My blood may run thick with poutine, but Mommy’s heart is partially True Blue Aussie. Two separate years of my life were spent down under, and you don’t really walk away from that much Vegemite without feeling like a little bit of you belongs there.
My Mom was an elementary school teacher for 30 years. She’s retired now, but as a teacher, she was eligible to take part in the teacher’s international exchange program. The program found your family a match in some other Commonwealth country, and organized a year long swap of jobs and homes. Families who took part in the program also took advantage of lower travel costs to and from their destination countries, by stopping in many places along the way. I got to see Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Tahiti, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, & The Cook Islands this way.
The first year we went, I was eight years old. I remember the day my parents told me we were moving to Australia. I vividly recall imagining a barren land where the only inhabitants were indigenous tribal people wearing loincloths and lobbing spears at gargantuan beasts for snacks. I was a little scared, to say the least… but that year, spent in Adelaide, was one of the best of my entire life. In fact, it was so wonderful, we decided to go again.
The second time we found a placement, I was 14. This time we were headed to Perth and I was none too pleased. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, Godless Mom was a shy kid and teenager. Making friends did not come easy to me back then. I had just started high school and made some friends I really liked, and the thought of having to be uprooted and start all over again in a foreign country was desperately upsetting to me. I stomped my feet and whined at my parents for 8 months while we prepared to go… but we went anyway, and I followed, under great protest.
On the way to Perth, we visited Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Sydney, and Adelaide. In spite of the fact that I had never wanted to leave in the first place, I enjoyed every minute of our trek to Perth. When we arrived at our new home though, reality hit and I grumbled through getting ready to attend Australian high school.
My high school in Perth
I was enrolled in Greenwood Senior High School next to the primary school my Mom taught at, and on that first day, we dropped my Mom and brother off, and my Dad walked me over to the high school. I was terrified as I walked. My Dad assured me that all would be okay. He told me to try to go into it with a positive attitude and I had every intention of attempting that, but about 10 feet from the school driveway, I felt something land on my head and slide down my hair. I’d literally been shit on. A fucking magpie had done it’s thing on my head, and as tears welled up in my blue eyes, and my Dad’s heart broke, he said, “See? Honey? A bird pooping on you is considered good luck!”.
After being allowed to use the administration bathroom to clean up, and put my hair into a ponytail, I said goodbye to my Dad and followed the counselor to my first classroom. I don’t remember what class it was, but the teacher, a 40-something, bald white man, insisted on me standing at the front of the class while he introduced me.
“Class, this is Courtney. She’s joined us all the way from Canada. Say hello!”
What are they, five? I thought. I mustered a wave and a half smile.
“So, Courtney, tell us what it’s like in Canada.” The teacher prompted me with a nudge on the shoulder. My heart stopped and I could feel my face go red. He wanted me to talk in front a brand new classroom of teenagers, in a foreign country? My breathing became strained and my eyes grew.
“That good, huh?” He snickered. Clever, I thought, rolling my eyes. I was quickly becoming less and less impressed with this man, and I could feel anger begin to well up inside of me.
“It must be cold there, in Canada. Does it snow all year ’round?” His smug look made me clench my teeth. I was getting pissed off and that was the one thing that could break the spell of my shyness. Godless Mom can throw down.
Mr. What’s-His-Fuck looked at me and his eyes twinkled. I could feel that he was going to say something stupid. A shiver went up my spine, as the air charged with his ignorance and the entire room sat in silence, waiting for what we all knew was coming next.
“Tell me something, Courtney.” The teacher said, finally breaking the silence and making my skin crawl. “Do you live in an igloo?”
“Motherfucker, yes. It’s 3 storeys high with wall-to-wall carpeting, central heating and a goddamned pool in the backyard” I looked him square in the eyes and flipped him the bird.
The classroom erupted in laughter, but I was quickly escorted to the principal’s office. Sinking deep into my own fury at what the teacher had said, I sat wringing my hands, waiting to speak to the principal. Other students trickled in as I stared, livid, heart pounding and ready to let loose at the first person who looked at me funny.
“What’d you do?” I was startled by the girl sitting next to me.
“Fuck if I know.” I said.
“Hah, welcome to the club.” She twisted a lock of wiry, uber-curly black hair between her thumb and forefinger. She was dark-skinned, and looked Aboriginal.
“Sorry, I’m Mel.” She extended her hand.
“Hey, I’m Courtney.” I shook it.
“Where you from, Courtney? You sound American.”
“Canada.” I grumbled, waiting to have to explain how cold it is there.
“I’m from Papua New Guinea.”
“Woah, really? You sound Aussie!” I exclaimed, suddenly interested in another student from far away.
“Yeah, I’ve been here a while.” She looked around with disgust.
“So, what did you do then?” I asked.
“You’re looking at it”, Mel pointed to her body and it took me a minute before I clued in. She wasn’t wearing her uniform. Seeing it dawn on me, she winked and offered, “I’m here every morning, if you’re ever looking for me.”
From that point on, Mel and I were pretty inseparable. I too, forwent the uniform as I’d had enough trouble with it before I even saw Mel handle a trip to the principal’s office like a champ. We spent every morning in administration explaining why we weren’t dressed like the rest of the sheep, and we spent every lunch and break under the second floor walkway, to stay out of the sun. We ate there, she smoked there, we laughed there. She told me her life story and I told her mine. She described Papua New Guinea for me and I described Vancouver with two words: grey & wet.
I learned a lot about her but the thing I learned quickest, was that she was the target of all the bullies in the school. They would shout things at her while we ate. They would stare and point. They would laugh at her and sometimes even threaten violence. I didn’t really understand why at first, so I asked her.
“What’s their fucking problem?” I demanded.
“They think I’m an Aboriginal.” She explained.
My jaw dropped. “What? Who cares?”
“Look at Carmen.” She pointed across the field to the bleachers, where another dark-skinned girl sat, alone. “She’s actually Aboriginal.”
I paid attention to Carmen for a few days and noticed she got picked on just as much as Mel. I couldn’t believe it. Where I grew up, in Canada, we had a massive immigrant population. Most of my classmates were from Asia, and in some settings, I was in the minority as a white girl. We grew up with all sorts of people around us, and as such, I’d never seen racism quite like this: incessant, relentless and inescapable.
Our white car in the Pinnacles desert near Perth. Exploring Australia was far more fun than school there.
As the year progressed, and I became closer and closer with Mel, people started to pick on me, as well. They would call me Abo-lover, lesbian, chocolate fiend and all sorts of other colourful names. They would corner me when I wasn’t with Mel and tell me that a white girl like me shouldn’t be hanging out with “Abo trash” like her. I never explained that she was not an Aboriginal, because I felt that to do so would be to agree that there is something wrong with being that. So, I just took it. In the beginning, I would be furious and I would sling shit right back just as fast as I could. Eventually, I just stopped and took it. I’d let them knock my books out of my hand, or my lunch. I’d let them steal my hat, and mess up my hair. I came home damn near every day in tears.
But I still ate lunch with Mel. I still refused to wear my uniform with Mel. I still spent every morning in the principal’s office with Mel.
A few months into my stint at Greenwood Senior High, I was sitting under the second storey walkway with Mel, eating an ice lolly, as they call them, and cracking jokes about our photography teacher, when one of the school’s most notorious bullies strolled by. He spotted me, and stopped.
“Too bad you’re an Abo-lover.” He said, looking me up and down and licking his lips. “Pretty blonde Sheila”
“Fuck off, Al” Mel didn’t even look up. It was just reflex.
“Are all Canadians Abo-lovers?” He clasped his hands together and spread his legs, looking me straight in the eyes. I just stood there, looked at my feet and said nothing.
“I said, fuck off Al.” Mel finally looked up.
“Do you have a boyfriend back home, bitch?” He took a step closer to me.
“Back the fuck up!” Mel rose to her feet.
“Mind if I touch your tits, Canada?” He reached out for my chest. His hand didn’t make it. Mel had stood between Al and I. Fury rose in his eyes. I could see him visibly start to tremble.
“You fucking Abo bitch!” He roared. His mouth pursed up and he leaned back, and everything started to feel like it was in slow motion. I heard him clear his throat and thrust his face forward as a massive glob of spit flew from his mouth and smacked Mel square on the the face.
I ran and ran and ran. I ran across the field and down the street to my Mom’s school. I burst into her classroom in tears and she ushered me back outside to hear what was wrong. I told her everything. I told her I could not go back there. I told her if I had to go back there, I would hurt someone. I wasn’t lying. I would have.
I wish I’d been stronger, and gone back to be there for Mel, but I wasn’t. I was 14, in a foreign country and shy as fuck. I wish I’d stood up to that fucker, and stayed by Mel’s side. Instead, after lengthy talks with both of my parents, I dropped out of school. I found out later though, that she had left that day as well, and never went back.
While this part of my second year in Australia was truly awful, I wouldn’t change it for the world. The rest of my year there made up another of the best years of my life. Even though a few Aussies were assholes to me, the country has a very special place in my heart. I am an estimated 1/3rd True Blue Aussie (honorarily speaking) and I wouldn’t have it any other way.