The Chimaera issue 1 October2007

Sam Byfield

Week Two, Year of the Dog

The jets are back. I’m writing.
There’s no connection. It’s morning
and I’ve slept too well, dreamed of people
from long ago, my friend
who’s married now to a woman who arouses
suspicion, the way she looks
at him, the stark age difference,
her calculating parents.

We were playing cricket. Ten years later
it still stings that I didn’t get a bowl
in that match, the words of a team mate
afterwards, you batted like a girl.
It rained all the next week.

There are thirty shells on my table
from Thailand. Tiny perfections.
There might be a God, this morning.

So — poetry, a run, some Chinese study.
I have a hand woven Naxi rug
to put on my wall — a good day
when I brought that — visits to arrange,
a woman to avoid writing about,
coffee before all that.

Then one more week of this.


Things and Their Absence

No camels in Canberra
and the Chinese don’t speak Chinese.
Taxis stay mostly on the road

and go mostly where I tell them to.
I can read the newspapers
and understand there’s not much

worth reading. No caves pock
the hills and no pagodas spill
between skyscrapers, into the lake.

Restaurants serve Mongolian lamb
but it’s about as Mongolian
as I am. It’s windy outside

but there’s absolutely no chance
a typhoon is brewing.

Lunch, Day Three

I walk down past the River Front Restaurant, which although picturesque as a Sidney Nolan painting is full, so I keep walking, through a large-eucalypt shadowed park into the main street. I’m amazed when I stop to cross the road and a car stops for me — I give them a broad grin. In China they would have run me down.

I head to the Corner Coffee Shop, where the afternoon sun bakes the plastic outdoor furniture. After minus-three last night it’s now warm enough for a T-shirt. I sit down inside, where I find myself within eye-shot of an older blond lady who looks straight off the farm and sexy in an I ride horses sort of way. This sexiness is accentuated as she licks cappuccino from her bottom lip.

A waitress strolls over to take my order. She smiles and calls me Sir. This too is a surprise after a year of being laughed at and stared at, hair pulled or, most often, called laowai (consider for a moment if a Chinese person walked into an American restaurant and the owners or other eaters called him Asian, to his face or in front of him — that’s the equivalent.)

I order the turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich, with extra cheese, carrot and onion, which after one bite is clearly to die for, and a large black coffee which surpasses all expectations in this, one of two cafes in the Inland Fishing Capital of Australia. I was expecting river water, in tune with the Paul Kelly lyric It was the colour of the river, but not nearly as brown.

I finish coffee and sandwich and am feeling opulent, so I try to get the younger waitress’s attention. I catch her gaze and give her a little wave, which she misinterprets, smiling back and giving me a wink. This is very different to China, where if I looked at a waitress she’d generally quit her job and run from the premises. Or want to marry me.

Ten minutes later I rise and head for the counter, eyeing off the chocolate cake (remembering an amazing slice of chocolate cake I’d had in the Caribbean Café in the deserts of western China a few weeks previously, while waiting for a rickety domestic flight) but am accosted by a visually delightful cheesecake and change my mind. An older woman says hi and calls me darl which makes me feel right at home and quickly brings me cheesecake and ice cream, both of which are the colour of wheat and taste like magic.

Across the road an old brick building with an old metal sign saying Pastoral Chambers: 1895 casts a shadow over the street. Next door, in bright red paint, a shopfront announces Fair Dinkum Variety. On the street beneath, a ute rattles past with two brown sheep dogs grinning dumbly in the tray.

Born in 1981, Australian Sam Byfield lived in east and northeast China for 18 months, and now resides in the southwestern city of Kunming, where he works for a Chinese public health and environmental NGO. He has been published or is forthcoming in print magazines including Meridian, Miller’s Pond, Diner, the 2008 Outside Voices Anthology, and The Tipton Poetry Journal, and extensively online, including in The Pedestal Magazine, Foam-e, and The Avatar Review. He is the author of a chapbook From the Middle Kingdom (Pudding House Press, 2007), in which the two poems above are included. From the Middle Kingdom can be purchased at, where Sam also blogs about all things China.