The top button of my mother’s work pants, a size too small for me, digs into my tummy. My shoulders feel like they are splitting the seams of my freshly-ironed burgundy shirt. They say puberty is a blossoming into womanhood, but my body must have taken a wrong turn. At fifteen, I am gangling limbs and pimpled brow and round gold glasses. They stopped calling me pretty when I was eleven.
I sit in a small office on the first day of work experience. Across the desk from me is a middle-aged man. He’s white. He carries a bit of extra weight around his middle. His green tie clashes with his shirt, which is the colour of old bread.
He talks about the company. He is an unfamiliar entity to me, and so I don’t say much. The office is ringed with open shelves, stacked with folders, bristling with papers. His coffee mug leaves a moist ring on the laminate surface of his desk. The room smells like dust and stale biscuits.
“Well!” he says, standing up. “I bombarded you with a lot of information. Hope you can remember everything!”
I stand up too, smile, and say thank you.
“Ah, you’ll be right. You young Chinese girls, I know you. You’re all extremely smart. Especially at maths!”
He grins expectantly at me. I think he thinks he’s paid me a compliment.
I smile and nod and say thank you again.
Our fathers left their lands to look for better ones.
They left their lands and their loved ones and the lives they had built up around nice jobs and nice houses and the corner-shop snacks of their childhood. They went overseas, often alone at first. Searching for new homes and small money. Trading in the clunky words of a new language, trying not to look the fool. Modern day scouts for their fledgling families.
The weapons of our fathers were moderation and caution. For their families, it was better to have a safety net than an SUV. They learnt to calculate when not to take risks and when to hold their tongues. Because they could not rise in the ranks of a foreign company through youth or charm or eloquence or appearance, they learnt to put their heads down and swallow racism and work hard and complain little.
They weathered anxiety so that we would not have to. They absorbed worry, turned it over and over silently, wore it down. Buried it deep, heaped it over with other things. Traded their dreams for their children’s.
Our fathers put their cultural memories into a little box that they brought with them to the new land, and sometimes opened. The children laughed, thinking that there was no use for such things in this new, loud, opportunistic place. We dismissed their wariness, not knowing that it allowed us to survive, and ventured bravely forth into the world, believing it is ours.
I’m pretty sure he’s Filipino, from his chestnut skin and rolling accent. He wears a short-sleeved shirt, pale blue, with his name embroidered on the pocket: Paul. The same name as the Filipino nurse I met in my first rotation as a fresh-faced intern: too-friendly young Paul who stood against me in the medication room and pressed his hand over mine and made me freeze.
This Paul is a generation above. Salt-and-pepper hair, thinning at the temples. A slight stoop to his shoulders. A slight paunch at the gut. He walks along the corridor towards me, tacking to one side with the weight of his bucket and mop.
‘Hello! Where are you from?’ His round eyes regard me warmly, as though we’ve met dozens of times before. Perhaps I remind him of a daughter, or a niece, or an old girlfriend.
I smile and reel out the words I must have said a hundred times.
‘Oh, I thought you look Filipino! I’m Paul. Are you the new doctor?’
I nod sheepishly, glancing away from his cleaning equipment.
Over the next six months, we wave intermittently at each other, and exchange simple words, with a mixture of distance and affinity.
He walks past me, doubles back, and approaches with an earnest smile. Black backpack. Black skinny jeans. Black sneakers.
‘Hi! Do you have two minutes? I’m doing some research and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.’
We are kin unmet: brittle black hair, almond-shaped eyes, olive skin that holds scars easily. There is an immediate sense of similarity.
‘What sort of research?’ I ask, tucking my handbag in to my side.
‘I’m doing a theology course.’
It’s not an answer, but more than an answer. He talks about his studies, and I’m listening, but he’s not telling me much. I smile and listen harder.
‘Mind if I pull up a seat? I’ve been walking around all day.’
We sit, knees pointing together, in the foyer of the library. He’s talking about his faith now. I wait for the research to begin. At my elbow is another Chinese girl, playing on her phone. Several feet away, a tall white man huddles over his laptop.
‘I was wondering, where are you at, in your beliefs? Do you believe in God?’
I stare into his crinkled eyes. I’m at the end of my journey; he’s in the middle of his. The question is a bridge through time. I could tell him so much, but it’s impossible in this space. I give him a single word answer.