‘On Having My Card Decline at Countdown’ by Amber Esau

  • The checkout girl dropped the Nashi pears in with the dried goods and they’ll probably bruise. Do the job properly mate. I think she’s in the sixth form but you can never really tell these days even though I haven’t been out of high school long enough to get away with thinking that. A man in line at the next counter over holds his baby against his shoulder so that she’s facing me. Her milky spit dribbles down her dad’s back in time with the beeping of the wiry haired checkout girl. Louise, as her name tag reads, calls the total and I fumble around in my bag for my wallet. My least favourite part is finding it. My boyfriend says that I buy too much food for us but he’s never seen how my family has to shop. I pull my card out, swipe and punch in the pin. The blue digital daggers of shame strike up on the screen and I start sweat-shaking. I often panic, like a lot of people, about being too broke for everyone.

    Growing up in a house with no walls, sharing is expected and enforced by the way the air gels everything in place. The TV, the bodies, the sun slicing in through only the kitchen window at half past one; each finds themselves stretched amongst many hands. Everything is defined by relation. As the Samoan poet and novelist Albert Wendt writes: “We can only be ourselves linked to everyone and everything else in the Va, the Unity-that-is-All and Now.”

    In our childhood home we had four lots of “nuclear” families. This seemed a kind of distortion of living space when compared to all the other kids at school who simply had their parents and siblings at home. For us, the idea of an immediate family was expanded to include aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have more siblings than my mum birthed. I have more Mums than I’ve needed. So many bodies limit the private space that one can inhabit, physically and mentally, especially for those unaccustomed to village life or expected to live it in parallel with living away from it.

    In the village there are no surnames.

    Without understanding the concept of Va we are unable to properly understand the Samoan perspective. In his essay entitled ‘Tatauing the Postcolonial Body’ Albert Wendt describes it as “the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates […] the space that is context, giving meaning to things.” If we take this definition and apply it to all our interactions, not just with people but things and ideas we get a rough idea of the different kinds of Va that exist. The Va between family members, the Va between different families in the social setting, the Va between person and gift.

    Wendt also includes in his description of the Va the Samoan expression “ia teu le va.” This means nurture/take care of the Va, the relationships. Imagine a picnic between lovers, the red checked blanket smoothed over the grass on which the couple sits on either side of a woven picnic basket their hands almost touching. It is a simple scene that we are all quite familiar with through popular media and personal experience. The blanket keeps them from getting dirty but also serves as a symbol of their Va. Anyone walking past the couple would recognise the scene and understand the interaction between the couple. They bring out the sandwiches, apple slices, cheese board and wine and lay it neatly between them; one of them tells a horrendous joke about otters while the other exaggerates a laugh. This is a “protocol” of love. By sharing in the exchange of food and time as gift they maintain their Va. Through these types of exchanges we are able to support our relationships. Simplified, the Va is about acknowledging the relationships between person and person (or thing) and nurturing it within a public sphere open to all parties.

    At primary school there is a girl getting told off for sharing her hat with a friend.

    The Faleo’o, a hut-like structure, is the most common form of traditional Samoan architecture. Typically made of wood it is an open plan space where the thatched dome roof is held up by a circle of thin columns. In appearance it could be a woman’s breast rested on a ring of children’s legs. In New Zealand we have a four bedroom one-storey house. Each room has three to four people sleeping in it. As Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space, “We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection.” For my Samoan family it has been the bodies of shared blood that have kept the home afloat. By transferring the way that space is used, from Samoa to New Zealand, the house retains its symbolism in the cultural landscape of the Samoan identity. The communal aspects of Samoan culture take root in the new land.

    A lot of animals use special homing techniques to find their new nest. While most are place-bound there are some, like fish, that are species bound which means that they’ll home “to others that, when en masse, become to them the main relevant feature of their environment,” says Bernd Heinrich in The Homing Instinct. This is similar to the way that we experience migration on a smaller scale. We are “homing” to/with loved ones in order to find our mental/physical home. It is interesting to note that these massive schools of fish, when targeted by a large whale will just herd closer to together and be easier prey rather than separate.

    In high school I had a friend whose dad was a cop. It was lunchtime on a Wednesday maybe. He and I were watching a group of our mates play table tennis. There were four on each side. This friend, who was quarter Maori but you wouldn’t know it, turned to me and told me that one night his dad had busted an Island house that was filled with ten single floral printed mattresses and more bodies than he could be bothered counting. “Typical Over-stayers” was what my friend had tail ended the story with. I just laughed it off because I never invited friends over. I remember that particular lunchtime often. I remember “those inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse – the difference between being English and being Anglicized. […] The discriminatory identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications” that Homi Bhabha suggests in The Location of Culture and remembering that our house was always private public space and our things were ours not mine or theirs and that I shared a bed with three cousins until I was about thirteen then I took the couch in house that had walls but didn’t and that the repetition of these images kept stirring a self-mockery that meant I would laugh instead of stand up for anything. It was easier to attach myself to the larger school. In the intermediary of belonging to and borrowing from it is interesting to see how certain images get lost in translation, change with context.

    A house full of thumbs means a box of beliefs. This is the Forrest dump.

    This is what I was told of multiple hands: you will always seem poorer with the less space you inhabit singularly. Many hands make light work only when you can see everyone out on their way once the job is done. Space equals value; look at those real estate listings. Grocery bills.

    This is what I know: House and Home are antonyms.

    In my readings, I found that what I wanted to read was slightly jarring to what I had aimed to research, which is always the case for me anyway. There are men that will bite their arm off just to walk again. We can only really learn about others through learning about ourselves. That kind of relationship between the Self and Other as a consistent force of drawing out more to the surface is what I found interesting about the process. I found the duality but also the collective scope of the words and ideas to be the most striking. When we say “I feel” or “I think” or even “I am” aloud it instantly transforms from the singular to plural. For us to communicate our self we speak in metaphor as a function of empathy and the articulated individual experience becomes a patchwork of universal motifs. “The ‘reality’ perceived within a particular linguistic community is solely a product of language,” according to David Inglis.

    Home has been sold to me as a white picket fence with three bedrooms and a nicely trimmed lawn and still in parallel an opposite to the image has been running alongside it telling me to breathe in deep as I call my boyfriend to transfer some funds so that checkout girl Louise stops rolling her damn eyes.



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  • Tina Makereti

    September 2, 2015

    Ataahua. Ngā mihi nui ki a koe mō tēnei, Amber. This is beautiful, thank you!

  • Ria Masae

    September 3, 2015

    Malo lava, sis! A thought-provoking and beautiful piece. Glad to see you’re still keeping it real, you talented thang.

  • Elina Tukunga

    September 4, 2015

    Falling in love…again! Miss you love love this. I hope it wasn’t the countdown in mangere

  • Briar Grace-Smith

    September 8, 2015

    Nga mihi Amber, straight to the heart.

  • Mariana Isara

    July 19, 2016

    Really enjoyed this essay when I first read it last year, and again just now. Alofa the mixture of personal/insight/erudite. Thank you Amber.