan – such incompetence in one
so old! Dalmar puts the bowl back in the microwave for the correct time. “Two
minute noodles take two minutes,” he calls out with deep sarcasm. Kevin shrugs
it off, gulps noodles from the boiling bowl a little early and burns his mouth
to peals of laughter. And then – somehow – a dirty dishcloth appears and Kevin
swipes it across Cumar’s laptop keyboard, who leaps away, grossed out. And
then, in an instant, chaos. Kevin in a headlock, as Aadan and Omar
pretend-pummel him. Kevin grabbing Dalmar and pushing him down on the table.
Kevin, teaming up with Dalmar and taking on the tall duo. Even Paul, the
studious Eurasian guy, is forced, against his will, to pick a side. The riot of
laughter engulfs everyone, even the kids with their heads in books or laptops.
The girls are sitting outside. “This is where
we catch up on the gossip and intrigues,” Fatima yells. Right now, the outside
table is a small court, and Fatima, sitting like a judge, is hearing a conflict
between two girls. But the court hearing is adjourned when the Kevin show
spills outside and ever more boys pile on, trying to hold Kevin or one of his
erstwhile rivals. The whole farce is building up to a new level of
ridiculousness when the principal and vice principal storm in like it’s a buddy
cop movie and bellow “People. Are. Studying. Here.” Sudden calm, a two-minute
reprieve to allow the authorities to leave, and then, the boys are circling
again. I’ve given up trying to talk to Bree and Tim and watch Kevin – that
perennial smile on his face, shambling, dishevelled, the class clown. Tim
shakes his head. “He is chaos. He
brings it. Ever since he came.” He chuckles. “You know, I had three years of
peace while he was overseas. But now he’s back.” They’re friends, but so
different. Tim seems always calm. His bomber jacket slogan is a psalm from the
Bible. Kevin is the storm.
After everything subsides, Kevin ambles up. Is
it just me, or does chaos follow you around, I ask. He beams. “Always have been
the class clown,” he says. And what a clown, I think, as he heads off to class,
whistling. How fortunate – for what every school needs is people who can move
between groups, who can be the social glue. And even better – the figure of the
knowing buffoon whose delicious incompetence is a gift, a joy.
Tim is watching my reaction with interest.
“Kevin will never admit when he’s wrong, even when he knows he is. He sticks to
his guns. It throws classes into chaos.” He shakes his head. “Sometimes, it’s
I turn to Tim. So how did a devout Christian
end up in a state school, I ask. He tells me he’s Anglican because of his
parents, that he went to church and Sunday school. But it wasn’t till Year 9
that he took a look at his upbringing – and thought yes, I agree. And how has
that changed you, I ask. He bridles unexpectedly. “When you say you’re
Christian, people judge you – they expect you’re somehow a good person just for
being part of the religion,” he says.
And like Bree before him, Tim returns personal
with personal. Why did you go to a private school? Why did you go to Melbourne
University? Isn’t it very snobby? I like this about him – he’s direct. It can
be, I say, grinning – there’s privilege there, a finishing school for elites,
the winks of class, dabbling in rebellion, a heavy eastern suburbs skew and all
subsidised by international students. Tim raises an eyebrow. I tell him about a
Melbourne Grammar party I went to as a teenager where I overheard one of the
Scions of the Elite talking about me. “The private school Doug went to is low
rent, but surprisingly, he’s okay,” the scion said, an air of slight surprise.
Tim curls his lip. The middle class kid deeply unimpressed by the rich. Paul
overhears us. “Malays in Melbourne are very snobby too,” he says. “If you’re
here, you have money. The poor are still in Malaysia.”
At Paul’s table, there’s a nerdy Asian student
with a neat Lego-man haircut. The type of uncoordinated guy whose powers have
been channelled into hand-eye coordination. Rather a lot like me, circa the
same age. He’s wreaking havoc in a shooter on his tablet, a hawklike intensity.
What game you playing, I ask, an overture, a fellow nerd. He stiffens. “No
game,” he says, and tabs out.