By John Kendall Hawkins
I’m sitting in the emergency room of Royal Children’s Hospital, my daughter, Melanie, fast asleep in my arms. Normally boisterous with joy, she attacks the hallway at home like some wild banshee on horseback, but now she’s listless and hot, the smell of her latest upchuck rising from the synthetic fur of the Humphrey B. Bear doll she clutches.
I’m trying not to look up, because when I do there’s a boy Melanie’s age happily riding a plastic tricycle in front of me. The whole right side of his face is one huge pizza scab. Looking at him circling, I can’t help but think of the two-faced Roman god Janus. I’m ashamed of myself for trying to read the boy’s parents, who are sitting some distance from each other, their stone-still faces averted and sculpted in grief.
Beyond them, the emergency room opens like an airport terminal, with parents queuing at the registrar’s counter, children in tow – some squalling or kicking, others, like Melanie, scarily silent. We’ve been waiting over an hour, put on a segmented waiting list that prioritises emergencies the way an airline divides its seats by class.
On the telly there’s a news report on China’s response to the Obama administration’s accusation of cyber-spying, and I’m straining to follow it, smirking at the hypocrisy. But Barbara, the woman sitting two seats away, won’t stop talking. Worry, I suppose. Sam, her nine-year-old boy, sits vacantly beside her, his left arm in a sling, his right hand shovelling French fries into his mouth from a McDonald’s bag she holds for him.
Barbara’s from Cape Town, South Africa; husband’s a history professor at a local uni. They migrated to Oz in 1990, she says, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This reference interests me. I don’t cry much anymore (what’s the point, really?), but I sobbed when he died. I read somewhere that Mandela pretended to be too ill for visitors when Obama stopped by to visit him not long before he died.
I recall Mandela’s world-wide tour, following his release from prison. I went to one rally. Quarter million people. Skateboarders wearing tie-dyed T-shirts. Cumulus clouds of cannabis. A sign that read: End APART-HATE Everywhere! “No Woman No Cry” coming from the loudspeakers. And then Mandela jaunting onstage, fists dancing to the Bob Marley tune, smiling that smile, as people stood and roared and the music changed to “One Love”. And then that absolute hush as he spoke of courage, hope, and freedom.
That’s not what Barbara’s going on about though. “Stupid. You had people vastly different from one another by virtue of culture, religion, language, economic levels and race, yet the whole world expected them to live harmoniously together overnight,” she sighs. “But whites lost heavily. Dispossessed, really. In the end, we feared we’d be necklaced and ran for our lives.”
A nurse carrying a clipboard squeaky-shoes into the waiting area and calls out, “Abdallah Hassan?”
Barbara goes on, “See, wogs first. That’s the whole problem with this so-called multiculturalism. There’s a hidden agenda. And no one wants to talk about it.” She looks at me for a second and adds, “But I suppose you’re a multiculturalist?”
I’m trying hard not to picture Barbara rolling down the road necklaced in a burning tire, a wheel on fire. All I really want to do is catch the China report on the telly, but I don’t want to be rude. “Aw, look, to tell you the truth, “I say, “I’m not sure I know what a multiculturalist is, or what the suffix –ist is all about. At the end of the day, the world’s made up of many, many cultures, whether you care to believe it or not. Mostly, it’s just the same old story of learning to tolerate people you may not understand very well or like very much once you do.”
“Well, that’s an improvement over a lot of the claptrap I hear,” she answers. “Some people seem to think we should all be striving to live together in happy Christian brotherhood.”
She says this with such pique that I’m physically startled. Her son seems deaf to it, as he munches down the fries. I’m thinking, broken arms may be the least of his worries growing up. I’m normally garrulous, but all I want to do now is sit here quietly absorbing my daughter’s pain by psychical osmosis until the nurse calls us in. I don’t need this wall of white noise.
On the telly, they’re showing the latest US drone mishap, another wedding party taken out with a drone missile, some local’s iPhone video reveals a smoking crater, onlookers dazed, like they don’t know what hit them. They switch to some Chinese official, smiling, and they switch to an image of the US bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 17 years earlier, the official seeming to draw a parallel in carelessness and impunity.
“What do you do?” Barbara asks.
Now I’m ready to bloody clock her. In my most clipped tone I tell her I’m a staff writer for The Herald. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, such an admission would bore the bejeezuz out of anyone. But with Barbara I want to make sure, so add, “Yeah, maybe you saw my piece last week on Bob Dylan and the Sixties counterculture.” This is not a question, but a statement meant to close off further conversation. It seems to work. Though a barbed-wire sparkle plays in her eyes and her lips seem to purse into a swastika smile, she pauses and turns away.
On the telly, they’re flashing images of student protesters in a regimented rage outside the American embassy in Beijing. China is calling for an immediate apology from the US for accusations of cyber warfare. China calls the accusations a smokescreen for the growing presence of the US in Asian waters and is talking about catastrophic consequences for their bilateral relations. The US responds that China is overreacting for political advantage. Obama challenges China to tear down its internet firewall and allow the free-flow of ideas. The Chinese official jeers and they flash the NSA symbol.
The desk nurse comes out again and calls, “Ben Solowji?”
That turns out to be Janus. The nurse helps him off the tricycle and leads him away, his parents shuffling behind like tattered unstitched shadows from Never Never Land. The nurse coos something comforting to the child, and he looks up and gives her his half-moon smile. Out of the corner of my eye I see Barbara studying me, building a dossier. Melanie shifts slightly, but stays asleep.
“He could con Jesus off the cross,” says Barbara.
“Who?” I just about shout. “Obama?”
“No, Bob Dylan,” she says without a trace of humour. “He’s been busy re-inventing himself for years, hasn’t he? It’s what the Jews do. Bad Jew to Good Jew in one generation. First, he’s selling Volkswagens. A Jew selling Volkswagens.” She shakes her head, Sam mimicking her.
Apparently, she’s referring to the television car ad that uses “The Times They Are A-Changin…” as a soundtrack. The ad features a tinted-glass VW sedan ruggedly making its way from a lush rainforest paradise toward a post-apocalyptic urban jungle. It’s an inane allusion, and I do my best to block her out.
I’m thinking, it’s ironical that more than 25 years after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations Chinese students are now shouting pro-government slogans. Lots of people like to remember 1989 for the pleasing images of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, with Vaclav Havel going from the playwright-prisoner to president. And then, later that year, Pink Floyd jamming at the crumbled remnants of the Berlin Wall. Democracy in action, pretty heady stuff. But the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 was the other side of the coin. Hundreds killed, thousands taken away to prisons.
On the telly, they’re discussing the 25th anniversary of the China uprising and showing a picture of present day Tiananmen Square. It’s empty and encircled by a grey panel fence on the outside of which are painted red flags of the People’s Republic. The sequence of images vaguely suggests the inside of an empty Andy Warhol tin of tomato soup.
“Misha Kulkami?” cries the duty nurse.
The television imagery switches to 1989. I’m thinking, whatever became of that man with a satchel who stared down a whole column of tanks? Talk about profiles in courage. Wang Weilin was the name attributed to him by the media a few days later, but he hasn’t been seen since. And no one seems to have inquired of his whereabouts. He’s just disappeared. This bothers me. His raw reality buried beneath a copyrighted image of freedom.
“Do you think they bombed the Chinese embassy that time on purpose?” Barbara asks. I’m almost certain she’s trying to pull my chain.
I smirk, and say calmly, not biting, “No, the CIA just bungled the intel.” And for a moment I believe this. After all, they’re the same lot who one time provided flawed maps to the US Navy pilots who struck a gondola cable in Italy that caused 20 hapless skiers, who wouldn’t have known what hit them, to plummet to their deaths. They’re the same goofs who once tried to feed Fidel Castro a drink to make his beard fall out, hoping he’d “lose face” with his people and it would instigate a counter-revolution in Cuba. Still, they’re a sinister lot, too, having given the world Pinochet, Suharto and Saddam Hussein. But I add, “No way.”
“You’re naïve,” says Barbara.
“Mmm, you are. Don’t you realize it was their 50th anniversary?”
“What? What does an anniversary have to do with the accidental bombing of an embassy?”
I’m getting frantic. Here I am, waiting interminably in an emergency room with my sick daughter, trafficking in second-hand didactics with some motor-mouthed nutter. A memory from my year teaching EFL in South Korea flashes. First week in, a student comes up after class and tells, me, ominously, that foreigners don’t last long in Korea, can’t cope with the culture. He re-tells the story of an American expat who goes “dicky Tao” one day and runs off down the main boulevard of Seoul, naked, and screaming, “Get me out of here!” Dicky, meaning malfunctioning. Tao, the balance of yin and yang, the synergetic life principles. Dicky Tao. In short, el tropo, fucked in the head.
I look over at Barbara, and mutter, “Dicky Tao,” with a delivery so toothsome that Melanie pops one lid open and eyes me for a moment.
“Accident?” she says, not skipping a beat. “China was celebrating its 50th year of communism. Fifty years. But that’s nothing, because China hasn’t changed in its essentials in 2500 years, and probably never will.”
I’m having trouble seeing what this has to do with the embassy bombing, even if it were true, but I follow anyway. “Oh, come on, of course China is changing. What about Tiananmen Square? That’s a start. No one thought the Berlin Wall would ever fall either, but I read they made key chains out of it for tourists.”
Barbara snorts. “The Berlin Wall? Let me tell you something about walls. The only wall in this whole world that matters is the Great Wall. 2400 kilometres long. It would stretch from Melbourne to Brisbane. The largest structure ever built by human hands. ‘Beside it,’ said Voltaire, ‘the pyramids of Egypt are only puerile and useless masses.’ It was built to keep out Attila and the Huns. And when the Huns couldn’t get past it, they changed direction and pounced on Europe. Rome fell, and Western civilization entered the Dark Age, because China built that wall. You want inscrutable? Try fathoming the depth of Confucian introversion that conceived that wall.”
At uni I wrote my thesis on Candide, and I’m just bowled out to hear the name Voltaire uttered by such hateful lips. I barely eke out, “What does any of that have to do with the bombing of the embassy?”
“Don’t you see?” she says. “The Americans, with their store-bought freedom this and freedom that, are little more than barbarians to the Chinese. Latter day Huns trying to crack the Wall. Bombing that embassy was a loud Yank knock on the door. ‘Open up’, they yell, ‘We got some dang toasters fer ya’ But they won’t get in, and when they can’t get in they’ll destroy themselves, because this time the Huns and Romans are one and the same.”
I’m slack-jawed and astonished by so much encyclopaedic trivia wrapped in such paranoia and hatred. But her spontaneous combustion seems to have burned itself out, and for the first time in more than an hour she’s truly quiet. I look down at Melanie and she’s mouthing “drink.”
“She wants something to drink,” says Sam.
It’s then that I realize in my haste to get Melanie to the hospital I’ve broken rule number one of toddler traveling: bring stuff. “Shit,” I bark.
“There’s a McDonald’s on the other side of the hospital,” says Sam, with a look that conjures up Ginger Meggs. “I can show you.”
Melanie’s mewling becomes more insistent. I say, “That’s okay. Just tell me how to get there.” He does, and off we go.
Getting to McDonald’s is like finding my way through the minotaur’s maze – switchbacks, ramps, swinging doors, misleading signs. Carrying 15 kilos of suffering, writhing baby thirst is no fun either. Finally, we pass an information desk, and there it is, the glowy golden arches, the soporific lighting, the vague sizzle of meat and warm smell of fries. A community of strangers taking succor in the cathedral of consumption.
We queue up. To the left of the counter, in a kind of apse, is a life-sized plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald, moulded into a seated position, like Santa Claus, or some boffo Buddha. For a moment I feel like a kid again waiting in line at Mass for communion. Because of – and despite – Barbara, I find myself thinking about Voltaire again. Regarding the human condition, he once observed, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” How true, I’m thinking. But looking over at the candy-coloured clown-Christ of capitalism (“Billions and billions served”), I’m wondering if Ronald is the best we can do.
“May I take your order, sir?” asks the uniformed teen behind the register. Her broad Filipino smile is so lovely I’m ashamed it must be wasted, in service, on me.
“Just some milk, please,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” she apologises, so solemnly I think she actually means it, “we don’t have any milk.” She looks at Melanie, and adds, “Would you like to try a Happy Meal? We’ve got a special on?’
“No,” I say, “just a cheeseburger” (for this is the body) “and a Coke” (for this is the blood). A transubstantiation paid for in nihilist dollars.
I think again of Wang Weilin. And wonder what’s become of him? Was he now wasting away in some provincial prison sweatshop in Manchuria – maybe handing piecework on to the tank driver who had dared to blink? Was he in a secret hold of some modern slave ship bound for the garment district of Sydney, London or New York? How do you just disappear like that?
“Here you go,” says the girl, her innocence lighting up her plastic smile.
I shift Melanie to one arm and fumble for my wallet. I pay for the food and we make our way back toward the emergency room, Melanie gently tugging Coke through the straw. Sure enough, when we get there Barbara is gesturing, waving us toward the registrar’s desk.
“They called your name,” her son hollers, grinning.
After a hurried exchange with a harried nurse we’re shown into another room full of curtained exam cubicles and told to wait in one for the next available doctor. He comes presently, a tall Brit with coffee nerves. He examines Melanie briefly. “Looks like she’s picked up a wog,” he says pleasantly, peering into her cochlea with a pen torch. “Her ear’s all red and swollen.”
“Jeez,” I say, “aren’t there any Australians working in this hospital?”
He slaps me on the shoulder and laughs. “All fled off to America, mate. Good luck,” he says, and steps off toward another cubicle.
Back in the emergency room, I carry Melanie toward a bank of telephones and pick up the direct line to a taxi company. As I’m doing so, Humphrey B. Bear tumbles out of Melanie’s arms to the floor. I stoop and pick it up. For some reason, I look at the label. Made in China. No surprise.
There’s no real avoiding Chinese goods, I tell myself. If you’re a capitalist manufacturer, China’s cheap labour is a welcome margin booster. If you’re a consumer, you buy what you can afford. But there’s something wrong with the equation. For all I know, Wang Weilin stitched together the jeans I’m wearing.
“Of course, the ideologies of some Jewish intellectuals are not necessarily in the interests of the wider community,” Barbara is telling her next victim, a saried Indian woman rocking a swaddled infant. “To back ‘good Jews’ regardless of the crimes they do is part and parcel of these ideologies. They think everyone has had to fend off genocide, which includes my forebears and yours.”
“Daddy,” my daughter is pleading.
And I have this picture in my head. Tiananmen again, but no tanks, just empty. And Wang Weilen, naked, running in circles in the square under swirls of a Van Gogh sky. “Dicky Tao,” he screams, Munch-like, in the opium haze of a Kafkaesque dream. But zooming in on his far away face, I see not Wang, but Janus.
“Daddy,” my daughter says. “Daddy. Humphrey. Mine.”
I stuff the bear back in Melanie’s arms and we wait outside for the cab to come. One day, I tell myself, I will explain walls and clowns and wogs to her – and Voltaire’s lovely gardens, too.
The taxi arrives and we hop in. The driver mutters something utterly incomprehensible to me and I feel stricken with irritation.
“Can’t you people at least learn some basic English before you come over?”
My daughter is tugging my sleeve. I look down at her and she says, “Daddy, he said ‘where you going?'” and looks at me for a second and closes her eye.