10 February 2003 2003 nian 2 yue 10 hao

Portrait: Three Big Sisters

The Chinese often use kinship terms when referring to close acquaintances, for instance "aunty" or "uncle" for members of their parents' generation, and "brother" or "sister" for someone closer to their own age. I have two friends who I address as jiejie, which means older sister.

Amelia immigrated from China to Australia with her husband a few years ago, and their son was born here. They may return one day so that he can carry out part of his schooling in China, but for now they are putting down roots in Perth. I suppose that they have realised what many of their compatriots only dream of: they are both university educated, they have travelled widely in China, and they have migrated (albeit southwards) to the West. But their good fortune has not sullied them: they are down-to-earth, humble, friendly people.

I remember that when I first met Amelia to exchange conversation, she brought with her a book of Chinese poetry. She politely put it aside when she realised that my level of Chinese wasn't that high! She has, however, taught me a little ditty which I find highly memorable. It sounds best in Chinese, but I'll just print a rough English translation:

Seen from afar: a big rock,
From close up: a big rock.
The rock is really big,
It really is a big rock!

Amelia is proud of her heritage, but she is open-minded and adaptable too. This manifests as small concessions to Australian culture, such as eating sandwiches or going dutch, that are not at all striking until after one has gained a little knowledge of Chinese customs.

Kiwi is Taiwanese, and a fine example of traditional Chinese culture. In fact, she seems to be a master of every sort of gongfu (skill), from calligraphy to tea-making! She has been very generous to me in many ways, and I have learnt a great deal from her about Chinese culture. At calligraphy, I was a terrible student, but I can at least make a nice cup of wulong tea as well as red bean soup.

When I made this dessert soup for my parents, they found the idea of using beans in a sweet dish a little, well, foreign. My brother would probably agree: when I visited Beijing with him a year or so ago, he declined a mung bean popsicle while I slurped mine down with delight. Those crazy Australians!

Kiwi is part of a tight-knit community of mainly Taiwanese expats which has also been very welcoming to me, and I have celebrated several Chinese festivals in their company. And best of all, I've learnt to play and sing some Chinese songs, nice simply folky ones requiring just a few chords on my guitar.

Satomi is only a few years older than me, and in any case I can't call her jiejie because she is not Chinese. With no family or established support network in Australia, she has had to build a life here from scratch. Therefore, her situation is similar to what mine will probably be like in China.

I met Satomi a few months ago, while I was completing a teacher training course. She has been to Australia twice previously, and hopes to return again in the future to work or study. Her motivation is a genuine affection for this country. I think it is only rivalled by her fond memories of Bali. She picked up some of the local language when she visited there, and kept in contact with some of the people she met. None of them, luckily, were too near the site of the recent nightclub bombing.

Satomi has put a lot of effort into learning English, studying by herself and always looking for opportunities to practise. Being Japanese, she has of course made some Japanese friends in Australia. Her only complaint is that they talk Japanese more often than English!

Satomi has become a good friend in the short time since I met her. Knowing her has given me some insight into what life in a foreign country might be like: the many joys, but also the possibility of loneliness and isolation. Above all, I admire her courage and resourcefulness.

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