Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Importance of Being Earnest

When you are not at school or university, lessons creep up on you. In the middle of a quiet December I had one day in which I learnt quite a few things about the importance of being earnest about clean socks, the obligations inherent in being older, the difference between sticks and knives, why I miss my cousins and the real look of sun damaged skin. Perhaps I should start at the top then.

The importance of clean socks, or in my case stockings without holes.

Accessorize stockings are in my top five 'Things I Love About London' along with Pret a Manger sandwiches, any food from Marks and Spencer's, New Look trousers and the Sunday Times' Style Magazine. I have a pair from last year that were worn every day for five months and have only two holes. This year's pair are showing all the signs of repeating the star performance as the sturdiest stockings in existence. But this year's pair had not been washed, and neither had my jeans, so I was wearing skirts that weekend, with last year's holey stockings.

Holey stockings are punky, edgy, cool ... except when teamed with my fur coat, conservative clothes and my onyx and silver knuckle duster of a ring. A girl cannot be perfectly groomed ALL the time, but sometimes that is no excuse. The holey stockings got their first airing at Jen and Sue's house on the Saturday night when my boots came off so I would not dirty the brand new carpet, but Jen has known me for more than ten years so I think she understands.

On the Sunday I was in the company of strangers, and more importantly, strangers who removed their shoes in the house as a matter of course. Ozy, Ely and I were very late for our date and so we were hustled into the living room still shod and it was only about five minutes later that I came to the horrified realisation that my dirty boots were resting on the carpet while everyone else was in socks. I communicated my embarrassment at my faux pas to Ozy and Ely and thankfully was told by the hostess to settle down as she forgave me.

Later, on the train home, Ely was very kind and told me I was very culturally aware, praising me for being immediately conscious that in an Asian household the shoes are removed immediately. This compliment means a lot to me. I am very aware of the fact that I am often hideously insensitive to any customs other than my own. Kim has been incredibly helpful in the regard, as each time I travelled with her, she has had cause to take me aside and set me straight on just how a thinking person should travel – humbly, respectfully, intelligently and most importantly, eternally aware of the polite habits of the land hosting you.

I should hope that the polite customs of different cultures should come somewhat naturally to me now, but I think I have a long way to go.

The difference between magic and scoring points – the Importance Of Card Tricks

My hosts that day were a cardiac surgeon and his wife, a nurse, from Trinidad, and they had one beautiful, friendly and precocious eight year old daughter. Adeeba was a tiny girl with thick black hair and huge brown eyes under her heavy fringe. She moved fast, she talked clearly and the intelligence fairly radiated from her, even in repose. I was supposed to be there to learn more about the business opportunity Ozy, Ely and I are starting, yet I did my usual trick of abandoning the adult world as soon as a logical child was there to play with.

In our first break I made a bee-line for the little one, introducing myself, complimenting her on her doll's house and being invited to see her room within a few moments. After two minutes in her room perusing her dolls and discussing the amount of presents she would get for Christmas, she pulled out a pack of cards and offered to teach me a few games. Then she delighted me to no end by shuffling the deck fast and theatrically like a pro.

In the second break we were in the middle of the floor refreshing each other's memories on how to play Fish and Old Maid and Speed whilst the adults were talking Personal Volumes, profit margins and networking. Claire checks out of the adult world again. Adeeba had taught me a new game and I roundly trounced her at it, leading her to accuse her ungrateful student of being too good.

Then her father showed her an old card trick. She showed me. And I broke the rules that govern the interaction between father and children. When Dad tells you a story – tall or true – it is not the place of the surrounding adults to challenge the child's view that Dad is always right. I watched Adeeba complete the trick, and I decided to prove my brilliance by showing her how to do it. When she went straight back to her Dad and repeated the trick to him I realised my mistake. Adeeba should think her Dad infallible for many more years, and no flighty Australian should expose his magic in the cruel light of day. Thank fully Adeeba's father had more tricks up his sleeve than the one I exposed, and he remained the final figure of authority to his daughter.

My own father was the consummate professional at the Dad Is A Super Hero game. I distinctly remember my siblings and I sitting around the dinner table, enraptured by one of his stories of Harry Lime and Lemmy Caution catching the Man Eating Tiger, defeating the Giant and stealing the Python Guarded Diamond. The four of us glued to a nature or history documentary with Dad supplementing the narrator's facts with his own knowledge. And most of all I remember assuring my father that he knew 'everything in the whole world and was the cleverest man of all.' He still is, it's just that I have forgotten to trust him implicitly, as I did when I was seven.

The Difference Between a Stick and a Knife

At one stage during the afternoon, Adeeba was standing with Ely and Ozy and I, and she asked Ely if she was Muslim. Ely replied that she was, and when Adeeba looked at me, I asked her what I was. 'You are Christian because you are white' she replied, qualifying it a little by saying 'I have only met a few Christians with black skin.' And then Adeeba said something that made me sad. She told me that her father's car window had been smashed by white boys, but that her Dad was not hurt. And then she told me that 'a group of white boys had poked at Dad with a stick, but at least it was not a knife or he would be dead.'

The shock of this kind of talk on the lips of one so young was a disturbing moment. I seemed to see Adeeba at the end of a long tunnel, stretching between us the alienating barriers of religion and race. I saw myself as the 'other' in a room of 'us'. I saw the groups of white people as the menace that they seem to the Asians in this country when the national newspapers are demonising groups of Asians. And when Adeeba left the apartment for a moment to open a door for another visitor, I longed to hold her back, not to let her go out into a world that presented such casual dangers to her father and regularly saw the disappearances and deaths of young girls. If such an obviously happy, safe and intelligent child of intelligent and hard working parents could reference racial hatred so readily, I tremble for the less robust children on their side of the divide.

Why I Miss My Cousins So Much

When we finally had to leave, I was very sad to leave the bright and precocious Adeeba. I asked her to sign my notebook so I would remember her, and she wrote her name and phone number in perfect script on the page. And then she wrote 'you are a realy (sic) nice girl' underneath, with a big heart and many stars. I was enchanted by the openness of her personality, her ability to articulate her regard, and I was reminded of the brilliant homemade Christmas card I had received from my cousin Hannah last Christmas.

I miss my cousins terribly at the moment. Another Christmas without them has passed and I often get nervous when I consider how much kids grow, how fast teenagers change, and how long it has been since I talked to them. I have two fond memories of how much I love my cousins. The first one took place on our first farm – three sets of cousins were up for the day and I was happily spending hours walking each child up and down the driveway on the pony, probably a 800m round trip, in the middle of the afternoon, for each little cousin. I loved it, I got to talk with each one, only the low buzz of the incredible heat in our ears to distract us.

As I reached the sixth trip, my grandmother approached me and paid me a compliment that, in my delicate state as a rebellious teen, made me fairly boil with indignation. Nan told me how proud she was that I was spending so much time entertaining my cousins. As with almost anything that an adult says to you at aged thirteen, I was incensed that something I was doing out of the goodness of my heart could be pleasing to the adults tyrannising my ever hour, and the enjoyment was leeched out of my afternoon. Yet I still remember it as one of the best reasons to have cousins.

My second memory is of a Christmas at our house when I was about 20. I had passed out of the difficult teenaged stage of not wanting to please anyone and into the early adult stage of not being an instant success and therefore trying not to advertise my confusion to adults that may wish to help. So each time my incredibly approachable and very cool uncles and aunts stepped in the door, interested in my life and wishing to talk to me, I grabbed their kids, dragged them into my room and closed the door, safe in the undemanding atmosphere of the younger set.

The Curse of Sun Ravaged Skin

The last part of that afternoon was a skincare trial, in which I had my skin examined under UV light for my trouble spots and imperfections – a process that costs a princely sum in a salon. As I stuck my head into the box and the lights went on the lovely Indian girl examining me gasped and stuttered 'the sun damage! so much sun damage!' I just laughed and said 'I assume you have not examined many white Australians then?' Under the light, my face, usually home to only five moles, was entirely covered in very large freckles – the areas under the skin that were very damaged from my many years with a tan that would have made me as dark as my examiner.

My face, transformed into that of a traditional red head, was a sobering sight, the sun damage making me both homesick for a real tan, and slightly scared of my old age, when they would appear as age spots. As I reappeared in the world of normal pigmentation, I surveyed the face before me, frankly disbelieving that I was ever tan, and I thought to myself you are not on the beach anymore girlie.

The lessons from that Sunday are still with me. I am watching my actions carefully for ignorance, casual intolerance and racism, for pride and for the nasty habit I manifest now of wallowing in my homesickness. I think I owe it to my hosts for the day, for the welcome into their family, for their dazzling daughter and the thoughts their kindness triggered for me.

Oh, but there is still the best story from that Sunday. Our Trinidadian host for the day, in his youth, had batted with Brian Lara in try outs for the national team. Now THAT is cool!