I have an accent, and when Australians first meet me, they often want to know if I am American or Canadian. Then, because of my looks, they want to know whether I am part Asian. And then they want to know how long I’ve lived here, in Australia.
I tell them: Canadian, half Burmese, half European, and eighteen years in Melbourne. That’s when they finally ask, ‘So, do you feel like an Australian?’
I know what they’re getting at. I just don’t know how to answer them.
I lived in London for thirteen years but do I consider myself English?
I grew up in Ottawa and spent four years living in Toronto, but while I still think of myself as Canadian, eighteen years is a long time and Australia is also part of who I am.
I was born in Rangoon, Burma, and I often describe myself as Burmese because that is how I look, with my dark skin and dark eyes, but I don’t speak the language and in Yangon (the new name for Rangoon) nobody thinks of me as anything but a westerner.
If I was being accurate, I would call myself Australo-Anglo-Canadiano-Burmeseo. But I can barely remember all that, let alone say it without running out of breath. Most of the time, I bob along, fitting in and being different, all at the same time. It’s only when I think about it, like as I write this, that I stop to ask myself all over again: What does it mean to fit in? What does it mean to be different?
The first time I remember asking these questions was back when I was in Grade Two and a new kid, Ashok, joined my class at Blackburn Hamlet Elementary School, in a suburb of Ottawa, Canada. Our teacher, Mrs. Banton, introduced him just before show and tell; a skinny boy with great big, blinky eyes, from a place called Ceylon (which is what Sri Lanka used to be called).
Ceylon, Mrs. Banton told us, was just below India, part of the continent of Asia.
Asia! I thought excitedly. I knew where Asia was because I was born in Burma, also in Asia. And so, because Ashok was from the same faraway part of the world as me, and because I was still relatively new to the school and hadn’t found any real friends, I made a beeline for him as soon as the bell went for recess. I introduced myself as we changed our classroom slippers for our rain boots and together we walked out into the playground.
Away from the classroom, Ash was no longer a blinky-eyed, shy kid, but a seven-year-old bad-ass. He told me he was only in Ottawa for a little while and missed his school in Ceylon because of the tricks he and his classmates used to play on teachers — throwing pebbles at their backs, making animal noises in class. ‘And when they turn around, we pretend nothing has happened. The teachers are scared,’ he boasted.
I had certainly never tasted peanut butter and jelly together. My parents had peanut butter and onion sandwiches instead, equally disgusting
I was impressed. Our teachers roamed the playground, their heads so high up you could barely tell where they were looking, let alone what they were feeling. I certainly wouldn’t throw things at their backs or make animal noises to test them. Ash seemed daring and super cool.
Ash then showed me his best trick. He flipped up his eyelids, exposing the bloody undersides, and rolled his eyeballs back into his head. Painful red-pink eyelids contrasted with bluey-white eyeballs contrasted with dark brown skin. The effect was awesome, like a zombie, or Lurch on The Addams Family, my favourite TV show. I went ‘eeewwww’ in total admiration.
It was the awesomeness that made me careless. Only when Ash was flipping his eyelids back to normal did I realize that we were being circled by the gang. And that things were about to go wrong.
The gang was the de facto authority of the playground. Sure, teachers were on patrol, stopping fights and enforcing school rules, but it was the gang who kept kids in their rightful place. They ruled by the power of social judgement based on taste and an understanding of how things ought to be. They relegated the farmers’ daughters and sons from the asphalted centre of the playground to the grassy bits under the climbing equipment, now soggy as winter drew near. They pushed the socially irredeemable out to the perimeter fence, where the water tank and garden shed were. (Incidentally, I’d once licked this water tank in mid-winter because it was pink and frosty and looked like a giant icy pole. My tongue froze solid to the metal tank and I was stuck there for the whole of recess, finally forced to rip my tongue away when the bell went, leaving most of my tastebuds behind.)
Gang members were a microcosm of the new suburb of Blackburn Hamlet, built on what had until recently been farms and before that, First Nation Odawa land. They were tow-haired kids with freckled noses who spent their holidays camping, who brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school, or soft squares of cheese individually wrapped in plastic. If you refused to comply with their verdicts, you got a nickname. Like Stinky Stephanie, wild-eyed, messy-haired Stinky Stephanie who roamed the very farthest reaches of the cyclone fence. Nobody wanted to be like her, least of all me.
Canada was all I knew. Burma, the land of my birth, was more of a mystery
I lived in Blackburn Hamlet, too, in the same suburban crescents, courts and cul-de-sacs as members of the gang, but I never considered trying to join them. I had no idea what going camping was like. My family went on car trips for our vacations, to Montreal and Quebec City and Granby Zoo, staying in motels and taking part in what my mother called the ‘Learning to be Canadian’ project. I had certainly never tasted peanut butter and jelly together. My parents had peanut butter and onion sandwiches instead, equally disgusting. And my father refused to allow that plastic-wrapped, orange pseudo-cheese anywhere near our fridge. But even though these things seemed glamorous to me, they weren’t alien. Canada was all I knew. Burma, the land of my birth, was more of a mystery. It was my mum and dad who needed to learn to be Canadian. I just was.
And yet, I was also different. We had a yellowing clipping from the Ottawa Citizen, the local newspaper, on display at home to prove it. It was an interview with me and my mum, and had a big picture of us at the top. We had been interviewed because we were the first migrants from South-East Asia to arrive in the city. The reporter wrote that ‘the baby’s preferred food is rice!’ But, despite that exclamation mark, I had long grown out of loving rice. Apart from the brownness of my skin, I couldn’t work out what about me was so very different. I worried that I didn’t really know how to be different. That was another reason why I was fascinated by Ash and desperate to be his friend. He knew what it was like to live in Ceylon, he was an Asian. For him, being different was effortless, and a badge of distinction.
It was this distinction that also attracted the gang. The new kid from Ceylon was a novelty and as the rulers of the playground, they should have been the first to hear about the taunting of teachers, to view the zombie-eyeballs trick and to be told where and what Ceylon was so that they could judge it. But instead, I was monopolising him in a way that made it hard for them to break in. On the other hand, Ashok and I were both from the same part of the world so it was logical for us to seek each other out and hang together; it appealed to the gang’s sense of order. One thing was certain: recess was short and action was necessary. I could feel the gang debating, making plans, circling until they finally came to rest a few feet away.
Jane, the leader of the day, marched over, and wasted no time in putting their plan into action.
‘Did you know your boots are on the wrong feet?’ she demanded of me.
This was a genius move. Every self-respecting seven-year-old knew how to tell their left shoe from their right shoe. Except me. Time and time again, my mother would put my left shoe beside my left foot and right shoe beside my right foot. She would trace the outside curve of my left foot with her finger and then retrace that same shape on the outside of the left shoe to show me how they were similar. But as soon as she stopped tracing, I could no longer see the sameness or the difference. Especially not with my lace up shoes, which fit closely to my feet. Not with my white patent leather strappy party shoes either. And definitely not with my black gumboots, which looked identical to each other. Even now, as an adult, I still mistake the right gumboot for the left and vice versa. So, when Jane accused me of getting the feet wrong, I didn’t even bother looking down as I would have no clue whether or not she was correct.
Who was I? Where was I from? How many brothers and sisters did I have? How many pets? And why was my skin brown? Was I an Indian?
Mixing up left and right boots was humiliating in another way. When I’d arrived at the school, I’d been surrounded by the gang and interrogated, just as they were about to do to Ash. Who was I? Where was I from? How many brothers and sisters did I have? How many pets? And why was my skin brown? Was I an Indian?
I told them: Michelle, moved here from the city, one brother, one sister, no pets, and my skin was brown because I was from Burma.
Burma! Ta dah! I thought they’d be impressed like the reporter from The Citizen. I thought they’d ask me questions which I would answer cleverly, earning their lifelong respect. But they weren’t impressed, and they didn’t ask me questions. Instead, one of the kids pointed out that my boots were on the wrong feet. And rather than admit that I didn’t know how to work out right from left, I said, ‘In Burma, nobody needs to tell left from right.’
This was not just a lie, but also a mistake. The lie made my stomach clench as soon as I said it. And I paid for the mistake almost instantly because some kid piped up. ‘That’s right. They cannot tell left from right because they are poor and have no education.’
No, wait, what?
‘Yes,’ said another kid, ‘and they don’t have clean water to drink ...’
‘… and they live in grass huts,’ — a terrible thing in the land of aluminum siding.
The gang kids were speaking with such authority, and I had such limited actual knowledge of Burma, I felt that I couldn’t contradict them. If I did, I would just show my ignorance of the place I was born and make things worse. Then came the clincher.
‘Your country is backward. That is why you came here. This country used to be backward. Countries take it in turns.’
Backward? Was that what different really meant? Was that what made grass huts worse than aluminum siding?
Of course, I know now that this was totally bogus. If I didn’t know much about Burma, then those kids in the gang knew even less. What they were spouting were stereotypes — over-simplifications and generalisations used to define people and places. Stereotypes are what people fall back on when they don’t know about something. Stereotypes feel like knowledge. But they’re not. Knowledge takes effort. You have to try to see things as they are. You have to go beyond the general and the superficial to the specific. You have to seek out or experience things beyond the confines of the everyday.
That is why we were all so fascinated by Ash. He had knowledge of a faraway place, outside all of our experience. This is the power of difference. It was this power I was drawing on when the gang had interrogated me. I had thought I could exploit their ignorance by pretending that the Burmese didn’t even know left from right because I didn’t know left from right. Instead I’d betrayed my mother and branded myself backward as well.
So, when Jane asked me if I realised my boots were on the wrong feet, she had me at my most vulnerable. I was embarrassed by the ‘backwards’ label that I felt I had brought on myself. Worse, Ash was watching. I didn’t really know what to do. All I could think of was to simply say, ‘Thank you.’
Amazingly, ‘thank you’ worked. Jane hadn’t been expecting that and surprised, retreated back to the gang. But I knew I’d only bought myself some time.
Sure enough, it was only a minute or two before Jane came marching back.
‘Well, are you going to change them? Your boots?’
The gang members moved in, keen to hear what I would say.
‘Yes.’ I replied. But I didn’t bend down to do it.
Janet Caster, that day’s second in command, stomped forward.
‘Maybe she can’t change them. Maybe she needs our help.’
I definitely did not want their help. I wanted them to go away. But it didn’t look like they would. I glanced at Ash. Did he suspect he had made a fatal error in going with the first overture of friendship? The gang closed in tighter.
‘I can change them myself,’ I insisted. To prove it, I bent over and started tugging.
The problem was gumboots are not just hard to put on, they’re even harder to pull off. Especially if you’ve got them on the wrong feet. If you’re trying to remove them while still standing in them and attempting to seem like a worthy person to be friends with, well you have no chance. I tugged hard at those boots but they wouldn’t budge. Ash was clearly thinking he’d wasted his zombie eyeballs on me. Finally, Jane and Janet could stand it no longer.
‘Let us help you.’ Jane bent over and grabbed my right foot (or maybe it was my left). Janet bent over and grabbed the other. They both pulled. I fell over onto my back. There was a cry of alarm from the gang. Pushing people over was exactly what attracted the attention of the teachers. But Jane and Janet were committed. They had to keep going. They tugged harder until, with a sucking sound, one boot and then the other came off. Jane and Janet then exchanged boots and put them on the correct feet.
‘Thank you,’ I called out, lying there on my back, my feet still sticking straight up in the air. It was my final attempt at dignity and retaining Ash’s good opinion. But the gang had already moved on. My Singhalese friend was already in their midst. I heard their collective ‘eeewwww’ as he flicked back his eyelids to reveal zombie eyeballs.
And then the bell went for the end of recess.
I slunk back to class and then, at lunch, slunk off to the edges of the playground, where I sat alone. Not even Stinky Stephanie would keep me company.
Ash ran with the gang for the rest of that day and part of the next. But the day after, he was sitting on his own at the edge of the playground as well. We glanced at each other, but that was all. Friendship was no longer an option. The whole boot incident had just been too embarrassing.
Fast forward through the rest of primary school, through middle school and high school and all those years of slavish conformity, to university in Toronto: a bigger city and a time of life when being different was what you wanted to be because it made you interesting (although it turned out that interesting was sometimes just another way to be the same).
Fast forward through London, the biggest of all the cities I’ve lived in, where what had once been different elsewhere was everyday ordinary on the Tube.
Fast forward to Melbourne, Australia, to Wurundjeri land, and my son’s first day at the inner-city primary school near our house. As I stepped through the school doors, my son’s little hand in mine, I felt like I was stepping back into Blackburn Hamlet Elementary School all those years ago. It was so similar, except where we had asphalt, this playground was covered with AstroTurf and although there was a shed and a water tank, I knew this one would never freeze over to look like icy poles. Most of the kids had surnames like Nguyen and Chin but would once have been Kontis or Katsoumis, and before that, Brady or Byth.
Fast forward to right now. To me sitting here writing this and wondering what how to be different? really means. What do I know now that I didn’t when I was trying to persuade Ashok to be my friend?
You have to be different from something. That something is a measure. And that measure is often what is ‘normal’. Those people who would tell you who you are and where you belong consider themselves, above all else, to be ‘normal’. Maybe they like to think of themselves as upholders of normality for there’s power in being someone who can say, you are the same as and you are different from. Yet there is a power in being different too. It is the power of knowledge, of richness of experience. Of being able to see the world from more than one perspective.
Michelle Aung Thin was born in Rangoon the same year as the coup d’état (1962) and brought up in Canada; she now lives in Melbourne. The Monsoon Bride, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Unpublished Manuscript Fellowship of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2010 and is the product of her PHD in creative writing under the mentorship of Brian Castro. She is the 2017 National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, supported by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Mathew’s Trust. She is writing her second book, which is about returning to Burma, the country of her birth. She currently teaches at RMIT University.
This is an extract from the book Meet Me at the intersection edited by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Rebecca Lim (published by Fremantle Press).