THE OLD BROWN WOMAN - A Pasifika short story
by Rosa F.F, Media Design School student
The old brown woman struggles slightly as she straightens her almost frail frame to a stand. Her dry cracked lips part slightly to send up a quick thank you, seemingly to the air above, as she retrieves the empty disposable coffee cup that lay misplaced on the staffroom floor, carelessly tossed without thought, waiting for someone to do their job.
Soon, she thinks to herself tiredly. Toeitiiti.
Only two more weeks of this hardship and she would be able to finish up her thirty-something years at her tedious cleaning job.
Soon she would be able to collect her pension and finally rest at home without having to worry about being jolted in fear that she had overslept.
Her youngest daughter was finally working to help support their large aiga, particularly with the ever increasing rent and bills, so things would be much different now.
Soon she would be able to awaken with her grandchildren (every day of the week) and prepare their favourite breakfast of koko alaisa and buttered bread, instead of throwing on her over worn work polo shirt and unflattering masculine shaped pants feeling her heart ache as they asked “Mama why do you have to work?”.
Soon she would be able to teach and direct their tiny clumsy hands as they put on their attire for Aoga Amata and straighten out the adorning of the navy blue uniforms for Catholic primary school.
Soon she would not have to push down the ugly dread of being forced to possibly exercise her limited English vocabulary to obnoxious palagi and saiga who looked right through her as if she didn’t exist, only to speak to her if she and her defining “WET FLOOR” sign were obstructing the staff kitchen or toilet floor.
Very soon, she would be able to accompany and assist her sick and quickly ageing husband, who had the unfortunate (although not always in her eyes) diagnosis of renal failure, and was constantly being shuttled in their defeated Bongo van to and from the hospital as required.
Soon she would not have to wistfully look at the luxurious lives of the magazine clones of privileged men and women thirty years her junior. Men and women young enough to be her children, born into a privileged world well established by generations of ancestors. Ancestors who had laid down the foundation of financial security, westernised wisdom, and mastery of the dominant language. She sighed heavily.
The old brown woman quickly finished rinsing the dirty lunch dishes, concluding as always with proficiently stacking the dishwasher (which she secretly wished she had at home). She got behind her cart and began to push it back out in to the main hallway avoiding the collision with one of the department manager’s on her way to get her usual afternoon coffee. No eye contact or acknowledgment of her presence, maybe just the cart due to it being unavoidably large. Kitchen done.
Sometimes, she would catch herself habitually berating her idiocy, as her typical strict Samoan mother would have after a wrong decision, having jumped so impulsively on to a plane that careened her willingly to such a strange and foreign land without even getting a second success story.
A land that boasted and promised her financial prosperity and most importantly, individual freedom (Samoans did not know individualism if it hit them in the face).
Instead, that dream of promise was shattered after she realised the error in her eager naivety as a young gullible woman in her twenties, numerous glorified untrue tala from emancipated cousins who had returned to Samoa on an extended “holiday”, and her impulsivity in towing her young two year old son to New Zealand after a broken first marriage.
She was brought to the stark realisation that she only had two options. One, leave her son to relatives she didn’t know well and work with the constant fear for her son’s safety, or two, wait in faith to qualify for a solo mother benefit and stay home on limited income. She of course opted for the latter unable to bring herself to desert her son to strangers (practically).
She had met her now husband at church, as all good island women do, and after a short courtship, moved in with him and his family until he was able to leave his elderly tina and tama to his younger siblings to look after once they too found jobs in the factory. He was a good loving and faithful man who gave her a home away from home. Eight years on and to her joy (and of course with the blessing of God) they eventually secured their own Housing NZ Home, moving in with a new total of six ever growing island sized children. She had finally made it!
The slam of a cold grey office door startled the old lady and she realised she had zoned out again. Old age was beginning to have that on her effect lately. Or was it something else?
More aware of her surroundings again, the old brown woman turned to her wobbly grey cleaning cart, which had seen better days much like herself, and pulled out the black roll of polyethylene rubbish bags to reline the bins she had emptied from each office. Something she had become accustomed to doing since she was not as mobile now her knees started stiffening up. One task at time was her new motto. Not her supervisor’s motto apparently.
She had been spoken to about it on more than one occasion. She “could not take people’s bin’s for more than 30 minutes at a time they need to be relined immediately.”
Easy if your agile to do that much moving around, she had always thought quietly in her head, even though her face was subserviently cooperative.
How many times had she done this? How often did she catch herself feeling humbled when “office men and women” sauntered past her in all their glitz and glamour, barely even realising she was there? Too often.
She had always wished she could have been educated here. To wow people with her stunning palagi English, so they could oohh and aahh at how well Samu’s daughter, who had shamed the family by getting pregnant at 18, had done for herself. Instead, she resigned to giving her all to working hard and ensuring that her children were supported as best as possible throughout their schooling years, giving them the best opportunity she and her husband could muster.
Unfortunately even in her attempts to get everything done well, more often than not the kids would arrive late to school because there was nobody to drop them any earlier (she didn’t want them to be waiting too early by themselves before she had to go to work.) So she always made sure her husband dropped them after her and before he started work as a taxi driver. Fortunately his job afforded flexibility for their family even if her children were late a lot.
Despite her constant attempts to explain to the teachers (whose eyes were judging her for her obvious incompetence) they would frown and say things synonymous with “They need to be here on time every day Mrs Teewpeww”.
She sometimes wished they could experience the struggle they had to go through to get the kids there even 5 minutes late.
Her children’s education meant that she remained loyal (stuck) to the same job. She could never risk the security of her pay check and although she had explored the options of factory work, supermarket shelving, and even the dry cleaning industry, she was never able to err on the side of uncertainty.
She, the old brown woman, was a first generation migrant.
She lacked experience in this new found life and no matter how hard she tried she could not seem to tick all the boxes she had constantly heard in overheard office conversation.
She was only a new born to this western culture where everyone expected you to meet the modern milestones.
Good job. Tick.
Marriage and children. Tick.
Save money. Tick.
Buy a house. Tick.
Family holidays. Tick.
Save and invest. Tick.
Retire with savings. Tick.
Die and leave inheritance. Tick.
Cycle starts again.
Unfortunately for first generation migrants from Samoa, this was in almost every way, not the case.
It was startlingly different.
Migrate from an island with different values, culture and upbringing. Tick.
Move in with relatives. Tick.
Find spouse. Tick.
Find any job matching relevant education and language. Tick.
Help relatives/parents/family pay bills. Tick.
Have children. Tick.
Contribute to family fa’alavelave or events. Tick.
Be of use to the family. Tick.
Move out finally after repaying your dues. Tick.
Keep working at same job. Tick.
Hope that children who are educated here are given a better opportunity. Tick.
Pay bills on time. Tick.
Pray that God will bless children to rise up and look after you. Tick.
This was the life they knew back home. But home was well established, well cultivated and adapted to. It was the “norm” for an agricultural and communal society.
Here, they were but metaphorical babies still learning their way around a new world order.
The old brown woman slowed her cart as she always did at the end of the long hallway of offices, parking it to the left beside the water cooler for clients. The hallway that never ceased to fill her gut with intimidation.
White men. Suits. Ties. Effortlessly fluent English.
The old brown woman stood defiantly for a moment and allowed herself to entertain the fleetingly empowering thought of success to flower and grow in her mind, casting a purposeful glance once more at the doors she had just passed by.
She closed her wrinkling brown eyes and visualised the small rectangular plaques displayed on each important door bearing each person’s power, title and name.
Their family heritage.
Soon, she prayed hopefully.
Soon it would be one of her children or grandchildren’s names on door’s just like these. Even if she had to wait a few more generations or wouldn’t physically be around to witness it in person. It would all be worth it if she could just be certain of the knowledge or thought of such a magnificent achievement.
She would endure and persevere two more long weeks for the future of the next generation’s to come.
Soon, she whispered to herself, very soon.