a girl called Seven

Seven becomes aware of the existence of Eastern countries during her teacher’s attempt at a Japanese language class. The children sit on the floor cross-legged as Teacher stands before them with her hands held as if to pray. Kon-ni-chi-wa. Syllables dribble from their mouths. Teacher reaches into her top drawer and lifts out a poster. It is a painting of black figures balancing buckets on their heads. Their teeth shine white, and their eyes are wide and deep. Asia. Japan. Ni-hon.

‘This is how they carry water in Japan. Can you imagine?’

It is Seven’s turn this week to collect the lunch orders from the canteen. The brown paper bags huddle around a row of colourful milk cartons. Seven lifts the plastic box to her nose and inhales deeply, memorising the scents of puff pastry and vanilla icing. Her annual lunch order is only six weeks away – on the day she will turn eight. Seven wraps her fingers tightly around the rim of the plastic box, hoisting it up onto her head. She tiptoes back towards the classroom, back straight, teeth clenched. She loosens her grip. For a moment – before pasties and chocolate milks come crashing down – she is Japanese. That moment is almost worth the detention Teacher gives her afterwards.

In Seven’s second Japanese class, they eat Pocky sticks and colour in pictures of Pikachu. Seven is particularly proud of her Derwent set, and jumps at the chance to share them. She rolls them out carefully in a row along her desk, free for the taking. The gratitude from her classmates wraps warmly around her, but as the hour goes on her Warm Sand pencil wears down to a stub. The tribe of Pikachus they create ruins her collection. Seven wonders about Japanese children — are they given pencil sets with extra yellows, so they won’t ever run out?

Teacher has never left Warrnambool’s thirty thousand white faces, its jetty and its too many football clubs, so Seven will never blame her for the lessons she will later unlearn. Teacher is another victim of a collective naivety that has spread across generations in a white haze and will only later begin to dissipate. A white blizzard perhaps, where the world has frozen into their bodies and their colour and their selves. Years later Seven’s family will host Japanese exchange students and to many friends they will be genderless. Foreign objects. ‘How long’s it staying for?’ the friends will continue to ask. Seven will continue to forgive them. They are shielded against the strange, even if it leaves them blind.