For a long time, I was sure the boy had always worn a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, the cartoon stretched over his round belly like extended cling wrap.
His extra weight was important somehow, a possible explanation – at least to my ten-year-old self – as to why his speech was so sluggish. Children knew when other children sounded ‘dumb’ and this knowledge that I was somehow smarter – more evolved – made it easier to dismiss his words in Underwood Park that day.
‘Go back to where you came from.’
Casual, lazy racism. His tongue hadn’t been sharp enough to hit the syllables with bite. It was as if he’d been sipping a Slurpee from 7-Eleven, artificial red staining his teeth.
I am from here. Where are you from? Ha! You sound like a bogan. My English is better than yours.
In truth, I had said nothing. Can’t remember whether he disappeared from the playground or whether I walked away. It was 1996.
Years later when I was a uni student, I saw him again, this time at an Italian restaurant on a Saturday afternoon in the CBD.
Logic could not explain what I was seeing. He was most likely a ghost now, for the boy hadn’t grown, was still chubby, cheeks flush pink from…what? Anger? Frustration? Wind burn from high-speed time travel?
Over in the open kitchen, flames raged in the wood-fired oven.
The ghost, or whatever he was, watched me and my younger sister Fei with suspicion. I held back a snort at his narrowed eyes. This was a boy who, had I conversed with him on first meeting, would probably have put a finger at the corner of each eye and pulled outward, all while quoting a bastardised Chinese takeaway dish. ‘Honey chicken’ or the classic ‘Beef with Black Bean Sauce’.
A waitress with bouncing brown curls came over to take our order, her gingham dress similar to the tablecloth pattern, except with larger squares. She walked straight through the boy.
Fei ordered the lunch special: tortellini carbonara. I went with the chicken scallopini.
The waitress declared these to be great choices before asking us sweetly, ‘Are you enjoying Brisbane?’
After a beat, Fei said ‘absolutely’ with enthusiasm. This seemed to satisfy the waitress, who skipped away after tucking her pencil behind her ear, pinning a curl in place.
I wanted to get up and snatch the pencil. Ask if my citizenship, my life-long residency in Queensland, was as impermanent as a graphite scratching on a notepad.
I tried to ignore the ghost and how he seemed calmer, his eyes unfocused and dreamy as if he’d been hypnotised.
‘Just because the tourists are out in force, doesn’t mean we’re one of them,’ I said to Fei, kicking the table leg. The pepper shaker tottered and fell, rolling before stilling against the table number. ‘We sound more Australian than she does.’
‘Absolutely,’ she repeated, broadening her vowels. ‘Do I sound like Steve Irwin? I was going for Steve Irwin.’
‘Um, I don’t know. Maybe?’
‘Hey, it’s good to know we can pass for rich Asians. You know, like, heiresses from China or Singapore or something.’ She pointed up Edward Street where all the luxury brands had drilled themselves in, gold fillings in the retail precinct’s bite. ‘Buy me some Gucci.’
‘Yeah right. Getting Band 1 results and acceptance into UQ is only good for a free lunch.’
‘Sheesh, only a free lunch?’ She twisted left, right, head lifted in search. ‘I shouldn’t have said no to the wine list.’
I looked around too. The ghost had disappeared.
‘If we’re the only Asians from around here,’ I said, gesturing at the other tables, ‘it’s because no aunty or uncle would pay twenty-seven dollars for a pasta when you can have noodles for seven. Or the instant stuff for a buck –’ I tilted my head, ‘two-fifty from Coles if you can’t get to the oriental store. You’re lucky it’s a special occasion.’
‘You’re so cheap, hey. Like Dad driving all the way to Sunnybank to save three dollars a kilo on grapes, when the petrol and time to get there cancels it out.’
‘It’s the principle. He doesn’t want to get ripped off.’
‘Yeah? Neither do I.’
Fei’s hand shot up. She clicked her fingers to summon the waitress. Ordered a pricey wine. It was 2005.
The Italian restaurant didn’t last for long. It, too, became a ghost. The space it’d inhabited changed hands every eighteen months or so. Was the boy stuck there, trying to shift the scenery to something he was comfortable with? I imagined him playing with the View-Master I got as a birthday present in Year 2 – a red plastic binocular-type toy that came with insertable cardboard discs rimmed with square transparencies. Each time you pressed the lever, the disc rotated to the next image, allowing you to experience a new 3-D colour scene. Landmarks from around the world. Your favourite cartoon. A fairy tale.
The boy would be impatient. Next image, next image, then bingo! An Ipswich fish and chip shop.
The shop was where I imagined him sailing to during the floods in 2011. I saw him for two seconds on a local news report, sitting at the back of a dinghy that was being swept away in flash flooding in Toowoomba, the churning water the colour of rust.
Cut a racist and their insides will be exposed, oxidisation to begin. When the corrosion is complete, science says the rusted mass should disintegrate.
But we Aussies have always been battlers. Can’t give up that easy.
Recently I remembered that the ghost had worn a plain white tee to begin with.
The boy who had worn a Mickey Mouse shirt was a Caucasian boy I’d known in kindergarten – skinny, blue-eyed Joshua. We were reunited by chance last month at a craft beer festival at the Showgrounds, in the so-called VIP tent where a celebrity chef was scheduled to open the event. We had both finagled corporate passes from our respective workplaces, recognising each other from the names on our work lanyards.
Joshua – or Josh – recounted how we used to play on the slide and swings in his backyard before he and his family relocated to Palm Beach. The day he said goodbye, he cried at having to leave the swing set behind, hugging its wooden frame in protest. When pried away, his Mickey Mouse t-shirt caught on a bent nail and ripped. It was 1991.
‘To peak trauma,’ he said as we clinked beer steins. ‘I’m still not bloody over it. It was leaving you, Hui.’
‘Don’t lie – you weren’t hugging me.’
‘I was probably too shy. Couldn’t express my feelings.’
‘Besides bawling your eyes out? I think I remember now: you sobbed so hard you were honking, and my mum said you sounded like a duck, and then your mum was trying not to laugh because it was all sad, and then my mum said “don’t worry, we only eat duck on Tuesdays”, and then your mum laughed so hard she said she peed a little.’
At this, Josh looked forlornly into his beer. ‘Aw come on, I’m drinking here.’
Despite the laughs, the mix-up made me feel queasy all night. It seemed my mind had played a sick joke, as if I was the one guilty of ‘they all look the same’. Who was I to have made this mistake? It didn’t feel right to have made such an egregious error, to superimpose a known marker of this kind person onto a bigot I once met in a park.
‘Don’t cry when I dash off after this,’ I said, giggling.
We were back at his place. I was underneath him and unlikely to be in any state to ‘dash’. The both of us were contentedly drunk, the sweet spot between tipsy and lumbering where gravity has been dialled down just enough for every movement to have a light bounce. His weight was comforting, warm.
He reached into the nightstand drawer for a condom. ‘No crying, I promise. Even though you called me a laowai in front of my colleagues.’
He worked in finance, had heard the reference before.
‘At least I didn’t call you a gweilo.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t have. That’s Cantonese, not Mandarin.’
‘Shit, you’re impressive.’ I wrapped my arms around his neck to pull him in for a kiss. My head spun. ‘No wonder I like you.’
Josh’s place was on the twentieth floor of a new development. With its sweeping view of the river from floor-to-ceiling windows, I could forgive the apartment’s sparsely decorated interior. We kept the curtains open the whole time he had me – in several different positions, mind you. He was quick to doze off after, sated. Meanwhile, I couldn’t fall asleep, afraid the ghost would appear to signal I’d hooked up with a closet racist, a fear that the white boy and the white man were one and the same after all.
The digital alarm clock displayed a time after three. I went over to the window, unclothed. Moonlight shone unfiltered into the bedroom.
No sighting of the ghost.
While I didn’t believe in the mystic force of sex rituals, something had unlocked other long-lost details. I scanned the layout of the bedroom – maybe it was the good feng shui. All the chi flowing unencumbered.
I sobered up to a particular memory. Back in kindergarten, each child was assigned a cartoon picture, printed onto square wooden tiles. The tiles were tied like keychains to our cubby-holes, crayon sets, snack trays, fold-out cots for naptime. My image was a red tractor with a big black wheel. Easy enough, except red-green colour-blind Josh was assigned a dump truck.
Dump truck yellow to him was yellow. But the ‘lucky red’ of my tractor was also yellow. He would sometimes take my snack tray by accident before apologising and sharing his carrot sticks as penance.
Instead of reassigning a new picture for him, the teacher simply wrote ‘Min Hui’ under each tractor. While family names are cited first in Chinese, in the West my name is Hui Min. Yet the teacher called me Min as my first name every now and then, at times even being corrected by other children. She hadn’t taken care to learn and now her ignorance was penned in black marker on everything that was mine to use.
At this tender age I’d already been reversed, all to haul someone else’s problem.
I shared this assessment with Josh when he suddenly roused. Perhaps he’d felt my retrospective fury at this woman.
‘I’m not saying it’s your fault,’ I said, still at the window, now sitting cross-legged on the floorboards. ‘And sure, it was pure chance that I had the tractor that in your early childhood brain looked like a dump truck –’
‘I was probably just trying to sit with you at snack time,’ he said groggily. ‘An excuse.’
‘Really?’ My hand went to my collarbone. What was I clutching exactly? Invisible pearls? ‘I thought you were genuinely confused. You should’ve been more obvious if you liked me.’
‘Yeah, I was pretty obvious tonight.’
We burst into laughter that harmonised even when raucous.
He propped himself up. ‘Are you coming back to bed or were you serious about me only being a test, representing all laowais? Is that the plural? Ah wait, no S. Just laowai. That’s it: I am the one for all.’
‘That’s goddamn poetic right there, Prince Charming.’
Outside, the Story Bridge twinkled like fairy lights strung up in a backyard. Inside, I contemplated leaving as originally planned – keep things casual, cushion expectations. In the end, I slept comfortably on top of the covers until the early afternoon.
When I told Fei about the encounter the following Friday night over cocktails, she checked if I knew gweilo was a derogatory term compared to the more neutral laowai.
‘Of course I know that.’ I shuddered. ‘I wasn’t going to call him a pale devil ghost white man. Not in that situation.’
‘Why are you translating like that?’
‘Like you’re in a lucky fun happy dragon palace.’
‘Is that where you keep all your boyfriends?’
She slugged me with her Gucci purse.
While waiting for our friends, we relocated from the bar to a small table in the front section. On the way I caught a glimpse of the street. Edward Street. The boy – or just a boy? – waiting at a bus stop.
The back of him – white t-shirt, blond hair – was there one second. Then all of him gone, my view blocked by the stream of revellers, the next bus emblazoned with an ad for Channel 7’s coverage of the Tokyo Olympics.
I asked Fei if she remembered the waitress from the Italian restaurant that used to exist down the road.
‘What place?’ she replied. ‘Jamie’s Italian?’
‘No, that’s still there. The place I took you after you got into UQ.’
‘Oh my God, yeah.’ She held me in suspense, sipped her cosmopolitan. ‘Homegirl couldn’t pronounce aglianico. She used a hard G. Like in Agro. Do you remember Agro, the rude puppet with the unibrow? Hosted cartoons on Channel 7?’
‘I’m older than you, of course I remember. And now that I think about it, that red was like thirty dollars a glass, thank you very much.’
Two white men approached from my left. I tried to avoid eye contact but their greetings were offered anyway: a bombastic ‘konnichiwa’ from one man, and a forty-five degree bow from the other. I went rigid, as if having my height measured. I imagined myself up against a flood marker, like the ones in Rockhampton on the Fitzroy, disaster years in bold. Over ten metres in 1918. Over nine in 2011, 1991, 1954. To be honest, I’d only heard about 1918 and 1954 when 2011 was happening. That was the problem with marking time; it didn’t necessarily measure recovery, nor the damage done in the first place.
Was this ghost ever going to grow up? Whatever purgatory the ghost was in, he was not alone there. But this was 2020, and I’d be damned if I didn’t impose my own justice.
As Fei tried to ignore the advances of the two sleazes, I held my hand out and said the magic words, ‘Go back to where you came from.’
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