“Good morning!” The man hailing me adjusted his hearing aid with one hand and waved with the other. His neatly pressed shorts stood to stiff attention around his thin legs — more a cordon than clothing. His short-sleeved shirt and sturdy leather sandals completed the image of a man who took pride in his appearance and valued how he was viewed. Thinning white hair parted with each gust of wind to reveal the pink of his scalp. I noticed his hands as he released his small, wiry-haired dog from its leash to complete its morning ablutions — speckled with sunspots on almost translucent skin, a railway track of criss-crossing veins bulging at the surface, knuckles bent and gnarled and probably arthritic.
“Morning,” I called, stretching the ‘o’ like warm candy. I gave a quick wave before pressing my earbud into mute.
He tried out a beaming smile at me — always a risk amongst morning exercisers and dog walkers. You could never be certain who’d spit a clipped ‘good morning’, who’d stop for a twenty-minute chat, and who’d ignore you entirely. I pulled the dogs off the path, parked them like vehicles. I had time.
“Lovely weather,” he offered.
“It is,” I said. “The cool’s a pleasant reprieve from the last week of blazing heat.”
He nodded slowly, weighing my words.
We exchanged chit-chat for a while, lingering on dogs and weather and how crowded the park was on summer mornings.
“Did you come here from England?” His question, apropos of nothing else we’d discussed, blindsided me.
“No, I didn’t.” I’d fielded this question before from others. My ambiguous accent when speaking with strangers often generated confusion. They’d look at my face, listen to my voice, and try earnestly to fit them into the rigid taxonomy of But Where Do You Really Come From they carried in their heads.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“Your English is very good,” he rallied. A heartbeat of silence passed between us. He beamed at me.
“Thanks,” I said, clipping the consonants, cursing my parents internally for instilling unmerited respect for elders in me.
“Were you born here?” Mssr. Clouseau was determined to investigate.
“No, I came here with my parents when I was five.” My responses, automatic and practiced, came without effort.
“Ah,” he said, having solved the mystery. “You’re an Aussie chick.”
I balked. This accusation had been levelled at me before. The epithet — ‘an Aussie chick’ — so laden with meanings and judgements, so heavily implying that I’d given up any vestiges of other identities, always grated.
“Well, no. Not exactly. But yes, I guess,” I fumbled. I never knew how to address this without launching into a TED Talk about migration and history, and the complexity of identity for the children and grandchildren of migrants.
“My people came here in the 1800s.” He established his credentials, his claim on Australian-ness.
“Ah, right. My husband’s people came with the first fleet.” I was not above pettiness.
He turned to pick up after his dog and was wandering away.
“See you next time, Aussie chick,” he called.
I’d been dismissed.
“Yes, bye. Have a good day,” I called after his retreating back.
Later, in the shower, I thought of all the clever retorts I could have spun.