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Article

Column: A Whole New World

8351 kilometres and two planes later. A sudden loss of heat and humidity. Hands nervously twisting together. Breathing hitched and shallow. Six-year-old Chathu looked out at her new classmates, her eyes slightly shielded by a heavy black curtain fringe. A sea of children stared at her; seated together, their heads looked like a patch quilt; every shade of brown, red and yellow. The first instalment of Chathuni Gunatilake's column, 'A Whole New World'

8351 kilometres and two planes later. A sudden loss of heat and humidity. Hands nervously twisting together. Breathing hitched and shallow. Six-year-old Chathu looked out at her new classmates, her eyes slightly shielded by a heavy black curtain fringe. A sea of children stared at her; seated together, their heads looked like a patch quilt; every shade of brown, red and yellow.

The new Teacher smelled nice, and she had skin Chathu had seen only in movies: pale beige, slightly speckled with brown spots, so different from her own shade of deep brown. If she looked close enough, she could see blue and red blood vessels running through the back of her teacher’s hand. The Teacher smiled at her now, eyes crinkling in the corners, and placed one of those hands on the small of her back.

“This is Chathu, and she’s just come here from Sri Lanka.”

The Teacher’s accent rolled and rushed through the words, missing some syllables and catching on others, sort of like the fishing nets Chathu had seen on a beach day with her parents in Sri Lanka. The repetitive tug and pull motion had held her in place, and she had been so mesmerised by the fishermen’s chorus of “Ahh!” and “Adinna!” (“Pull!”) that she’d barely noticed her parents calling her name. She suddenly felt awfully homesick, and a sickening feeling started in her belly and rose through her body until it ended in her eyes, where it stuck and caused an odd prickly feeling. Scared she would start crying, she opened her mouth and whispered:

“…hello.”

A chorus of “Hello!” reached her ears, and she was startled at the loud greeting, her eyes sinking even further behind her fringe.

“Ok everyone, get to your seats!” said the nice Teacher, and the patch quilt started bobbing up and down as kids slowly got up and went to sit at their desks, which were grey and smooth and shiny, with chairs that were navy-blue plastic and even shinier.

Chathu’s eyes caught on the stationery at the other kids’ desks: pens in every shape and colour, neatly organised, and beautiful notebooks, pages pearl white and carefully lined, green covers a uniformed army of soldiers ready for duty. Teacher took her over to her desk and began to ask her questions, and Chathu answered in stilted sentences; her gaze was trained on the empty white pages of a nearby student’s book, the sudden urge to grab an Atlas Chooty ball-point and start writing, nearly overcoming her. Her gaze continued around the room, eyes growing larger as she fixated on all the little details in the room familiar as breathing to these children but so different to her: the dark blue carpet with specks of red and yellow that wasn’t the cool maroon concrete floors of her old school, the posters in English instead of Sinhalese, the lack of a whirring clackity fan on the ceiling, and the teacher dressed in smart black pants and a white blouse instead of the colourful sarees she was so used to. Even the air smelled different, a scent of foreign “newness,” a freshness she couldn’t describe.

                                                                         -----------------------

Adjusting to a new life wasn’t easy. There was the issue of her name. She’d had no problems with her teachers and friends and relatives at home; they always called her Chathuni, or “Duwa” (daughter), but here they just couldn’t get it right! She was too shy to fix it, so when the teacher called out “Chatuni, come get your work!” or her classmate asked her to please pass the glue-stick, she ignored the lack of a th and nodded her head vigorously in return. Ok, she thought, here I am Chatuni, the th of her name shortened to just a t. Always-getting-told-off-for-talking-in-class Tom had a t, as did white-princess-hair Stella. Now, when anyone asked, "What's your name?", she would say "Chatuni", enunciating the t and i, cringing at sounding like a type of fish. 

After the tuna problem came her uniform. Back home she’d worn her white starched school dress with pleats and her long blue tie with the yellow school emblem; it reminded her of an elephant’s trunk, swaying back and forth with a slow, constant rhythm. Here, there was only a shirt and shorts! And she was allowed to wear her hair any way she wanted, not in the strict well-oiled plaits she’d been forced to wear back home; now she got up every morning and stood in front of the mirror, pink plastic Barbie brush in hand, determined to achieve the perfect ponytail.

Most startlingly of all were the sounds, or lack thereof. No whirring of fans, no scratching of chalk on blackboards. No honking traffic that deafened the soul. No rulers slapping on Teacher’s hand as she walked around the room, mischievous students gently pulling her saree pota (piece of fabric). No wonky table legs creaking on cement floors. No green parrots with red necklaces feasting on mangos in the tree outside the classroom window, their chatter as interesting as any classroom gossip. No cheeky cats meowing and stealing crumbs from the canteen floor.

Noises were quieter now, subdued. The soft scrape of chairs pulling back on the carpet. The bell, a popular 2000s pop song, and not the harsh telephone-the-kind-with-the-curly-wire ringing bell they’d had in Sri Lanka. Even the screams and laughter of the children were different: “Catch me now!” and “You’re it!”, instead of “Duwanna duwanna!” (“Run run!”).

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months: her hair was longer, and now she wore it in two pigtails at the top of head and swung them around as much as possible to feel the soft strands brushing against her neck. She was no longer awed by the gentle grey giants sitting outside her house every misty morning, munching grass, and jumping away on strong legs when the car engine grumbled and coughed its way to life. Her English had improved, and she was always getting compliments from her teachers on her “exquisite handwriting!”; they somehow added a new tone of excitement to the phrase each time they said it. Her days were filled with the little school with its little church and little children. The single lunch break in Sri Lanka was slowly becoming a memory of the past, and now she looked forward to recess with its cheese dip snack and lunch with its sandwich and fruit time, which was always a mandarin or a banana with a story read from a picture book by her “plump and jolly” teacher. The birds outside (cockatoos?) didn’t remind her of the macaws back home anymore, and she no longer spoke with an accent.

Now she was one with the system, someone who had always been here and always would be. Not a whole new world anymore, but a continuing wondrous experience. The little girl from that first day in the classroom within her smiled, happy at having fit into her new home. But sometimes Chathu would catch herself in the mirror, and in those moments the brown of her skin, the black of her hair, the bumpy nose she wasn’t sure which parent had given her captured her attention. Confusion and guilt would overwhelm her, though she was never sure why. Haven’t I come to this wonderful new place with its eucalyptus trees and kangaroos and koalas? Don’t I have friends and get awards and get to wear a pretty dress for picture day? She was thinking all this as the teacher was asking the children which story they’d like to hear today. “Yes!” she thought, deftly peeling her mandarin, her doubtful thoughts receding like a wave from the shore, “It’s The Rainbow Fish again!”.

 
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