I am different to the other girls – bigger, stronger too. My hair is black and spiky like a boy’s and no matter how Mama cuts it; it sticks up in all directions. My face is round like the moon and my cheeks are always red.
I never know what to say and when I do it’s usually the wrong thing so mostly I keep quiet. Mama says I need to look for opportunities; chances to step in and do the right thing and then the kids would like me.
My school is four stops away and too far to walk. I’d prefer walking, even if it meant arriving at school puffing and sweaty, so long as I didn’t have to endure the train. All the kids clustered together at one end – talking, laughing and making a noise – the adults looking cross and frowning. I sit by myself and pretend I’m not listening. I pretend I have loads of friends, that I’m pretty and popular, that everyone likes me. I look at the thin, tanned legs of the girls in their roman sandals with the straps crushed under their heels. I look at my legs in their white socks with lace trim that Aunty sends over for me and my feet, large and shiny like boats, in patent Mary-Janes – even they are wrong.
It’s only a three minute walk from the train station to school but it seems to take forever. Lots of the kids are boyfriend and girlfriend so they walk with their arms around each other or else the kids who are best friends walk together. The path is only wide enough for two. I am the only single.
Some of the couples lie together in the long grass on the top field and cuddle and stroke each other in the sun until the deputy principal comes and tells them off. Then they get up sulkily and dust themselves off, the boys muttering under their breath. At home I lay down once in my school uniform on the concrete path and felt the sun on my face and legs and imagined what it would be like to cuddle a boy in the grass in the sun. But then Mama came out and asked what I was doing and why wasn’t I helping her dip potato fritters. So I got up, my face more red than usual, and went inside.
There are always long queues outside our shop on Friday and Saturday nights. I am the hamburger girl. I wear a red and yellow cheongsam and I make the best burgers, even Mama says so. I watch the patties carefully and flip them at just the right time. I’m also generous with the mayonnaise. People love our chips. We cut them ourselves from real potatoes. Mama’s hands are often red and swollen from spending so much time in cold water preparing them.
I nearly had a boyfriend. Davy, whose in the class next door, used to come to the shop all the time. His mum didn’t cook so he ate chips for dinner instead. He said he would kiss me if I gave him free chips. I tried to sneak some to him but Mama told me off for not charging him enough and made him pay the same as everyone else. Davy gave me a really mean look and didn’t come back for ages. He avoids me now and only speaks to Grandpa. Even if I had a boyfriend he would have to be a secret. Mama says I must marry a Chinese boy to keep the blood pure.
At school I only speak when the teacher calls my name.
‘Chi Fan’ she says but ‘Chip Fan’ is what some of the kids call me. ‘You can tell she’s a chip fan, she’s so huge.’ Or worse ‘Shit Fan’ – only the really mean ones call me that.
I can tell she doesn’t like me. She wrinkles up her nose when she calls my name, like something smells bad. She likes the thin, pretty blonde girls. I am nearly as big as her and my uniform stretches across my chest. I keep my hands close to my sides so no one can see the damp patches under my arms. Mama says pretty is not important, smart is important.
‘No one wants a pretty girl, they want a smart, strong girl who can work hard,’ she says.
Not everyone laughs at me. When we change for swimming I bend over almost double so the other girls won’t see my large breasts or the hair between my legs. They wriggle into their pretty pants with lacy trims while I pull on my plain white ones. I catch them sneaking looks at me and the expression on their faces are always the same, sad but grateful they are not me.
The kids say the lunches Mama cooks for me are slimy and that they stink. I try and eat discretely, covering my mouth with my hand so the smell doesn’t escape. Sometimes they steal my chopsticks and use them for play fights. Then the teacher scolds that someone will lose an eye and it is my fault for letting them play with them.
‘They are not toys,’ she says.
Each day I watch and wait for an opportunity to show them who I really am. Not this day, I think, maybe tomorrow.
I dream of how I can be better. Clever, with the right answers to questions, not stupid-shy like now and getting all the words confused. I don’t even want to be blonde just not have a strange China-girl way of speaking that the kids copy.
Mama says I shouldn’t complain, we were lucky to escape the Revolution, back then people took our noodle bowls of fine china and smashed them and drove the silver chopsticks into peoples’ heads.
At night, I dream I am back in China. The kids chase me, running fast in their swift new Nike sneakers while I am tripping in my embroidered China-girl shoes. They catch me and drive chopsticks, decorated with dragons, into my head. I lie on the ground bleeding and the teacher watches at a distance wrinkling her nose and shifting her feet so the pool of blood that flows from my head doesn’t spoil her shoes. Then the teacher turns into Mama – still she wrinkles her nose.
At school, the teacher has a special announcement – Hobbies Day is coming up. The boys high-five each other, everyone is excited except for me. Hobbies Day is a chance for everyone to show off. We each have to do a five-minute talk in front of the class about our hobby. I go home and sit on my bed and think about my hobbies. They are cooking with Mama, helping Grandpa peel potatoes, reading, and writing in my diary. I know these are not good enough hobbies. I need a new hobby.
Because I am big the teachers say I should be good at sport but I can’t run very fast. I can’t catch balls, they come too quickly and fly through my hands and hit me in the face or the chest. The teacher sighs and shakes her head when this happens. She coaches the Saturday morning netball teams. All the girls in my class play, even the ones like me who are hopeless at sport. Even if I could catch the ball Mama needs me in the shop to help get the chips ready.
I’m always the last to be chosen for teams and then I only get picked because the teacher makes them. I’m good at shot-put and javelin but I don’t want to do those. No pretty girls do those. Mama says sport is a waste of time and won’t help me get into university. I am too slow for table tennis and I can’t play the piano or the violin. My cousin Annie says I am a disgrace for an Asian. I decide to do origami. I get a book from the library and I practice on pieces of old newspaper at the shop before we wrap chips in them. I make hats, boats and finally after practice and refolding I make a paper crane. Grandpa says it is beautiful. He says I am a marvel and the cleverest girl he knows. He says everyone loves paper cranes. Grandpa was a teacher before we came to New Zealand but he is old now and no one wants to learn from him, instead he peels potatoes and tends the garden.
I write my speech and practice in front of the mirror. The teacher says the best speeches use props and that we should vary our voice, not speak in a monotone. I try different voices and wave my arms about for emphasis. I time myself with my watch. I practice in private; no one is allowed to hear me.
When I get to class there are balloons and streamers up and a banner saying ‘Hobbies Day, Mangaroa Intermediate’. The speeches take place all day in reverse alphabetical order. Mine is near the end. Grandpa says that is the best time as you can leave a powerful impression.
All morning we hear about rowing, knitting, rugby, football, gymnastics, air guitar (not a hobby the teacher says), cricket, netball, reading, texting (not a hobby either), Aussie Rules, miniature-car collecting, building model aeroplanes, jewellery-making, cooking. I sit anxiously, tucked into my desk is my best origami piece. Finally it’s lunch-time. I eat cold spring rolls in a corner of the playground. A string of mung bean gets caught in my teeth and I work to untangle it.
‘She’s eating worms,’ one of the boys shouts out. Everyone looks. I replace the remainder of the roll in my lunchbox and put the lid on.
The bell rings and when we return to the classroom it is transformed. Hanging from the ceiling strung on cotton thread are delicate pink, yellow and blue paper cranes. Yuki is waiting at the front of the class for everyone to take their seats. Yuki is tiny with pale skin and small feet. Her hair is long and silky and falls to her shoulder blades where it stops and curls under. She wears cute sweatshirts with cartoon animals on them and she has miniature soft toys hanging off her cellphone. She is a proper Asian girl. Sometimes I dream that Yuki is my friend. We would eat together at lunchtime and I would share my chicken feet with her and she wouldn’t laugh. She could teach me how to be pretty and I would make her a burger and chips.
She talks about how her mother taught her how to make cranes, what they mean in Japan, how her grandfather takes her to the park and they float them on the lake. When she speaks she moves her hands around excitedly and they flutter like small birds. At the end of her talk she takes the cranes down and gives one to each person. The teacher smiles at Yuki and starts clapping. The class joins in. I feel sick with sweat and shame. My hand shakes when I take the pink crane Yuki gives me. All I have is a big clumsy crane made out of yellow chip paper.
Some days I forget how big I am. I think I am small like Yuki. When this happens I catch the corner of a desk with my hip which sends it sliding across the floor. Then the class laughs. Usually it starts with a low snicker and then it rumbles across the room until everyone joins in. Once in folk-dancing there weren’t enough boys and I had to dance with Lucy. I was so nervous I kept wiping my hand on my dress. Lucy kept pulling away and grimacing.
‘You’re holding too tight,’ she hissed. I loosened my grip and she flew away from me and landed on the ground, her mouth open. Tears gathered quickly in her eyes.
‘Chi Fan,’ the teacher said angrily. I hung my head.
Next is shell-collecting, then drawing cartoons. Then it is my turn. I walk to the front of the room with my giant paper crane. It is crumpled and there are smudgy finger prints where my sweat has rubbed against the paper. I hold onto the crane and with my head down whisper my speech. Balls of soft froth collect at the corners of my mouth. I look up; the teacher’s nose is wrinkled. For a long time no one claps. Then Yuki starts and the others join in. I sit through more netball, rugby, knitting and hockey.
It’s 2.40pm and there are only two more speeches to go. Everyone is tired and the clapping gets quieter and quieter. Finally Grant goes out to get changed. He’s one of the nicer boys. He always says ‘hi’ to me, even on weekends, even when his mum isn’t there to make him. He comes back dressed in a bright blue unitard with white stripes down the side. It has straps over each shoulder and finishes at the tops of his thighs. Grant starts his speech. He talks about the history of wrestling, about how the All Blacks practice wrestling as part of their training. He demonstrates wrestling holds and holds up pictures of famous wrestlers. At the end the whole class claps and cheers. The teacher motions for Grant to sit down but he stays at the front of the class.
‘I challenge anyone to wrestle me.’ No one says anything. Grant stands there smiling broadly.
‘No takers?’ says the teacher. ‘Well, thank you Grant for such an interesting talk.’
Suddenly the class gasps. My hand is in the air. The smile on Grant’s face flickers.
‘Come on up,’ he says. I get out of my seat and walk to the front. I clear my throat, sweat gathering on my forehead and upper lip. My hair sticks to the back of my neck.
I face Grant. His smile disappears and his face hardens. He goes into a crouch. I copy him. He moves in a circle to my left. I move to his right. We circle each other warily. I look up, the class are silent their eyes glued on us. Grant moves forward and I shove myself against him. We’re on the ground and I pin him, my forearms against his throat and chest, my body pressed against his. He wriggles beneath me like a captured rabbit, his eyes wide with shock. I get up and he scrambles to his feet.
I return to my seat. Grant goes out of the room. The bell rings and everyone packs up and leaves. I pick up my pink paper crane by the long string and carry it carefully. As I near the school gates I see Yuki waiting for me.
‘You are very brave,’ she says.
‘Thank you for the crane,’ I say and walk on.
After that day, whenever anyone tried to call me ‘Shit Fan’ the kids from my class would stop them. The teacher is always careful to say my name properly, but Grant never said ‘hi’ to me again.
I still look for opportunities. Mama says they will turn up soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trina Saffioti grew up in Churton Park and now lives in Karori. She has completed the Short Fiction, Poetry and Children’s Writing courses at the IIML. Her first children’s book The Old Frangipani Tree at Flying Fish Point (Magabala Books) was published in 2008. Her next book Stolen Girl (Magabala Books) comes out in March and is based on her what her grandmother’s experiences might have been as one of the Stolen Generation.