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A Clash of Cultures

Our first winner in MiNDFOOD’s Short Story Competition is Chris Marcic. Chris retired to the east coast of Australia with her musician husband nearly three years ago after spending 38 years in Alice Springs. In the Centre, she worked variously as a newspaper journalist, ministerial officer, high school English teacher and casual presenter for 783ABC, Alice Springs. Since retiring, she has been able to devote more time to writing and has done well in local literary competitions over the last couple of years. When not writing, you'll find her down at the beach walking her dogs, swimming or paddle-boarding when the tide is high.

A Clash of Cultures

 “Go back to where you come from!”

“Why you hiding your face?”

“Must be a robber or something!”

“Up to no good, eh?”

“I reckon they’re terrorists, maybe they’re gonna blow up the train!”

The group of teenage boys laughed as they continued to hurl insults at the two women sitting opposite them. They smirked or told each other; “Good one!” thinking their words clever. Other passengers on the crowded train began to feel uncomfortable. Those closest to the women seemed to shrink down as though afraid they would draw the attention of the aggressive youths. Some surreptitiously filmed the youths and their victims on their mobile phones, no doubt hoping to forward the footage on to one of the television networks which seemed to screen such altercations almost nightly in their news coverage of the day’s events. Other passengers further back, craned their necks to try and see what was happening.

The two women had been sitting together, chatting quietly away when the youths first boarded the train and strutted down the passageway towards them. Not by a word nor a glance had they unwittingly precipitated the youths’ actions. The older woman looked distressed when she realised they were the target of the teenagers’ verbal abuse but the younger woman remained calm and squeezed her hand reassuringly.

A red-faced man, somewhat braver than the other passengers began to rise but his alarmed wife pulled him back. The boys looked tough, they acted as though they wanted a fight. They may well be armed! He shook her off in irritation.

“Really,” he began heatedly, “This is not appropriate…,” but one of the targeted women shook her head and smiled at him.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m happy to answer their questions.”

The man resumed his seat reluctantly and the boys jeered at what they misinterpreted as cowardice on his behalf.

The woman gazed fearlessly at the closest boy. “Now,” she said firmly. “I think you were the one who made the statement; ‘go back to where you come from’, are you not?”

“Yeah, said it and meant it!” the boy retorted. He was a big lad, obviously the leader of this gang and not one to be easily cowed. He grinned at his mates to show them he was in control and enjoying the situation they had created.

“Well,” the woman considered, “I was born in Subiaco which is in the south west of Western Australia. That’s where I originally came from but I don’t have any memory of that as my family moved interstate when I was still a toddler. My mother,” she indicated the burqa clad woman beside her, “can verify that. Should I go back there? I don’t really know anyone in the West so it would be a bit daunting at first, starting all over again. I don’t have any family left there either as they all moved with me. Or perhaps I should go back to Victoria as that’s where I was educated from pre-school right through to my Monash years. Still got a lot of mates there so I’m pretty sure of finding accommodation straight away. It would be a shame to leave the coast though as I’ve spent most of my married life here. Not sure what my husband would think if I told him I had to ‘go back to where I came from.’ We’re in the middle of renovations at the moment so we’re not really in a position to just sell up and go. It’s a dilemma; what should I tell him, what should I do?”

By now the boy was beet red and his mates were laughing at him, not with him but he rallied. “Go back to the country where your parents came from if you want to dress like that! That’s…that’s unAustralian!”

The woman considered. “ Oh! That may be difficult quite apart from the fact that I am a citizen of Australia only and don’t have a legal right to live in my parents’ countries of birth. Mum comes from India, that’s where she was born but Dad’s Irish. He was born in Dublin. So, can’t split myself down the middle…India or Ireland, assuming I can get the appropriate visas, of course.” She furrowed her brow as she seemed to ponder the problem. “Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Dad’s ancestors came over to Ireland from France originally but older ancestors travelled up from Spain and their ancestors…well, you look like a bright lad; I’m sure you get the picture. Tell me, what’s your name?”

The boy looked startled but muttered, “Eric.”

“No Eric, your surname.”

“I’m not telling…,” Eric began but one of his mates, enjoying the fun, chimed in; “It’s Braun, Miss.”

The woman noted the use of ‘Miss’ and smiled inwardly. She had them now. “Braun,” she said aloud. “I assume it’s spelt b-r-a-u-n, Eric?” The boy nodded, looking worried that she now had this information about him. He wondered if she would later give that information to the police. “Well Eric, if someone told you to go back to where you came from, you’d likely have to go to Germany. Braun is a German word, means brown, in case you’re interested. Eric is a good German name too though it’s usually spelt with an ‘h’ on the end. Of course, if your mother’s ancestors aren’t German, you’re going to have my problem too.”

 One of the other boys chimed in; “Where would I have to go Miss. My surname’s Anderson.” He looked eager.

“Anderson,” said the woman brightly, “that means ‘son of Anders. A fine Scandinavian name; probably Swedish ancestry there. You’d have to go back to a very cold country, Mr Anderson, assuming your Viking ancestors weren’t just there on a raiding party at the time.”

“Cool, I’m a Viking!” The boy grinned as another shouted, “Explains why you love snowboarding so much!”

“You can’t tell me where to go back to,” interrupted one of the boys who had remained silent until now.

“Why is that?” asked the woman curiously.

“Because I’m Aboriginal; I come from this country. “I’m the only one who really belongs here.”

The woman nodded thoughtfully as Eric cried triumphantly, “He’s got you there, hasn’t he?”

The woman sensed other passengers leaning in, wanting to hear her response but she kept her focus on the teenager. “Well,” she replied thoughtfully, “he’s certainly got a stronger case than any of us but his people also came from elsewhere. Scientists and archeologists, those responsible for dating the fossilised bones they unearth, now agree that it’s at least 50 or 60,000 years since Aboriginal people came down through Asia and onto the Australian continent. In fact, that’s about the time some of my ancestors were heading across to India and the others were making their way into Europe but it’s all relative. All our ancestors came from elsewhere and if we trace our history back far enough, you’ll find we humans all originated in a rift valley in Africa. The maternal ancestor I have in common with every other female in the world, including your sisters, aunts, mothers and grannies, lived in East Africa some 180,00 years ago. Some writers have called her Mitochondrial Eve, bit of a play on Adam’s Eve.”

Anderson, whose brain worked faster than those of his friends, looked thunderstruck. “But that means, that means we’re all related.”

“One big, rather extended family,” she agreed. “That’s where our ancestors began the journeys that would take them all over the world.”

“Then why are we all so different?” This was Anderson again. “I mean, I’ve got blond hair and blue eyes and Coop’s got brown hair and brown eyes.

“We changed over time to suit the places in which we settled. We adapted to different climates, different habitats. We evolved to be able to live in all the wonderfully diverse areas of the world, from the cold lands of the frozen north to the equatorial forests, the deserts of Australia and all points in between. It doesn’t take long for changes to occur. Look how quickly the language of England changed to the Australian English that is taught in schools today. None of you would be mistaken for English schoolboys yet your English ancestors only arrived here just over two hundred years ago.

Now, I believe you asked why I wear a hijab and my mother wears a burqa. A hijab,” she explained quickly, “is this scarf I use to cover my head and neck. My mother, however, is more comfortable wearing a burqa. She’s always worn one and that’s what makes her happy. She could just as easily wear a hijab but she chooses not to. It’s her choice. Certainly my father wouldn’t mind if she wears it or not, he’s very supportive of whatever she wishes to do. He’s a Catholic but a little bit lapsed, I’m afraid. My mother’s religion is Islam and yes, she is a Muslim, an Australian Muslim of Indian descent. I’m a bit of both in terms of religion but I wear the hijab to support my mother and yes, I wear it because I like it.”

The boy who’d identified as an Aboriginal person said shyly, “My surname’s Cooper.”

“Well Mr Cooper, that’s an Anglo-Saxon name so some of your ancestors most likely came from England. I can even tell you what profession they may have had.”

The boy looked puzzled.

“A cooper was the person who made the wooden barrels and kegs in a village, a most important form of storage during mediaeval times. They were highly skilled artisans and made oaken barrels that would last for many years. Sometimes a person’s occupation became their surname. So, ‘Gary the cooper’ for example, would, over the years become Gary Cooper.” Some of the older passengers smiled at that as she continued. “A thatcher was the one who laid down the straw thatch on the roofs of cottages and one of England’s Prime Ministers in recent times was a Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Our own Prime Minister, Tony Abbott may have had an ancestor who was the head monk in an abbey, an abbot, that is. Names are very interesting. You can go online and find out a lot more about them if you’re interested. Ancestry dot com is a good place to start.”

A couple of the passengers immediately began entering information into ‘Notes’ on their iPhone screens.

The woman stood up as the train began to slow down and helped her mother into a standing position. “Our clothing may seem a cultural clash to you boys,” she said, “but it’s no different really to the headscarves or hats that my Catholic ancestors wore to church as I’m sure yours did too. It’s just clothing, that’s all it is.” The train ground to a noisy halt and the doors in the carriages whooshed open. Those disembarking were already at the doors but still turned towards the women and the youths, unwilling to miss any of the action. The woman smiled at the boys, a warm, genuine smile. “Nice chatting with you boys but this is our stop. Goodbye.”

She and her mother pushed towards the door as, one by one, the boys said, “Goodbye Miss.”

“Thank you Miss.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

She glanced back at the leader of the group; Eric held her eye. “You’re all right Miss,” he said and the other passengers cheered and clapped loudly. His friends grinned delightedly at his discomfit. Eric was abashed but not as embarrassed as he would be when he turned up for school on Monday and met the new Principal.

 

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