The first time I was asked to write a children's story for the Sunday Age I was given some fairly strict parameters.
“Aiya! So pretty!” Aunty May screeches, pinching my cheeks so hard that my eyes water. “Better than the Chinese school uniforms, huh? So much easier to clean.”
I tug Ma’s arm and pull her to one side. “Ma, please don’t make me go,” I beg. I’m trying not to cry in front of Cousin Betty but my throat feels so tight it’s like I’ve swallowed an orange.
“You’ll be fine Little Pumpkin Gourd,” Ma says, calling me by my Shanghainese name. "Cousin will look after you, won't you Magnificent Treasure?"
My cousin sighs. “They call me Betty, here, Auntie,” she says shaking her head and looking at Ma like she’s just a squashed up old dim-sim on the road.
I don’t like the way my cousin talks to my parents. We were all born in the same place. Just because she has lived in Australia for three years and can speak English doesn’t mean she’s suddenly grown an extra brain.
“OK, everyone in the car,” Uncle Di says, clapping his hands together and we all bustle towards the door. I drag my feet but Ma’s hand is like a claw in my back.
“Don’t make me lose face in front of your Auntie May,” she hisses in my ear.
Suddenly, Nai Nai makes a noise. Everyone turns around surprised because Nai Nai rarely talks. She just sits in front of the TV watching the ads all day and sipping thimble-sized teacups of bitter black herbs. Nai Nai raises a shaky arm and points at me. I look at Ma who puts the claw back into my back, but this time pushes me towards Nai Nai.
Betty groans. “We’ll be late! Just ignore her.”
“Let Nai Nai wish her grand daughter well on her first day of Australian school,” Auntie scolds. Betty huffs and stomps out the front door towards the car.
I shuffle over to Nai Nai’s couch and she grabs my hand in both of hers. Her fingers are knobbly and worn and as smooth as polished rosewood. She slips something into my palm. I look down at the tiny silk pouch embroidered with red and green dragons.
“Thanks Nai Nai,” I say. “What is it?”
Nai Nai leans in close and I can smell her musty breath. “A wish,” she says. Then the ads come on again and she pushes me towards the front door.
Fifteen minutes later Betty and I tumble out of the car in front of my new school, the sound of both our parents calling out well-wishes in our ears. Betty walks beside me for a moment, but as soon as the car is out of view she runs on ahead and is quickly lost in the sea of children.
I wander over to a bench and sit in the shade of a tree that smells like pepper and lemons. Kids run back and forth happy to see each other after the long holidays. Everyone seems to know somebody. I can’t see anyone sitting on their own. I miss my friends in Shanghai and picture them riding their bikes to school in the snow.
A bell rings and all the kids run in one direction. I see Betty in the distance and jog to catch up with her. All my new books rattle around in my backpack. I stand behind her in the line but she won’t turn around to look at me. A teacher walks up to us and asks me something in English that I can’t understand. Then she looks towards Betty to translate. That was the deal. But Betty just turns to me and smiles sweetly before saying in Chinese, “Onions and pig’s breath and toenails.” Then she turns back towards the teacher who nods, satisfied, and walks back up to the front of the line.
That’s when I feel those salty tears prickle my eyes again. I put my hand in my pocket where the silk pouch is hidden and think about turning Betty into dog poo or a tadpole or smelly green slime, but the fact is that I need her. Betty is horrible, but not as horrible as being completely alone in a brand new school when I can’t even understand what people are saying. I can’t imagine how things could possibly get worse, but they do. Much, much worse.
In class, Betty has to sit next to me but she won’t look at me at all. Instead she whispers to the girls on her other side who stare at me and giggle. I can’t even do my work because Betty translates anything the teacher says into nonsense until at the end of class the teacher comes over looking quite annoyed that I haven’t even opened my books. All I can do is concentrate on not crying. The teacher stands over me exasperated until I can bear it no longer and I pull the silk pouch out of my pocket to wish myself back into my classroom in Shanghai.
“Give it back!” I shout. “It’s mine!” I reach over the desk to grab at my wish and all my books topple loudly to the floor.
The teacher throws her arms up in exasperation then puts her hand out to Betty. Betty looks at me smugly and plops the little silk pouch with my wish inside it into the teacher’s outstretched palm. Then the teacher clip-clops angrily back to the front of the class. The bell rings. Betty runs outside with the other students.
When everyone has gone I let those tears slide right down my face and drop onto my desk. I have never felt more alone. I look at all my brand new books on the floor and my scratchy new school uniform and even though I know my parents have been saving for three years for us to move to Australia where the streets are wide and clean and the children all go to university I know I can never be happy here and the thought makes those tears slide down all the more.
Suddenly I hear someone come into the room. I am so busy trying to wipe my tears away that I don’t see her until she is standing right in front of me. I recognise her as the girl who was sitting behind me in class.
“Hello?” I offer because it’s the only word I know in English, but to my surprise, she answers in Chinese. I haven’t heard Chinese spoken that way before but she looks a lot like me and suddenly my heart soars.
“I’ve got something for you,” she says, smiling, and to my surprise, she pulls the little silk pouch out of her pocket and puts it on my desk.
“I can’t believe it! How did you get it back?” I ask.
“I explained to Mrs Hutcher that you needed it for your asthma. So just make sure you cough every now and then, OK?”
I laugh and she does too.
“Aiya, that Betty is horrible,” she says, shaking her head. “How’d you get stuck with her?”
“She’s my cousin,” I sigh. “Mum sent me to the same school so that she could translate for me until I learn English.”
“Well, I think you’d be better off sitting next to me,” the girl says. “You’re not going to learn much from your cousin are you? Don’t worry, you’ll pick up English quickly. I did. My Chinese name is Small Pickle. Yeah, I know. Terrible, isn't it? But my friends here call me Sammy. So, what’s in the pouch anyway?”
“Nothing,” I say.
And it’s true. I open it up and the faintest whisper of blue smoke drifts towards the window.
I think I used it well.
My two oldest sons did the beautiful bird illustrations that head each chapter of the book. Here's one of them.