Jing Cramb

Born and raised in China, Jing Cramb came to Australia for postgraduate study and is a teacher in Brisbane. Her short stories have received a Highly Commended Award in Peter Cowan competition and have been shortlisted for Deborah Cass Prize.

Lisa looked like a Laughing Buddha when she was talking about her son Oliver. It was quite remarkable because Lisa was not Asian, but an Australian redhead. Her eyes squinted into a slit almost disappearing from her face, only leaving her nose, permanently shining with sweat from the heat in the café kitchen. Her face looked happy and content. My grandpa would say with a face like that she ought to have good luck. 

“Oliver got into this prestigious local school”. Her voice was infused with sweet excitement sounding like a chirping bird. I had already heard the news. I was not sure if the word “prestigious” should be used for a public school, even in a good suburb, perhaps I was wrong. English is a difficult language.

 “The kids from the school look…”, she paused searching for the right word and then said “clean”. As if I didn’t understand she stared at me, drew closer, whispered it slowly in her low husky voice “C-leeaann”. 

The word echoed around me.

So, Oliver will become as clean as the other students, who wear freshly laundered and ironed clothes, shiny polished shoes, shower twice a day, rarely have acne on their faces and are all fit because of the healthy food they eat. As opposed to someone who looks “dirty”. 

I looked clean I suppose. Last week, a grey-haired, stern-faced lady told me “You don’t look like a waitress, you are…too clean”, as she examined me making her coffee. Her silver- rimmed glasses seemed to emanate cold air and sent a chill down my spine. I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed, trying to work out the meaning behind her comment and being the centre of attention. I looked at her and smiled. She did not smile back. 

The coffee I made her was burnt. 

I might have accidentally fallen into the “clean girl” category, as proven by my pale-yellow skin and the lady with the authoritative look. It should be an honour for a girl like me. I grew up in a heavily polluted industrial city in the north of China. The sky was permanently grey. A big open rubbish dump was a few hundred metres away from the little one-bedroom flat where my grandparents and I lived. Sometimes stray dogs roamed around with unknown items dangling from their mouths, followed by a swarm of flies. The public squat toilet, with window frames but no glass, was always freezing in winter and boiling hot in summer. There were no divisions in the toilet, everyone was on display, everyone was equal. Giant white maggots moved slowly over the cubicle floors. 

My thin, brown, wrinkly no Laughing Buddha-faced grandpa always sat cross-legged on the couch next to the little dining table. At lunch time, he would fling his head back, scull a shot of warm rice wine and smile at me. His teeth were stained with excess alcohol, black tea and low-quality tobacco, a couple of teeth missing. He wished that one day I could go to a university in the capital city, unlike him. He had never been away from his hometown. He and I did not know that a decade later, I would come to this clean country, live in the clean city, breathe in its clean air and become a clean person. Unlike my grandpa, who never had a chance to become, clean.