Ancestors by Juliet Blair
The house of my ancestors in Singapore is three hundred years old. Mum is proud of it and thinks I should be too. 'It's your heritage, Anna!' So what? Dad has a heritage too, a British Isles Aussie one, but he doesn't keep pushing it in my face.
I changed my mind about my heritage last year, when I was eleven. We went to Singapore on holiday, and I saw the house for real, not just on Google Maps, which made it look like an over-decorated doll's house. Lilac walls. Celadon green shutters. Three glazed turquoise dragons climbing up between the windows. It was a knockout. I was converted on the spot. Bring on the ancestors!
Mum was delighted, of course. On that holiday we practically lived in the Singapore of long ago, the time of the Peranakan culture, half Chinese, half Malay, but with a flavour all its own. In the museum, we looked at these people's gorgeous patterned china, their stiff embroidered robes, their solemn, posed sepia photographs. We ate their spicy food in the old shop-house restaurants. We visited Mum's Aunty Lily, who looked a bit like those photographs herself. By the time we returned to Australia. Mum had achieved what she'd wanted. I had become proud of my ancestors.
So when Ms Cootes, our English teacher, set us the task of giving a Powerpoint presentation called 'My Ancestors', while everyone else was groaning, I was secretly smiling. None of the other girls could possibly have ancestors as interesting as mine. I was going to kill this task. Ten out of ten. But that wasn't important. The important thing was that it would make me stand out in front of Brittany and the other girls in the group. Full membership, at last!
Brittany's group was the only one in Year 7 worth belonging to. You had to be fashionable, good-looking, rich, and 'one of us' in some way that was not specified, but compulsory just the same. I had started at my new high school two weeks late, on account of a European holiday, and at the first recess break I had walked straight up to Brittany's group and sat down. This was a terrible breach of the unwritten rules, but no-one in the group told me to go away. They may have thought we were rich, because of the trip to Europe. They didn't know how long my parents had saved for it. And they never would if I could help it.
Three weeks later, still I hadn't been told to go away. I was with the group, but not in it. I had to find a way to take that final step to full membership. And nobody was going to help me except myself.
By Friday my presentation was perfect. As well as my own photos, I had pictures of ornate furniture, colourful chinaware, delicious food. The girls in my class would never have heard the word 'Peranakan' before. My pictures would knock their socks off. I had practised my speech till I knew it by heart. 'My ancestors' home is guarded by three shiny blue dragons ...'
My speech was the last of the day. Before me was Ngoc Pham.
Her speech was wonderful. Better than mine. I started to hope that we would run over time, so mine would be put off till Monday.
Her grandparents had come from Vietnam in a leaky boat, on a horror voyage during which they almost died of thirst. Her story of how they survived in Australia, and the sacrifices they made for her father to get an education, was so inspiring. Her photographs of the village in Hoah Binh Province, Vietnam, where her ancestors had lived for generation after generation, and where she still had great-aunts and uncles, showed a simple, hard-working life surrounded by close friends and natural beauty.
'Thank you, Ngoc. Any questions? Yes, Brittany?'
'Don't they get foot infections standing in the mud in those rice paddies?'
A few giggles. The teacher frowned. 'I'm not sure that was the right kind of -'
'It's OK, Ms Cootes. I'll answer it. They wear boots. Wouldn't you?'
More giggles. Brittany went red. 'Cabramatta. That's where you live, isn't it? Half-way to Bowral. Is it because of your ancestors?'
'Brittany, that's a personal question. Ngoc, you don't have to answer that.'
'Thanks, Ms Cootes, but I will. Yes, Brittany, it is, if grandparents are ancestors. They need us; they're old and frail. They also need their 'little Vietnam'; they'd be lost anywhere else. So ...'
The bell rang. The bus girls stood up, and the teacher quickly dismissed the class. Good. I had till Monday now.
'Scholarship girl!' Brittany hissed at Ngoc as she passed. 'Go back to Hoah Binh province. You don't belong here.'
She must have thought Ms Cootes couldn't hear this. But teachers have ears like bats. 'Brittany! Stop! Come back!'
Brittany came back and stood sulkily beside the desk. 'I can say what I like after the bell,' she said.
'You cannot say what you like in this classroom! Apologise to Ngoc! At once!'
Brittany muttered something. The teacher pursed her lips in disapproval. 'Louder, please.'
'I said I'm not going to apologise to a slope!'
'Brittany! What can I say? This needs more time than we can give it on a Friday afternoon. We will take it up on Monday. I apologise on Brittany's behalf, Ngoc. Now, all you stickybeaks, be off with you! There's nothing to see.'
Outside the room, the girls in the group were full of sympathy for Brittany. Getting into trouble just for telling the truth!
'You'd think she'd be ashamed of those mud-grubbing ancestors with their buffaloes.'
'I'm going to talk about my convict ancestor,' said Adele.
'You've got a convict ancestor?' Britanny whistled softly. 'Oh, I'm green! I'd kill for a convict ancestor.'
Nya ha! I was saved.
Dinner time. My chance to ask the important question. 'Dad, you know that convict ancestor of yours that Nana was telling us about? What was his name?'
'Why do you want to know? Dad helped himself to more lasagne.
'I didn't get to do my Ancestors presentation today. I want to do a different one on Monday. About this convict.'
'Why?' Uh, oh. Mum had joined in. 'Are you ashamed of your Singapore relatives all of a sudden?'
'Of course not. It's just that our teacher is such a fan of Australian history. I'll get a better mark if I do an Aussie topic.'
Those words - 'get a better mark' - are the magic passport to Mum's agreement with almost anything. 'Oh, that's all right then,' she said.
I felt bad. Mum had chanced on part of the truth. I realised something now - Brittany and the others didn't know I was part Asian. I don't particularly look it, and my name – Anna Lawrence – gives nothing away. Now I had something else to keep from Brittany and the girls. This was like being a juggler with too many balls in the air. They'd come crashing down when Mum came up to the school, as she was sure to do some time.
Maybe by then I'd be in solid with the group, and it wouldn't matter. Concentrate on the first step, I said to myself. The convict ancestor.
Thomas Denning was his name. 'Irish Rebel' was his nickname, Three Bees his ship, 1814 his year of arrival. He was twenty-three years old. He was still a convict when he married two years later, and started the family that would later expand to twelve children.
Lucky about those twelve children. Anyone who has left so many descendants has many people digging up information about him and uploading it to the net. I read the story of a man whose native land was being destroyed by civil war and politics, forced to make a long, dangerous sea journey to Australia, living in wretched poverty at first, and fighting his way through to respectability and comfort. Just like Ngoc's grandparents.
Monday morning. It was time. The class and the teacher were waiting. I pressed Enter and my first slide, a below-decks view of a convict ship, appeared on the big screen. I opened my mouth. No words came out.
The idea that had been forming in my mind all weekend, that I had been trying to dismiss, had suddenly overwhelmed me. I was not worthy to be the five-greats-granddaughter of an Irish Rebel. Thomas Denning had opposed the powerful English to defend his people, had risked his life and lost his homeland, and I was using him to hide behind, rather than admit to being what I really was.
'Miss?' I croaked.
'Yes, Anna? What's wrong? Are you ill?'
'No. But I'd like to change my presentation. Is that all right?'
I pressed Menu, Down arrow, Enter. The screen blossomed into brilliance, in celadon, lilac and turquoise.
'My ancestors' home is guarded by three shiny blue dragons ...'
Copyright © 2014. Juliet Blair