My mother calls her arrival in Australia ‘the years of hell’. In one story, she worked at the dry cleaners for a thousand unbroken days. By happy accident, she never left. Thanks to Bob Hawke’s tearful tribute, she stumbled into citizenship after 1989, the winner of a grisly scratchcard along with some forty thousand other Chinese. To this day, she votes Labor.
‘感恩,’ she calls it. Gratitude.
Her earliest memory of Australia is the milk: aisles and aisles of it in the supermarket. She had a litre a day, raising a milk carton metropolis by the rubbish bin. That is why I came out so healthy.
Eventually, I made my own pilgrimage. Met the cool gaze of the Chairman at the Gate of Heaven’s Pacification, where so many cries had floated up to his red balcony three decades before. Cries that contained worlds, lit by so many brief candles. It was a blistering summer, even by Australian standards.
Non-radicals and bright ‘follow me’ flags spilled through the square. Our tour guide said he couldn’t wait to quit (though he said everything with a half-smile that dared you to disbelieve him).
Of all the disturbing artefacts in Louisa Lim’s 《The People’s Republic of Amnesia》, the one that disturbs me most is the portrait of the man who drinks milk.
His name is 张铭. He is not much younger than my mother. Not much older than me, when he joined the protests. A friend dragged him into it. They squatted in the square past midnight. Mere hundreds, for now, of the young and unfulfilled. Lungs so unfilled that hope stretched them open like red balloons. Lung-packed ribcages, rattling like bottles in a bag. Lit up like a choir.
张铭 stepped in not because he was radical, but because he was frustrated. Automobiles outpace the fastest humans by running on hot air. The protesters, he thought, were wasting theirs. He saw the moving parts and wanted to optimise them.
For that, he stumbled onto the Chinese state’s most wanted list. Paid the price in a cell in the Lingyuan Motor Vehicle Industrial Corporation. A terribly fitting fate for an automobile engineering student.
He emerged after a total of seven years in gestation.
Louisa Lim paints a portrait of an alien. Blown out of glass, the kind that shatters from cold water. He sipped milk while she burnt her tongue with tieguanyin and clumsy questions. Only later did she dig up an Asia Watch report that described the torture.
And then—the fasting.
At first, they bound him to the bed, where he lay gagging for 113 hours. Then he struck a deal: drink milk in exchange for being untied. A deal with the devil.
He kept up his end of the bargain, like a newborn. An emaciated Benjamin Button.
By the time of his release, he had been drinking milk for 21 months. His stomach no longer processed solids. He had weaned himself off human food. The elusive elixir was distilled at last.
I imagine him clinking through the streets of Jilin, two pairs of eyes glistening like the seaport escape route he never reached. Like the bottles in his bag, half-dozen of them, sloshing white. Cross-examining past and present. A skeleton with a long, long shadow.
Torturous, to be sure. The way elixirs are.
Sunlight wakes the dust on the kitchen countertop. I wrap up globs of self-pity in white flour-skins and steam them gently, the way my mother showed me, and call this poetry. Along the top shelf, water droplets wobble like glass fingers. Reaching for earth. My housemate finds me deflated on the carpet. Flimsy as a scratchie. Tangled in the barbed wire of causality. Neither of us drink cows’ milk for the same reason my mother sends milk powder to her grandnephews. At first, on principle. Then, out of habit. When I finish painting 张铭’s picture for her, the carpet is soaked with alien vomit.
Am I grateful enough yet? If it were my turn to fill in a form, I would claim two sets of items: model minority trophies and hand-me-down stitches, as good as new with a spritz of perfume. Richly processed at the shores of the country. These are the reliably popular flavours, after all—quality aliens and legible suffering. As then journalist Tony Abbott argued, ‘we have to judge them worthy of coming.’
At night, I lie awake scrolling. An acquaintance’s research 《Australia’s Tiananmen Generation》 busts the myth of Hawke’s tearful promise and asks why he is the star of the story. By four am I’ve landed on the profile of a Parisian-born ‘breatharian’. After seeing a documentary called Living on Light, he converted to a diet of sunlight and liquids. 张铭 might not be pleased to discover that he has earthly company after all.
Back in high school, a friend dragged me to an environment club meeting. For a time, we were the leaders, strutting around the vegetable garden in oversized blazers. Today, when I pinch my soft, fleshly arms in the hallway mirror, I cannot find a radical bone to rattle. Nor am I an engineer. All I have in my lungs is an asthmatic, futile gratitude towards such immortals across the ocean who drink milk, who paid for the lottery of my birth with their bodies.
Maybe when I grow old enough, I will be glad I failed to win the elixir. Maybe by then, I will have found more fruitful accounts to which I can redirect my debts.
Or maybe I am not quite young enough to have struck upon my milk, my forever feast.
As my mother would say, I won’t know what it tastes like till I try it.
Abbott T (8 June 1990) ‘Chinese Fiasco Must Never Happen Again’, Australian.
Asia Watch (1 September 1992) ‘China: Political Prisoners Abused in Liaoning Province China: Political Prisoners Abused in Liaoning Province as Official Whitewash of Labor Reform System Continues’.
Human Rights Watch (1 January 1991) Human Rights Watch World Report 1990—China.
Lim L (2014) The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Oxford University Press, New York.
Wang T (November 2020) ‘Australia’s Tiananmen Generation: Politics, the Public and Posterity’, Honours thesis, Australian National University.
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