Memoir

A new land, 1976

SYDNEY. I LIKED its sound. I pressed my nose against the cold plastic window to look out over the city as we landed.

‘Look! The Opera House!' my mother pointed.

I followed her finger, and in the distance I saw a strange pointy white building jutting out into the water.

The sun was just rising – it spread sparkling light over the water and danced on shiny buildings.

My step-father was not with us. Once he had recuperated from hepatitis in Nepal, he had flown to Darwin to work on building sites after Cyclone Tracy had ravaged the city.

My mother and I would start our new life in Australia on our own.

‘Look them in the eye and smile,' my mother urges me.

We are standing on the side of the highway, the Sydney skyline behind us, our thumbs outstretched. People drive by.

A car approaches, slows and then stops in front of us. The driver leans over and rolls down the passenger window.

‘G'day luv, where ya' headed?'

‘Nimbin,' my mother tells him.

I study him carefully. He is old: white hair, bushy eyebrows and a big, hooked nose. He has a nice smile.

‘Nimbin!' he snorts. ‘Whadaya' wanna' go there for, luv? Just a bunch a' hippies up there! Bloody long way too.' He grins broadly.

Before my mother can answer, he motions for us to get in. ‘Come on then, luvvies, in ya get. Arthur's the name. You got a bloody long trip ahead. I can take ya 'bout halfway. Dropping my cockie up north to my son's house.' Arthur jabs his thumb towards the back seat.

I open the door and slide in next to a cage holding a huge white bird. It studies me with one beady eye, shifting foot to foot.

‘Don't mind Bonny, luv, she'll be right. You can gas-bag to her, keep you company back there!' He chuckles as we pull out into the road.

Bonny the cockatoo's vocabulary consists of five words, which she repeats incessantly throughout the six-hour journey. ‘Ello!' which pierces the air in a raspy, high pitched chipmunk register, followed by ‘Polly want a cracker?' the meaning of which completely escapes me.

Arthur provided me with my first impression of an Australian. He drove around with his talking bird. He used strange words with a strange accent. He was friendly. Relaxed.

WE MOVED ON to a commune in Nimbin and I liked our new life. I ran near-naked around the fields with the other kids on the property, climbed trees and swam in streams and waterholes. After our travels around the world, I was happy to stay in one place. And it was fun. No one really cared who was whose father and the kids just floated from house to house. This seemed like a great arrangement to me. I felt happy and free.

My step-father, Ajanta, joined us several weeks later. But he didn't take to communal life so happily. Before long we were packing up again. I complained bitterly.

Ajanta had a dream: he and my mother would buy a large property close to the ocean and open a meditation retreat centre for Buddhists from around the world. They would invite Tibetan lamas and monks to conduct the retreats and courses.

The plan involved a large sum of money, and Naomi and Ajanta were penniless. A period of working in the city would be required. We returned to Sydney and moved into a dilapidated communal house in Darlinghurst. The house – a rundown mansion devoid of its former glory – was eagerly occupied by twenty young hippies and their various children.

It was in the rooms of this sprawling old mansion that I first explored my budding sexuality. His name was Shaun. He was eleven, and he lived in the mansion with his mother. Shaun had shiny brown hair which fell across his eyes, and freckles on his nose. Three years older than me, he was a man, all grown up and mature. Our unsupervised playtime quickly progressed to a multitude of variations on ‘I'll show you mine if you show me yours'. We had assumed possession of one of the mansion's unused rooms tucked away on the top floor. Suppressing our excited giggles, we pulled down our pants. I thought his penis was ugly, all wrinkly and floppy. I grasped it between my fingers and I examined it closely, laughing at the little fluffy hairs which had begun to sprout around it. Our games were thrilling. I did not have a sense that we were doing anything ‘bad' – my parents had never told me not to play with boys. But I guessed we were up to something naughty because Shaun said we would be in trouble if the adults found us.

I described our games to a girl in my new school. The next day, I faced a barrage of teasing from my classmates. I found out that our games were ‘dirty' and ‘disgusting'. This confused me. The girls snickered behind my back and hissed words whose meaning eluded me; tart and slag. Then there was ‘hippie', which I did understand, and had learnt was the worst insult of all. I was pushed to the outer periphery of school-ground society.

At nine years old, I still had not learned to read or write, and this added fuel to my detractors' fires. Our year-long trip around the world had provided me with a rich education about life, but had not progressed me one bit down the path of academia. The kids called me a moron – as in ‘Or-en the moron' – laughing behind their hands when I was asked by the teacher to write on the blackboard or speak in class.

‘Yank, yank, septic tank!' they chided, mocking my American accent.

I was too bewildered to mock back, although their Australian twang would have provided plenty of opportunity for retribution. I decided that sounding like my peers was the first crucial step in my acculturation, and I went to work on my accent. I eliminated all r's, broadened my o's, changed my a's into i's, and I ended all my sentences with an upward inflection. ‘Ex-cuoose me, teach-a? Can I gow and get a drink-a' wat-a?'

As the weeks passed, I sank lower and lower in the social order. I was the smallest in the class, with spindly, skinny legs, bony knees and a mouthful of crowded, crooked teeth. The kids, favouring words ending in ‘o', labelled me ‘bucko the sepo', as in ‘yank with the buck teeth'.

Even at this age, the kids had honed their ability to sniff out the ‘other' and isolate them from the pack. I had a foreign accent; I was stick-skinny; my parents were hippies. It was around this time that I first began to think about what being ‘different' actually meant. A seed was planted in my mind: I didn't fit in.

WE MOVED INTO an old, two-bedroom cottage in Bellevue Hill. Ajanta, intending to start an art restoration business, wanted to live in close proximity to the wealthy art collectors of the city. Our tiny house was nestled in between two grandiose homes, and was once the stables for the original wealthy estate next door, now occupied by the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and his family. His daughter, Julita, became my new best friend, and through her I gleaned a taste for how the wealthy lived. I liked their big house, the crisp bed-sheets, the gleaming, heavy silverware, the shiny clean floors and the big TVs in every bedroom.

When Julita's parents were out, we snuck into her mother's walk-in closet and fantasised that we were elegant and sophisticated grown-up ladies. I fingered her mother's soft silk dresses and stepped into her shiny high heels. We rummaged in her jewellery box and held earrings of delicate gold and diamonds up to our ears. Julita's mother had an entire drawer filled with her sunglasses collection, and this struck me as utterly wonderful. I wanted to be just like Julita's mother when I grew up.

 

THE REAL ESTATE agent gingerly guided his plush car over narrow planks of wood which crossed a small river.

‘This is Yankee Creek.' He turned to Ajanta sitting next to him as the car bounced over the rutted track.

I sat in the back with my mother. She rolled down the window and looked up to the huge trees which cast shadows across the road. Sunlight broke through the canopy for a moment and flashed across her rapt face.

‘Was a banana plantation for years until the family gave it up and moved out. No one's lived here for a while,' the agent said as he handed Ajanta a map. ‘The shacks used to be the packing sheds.'

My mother got out of the car and I followed her. I watched her eyes as she scanned the wide forested valley which spread out in front of us. Four rundown wooden shacks sat randomly around the edges of a pecan grove of enormous trees whose branches bent to the earth with the weight of ripe nuts. The small houses were engulfed in a tangle of lantana, tall grass and weeds. A ramshackle two-storey farmhouse, nestled into the side of a gently sloping hill, looked out to the valley and overgrown fields beyond.

The three hundred acre property formed a large horseshoe valley, its perimeter flanked by an elevated sheer ridge.

‘Look!' My mother pointed upward. ‘There's a big hole in the ridge.'

We all turned. I saw sunlight through a hole high up in the vertical rock wall.

‘This is it ... it's an omen,' my mother said. ‘And even the name ... Yankee Creek ... it's meant to be.' She gazed up into the ridge and sniffed in the humid air.

‘It's wonderfully private, but only ten minutes into Mullumbimby,' the agent said.

Mul-um-bim-bee. I rolled the strange sounds around my tongue.

When I told kids back at school in Sydney, they said that it was a good place for me to move because Mullumbimby was where all the hippies lived.

 

WE LEFT SYDNEY to begin a true ‘back to nature' lifestyle which, from my pre-teen point of view, was a tortuous experience. We learnt to live without the comfort and convenience of electricity, telephone, heat or running water. In summer, we bathed in the chilly creek which ran by our house, and in the winter my mother heated pots of water on the gas stove, one by one, pouring them into a large round metal tub out on the veranda. Ajanta tipped the murky communal bathwater over the edge of the veranda when all had had their turn. Without a television or radio to fill in the evening hours, my mother bought me a violin and insisted on a daily practice schedule by candlelight and kerosene lanterns. I longed for my grandmother's condominium in New York with wall-to-wall carpet and a big television.

‘She'll be right, maaaate! No wurries!' Ajanta often roared after a few glasses of red wine.

He would laugh and stomp the table with his fist. The Australian vernacular and certain cultural idiosyncrasies provided him with endless amusement. His opinions were often negative. He considered the average Australian to be uncultured, uneducated, unmotivated and unthinking. The nation's preoccupation with beer and sport unnerved both him and my mother. But they also both loved the new country – its open spaces, its innocence and its easy-going approach to life. They talked about the country's ‘naiveté' and how refreshing it was and how glad they were to be away from the ‘madhouse' that was America. But then there'd be yet another postal strike, or transport strike, and Ajanta would rant about the ‘inefficient, socialist, enterprise-crushing Australian Government'.

Our property lay adjacent to a thousand acre cattle farm, owned by the notorious Joe Richardson – a brute of a man whose upper lip curled with contempt whenever he was required to interact with the American hippies who had moved in next door. Farmer Richardson wore stained blue singlets stretched tight over his beer-belly, with tight shorts and old leather boots. His farmhouse lay a good mile away from ours, although we had to drive past his front door to gain access to our property.

His cows, with eyes set on the luscious green grass on our side of the fence, regularly broke through the rusty barbed wire and ate my mother's newly planted seedlings, and trampled her enormous vegetable garden. Caustic negotiations over shared road and fence maintenance set the tone for the sour relations which escalated and intensified over the years.

I believe I gained some of my early impression of Australians from my mother and Ajanta's openly expressed, unflattering opinions of Farmer Richardson. His oldest son was in jail for rape; his middle son was a junkie. I wasn't too sure exactly what either of these allegations involved, but I knew they were grave by the tone my mother used when she talked about them.

 

I HAD BEEN placed in the fourth grade in Mullumbimby Public. Despite the change in school, the teasing and goading picked up where it had left off in Sydney. My bottom feeder status in the schoolyard followed me and my new peers were quick to label me a hippie. Instead of avocado and sprout sandwiches, I begged my mother to make me ‘straight' school lunches. I whined for white bread, vegemite and red cordial in a plastic drink bottle, which I could proudly display as my badge of belonging. My mother ignored my emphatic request, choosing the good health of her child over my schoolyard ignominy.

‘They're just stupid, straight kids, Oren. Just ignore them,' my mother said.

But it didn't get easier in time, and she began to search for a new school.

‘Think I found the perfect school,' she told me one day. ‘Might be better for you. It's only got seventeen kids.'

Wilson's Creek Public sat in a cleared slope surrounded by mountainous rainforest. All six grades were managed simultaneously by our strict but caring principal and teacher, Mr McMahon. I adored him. A big, burly man, tough but fair, he wore the traditional Australian public servant garb: white socks pulled up to his knees with dress-shorts, lace-up leather shoes and tucked-in short-sleeved shirt. He worked me hard, for I had a lot of catching up to do.

A large creek ran past our school, forming natural swimming pools along its meandering route. In summer, Mr McMahon marched us single file through long grass and a thick grove of trees down to the creek. He kept his eyes on us as we ran, screaming with glee, into the cold water. Surrounded by forest, with only the sound of birds beyond our joyous squeals, our water playground was a child's heaven.

 

I AWOKE FOR my first day of high school with a stomach ache. I had been away visiting my father in New York and so had missed the beginning of the new Australian school year by four weeks. I knew that, by this time, the all-important social hierarchies and alliances had already been established.

Mullumbimby High catered for a large region which encompassed three rural towns. The majority of the students came from conservative farming families or were the children of local tradesmen. I arrived in my unfashionably long navy-blue uniform. Throughout the day, I was paraded in front of each class by my teachers: ‘This is the new girl' – a term I had heard far too often during my school life. I looked at the sea of faces pointing up at me as I stood with the teacher in front of the blackboard, feeling naked and exposed. I didn't know what to do with my hands, so I held them limply by my side. I heard whispering and laughter. I heard ‘skinny'. Heat rose in my face and my cheeks reddened. My mouth, swollen from my new braces, felt enormous.

I did not make friends quickly. The girls had already formed their cliques. Just like animals, they had sniffed out their kind and had arranged themselves in pecking orders according to their real or imagined status. I tried with increasing desperation to understand the unwritten rules of social acceptability. I imitated their accent and colloquialisms, copied their skirt length, shoe and sock type, and hairstyles. But all to no avail. Intuitively, my classmates picked me out as the odd one in the pack. It was as though there were some secret formula which, hard as I tried, I could not crack.

One boy, Paul Bannis – who later became a cop – took great pleasure in regularly punching my arms until they bruised. Pushing me over on the asphalt playground one afternoon, he laughed and hissed, ‘Skinny Yank. You're the runt of the litter!' As I picked myself off the ground, enraged and humiliated, I could not control the tears. They spilled down my face and hit the ground at my feet.

‘Cry baby, cry baby!'

I stood, frozen. I felt a wave of rage bubbling up from inside my core; it sprang out in a sudden surge and I lunged at him with flailing arms.

‘Get stuffed you fucking dickhead!' I screeched as I lashed out at him.

He stepped aside and laughed – a mean, sneering, hateful laugh.

This incident landed us both in the principal's office. Thinking I had a sympathetic ear, I poured out my version of the continuous bullying I'd been experiencing. Paul Bannis in turn relayed my cussing, and my attack. In the end, I was put on detention for two days, and ordered to use my lunch hours picking up garbage from the school grounds. High school was not getting off to a good start.

The remainder of the year carried on in much the same vein. I attempted, chameleon-like, to blend in. Little indication of my unusual background could be perceived by my appearance alone, thanks to our compulsory blue and white school uniform, which I carefully ironed each morning. Like the girls in my class, I covered my schoolbooks in pictures of Adam Ant, Wham! and Duran Duran.

I desperately wanted to somehow imbue myself with Australianness. A major block to this secret world was out of my control, however. Believing that television ‘rotted a child's brain', my parents had opted to bring me up in a TV-free environment. This created a massive barrier to being accepted as ‘normal'. I could not participate in passionate lunchtime discussions of the exciting and romantic lives of Simon and Vicky from A Country Practice. It was a members-only club. I had no entry pass.

My schoolwork was one thing in my life over which I felt a sense of control. By the end of the first year of high school, I was receiving top marks in many of my classes, and winning diligence awards. The sense of achievement I gained somehow fulfilled a need for security and control in a life which seemed to be filled with so many uncontrollable variables.

One afternoon, arriving home from school, I found my mother and Ajanta dancing naked in the living room. Smelling the remnants of a recently smoked joint, I walked past them with disgust on my way to my room, schoolbooks under my arm.

‘Hey, why don't you join us?' my mother asked breathlessly.

‘I have to do my homework,' I scowled.

‘Oh Oren, you need to have some fun!' she said as she turned back to her dancing.

I slammed my door and opened my books. My parents were such weirdos! Why couldn't they just be normal? I tried to concentrate on my algebraic formulas while the Rolling Stones blasted through my bedroom walls.

By day I presented myself as a straight and conscientious student from a normal family. No mention was made of the Buddhist chanting and blessings, the retreats, the open sexuality and nudity or the marijuana smoking. And certainly no mention was made of my having a father who was an absent criminal with fifteen different names and corresponding bank accounts.

MY FATHER AND I had not seen each other in more than two years. Unable to leave the country at the time of his release from prison, he bought me a ticket to California.

I arrived in Santa Cruz and was enrolled in Harbor High. The students were shiny and attractive, with straight, white teeth and wide smiles. In contrast to my small country school in Australia, Harbor High appeared to me to be an oasis of hip and fashionable sophisticates. Without a school uniform, the girls paraded their fashionable clothes, rarely wearing an item twice. Their perfectly feathered hair – blow-dried and sprayed in place – framed their tanned faces and glossy lips. The boys wore aftershave, styled their hair with gel and drove cars. I felt like a country bumpkin. My new classmates held themselves differently, spoke differently and behaved differently. They had a brash confidence unfamiliar in my Australian school. They openly expressed their opinions, and displayed little deference to the authority of their teachers – who in turn, treated them more like adults than irresponsible teenagers requiring punishment and rewards for ‘good' or obedient behaviour, as I was accustomed to.

I was awe-struck.

The Californian school population arranged itself into disparate social groups based on a variety of sub-cultures. Those who fell outside the clean-cut Californian mould formed cliques and called themselves Mods, Skinheads, Jocks or Nerds.

This relatively complex social structure in my new school presented some difficulties for me: how was I to fit in? I was not athletic, and certainly no cheerleader. I was not smart enough to be a nerd. I was not interested in shaving my head and drinking copious amounts of beer, nor was I into punk music and bulky Doc Martin boots, which I knew would have looked ridiculous stuck on the end of my toothpick legs. Besides, the Mods and skinheads looked angry and rebellious. I had little to rebel against: my parents offered me pot, gave me psychedelic mushrooms and took me to wild parties.

Attending this new school had provided me the opportunity to reinvent myself, but faced with such an overwhelming number of choices for my new self-identity, I opted for my childhood motto: when in doubt, go safe.

With my dad's credit cards in tow, I bought conservative clothes, a hair dryer and hair spray. My new look gave me refuge with the straight-laced ‘California girls'. I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror each morning, blow-drying my hair with a round brush so that it flicked back just right, and making sure my outfits were perfectly accessorised and colour-coordinated.

During my first week, I was cornered in the toilets during lunchtime by a group of girls.

"Hey, Australian girrrrl, can you say something for us?" one of them asked me cheerfully. "Your accent's, like, so cool."

They congregated around me with big, expectant white smiles.

Their friendliness shocked me. I said ‘G'day mate, ‘ow's it gow-in'?' and they giggled and clapped their hands together.

"That's so, like, totally awesome!" they beamed. "Do you ride kangaroos to the supermarket?" one asked earnestly. "Are the A-ss-ie boys really cute? What language do you speak down there?"

I answered their questions, revelling in their friendliness. It seemed they were celebrating my differences, and this was an entirely new concept to me.

Jocks from the senior year began asking me out; they came to my house to pick me up in their own cars – just like in the American movies. My stomach cramped and twisted as I manoeuvred my way through the ‘date'. At the end of the night, I would flee from the car after a perfunctory kiss on closed lips. Compared with the boys in my small country town in Australia, the Californian boys seemed so mature. Here, I was thrust into a whole new world of ‘adult' teenagers.

 

I RETURNED TO Australia and attempted to fit back into school life. My five-month stint in the United States had exposed me to so many new experiences, and readjustment into small-town life back in Mullumbimby was difficult. I told my mother I was depressed. She laughed and went outside to plant trees.

‘You should come and get your hands in the earth,' she yelled over her shoulder.

My return to school resulted in a new barrage of insults and snide comments from my classmates, mostly due to my involuntarily renewed American twang and my new clothes.

‘You think you're so cool, don't ya'?' the girls sneered as they walked past in the schoolyard. ‘You're just putting on an American accent 'cuz you think it's cool, but you're a total dag!'

‘Dag' was a new word which had become popular during my absence and I was not yet familiar with its meaning. The fact that it meant the shit hanging out of a sheep's bum was not entirely important; the tone was enough to convey its general meaning.

At a time when Australia was still considered behind the rest of the West in all areas of popular culture, the clothes I had returned with were not yet fashionable in Australia, and the girls used this as further ammunition.

I packed my new clothes away and attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible.

The back-and-forth between two different worlds was a juggling act, requiring constant identity shifting in order to feel a sense of belonging. Yet it seemed that the Californian teenagers did not judge me as harshly as the Australians.

The ‘tall poppy syndrome' was something with which I became intimately familiar. In California, any scholastic or personal successes were congratulated. Now, in my second year of an Australian high school, I perceived a clear message from my classmates: if you do well, you will be hated.

‘You're up yourself,' I was told one day by a girl in my class after our teacher had pinned my English assignment up on the classroom wall as an example of a well-written piece. During recess, I snuck back into the classroom and took my essay off the wall.

Unwilling to purposefully reduce my grades to achieve popularity, I developed a strategy. I became evasive about my exam results, and never spoke of my successes with violin performances or music exams; this would have been considered boastful and ‘stuck up'.

In America, it was normal to receive congratulatory and encouraging remarks such as ‘Go for it! You' can do it!' or ‘Yes! You rock, girl!' Success was cool.

In Australia, being reminded not to get ‘too big for my britches' would replace any words of approval, and a laconic comment such as ‘no worries love, you'll be right' would constitute the most enthusiastic offering of encouragement imaginable.

As a young teenager, I did not understand these inherent cultural differences, and I only perceived the ridicule and taunting in Australia as something brought upon me by my own shortcomings.

No matter how hard I tried to fit in, I was branded either ‘the Aussie' or ‘the Yank' – was I always going to be the girl from somewhere else?

Apparently not.

In my last year of high school, I was finally accepted into the fold. To my great amazement, I was voted school captain. Maybe it was just an Aussie thing – I had to run the gauntlet before being allowed in.

MEETING MY FIRST boyfriend provided an opportunity to experience a typical Australian family from the inside. Terry's parents, Jim and Joanne, were the epitome of the working-class ‘dinky-di' Aussie family. Jim was a friendly, handsome, hard-working builder; Joanne was a home-keeper and devoted mother. They lived in a low-set, brick and tile house on a suburban block, with three kids, a dog, a pet cockatoo and a ‘tinnie' parked in the garage next to their Holden. An avid fisherman, Jim's skin was dark and leathery from years in the sun, both on the water and on building sites. Jim and Joanne loved each other and I never saw them argue.

I spent a great deal of time with Terry's family. The contrast to my own was stark and I revelled in the ‘ordinariness' of their lives. Terry's two older sisters were popular in high school, and from them I gleaned how to act ‘normal'. Joanne cooked meat and three veg for dinner; Jim drank beer after work; the kids brought home friends; we often had backyard barbecues. I never invited my family to these gatherings.

My mother and Ajanta lived only fifteen minutes away, yet I never took Terry to meet them. I was afraid he would discover I came from an abnormal family, and that I was weird, odd, a freak. I visualised Terry's wide eyes as he walked into the house. Perhaps Ajanta would be naked, smoking a joint, or holding court at the dining room table with a group of monks in saffron robes and their adoring disciples.

I anticipated that my mother, delighted to be finally meeting her daughter's boyfriend, would dress especially for the occasion in a sarong and bare feet, with shovel in hand and fresh earth under her nails. And my two little sisters – who ran naked most days – would squat wherever they pleased to deposit fresh turds in front of Terry. I couldn't risk it. I refused to bring him to the family home.

After several months, though, I could no longer refuse. Terry was curious to meet the hippie Buddhists, and Ajanta wanted to meet my boyfriend.

I coached Terry in a nervous monologue prior to our first visit.

‘Now you know they're a bit ... weird, right? They might be naked, and both my sisters definitely will be. There might be some weirdo visitors when we get there. And, um, there's really strange stuff all over the walls – Tibetan demons and deities, and weird paintings called mandalas.'

‘Cool,' said Terry.

I need not have feared Terry's impression. The first visit went smoothly and, to my astonishment, Terry became enamoured with my family. On the drive back to his house, he was smiling broadly.

‘Wow, they're so interesting. My family's so boring!'

I turned to look at him with wide eyes.

‘But don't you think they're strange?'

‘Yeah, but that's what's so great.'

‘It's easy for you – you got to grow up with normal parents!'

‘What's normal anyway?' Terry chuckled. ‘I think you're lucky.'

I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to yell at him that he didn't know what he was talking about, but the words got caught in my throat. I turned away to the window and smiled as we drove home in silence.

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