‘Miss, how come she wears normal clothes?’ asked this girl in my Year 10 class. Since I’d arrived with only one term to go and the Years 11/12 school uniform was a different design, I’d been given special permission to attend school in regular clothes.
But she wasn’t asking the teacher why I wasn’t in uniform; she was wondering how it was that Malaysia was sufficiently advanced to have had access to modern clothing. She was probably expecting me to show up dressed like Pocahontas or something, complete with feathered headband and war paint. ‘OK, why don’t we ask her?’ said the teacher.
‘So Jackie, where you came from, was it a village, a town?’
‘It’s technically a municipality’, I replied. Seremban had been upgraded from ‘town’ to ‘municipality’ status during my school years, so I was well-versed with the difference between them – it’d been taught in class back at the Convent.
‘OK. So it had buildings, and such?’ ‘Yes, we had buildings.’
‘Like actual, concrete buildings?’ ‘Yup’ (hard to believe, isn’t it? I wanted to add)
‘There you go, everyone. Where Jackie came from, they did have buildings.’
I really didn’t settle in well. I made several failed attempts at connecting, then pretty much gave up and ended up spending lunchtimes gorging down my food before heading to the library to wait out the bell. And being in school with a bunch of kids a couple of years younger than me didn’t help.
I thought they were ill-disciplined, immature, ignorant, boorish, racist, and hostile. I couldn’t believe how short the girls’ uniforms were, and the fact that they got away with wearing heavy makeup to school. Having served as a prefect at the Convent, where the rules stipulated in exact detail how high your skirt hem and your socks could be, all I could do was pick out everything that was wrong with these kids.
There were classes that were out of control and teachers who had given up trying to control them. Immigration was a hot topic and some of the students were vocal in their opposition to it. The small contingent of Indochinese guys were no match in these debates, largely because of their poor English skills. They mostly kept quiet whilst the Aussies talked about banning Asian immigration because they don’t speak the language, they stick out, and they congregate in places like Cabramatta and threaten to turn them into slums and high crime areas.
One time one of them did try to take them on, but no one could understand his broken English (myself included) and after making him repeat himself numerous times, the leader of the pack, Peter, finally told him to write his reply on the blackboard, which sent the rest of the Aussies into hysterics. Pretty humiliating stuff.
I’d been president of the Debating Society back at the Convent but really wasn’t well-versed in the finer points of immigration, nor did I care to argue with them. I didn’t consider myself part of the same demographic as the Indochinese refugees, and was offended that the Aussies lumped me in the same boat with them. No, your country didn’t save me from certain death or illiteracy and war and pain and suffering by letting me in, so no, I wasn’t eternally grateful to be here. In fact, couldn’t wait to get out, you morons, I thought. I resented being away from my boyfriend and figured I’d just wait out these two years until we finished schooling and could be together again. Or so I thought.