August 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Throwing the book

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The Old Man is sitting on a plastic chair outside the room, his hand resting on his wooden cane. His left leg cannot bend at the knee because an epoch ago the barefoot doctors in China gave him the wrong medicine for a minor foot injury. Now his leg sticks out in front of him and it looks as though he is trying to trip someone. He winces apologetically as people manoeuvre past. Some are pacing anxiously, fiddling with their clothes. Some are lolling wearily, as though they have been here many times before. None of them takes much notice of the Old Man.

The Uncle is here with his Niece. They came an hour early because they didn't want to be late. When the Uncle sees the Old Man, he calls out in Mandarin and walks over to greet him, careful to avoid the leg trap. "Ay! Mr Zhang! Mr Zhang, so good to see you!" The Old Man nods and smiles.

You would think they were at a reunion. You would think they were old friends. In fact, they are about to battle it out with each other in the courts of the new country. More accurately, their advocates - the family members who speak English - are about to battle it out for them in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

"Case No. 54365 - Zhang v. Newtone Electronics," someone calls out, and the Uncle recognises the name of his business. "Ay," he nudges the Niece, "is that us? Are they calling for us?" The Niece nods, and the Uncle helps the Old Man to his feet while she hands him his walking stick. Together, they walk the Old Man to the room, lead him to the empty seat beside his Son-in-Law, and then take their places on the opposite side of the room. The Son-in-Law, a towering pink megaphone for his softly spoken in-laws, glowers at his wife: "Doesn't your old man realise that they're the other side? Why's he getting so friendly with them?" The Old Man is silent, waiting for the hearing to begin.

"Just because they have a white son-in-law they think they can sue the hell out of us," the Uncle told his Niece when he first appealed to her for help. "Ungrateful Australians. Zhang bought that DVD player for his daughter. I know she and the white devil egged him on." The Niece is a law student, in her second year. She has been practising law for her family members since she was 16: writing letters of complaint, deciphering employment contracts, submitting tenders. But this will be her first time in court.

Under the Fair Trading Act 1999, the fee to take a claim of less than $10,000 to the VCAT is $34.20. "Such a small sum!" railed the Uncle when the VCAT notice first arrived. "No wonder so many want their day in court." For $34, anyone can experience Justice the democratic way. The Uncle believes this is why his Asian customers are so eager to take him to the tribunal. They are free, and by the blessed Buddha, they will sue each other for all it's worth. In a democracy, there is always someone to blame.

The Uncle shares their faith in this marvellous system. He knows that in this new country, everything is organised to be rational and fair and good, to remedy people who aren't. "Do you think they would do this to a white man?" he exclaimed as they drove to the tribunal. "Oh no, they would never try this at Harvey Norman. If the white guys at Myer tell them that they can't get a refund, then that's the end of the matter. But me, I'm just a Phnom Penh peasant, fresh off the boat - no harm in throwing a phonebook at me."

Some disputes can be settled out of court. The day before the hearing, a different Chinese customer came into the Uncle's shop. Waving an ad from the local newspaper, he demanded the mobile phone in the window for $99.

"But that phone costs over $200," implored the Uncle.

"Your ad says 99!"

"It says mobile phones from $99! I can't sell you that one for 99."

"Ay, you shifty Chinese-Cambodians!" the customer shouted, picking up the Yellow Pages from the counter and lobbing it at the Uncle's head.

As the Uncle ducked, he recalled a passage from the franchise manual: The customer is always right. Never lose your temper on the shop floor. He picked up the phonebook, put it back on the counter, and turned solicitously to the fuming customer. "Go to Crazy John," he proffered. "Go and throw something at him. Go and molest another Telstra dealer. We all have the same ad."

The customer marched out, turning to have the last word before he left. "You're lucky I don't take you to the Tribunal!"

As they wait for the hearing to begin, the Niece reads over the documents once more. Question 11 asks the applicant to Outline the history of the dispute. Attach extra sheets if you need more space. Only five lines are provided on the form, but Mr Zhang's daughter has attached two extra pages of pain and suffering caused by the malfunctioning DVD player. Who can fit into five little lines their heartrending history of corporate exploitation? You'd have to do it in haiku.

When the Tribunal Member enters the room, all stand up respectfully and turn to see what Justice looks like. He is a tired-looking man with greying hair. He sits at the front of the room, behind a raised desk, and signals wearily for them to sit down.

Standing up to speak for the Old Man, the Son-in-Law begins an indignant speech. The phrases "dodgy goods", "buggered up" and "ripped off" occur several times, often in the same sentence. But the Tribunal Member cuts him off. He has witnessed this scene many times before; each tirade is identical to the last except for minor details of fact. The Member leafs through the application and sums up the two pages of woe in three sentences. Then, in shorthand, he states the law in relation to the matter, for the edification of all parties: "The DVD player did not do what it was supposed to do - that is, play DVDs."

It is the Niece's turn. She has studied Section 74D of the Trade Practices Act. She knows she has to prove that the DVD player was of merchantable quality when it was sold. She wants to explain that faulty discs inserted into the player might have caused it to malfunction. She also wants to point out that some DVD players can only play discs from certain zones. But when she stands up to speak, she finds that she has soaked up her parents' fear of authority. Her carefully rehearsed case comes out as two awkward sentences, speeding to a small smash of silence. This is not how she imagined her courtroom debut.

Her two pithy sentences have not convinced the Tribunal Member. He declares that the information is immaterial, and that the goods did not do what they were supposed to. Therefore the applicants are entitled to a full refund.

"But we offered four times to fix it for them because it was still under warranty!" exclaims the Uncle. "But they would have none of it! You must tell him that the DVDs they were playing were illegal. How dare they sue us when they were breaking the law!"

The Niece begins to translate, but the Tribunal Member has already made his decision. There are many other claims to be heard and judgements must be made quickly. A $34 fee does not warrant an hour-long stint in the judicial system. The parties stand up as the Tribunal Member walks out of the room.

When the Member has gone, the Uncle turns to the Old Man: "We will write you a cheque."

"Thank you."

The Uncle answers in English, ignoring the smirking Son-in-Law: "No worries." The Old Man and the Uncle shake hands and give each other small pats on the back.

"I don't understand how we lost," mutters the Uncle as they walk out of the building. "The only reason the machine was not playing was because they jammed it up with a chopstick, trying to get a pirate DVD out. It was a good one too, a Panasonic." The Uncle looks to the Niece for an explanation, for the complex legal reasoning behind the decision. All she can say is, "The judge must not own a DVD player."

"Don't worry," says the Uncle, "you did well. And Mr Zhang got his $34 worth - I guess it's true, the customer is always right. But all is not lost. We'll get the broken player fixed, hook it up to one of the display TVs and play the Tiger Soya-Milk Maker demonstration DVD on it."

"Who'd want to buy a soya-milk maker?" asks the Niece sceptically.

"Ah. The Old Man," says the Uncle. "He'll come back to get one next week."

"Do you really think he'll come back?" asks the Niece.

"Of course. Of course he'll come. He needs to collect his cheque. And you can't get one of those things from the white guys at Harvey Norman."

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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