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VISIBLE WITNESS by Adele Aria

Illustration of a man yelling at a small child as she cries into her hands

Sitting in the car, waiting to be transported to the next destination, I suppress a groan as the car wheels crunch over the ghostly white gravel of the driveway toward the imperious white house looming ahead. It heralds the tacky blobs of powdered milk I will be made to drink here. My mother and all of her generation strictly enforce daily diets upon my cousins and I, hoping to steer our bodies away from the malnourishment only my adult eyes understand coloured their histories. The house ahead of us promises relatives who will greet us warmly, wrap us with gestures of love in the shape of food and talking for hours in the kitchen.

It is a porcelain building that rattles with family ghosts and heavy unspoken expectations of duty, alongside other Confucian principles I was to absorb into my being without question, with the milk and its sediments of paste I struggled to swallow. The interior of the house was a resplendent jade green, opulent and throwing glimmering streamers of reflected sun. It was reminiscent of a local dessert, white coconut layer carefully poured atop a green pandan one. Similarly, the house held contradictions and confusions to my young eyes as if they were always intended to co-exist as complimentary flavours.

One morning, I heard the yells of a young girl. I pressed myself against the floor-to-ceiling window to watch the scene unfold through brittle fencing that was little more than a token gesture that society pretends to need. She looked my age, both of us too young to be at school. Two adults I assumed to be her parents were yelling at her, that this was always going to be the outcome. They’d had enough. This made sense to me. Much of Asian parenting seemed to involve clear if sometimes implicit ultimatums, consequence and accountability. If we failed, we would have only ourselves to blame. I’d heard this in the ways my older brother and I would be collectively scolded for his disappointing school results that did a disservice to the sacrifice and grief moving to Australia had required. This other little girl, alike yet unlike me, had clearly been told what was expected of her and what was permissible. The consequences were for her to bear.

Horrified, I saw the tears break out as we reached the realisation simultaneously that she was being kicked out. Her siblings had crowded close, hiding behind their parents’ legs as if shielding themselves from being tainted by her fate, or her transgressions. I remember the stark absence of curtains at the window as I too had suddenly wanted to shrink behind some form of protection. Finally, the parents had pulled the brothers back, shoo’ed her away from the gate. They shut her out.

In my memory, the lock clicked clamorously, signalling finality. Before I had remembered to breath again, another family walked by. The man, presumably the father of this family unit, had snatched her by the wrist and began to forcibly pull at her tiny unwilling body, declaring her to be theirs now. Like an abandoned bucket discovered in an alleyway, she’d been collected. She had kicked, wailed, begged, and I had seen one of her brothers peep briefly out the gate, cracked ajar. But no one helped her. Convinced now that her family meant to abandon and evict her, her frantic protests escalated sharply into keening as the man’s grip tightened and he began to drag her small kicking frame. I had run to the kitchen, where the adults inevitably gathered over conversation and food, begging them to intervene.

“We can’t do anything. This sort of thing happens here.”

Since we’d left, and during any visit ‘back home’, I would hear about things like this. It painted the picture of how we needed to be grateful for where we lived now, but also so careful. We didn’t know how quickly things might turn, again.

I had believed in the absoluteness of a few magics held in the collective capacity of adults: they told the truth, they knew what there was to know about the world, they could exert power. I believed in this more than I ever came to temporarily believe in Santa Claus (who I hadn’t heard about yet, at that time). I did not believe ‘all’ adults told the truth nor that they all held power nor that they were all wise, but I believed that their collective embodied an omniscience. This was the moment I first questioned it. It seemed more than wrong, it felt utterly wrong. They were telling themselves more than me that nothing could be done. Their heads bowed as if they needed to pay careful attention to the food on the table in front of them, and the cups of tea warming their cupped hands. They had turned away from me to close the conversation, announcing its completeness and futility.

Looking out, from within this large house that stood so starkly amongst its own community, a sign of colonial times and my grandfather’s unusual good standing across multiple cultural hierarchies, I felt something seethe inside me. I wouldn’t become one of the adults that dismissed too easily what could be done and accepted what had always happened.

But sometimes a child’s eyes doesn’t see the tightening of lips, backs, and hands that betray the scars that sit deeper than skin. A child’s eyes might see there are ghosts, but not how they haunt and wrap the people who remain with pain and loss, which creates tendrils of anxiety and threat that snarl around every step gained since. The story they told sounded like an excuse to the ready frustration of a child with fragile impotence, feeling dismissed. They were surviving in a space that had wounded them for being who they were, some unable to leave or reshape themselves much further to either shield nor deflect from further harm. Some felt forced to flee, feeling even more disconnected. None of us with photos or mementos of our childhoods, relying entirely on stories moulded with each other, to carry our memories.

I ran to another window to witness the girl’s continued struggle, her wails and kicks already waning. Dirt plumes billowed gently behind them providing a stark contrast to the violence of her life being stolen. Her hair was a tangled clump around her face, dirt streaked her legs, and her resistance was breaking down into stunted gasping sobs.

That day, I had resolved to fight, whether trapped inside or able to stand in the alleyway too. I would grapple with what that meant and how I could do that, again and again. I still see her face, but I can’t recollect her voice.


Adele writes non-fiction and poetry with occasional forays in short fiction. A passionate advocate for human rights and social change, they draw on their studies and personal experiences of complex trauma, disability, and queerness to explore the politics of existence and identity, and the ways in which we integrate personal and shared histories. They have been published in international and Australian literary and academic publications. Adele is grateful to be living and writing upon Noonga Boodjar.

Copyright © 2020 Adele Aria. 


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