Wai Ho  [image: supplied]

Wai Ho


'Excuse me! These are the women's toilets.' The woman uses that too-loud tone white people use when they're talking to someone coloured. As if the darker your skin is, the worse your hearing.

A part of me wants to say 'Solly solly, I no Engrish,' and push past her. Instead I say 'Yeah, I know.' The woman takes another look at this pre-pubescent Chinese boy incorrectly in the women's loos, and sees a masculine-looking Chinese girl in her mid-teens instead.

'Oh oh, I'm so sorry,' she flusters, breaking my gaze.

'It's okay,' I assure her. I have this interaction on a semi-regular basis. The toilet door with a blobby stick person wearing a cape, is actually a gauntlet through which I'm challenged every few weeks.

'Miriam! Why do you like those Samoan boys?! Ai yah! They are so naughty, and not good at school,' Mum intones, folding the washing and yelling to the kitchen from the lounge where my sister is. 'And you should concentrate on study, not have boyfriend, you are too young!'

I roll my eyes at my sister, just before she huffs out the kitchen, not bothering to respond to one of my mother's many commentaries on life.

'Mum! You can't say those kinds of things, they're just racist stereotypes. You know all the stuff that gets said about Chinese people; that we're Triads and people smugglers, we eat cats and dogs, all drive BMWs and are good at maths and table tennis,' I say, setting down a cup of Earl Grey next to her neat piles of washing. 'And Miriam is sixteen, Mum, plenty old enough.'

'Wa? You are good at maths, and we like to play table tennis on Sundays. And why can eat chicken and baby lambs but not dog? Silly gwai lo, dog is like steak.' Mum pauses, blowing on her tea. 'You know, Hannah, when we ate food that was too hot, your Paw Paw would blow air in our mouth to cool it down.' She looks thoughtful, then jumps almost without pause to the previous topic. 'No, sixteen too young for boyfriend! Must study harder. Hannah you know, when you marry, you must marry a white man,' she looks at me pointedly, one arm still within an out-turned cardigan.

Miriam pulls a quizzical face at me. She's entered the conversational hub in the lounge and is ignoring mum, signalled by white earphones in her ears. I know Mum doesn't notice, but I can see those earphones aren't attached to anything. It's a tactic that works, though. Maybe I should try it.

'And you!' she says, waving a rumpled pair of pants at my brother, who's behind Mum's clothes towers in the hope she won't see him, 'You stop always play video game, that's why you are so stupid. Never study. You go study!'

'But I've nearly got ten thousand!' complains my brother, still playing, the tinny video game music joining his protest.

'No need ten thousand, what for? Only silly monkeys jumping on crocodile! Go study now!' she orders, pulling the game from my brother and sitting on it.

'Ah ahahhaa Muummmm! You killed me!' yells Caleb, waving his arms. He glares at her before stalking out. The sad, mechanical death tune from under my Mum's bum, of a monkey being eaten by a crocodile affirms his remark.

'Yes, the white man is better than the Chinese. The Chinese is only think about money! And the white man does not hit their wives,' Mum concludes, looking satisfied by the way she's snapping a pillow case flat. Pillow cases conform nicely to her view of how the world should be.

'Arrggh!' yells my sister and stomps out. I think I should suggest earplugs to her, rather than earphones.

'Muuuum,' I groan, 'You've been watching too many rom coms. White men hit their wives too, that stuff's chronic in this country within all ethnicities. And I told you anyway, I'm not getting married. I like girls.'

'Hmm,' she grunts, 'I don't understand you all. My children are like foreigner.'

I'm sitting at small formica table with faded geometric shapes that look like they're hiding from me. I'm with Aunty Ida, who isn't really our aunty. She's a family friend of our parents, and we've always grown up calling all our parents’ friends Aunty and Uncle so and so. I'm helping her peel the mountain of potatoes and kumara that will be turned into the carb component of the quintessential pakeha roast.

'You know, when we first came here from Penang in the 70s, we didn't know what to expect. I thought about hills and sheep and old English buildings like Cambridge or Oxford. I didn't know what to think when we got here, we were so shocked when all the shops just closed at five o'clock!' she says, quartering a large kumara. 'And they didn't even open on the weekend. What were we meant to eat late at night?! No shops open, no night markets and food stalls. We came here because we think more civilised and progressive, but then we see all the bland colourless food and think, oh dear.'

'Well you must have got on okay with the food, Aunty Ida,' I say, dangling my legs from the plastic stool I'm on, 'I mean, now you have a takeaway shop that sells roast meals.'

'Yes yes yes,' Aunty Ida says, chuckling. 'First we have Chinese takeaway shop because we think our food is more tasty and the Kiwi will like much more than yellow and brown food. But now we have roast shop because four item on menu much easier than seventy five dish! Hahahaha. Actually, roast is very good. I can see why Kiwi like.'

Us kids are bunched close to each other round the dining table. Dad is pacing and glowering as he reads our report cards. It's like an unhappy family dinner, but without the dinner. Mum is perched on a stool on the other end of the table, on a muttering monologue about how Kiwi teachers are too nice, and they say a child's work is good even when it's not. 'How are they to improve if the teacher will not even tell them their work is bad and they have to do better?' she complains to no one in particular.

Miriam looks like she's imitating those painted people who busk on Cuba St, pretending to be statues, and then they move suddenly and scare you. Well, they scare little kids, not me.

Caleb is making tiny sculptures, which look like little pointy curly buildings, out of a blob of blu-tack I tried to stick to one of the ends of his dreadlocks without him knowing. He's actually trying to ignore Dad, but I can see it's not working. He squashes his whole city of buildings with a clenched fist every time Dad says something about him.

I'm trying to transport myself somewhere else. I fail, so I switch to imagining dark, angry cartoon clouds with lightning strikes over Dad's head. Then comic symbols in a thought bubble, for the swear words he's probably thinking, upon reading my brother’s report card. I offered to change the grades for Caleb using those scratch-on letters you can get from the stationery shop. I doctored many of my friend's School Certificate results to save them from the hidings they'd have got otherwise. Works a treat. No one suspects. But my brother thinks it's silly that we're expected to get all A's when B's are fine. I think so too, but then I did get all A's.

'We came here to give you a better life, a better chance, more opportunities,' yells my Dad, waving the report card in my brother's face. 'And what do you do?!'

I'm about to point out that what my Dad has just asked is a ‘rhetorical question’: one that isn't really meant to be answered, but is stated to make a point. We learnt that in English last week. But then I think now is probably not the best time.

'You waste your time skating and drawing pictures. Pictures!!!' Dad pauses and stomps round in a semi-circle a few times, then stops, planting himself over my brother. 'You must study hard, SLAP, get good grades so you can get into university and get a good job. SLAP. The Kiwi can waste their time, SLAP, draw pictures, SLAP, play at each other’s house, SLAP, party all weekend. SLAP. You cannot! SLAP SLAP SLAP. We are Chinese! We must work harder than them to get the same opportunities!' Dad yells, punctuating each sentence on my brother's head.

Caleb holds himself stiffly, trying to ignore the slaps, then shudders, like a dog's pelt shakes when you lightly tickle just one of its hairs. He forcefully stands, his chair toppling backward, and shoves Dad away from us. The blinds make an agitated metallic declaration as Dad flounders onto them.

The room inhales into itself and freezes. The colours ping off each other, and the straight lines seem almost too sharp, cutting at my eyes. Tense and alert, almost anticipating the rain of rage that will unleash from Dad at my brother’s physical defiance.

Growth spurts must happen suddenly, as Caleb is now the same height as Dad. I can see my brother’s fists clenched as tightly as the words that spit out his mouth. 'I don't even want to go to university! That's what you've always wanted. And we're not even really Chinese! We were born here, unlike yous!'

Miriam is curled into herself like a shell, sitting on the edge of a table, sobbing softly. I put my arm around her, shielding her from the prickliness of Dad's angry hands.

My brother storms out, a vibrating ball of barely controlled fury.

Words thump noisily through my arteries, past my ears, and choke, making lumps in my throat.

'It's different now, Dad. We don't just have to make money. We can choose to do other stuff. You're suffocating us with your Chinese rules,' I tell the floor. 'You say you came here to give us opportunities, but you just want to make us do whatever you want,' I finish quietly, not meeting his confused eyes.

'And you can't hit kids in New Zealand anymore. It's illegal!' shoots my sister, quickly, as she hunches back into herself like a poked snail.

The blinds are playing a discordant harmony with the furious hum of thick silence. Dad looks strangely about to implode, and at the same time, deflated, like a saggy, wrinkly balloon. Mum is pinched and quiet.

The blinds finish their crude song and I take my sister's coiled hand, slowly shuffling her out of the room with me.

My parents’ ascending tirade in duet starts up and follows us out. 'No respect for elders... learning bad habits from the Kiwi children... no discipline, teachers should be allowed to hit pupils, too relax, must follow Chinese tradition.' Nothing we all haven't heard so many times before.

I pull back the hood of my hoodie as I step inside to a spicy, fragrant warmth. Pad Thai, Bee Bung or Pho—so many choices. I see the lady from the toilets. She’s two people ahead of me at the counter. Bah, why does she have to be here? Usually only Asians come here.

The hot butch girl, the whole reason I always come to this place even though it's further from the bus stop, saunters out from the kitchen and takes over from the guy at the counter. She has this cute kind of bowlcut, but in an edgy, ironic way. And she's real big and solid, strong looking, like she could wrestle bears. If people wrestled bears.

This time I really am going to talk to her, not just order my meal.

The toilet lady is taking ages.

'D o e s t h i s d i s h h a v e M S G ?' she enunciates slowly and loudly, while gesturing wildly at a shiny picture on the menu.

'No MSG,' says Hot Butch Girl, cutting the words with her dismissive smirk.

'You know, you really should have these menus in English,' Toilet Lady says, arching an eyebrow condescendingly, 'After all, you are here in New Zealand.'

'The English menu's on the other side,' Hot Butch Girl says, taking the menu from her and turning it over. 'And seeing as we are in Aotearoa New Zealand,' Hot Butch Girl continues, firmly holding Toilet Lady's no-longer-arched gaze, 'Exactly how fluent is your te reo Maori?'

A number of things happen quickly. The older guy bustles out the front, rapid-fires a bunch of words and arm waves at Hot Butch Girl, scolding her, who then, chastened, stalks into the kitchen. And all the while, Toilet Lady is doing huffing and blowing, and waving her arms too, not like Older Shop Guy was, but kind of like if you were doing a very gentle and timid chicken dance.

Toilet Lady orders a Beef Pho.

It suddenly feels too warm as I try not to flinch talking to Older Shop Guy. He looked all too much like my Dad, when Dad is mad at us. Barbed eyes and unpredictable hands.

I order a Bee Bung from Older Shop Guy, double checking, as I always do, that there won't be any coriander in it.

Our meals arrive quickly as usual, steaming happily in their colourful plastic bowls.

I eye Toilet Lady over my food, and I notice that she looks much older than I thought she was. I feel a milli-second of compassion for her before I recall the toilet incident and how rude she was to Hot Butch Girl.

Toilet Lady is looking around for the soy sauce that is usually on the table along with the chillis and other condiments, and not finding what she's after, eyes up my bottle. I take a deep breathe on my insides, recalling that I have been trying to be nicer to old people. Grudgingly, I reach over and give her mine.

'Oh, thank you,' she says, her smile crinkling her eye corners. 'What a polite young man,' she tells the soy sauce being poured into her broth, and glaring in the direction of the kitchen.

Toilet Lady doesn't recognise me from earlier. She probably thinks all Asians look the same. I suppose that's kind of okay in a way. I know my mum thinks lots of white people all look the same and she often can't really tell them apart. Or maybe it's an old people thing; maybe they just stop noticing stuff.

I've finished my Bee Bung and have started reading, when a voice says to me, 'Why don't you like coriander?'

It's Hot Butch Girl. I put down my book, but it catches the spoon sticking out of my empty bowl, which then catapults out and knocks over the chilli sauce. I flounder around setting things back up while she watches and tries not to laugh.

I decide to pretend that wee slapstick incident just didn't happen.

'I've never liked it, makes me gag. My dad and brother can't eat it either. I mean, I wish I liked it, people seem to like it.' I realise I'm rambling so I stop. It's nerve-wracking trying to think of cool things to say. I can't think of anything.

'What are you reading?' she asks, looking from the chilli-sauce to my book.

'Sandman. I'm up to book three and there are ten I think. Though I think Neil Gaiman is working on a prequel.'

She picks it up, looking at the pictures. People call them comics because they have pictures but they're actually graphic novels. I take the opportunity to look at her. White plastic smiling crossbones dangle from her ears, and I like how her T-shirt stretches across her shoulders.

'Hey I liked what you said to that old lady. I wish I could think of witty things to say on the spot'. My ears go hot as I feel back to all the times I wish I'd said something to Dad, or done something, rather than letting my brother or sister take the heat, or slaps.

'Yeah, you get a bit of that working here,' she says as her eyes flick to Toilet Lady's empty seat. There is an awkward pause between us.

'I better get back to work,' she says, glancing over at the kitchen, 'Before Uncle has another go at me.'

'Oh, yeah, choice. Um... Hey, I could lend you the first Sandman if you wanted to read them, they're really cool.'

She stops and looks at me for a few seconds longer than people usually look at other people. She makes it hard for thoughts to get to my brain.

'Sure,' she smiles, 'Bring it next time. I usually finish at nine if you wanted to get a bubble tea somewhere after.'

'Oh, ah, yeah cool, that would be awesome,' I tell the apron knot on the back of her waist as she walks away.

She waves over her shoulder without turning round.

I place my book carefully back into my bag and head out into the raucous weather. The door tinkles shut behind me. People are huddled like shuffling rocks waiting for the bus. A giant grin is plastered over my face even as the wind tries to take my hood off. I don't even care if a thousand toilet ladies think I'm a boy.

© Wai Ho, republished with permission