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Chapter 12: Between Worlds
By Doug Posted in Term 2 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 12 min read
Chapter 11: Just Passing Through Previous Chapter 13: Hard Jokes Next

Bleak City, Sydneysiders call us. And they’re not wholly wrong. Bad lighting, omnipresent cloud cover, grey half the year, sideways rain. That drabness that hides the quiet beauty of gardens and old vine-covered brick walls, treelined streets and alleyways. I step over a drowned worm in a storm drain, half flattened, and hasten towards the school’s warmth.

Paul is rubbing his hands to keep warm as he walks from the bus stop. He’s wearing the Melbourne winter uniform of a puffy jacket. The Eid feast ending Ramadan  is coming up and he’s looking forward to eating properly. “You know, during Eid, everyone has the right to knock at your door and be fed,” he says. “My aunty in Malaysia has bought 40 kilos of lamb in case.”

As we walk to school, Paul talks for the first time of his family’s wealth, of his self-made maternal grandfather who came from a poor village and moved to Kuala Lumpur where he made his millions with a fruit juice and bus empire. And of his father, a top manager at a multinational, a progressive German who hates his home country. “Too many conservatives there,” Paul says. I thought it was comparatively liberal, I say. Paul shakes his head. “Not everywhere.”

The world Paul moves through feels new to me – the global-Muslim. Another aunty lives in the north of Norway. There, Ramadan always falls in late spring as the days get longer, moving towards the weeks of midnight sun. What do you do if you can only eat from sundown to sun-up – and the sun is almost always up? The answer is to fudge it. Live on Meccan time, regardless of what’s happening outside. Paul’s uncle runs a construction company in Turkey. During Ramadan, he lets the workers come in from dusk till dawn to avoid deaths from working without water in the searing heat.

A clutch of the Horn girls pass us as we walk the corridors, laughing about the inappropriate English teacher they had a while back. “Hey Paul – remember how when she found out you’re Muslim, she said – oh that’s unfortunate,” Zahra sings out. Paul grins. “I do. Do you remember when she saw an African boy in a hoodie and shouted down the hallway – lookout, terrorist – as if it was a joke?”

It sounds like she wasn’t well suited to this school, I say, grasping for Something To Say. Zahra considers this. “Hmm. She actually wasn’t a bad person. She just didn’t edit herself. Hey – Fatima – remember how she looked to us for emotional support after her cat died?” And on it goes, swapping stories, uproarious laughter.

In the common room, everything is normal, which means Dalmar and Zahi are holding Kevin’s hands tightly and pushing his face into Vietnamese rice laced with pungent shrimp paste that one of the Vietnamese boys brought from home.

Paul takes up residence at the Vietnamese table – three boys, three girls – and immediately begins quizzing them on their heritage and why they don’t look Vietnamese. To Daniel, he says he looks more Filipino. Daniel raises a brow. “Really?” To a girl in austere glasses and a severe fringe: “You look more Korean.” She takes that as a compliment.  Another girl chimes in: “People think I look Japanese.” Paul assesses her clinically. “Yes, the fair skin,” he says. Then the Viet crew turn the tables. Why doesn’t Paul look more Malay?

Paul laughs. “When people speak Malay I can’t understand. But I do feel more Malay than European.” Daniel keeps going. “When you first came, we thought you were Colombian.” Paul looks surprised. “Really? The skin, huh?” One of the girls jumps in. “I thought you looked half-caste – half Asian, half white.” Paul inspects his arm. “Hmm. Strangely, my skin is quite dark. Pure Malays aren’t that dark.” Another girl isn’t sure of this conversation topic. “Is it inappropriate to talk about skin tone?” she asks, diffident. Paul shrugs. “Not if it’s true.”

Truth then. Daniel keeps it up, making jokes that aren’t quite jokes. “You’re getting too fat,” he chortles to one of the girls. She throws him shade. “At least my eyes aren’t too small for your face,” she snaps back. Then she plucks at her stomach. “Anyway, this isn’t fat. It’s just chub.” I blink a couple of times. That openness about looks, common across Asia. I remember visiting Korea and being shocked at how people would rate themselves and others. I’m very fat today, people would say. Or: I need eyelid surgery to get a good job. Or: You’re too fat for your age, Doug. (True, but ouch.) Or: You look quite bad with that haircut. (Ditto). In Seoul, I met a shy young woman whose parents paid for her to get eyelid surgery before university, the designated time to find your lifetime mate. The surgery went off without a hitch and she returned to the world, as wide-eyed as an anime character. At university, she was deluged in male attention. She absolutely hated it. She was an introvert with the tacked-on mask of an extrovert. Now her face didn’t match her personality. “I wish I could undo it,” she told me. “Too late.”

The skin-colour comparison session winds to a close, and Paul is suddenly alone. It’s curious – he can go between most groups, courtesy of being Muslim and not-too-Muslim, brown-skinned and Westernised, rich at a middling school. Often, it seems like he says things because he can – because he’s in a position that lets him do so. He reminds me of a friend whose South African heritage makes him brown enough to dare to impersonate an Indian at parties – even in front of actual Indians. Brown enough to claim to be Aboriginal when asked where he’s from, Aussie enough to hold his interrogator’s gaze for long moments until they’re the one who feels uncomfortable, feels the ground become unsteady. Till they’re the one who backs away.

Later, I see Paul is back with the Horn group, demolishing his second icypole for the day, heedless of the fact it’s 14 degrees. Hodan chortles. “I see you’re wearing the school rainjacket. Bet you won’t wear it home!” Why, I ask her. “Because he’s too good for this school.” She grins, a hint of unexpected mischief. Hodan is usually reserved. But this – this is too good a chance to pass up. Paul tries to brush it off, but then Kevin jumps in. “Paul is too embarrassed to wear the jacket on the train,” he says, a joke that’s not. Is that right, I ask, smiling. Paul gulps down the last bit of sweet ice and offers a weak excuse. “I’m just worried people don’t know the inner beauty of the school, and how it’s changed.” His friends raise their eyebrows in tandem at this patent bullshit. They know full well he’s a rich kid slumming it, that he could be expensively educated if he so desired.

Aadan: Tug of War

As the term winds to a close, winter suddenly intensifies. Melbourne at its most indoors. How much of our reputation as cultural capital is due to cold driving people inside, I wonder. Outside, a bitter cold, the wind that cuts through all cloth. In the corridors, it feels like we’re stuck on a ship together. Everything smells like wet dog. Kids huddle in the library, where the heating is best.

In the common room, Aadan is ranting about his English teacher. “She let Maria, the self-appointed Queen of the School, choose a topic for her oral assessment. But she made me argue for gay marriage, made me argue for it.” How would you argue if it were up to you? “I’m not for it, not against it,” he says, uneasy. He heads to the kettle to heat water for his noodles. Over mee goreng, Aadan casts a sidelong glance, making sure his friends are out of the room.

Then he turns to me. In a low voice, he tells me that soccer’s just a fantasy. His real dream is different. He’s wanted to be a policeman ever since he was a small boy. “I want to be a cop, not an A+ student – if I did, I could have,” he says. Why a cop, I ask, intrigued. He shrugs. “I just really like the idea.”

You should, I say – you’re fit, physical, good with people. He grimaces. There’s a hitch. “I dunno. They’ll want me to snitch on my community.” Ah, I say. Them and us, right? He nods. But what if the police force is all white? What if there wasn’t anyone from other backgrounds? Wouldn’t that make it worse? He makes a face. He wants to apply, wants to go to the academy in Glen Waverley, wants to be one of the first African faces there. But he’s caught, trapped between worlds. You’d be great, I say, but Aadan wants to drop the topic. “See ya,” he says.

As he walks away, I watch him. What a bind to be in. All his bombast and puffery, his talk of traplords, his play with knives, his mock-threats and revenge – this is show, borrowed from YouTube rap videos, the repertoire of African-American responses to white majority society. But young African men and a white police force – not an easy fit. It is no wonder he’s kept this secret – so secret that his female friends worry, instead, that he might be drawn to drugs and crime.

As I head for home, something Fatima told me early on the year comes back to me. As she moved into her teens, her older male cousins would tell her stories of how they had been harassed by police a decade back, during an earlier spike in tension. “They had stories of the police catching them, of actually beating them up,” she said. “That’s real. And even now, when you see your mate getting stopped by the police because he’s black, you feel like we need to stay firm and stand together.”

Even now, Fatima regularly sees cops stopping groups of African boys to ask them questions. Where are they going? What are their names? Not up to mischief, are you? “You see this a lot,” she told me, shaking her head. Then she considered the problem from another angle. “From their perspective, I guess it seems intimidating, the fact we’re moving around as a group.” She raised her shoulders helplessly. “It’s like we’re in a constant tug of war with the police.”

She’s exactly right – and that tug of war, the tension on the rope, the push-pull – that’s where Aadan is, trapped between his mates and their suspicion of white cops, and the fantasy life he conjured up as a boy, watching cop shows and dreaming of that thrilling existence.

That night, I escape the gravitational vortex of small children and ride as fast as I can for a drink at a bar. Freedom is wind in your hair, the lifting away of responsibility. The way you feel after a day’s hike when you first take off your pack – weightless. My friend is there first. We play chess and swap stories. “So have you cracked the school yet,” he asks. “Are you in?” I nod. I’m no longer an outsider. The kids – my kids – are opening up to me. The vulnerabilities beneath their teenage shells – the rawness of it, as they shed their skins, as they try new selves. “So why do you look so uncomfortable? Is it that you’re not really meant to be there?” I grin awkwardly. One of his skills is needling his friends, dodging defences and finding flesh. 

“Almost right,” I say. As the kids have opened up, I feel more and more caught. If someone had pinned me to the page at 17, it would have been true for a little while – and then a permanent memento of cringe. A year later, will these dramas matter? High school feels like forever. But I know it’s just a blip, that afterwards life accelerates, hard, that the person you were is not the person you will be. “You’re wondering if these are your stories to tell,” he observes. I pause, then nod.

Afterwards, I head home, trying to get back before midnight. It’s a school night and I’ll be dragged out of bed at six by my small excitable son. As I get back to familiar streets and switch onto tipsy autopilot, I think again about the conversation. And just as I’m at my driveway, a thought scuds past. These stories matter because they matter now. They are true now, even if they will not be true forever. I’ve more or less stopped changing – the mould is set. But these kids – they are still in motion.  

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