Featured Prose Spring 2021

A View of Sydney Harbour from the Plane

by Hagar Gal

When I returned to Australia this time, in one of those tense restless moments in which I’d stretched my arms out and felt as though my palms were pressed hard against the walls, clunky in the corners, enclosed, I walked to the local cemetery.

And I cried.

It surprised me, too — the cemetery is an old one, and in Australia, which means that I have no relatives buried there; no connection to the people beneath the soil. Most of the cemetery has long been turned into a park, and the remnant gravestones are crumbling gently in the shade. It is pretty. It is calm. A destination for casual drinking; sex; strolls.

But I’d cried. I’d taken a walk to clear my head, wandered through the long grass, admired, as a history student, the porous Sydney sandstone church, remarking to myself that only Sydney would have such anachronisms as gothic architecture built from Victorian sandstone, read the words written on the gravestones — and promptly welled with tears. The words were:

Edward Adams, born Kent, 1792, died Newtown, 1844.

Followed by his loving wife Alice, born Glasgow, 1795, died Newtown, 1852.

And so on. The pattern was a British name, a place of birth outside Australia, and the place of death: here. I recognised the place-names, minutes from where I’d grown up: Redfern, Newtown, Macdonaldtown. The abrupt richness of connection in an unexpected place — the sudden ability to reach out and touch, feel, almost physically, the lives of these people in a deeply Australian space, a deeply detached space, startled me into sentiment.

It was clear to me too that this restless walk, this heightened emotion — this period of waking up exhausted from dreams of waiting rooms and mirrors — was no more and no less than a youthful and visceral struggle against filling the same space now that I’d filled at seventeen.

My most important memories, I realised, had always been of moments outside Australia; of life before Australia; even, for a time, of life after Australia. Memories of the period now called: before being sent back. I self-diagnosed my symptoms as the trauma of being sent back to blue skies.
In short, I finally grasped that it was because I’d grown up here that I wanted to leave.

Perhaps it’s because my Chinese name labels me: like water. I was born between oceans. My name in Hebrew means migration. So, at four, I moved like the water between shores, as my parents did, as their parents did. At birth, to my right was the salt of the Mediterranean, beneath me the salt of the Red Sea. Four years later, I must have realised that if I were to follow the waterway through the Persian Gulf, down the Arabian Sea, skimming leftwards through the top of the Indian Ocean, then finally I would arrive here, next to the Pacific.

Funny, then, that my first experience of Australia was being scared of the shower. We were renting an apartment, and there was no bath. I was afraid of the downpour, of standing, gasping, beneath the deluge of water rather than being bathed in it gently below my chest.

My second recollection sees us moving into our first house. I am running and running down that long unfamiliar Sydney corridor and an unnoticed corner of a wooden cabinet looms closer and closer until bang — I’ve hit my head against its sharp point. I fall and burst into tears.

My father picks me up and says, in Hebrew,

“Oh no, Hagar, you aren’t used to it here yet, are you.”

Some oddness of the sentence must have struck me even then, made me file away the words for later perusal. Now I understand that this memory is about my father’s disorientation and not mine.

Most years we return to see family. One afternoon, at a beach café, I ask for directions to the toilets. I ask in Hebrew, the language of my father; our Biblical language of lullabies; of dirty jokes; of memory and history. The waiter looks at me for a moment — then answers in accented English. Afterwards, bemusedly wiping water off my hands, I recount.

“Do I have an accent?” I ask.

My father shrugs. “Maybe you pronounce your reishs a little softly.”

There’s something familiar about the memory — generalised, even, or boring from repetition. In my second year of college, I’d stuck my head out of my dorm room and said something to a Chinese Canadian friend. Her older brother was visiting, and they were passing on their way out to dinner. Later that night, returned, she breathlessly divulged to me, “My brother told me that he’d hallucinated you spoke to me in Mandarin!”

We laughed. I had, of course, been speaking Mandarin. I’d spoken Mandarin and Hebrew before I knew English. You can still hear my fumbling accent sometimes, concealed in my lisp. Somefing. Fank you.

When I was born, the nurses in the Jaffa hospital laughed about the blonde Chinese baby. It was an image that took a struggle of forty-eight hours to produce: a large blonde infant exiting, with difficulty, a small sweating Han mother. Back in China, during parallel visits to see my quietly aging grandmother in her empty apartment, the aunties would thrill at my fair skin; that nose; the ungainly height. It was a common event, in those warm damp Chengdu days spent helping my grandmother carry home heavy plastic market bags, for someone to stop us and ask: “Is she a foreigner?

Ta shi waiguoren ma?

It’s the sound of that question, of that memory, that always rings so familiar. I could unwind for you a reel of similar moments. In Australia, it’s a scene sometimes set at the train station, sometimes at a crossroads, laced through with the familiar urban smell of warm concrete and crunchy Eucalyptus leaves and Thai lunches. In it, a woman asks me and my father, “Where are you from? Is that French?”

My father responds stiffly, “We’re from Newtown.”

I supply, “It’s Hebrew.”

End scene.

The soundscape changes with the setting. In the U.S., after I’d moved there for college, it was always the irritating metallic noise of the accusation: “But your accent isn’t Australian.”

So I embrace it. I’ve learned to thrill in my difference, be excited by it, dampened when I find similarities in another. If the only label left to me is migrant, then I know to enjoy being a curio. It is, after all, branded on me by my name, like an advertisement of restlessness. I get meaning from changing contexts. Homesickness — never experienced it. There’s a special peace, a special calm, a particular looseness of the shoulders in rebuilding a new life in a new place. No connections to the people or the landscape; no longer entrapped in boxy categories, desperately struggling and wriggling my fingertips. How can I describe that as a quality of the air?

It must have been a prescience of this restlessness, then, or a building desperation, that was behind the moment at sixteen in which I’d realised that my greatest wish had become to leave Australia. It’s because life in Australia is too easy, I’d theorised. I have nothing to struggle for, nothing to light me on fire. When I reach into my web of thoughts it feels grey.

Years later, when I did leave for college in the States, I learned to say instead that there is not the burden of history pressing down on Australia’s shoulders. The loss of that heavy weight in a young and removed society makes life both easier and emptier. The rich brilliance of the denseness of bodies and stories that give life in other, older societies that particular fermented tang that drives me wild that connects me, that sparks the thrill of emotion roiling around the eyes, does not exist here. But with that loss so too is gone the heaviness, the sadness, the maddening echo of drowned voices. Hence we immigrants desire to come here: for the calm of the unwritten.

That is to say, the landscape outside my window is filtered through memories of memories. My father’s sadness. My migratory instinct inherited from generations leaving bloodshed. Once, over a bowl of pasta at the local Italian restaurant, my mother said to me suddenly: “Did you know that only one of your grandmother’s four siblings survived? He was really her cousin — adopted by her father after his own parents died.” He had survived because he’d been exiled to Tibet. My late grandfather, remembered in stories of his gentle friendliness, his hopelessness at bartering, had only had a brother. Who’d hanged himself, said my mother over the gnocchi. A heavy weight pulls down rope. The sadness of the stories comes abruptly, in moments; patches; odd, intimate moods. A twin confession from my father at dinner: “We used to sit around the radio and listen for a name we knew. Everyone did that — listen for family members. You’d send descriptions to the Bureau for Missing Relatives.” I think we were eating fish that time, or maybe tofu.

Let me restate, again: looking out my window, at the echoing gentle emptiness of sun glinting off roofs and the harbour through the gum trees in the distance and my easy, easy, easy, life, I say, “I feel like the lucky child of a turbulent 20th century.”

Though of course Australia has an ancient multitude of threads of memory, embedded into the clouds of the blue Sydney sky and the shine of its waves. But this history feels carefully, deliberately wiped from the edges of my reach. Others must feel the emptiness from this too. You can see it in the breathless panting excitement at the one blood that we are allowed to remember, Australia’s own tomb of the fallen soldier.

“I’m sorry, Hagar, but you’re white.” I was fifteen. We were sitting in the library, in our ironed little school uniforms. The allegation confused me. The sorrowful coppery Anglo face that looks down at me from beneath its curved hat in the park memorial is familiar to me as a face in a social function. Its Australia, I’d thought, was barbeques and ANZAC Day and beaches for more than my one month of determined sandy public transportation at the height of summer.

So when I was sent back, in the March of this year, when the coronavirus threatened to twine its feelers into the college room I shared so many miles away from my parents, it was to look down and see my feet stepping backwards until I was curled in a ball in my childhood room, suspended in that web of innumerable strings that had defined me and my life and my future mine. To rebuild my self here, to sit in the park next to the cemetery on an empty afternoon, was to be forced to hold up the mirror of this country to my face: to experience the horrified jolt of seeing nothing reflected back.

Though perhaps it was good to have been sent back. The difficulty of building my life from the deliberately clean slate of new places, the effort of carefully considering each brick before placing it, was slowly destroying my body. The past year made me feel sometimes as though I was gazing down into a calm deep dark emptiness that one sees in the depths of the sky or the sea at night; that if only I’d stretch out my arms and let myself fall, the emptiness would calm my overheating mind.

My horizon reduced to the few streets around my house again. I know them like my body, can feel their map in my mind, touch their lengths. The cemetery is nestled in a corner over there — right here, see, between this dimple and this freckled line. I cried, there, abruptly; a breath ago, a week ago, a half-year ago, from a moment of overwrought relief — a laugh of recognition. The looking glass in the cemetery was suddenly crowded. In the reflection were threads of stories, winding towards their end in Australia.

A final confession: my name has yet another meaning. Biblical. The exiled girl who finds an oasis.

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