Collaroy Plateau Public School
“You can’t sit here!” she shouts, standing over me surrounded by her blonde-haired, blue-eyed pack. Everyone in the playground looks up at her, then at me. “This is a wog-free zone. Go back to where you came from, you greasy wog?” A malicious smirk overtakes her face.
In my head, I pick up the salami sandwich I have just unwrapped, shove it in her peaches and cream face and yell, “I was born here, you moron!”
My mouth, ever the betrayer, refuses to speak the words. The inevitable result of such an act would be my parents being called to the school. And what would happen then? They don’t speak English. I would have to play interpreter at my own execution.
Instead, I hurriedly rewrap my sandwich not even bothering to put it back in my lunch box. All around me there are faces watching. Not all see me as the “wog girl” but none of them say a word in my defence. Why should they? It’s not like I’m one of them.
As I take a step away from my tormentors, one of them trips me. I fall heavily. The lunchbox lies broken and my sandwich is in the dirt. In my ears the echo of laughter rings loud.
“What happened to you, Maria?” my mother yells in Italian at the sight of my torn, blood-soaked stocking. We only speak Italian at home.
“Nothing.” I reply in English because I know this will upset my mother and I want her to hurt like I hurt. I want everyone to feel my pain. I want to shake my fists and yell at my family, “We live in Australia NOT in Italy. I want to be Australian NOT a wog!” I want to shout so loud that the police come knocking at our door. That would serve them right!
“Maria! Speak Italian!” Deflated, I answer her in Italian. “I’m ok, I just fell.” Except it’s not Italian. It’s a fake, half language made up from the dialect of the province where my parents were born and English words that have been bastardised to sound Italian. It’s a stupid language.
Even though I know it will make Mama angry I ask the question I have been putting off for over a week…
“Mama, there’s an excursion to the National Park….” I get no further than I usually do before mama responds.
“No! Maria NO! You know your father doesn’t want you to go gallivanting around the streets like a gypsy with no home….” And that’s where I stop listening. I don’t need to hear any more. I’ve heard it all before. There’s no thought of arguing with mama. It’s useless telling her that going on an excursion is far from gallivanting and that the teachers would be there with us, supervising our every move.
Even if I could make my parents understand, they still wouldn’t let me go. Letting girls go out is an Australian thing to do. Good Italian girls don’t go out. They are only allowed to go to school because it’s the law. They don’t go to university and they don’t have careers. They come home everyday to their families and when it’s time, they get married and have babies.
Without a backward glance I go to the only sanctuary I can find in the prison that is my life. A prison that will suffocate me if I let it. My room, with flowered wall paper and a pink bedspread, is my refuge. There are no rock star posters on the walls. Why would I need to have pictures of boys on my walls? There is no make-up on my dressing table, it stays well hidden in the space below the bottom drawer; not that I ever use it anyway. I imagine the scene if my father was ever to see me wear the sort of make-up the other girls at school wear and know it’s just not worth it.
I push the door closed with a half-hearted slam, shutting out the continued rantings of mama as she reminds me again about that poor Italian boy who drowned on an excursion…. If only the door could shut out the continuing sound of laughter I can’t seem to remove from my mind. I close my eyes and breathe what feels like my first easy breath since leaving my room this morning.
This is the one place where I can be me. Only I’m not me. I don’t know who “Me” is. Am I the “wog girl” with dark hair, brown eyes and olive skin? Or am I the “Kangaru” my family call me? The only one of my family born in this land that doesn’t want me.
As I go to my bed I catch a glimpse of a reflection in the mirror. Who is that? Is she that wog girl? Who is it that I see when I look in the mirror? Sometimes I do see the dark-haired, dark-eyed “wog” the girls at school see. And I hate her. Sometimes I see the light-haired, light-skinned Kangaru. I don’t like her much either. Other times I see a blurred mixture. I think I could learn to like her if I was allowed to.
I know that the person I’m supposed to be is there somewhere, buried deep beneath the versions of me others perceive. Question is, will I be able to find her?
“You’re such a wog, Mum!” laughs my daughter as she sees the table laden with enough food to feed a small army. For an instant, for the tiniest of moments, my heart clenches at the sound of THAT word. Fear and revulsion ebb.
Then I remember. That word doesn’t have the same meaning anymore. I don’t need to panic when I hear it. No longer a derogatory term but one of endearment for a beloved heritage. My daughter uses it often to describe herself and our family. She says the word with humour tinged with pride.
I find myself thinking of the little “wog girl” I hated so much. It wasn’t so much the “wog girl” that I hated as not knowing who I was. I was disconnected from both the Australians who didn’t understand my culture and the Italians who didn’t understand my need to fit in.
I don’t know when I stopped hating her but over the years I’ve learnt to like her. Perhaps if I had been kinder to her I would have found myself earlier, easier.
And what of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl? Well I think she has grown to like herself too. I’m friends with her on facebook now and I am given small glimpses into her life. Just like me she has had her ups and down, sorrow and joy, laughter and tears. I wonder whether she remembers that day in 1982.