Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Goodbye Post

In my travels around the web - I was working really hard today, honest - I found this site.

The Migrant Project seems like a very interesting one. This is a little something from their manifesto:

The Migrant Project is a unique, interdisciplinary arts project, developed by a collective of Australian artists from a variety of cultural and artistic backgrounds, discovering and reassembling the untold stories of Australia’s past and present.
I am reminded of a day I spent at the National Archives in Canberra. I had planned myself a little 'Nationals' tour (only one day free in Canberra): the National Archives (half an hour), the National Library (1 & 1/2 hours), the National Art Gallery (2 hours), lunch (1 hour), the War Museum (1 hour), plane home. It did not quite work out like that because the Archives had an exhibition of the lives of people who first arrived in Australia as emigrants and who lived initially in a migrant community at Bonegilla. It was a fascinating exhibition and I spent about 3 hours there.

Each time I see things like the Bonegilla Exhibition and the Migrant Project, one half of me is inspired, and the other half exhausted. My desire to document my family story and, indeed, to find out more about my family story is re-invigorated. On the other hand, the time evidently put into these projects and the sheer talent that surpasses my own wears me down.

The Migrant Project poses this very interesting question:
In what ways do we forge a hybrid sense of self between our different identities, our different senses of home and belonging and the many identities we possess, the communities we straddle?

This blog started out telling snippets of my family story. It's morphed into all kinds of things - a little about books, a little about law, a little about race/ism, a little (probably more than I intended) about me.

In many ways, I have found it impossible to separate my Viet refugee past from my current life.

The nature of blogging itself does not assist me to keep separate stories of my past, from stories of my present. I began to worry, as I realised that people were actually reading my blog, of revealing too much about people who had not agreed to have anything at all revealed about them, to an unknown audience. It began to be safer to tell stories of my present, in which only (or predominantly) I - who had explicitly agreed to having things revealed about me and who was (mostly) in control of the revelations - figured.

I am a hybrid - not only of my Viet-ness and my Australian-ness, but also of the different identities of Oanh the daughter, sibling, aunt, partner, lawyer, reader, feminist, etc. I live a digital, and a non-digital, life. You, too, are a hybrid.

I have documented, and will probably continue to document, the transgressions between the me who aligns with my family and cultural expectations of me, and the me whom I think of as more truly myself. It is the cultural straddling I (and others) do, and suspect will always do, that intrigues me. I do it mostly unthinkingly. Have I forged a hybrid sense of self, or has it just arisen?

I am moving to the UK - a kind of confused reverse Australian migration. I will soon be struggling for a sense of home, and definitely for a sense of belonging. That won't be anything I have not done in the past, but it will be interesting to do, equipped as I am now, with the verbiage of theory. I will soon have no family and very few friend reference points for my identity. I will be behaving amongst people who will have no pre-conceptions about how to expect me to behave in any given situation (except my partner, of course, who has years of pre-conceptions, now). It is why travelling is so exciting to people, I think, this opportunity to re-create.

For my parents, my moving is not quite travelling. I wonder if they view this move as akin to their migration to Australia. It is not, of course, as I reassure them of at least 12-monthly visits home. That in itself, and the immediacy and simplicity of communication unknown when they left Viet Nam (and complicated by other factors too), makes what I am doing now, conceptually very different to what they were doing then.

This is my goodbye post. Not because I am leaving blogging forever, but, because, circumstances being as they currently are, I will need to have a blog hiatus of at least two months, maybe more. Moving across the world is time-consuming. I will probably still be reading and commenting but suspect that, too, will be sporadic. A break will be a good opportunity to think about the direction and purpose of this blog, and to return, hopefully, with a clearer idea of what I want from my blogging or an epiphany that such clarity is not possible, nor even desirable, for me.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Who wears short shorts?

Meredith writes an interesting post about Promo Girls here.

The incisive point Meredith makes is about how men decorate their bodies and possessions (mostly cars) in an outwards space claiming fashion, and women minimalise in a near-naked, take up as little space as possible and inhibit movement fashion.

I can certainly relate to this observation - and I think it is manifested in how men and women - and indeed boys and girls - sit / are taught to sit. I remember being posed for school photographs. In group photos, I am always placed in the front left hand corner. I think this is where my height inevitably places me. Girls were always asked to put their knees together and their right hand over the top of their left. Boys were asked to sit with their knees hip-width apart, with a fist on each knee. I'm in a grade two photo where I have obviously been confused by the instructions - or don't know which gender I am - as I have my knees together but a fist on each knee. Otherwise, I am clearly "girl": I'm in a pink dress with my hair in pigtails either side of exposed ears.

I also had to comment with my own observation about "Promo Girls":


On the streets in Brisbane, there are young scantily clad women in short shorts advertising … something. I assume one of our girly bars, but I am not entirely sure. I have a little argument with myself every time I see them. My first reaction is annoyance.

Then I think: No, wait. Not their fault. Probably lucrative. Should be annoyed at … something/one else. Society! It’s society’s fault.

Sometimes, pity. Aren’t they cold? Don’t they hate it when horrid men ogle them? When women look at them disapprovingly?

Sometimes, in judgment: Hmm, if you’re going to wear that, you’ll need to walk a bit taller. Swing those hips, sass it out. No use huddling into yourself.

With eyebrows raised: I don’t know that short shorts suit your cellulite*

Then in judgment on myself: That’s not very nice, Oanh. Good on them. They’re comfortable with their bodies and they’re using society’s obsession with women’s bodies /sexual object status to their advantage. Plenty of other women will look at them disapprovingly, no need for you to do so. You can be more generous than that.

With my feminist rejoinder: But they’re perpetuating women’s oppression!

Basically, I end up with all these thoughts which probably flicker across my face (I’m terrible at masking my emotions) and these women edge away from me, so I then feel forced to give them a tentative smile, just to show that I’m, er, friendly or approve or something. Which I’m not. And I don’t.


I really do not like the Promo Girls. But I also know that it is not their fault, and that the work may be a perfectly valid and probably lucrative choice.

There is also mention by Legal Eagle of an advertisement for tailor-made suits. I agree with Legal Eagle that it is valid to exploit sex appeal but I consider it inappropriate in a workplace and it occassionally angers, and sometimes saddens, me.

I think the reason is that Promo Girls and that ad perpetuate a notion of women's power as based predominantly on their appearance and sexual worth to men. I do not agree with that. I do not think that that is valid. But I think, so long as it exists, it's okay for my sisters to exploit it. I'm just going to keep tying myself up in knots every time I think about it, however.

*when I wrote the comment I'd forgotten the word for cellulite...(!)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Meme of Brevity

Just because I can - not because anyone asked me to.

And anyway, being brief is a challenge for me.

One word answers only!

Yourself: Bemused
Your Partner: Polymath
Your hair: Disobedient
Your mother: Misunderstood
Your father: Stoic
Your favourite item: non-existent
Your dream last night: Involved
Your favourite drink: Water
Your dream car: None
Your dream home: Varying
The room you are in: Office
Your ex: Done
Your fear: Inertia
Where you want to be in ten years: Wherever
Who you hung out with last night: Partner
What you’re not: Manipulative
Muffins: No.
One of your wish list items: None
Time: 14.24
The last thing you did: Eat
What you are wearing: Clothes
Your favourite weather: Drizzle
Your favourite book: Many
Last thing you ate: Rice
Your life: Fine
Your mood: Uninspired
Your best friend(s): Busy
What are you thinking about right now: Home
Your car: Red
What are you doing at the moment: This
Your summer: Humid
Relationship status: Committed
What is on your tv: Antenna
What is the weather like: Blue
When is the last time you laughed: Recently

Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Don't you hate reviews that tell you nothing about what the reader thought of the novel, and just gives you a precis of the novel itself? Well, I'm not going to do that. If you want a precis, here it is.

If you want to know what happens at the end, you can google "Parable of the Talents", which is the sequel to "Parable of the Sower". I've not read that yet. But vague information you glean on Talents, well tell you the conclusion of Sower.


It's been a long time since I've read much new (to me) science fiction. I think at some stage there was a glut of science fiction in my life and the only way to move on from that was to cease reading it altogether. Like fantasy, there is too much rubbish out there. I get disheartened when I pick up a novel, read a few paragraphs to discover appalling writing style or bland story or fetishism of gadgets (sci-fi) / medievalism (fantasy) / magical worlds (also fantasy). Nothing is wrong with each of those things of themselves, they just don't speak to me. And yes, I am using a broad brush to tar sci fi & fantasy with accusations of appalling writing and bland story-telling. Other genres are equally culpable.

Nowadays, I read science fiction only on well-trusted recommendations. Recommendations from people who know my reading proclivities. So when my partner borrowed a novel by Octavia Butler and, after reading it, duly declared that I would enjoy it, I happily picked it up. I found myself a couple of days later reading the last chapter while I was walking home, dodging fellow walkers, cyclists, park benches and the occassional overgrown plant.

This is excellent science fiction writing. Octavia Butler has a dystopic vision of a world, that could easily be our world in 20 years. It is unexplained why the world has descended into anarchy; the sense of an ordered society is within living memory and there are remnants of governed civilisation: presidents and grocery stores. Good science fiction, to me, reveals flaws in our current society. This is a novel about civilisation. Many things that are wrong in our current society are depicted: racism, self-interset and greed, environmental damage, sexism. This dystopia is complex and comprehensive: it is not one thing that has gone wrong, but many. Octavia Butler depicts a violent and raw society; one in which the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is attempting to build a new world. I really enjoyed the focus on the minutiae of self-sufficient survival: water, food, clothing, agricultural skills.

Lauren creates a religion - Lauren would say that she is articulating the truth as she discovers it - and views the world around her with an incisive and pragmatic eye. The stragglers who form Lauren's travelling companions are a mixture of the different races that comprise American society: African-American (Lauren herself), white, Latino, Asian. The explorations of how each of these individuals have survived are fascinating, if somewhat simplistically presented. Their individual stories are related in one hit, rather than revealed. Only one character is given the joy of unravelling his past throughout the novel.

Lauren is also a character created from an idea of Octavia Butler's about how society could be improved. In an essay on NPR about the UN Racism Conference, Octavia Butler raises the notion of empathy and whether this would enable society to be more tolerant, whether fewer wars would start if everyone experienced the pain that they inflicted upon another person.

"The point was to create, in fiction at least, a tolerant, peaceful civilization -- a world in which people were inclined either to accept one another's differences or at least to behave as though they accepted them since any act of resentment they commit would be punished immediately, personally, inevitably."

It is a concept more immediate than karma. Instead of the civilization, Octavia Butler creates just one character: Lauren, who is a 'sharer' - she feels other people's pains and pleasures.

It's an interesting idea, but one that Octavia Butler was ultimately pessimistic about.
She says:
"[I]n real life, what would make us more tolerant, more peaceful, less likely to need a UN Conference on Racism?


Nothing at all."

Octavia Butler cites contact sports and schoolyard bullying as examples for why sharing pain isn't the solution. We're a hierarchical civilisation and "[t]here is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people."

I think that it is not only our baser instincts that mean we are willing to inflict pain, and Octavia Butler explores this aspect in her novel. Even if we felt the pain that we inflicted on another person, there would nevertheless be situations in which we would continue to inflict that pain. Pain is part of living. And there are things that are, in the end, more important to us than not experiencing pain. In the novel, for example, Lauren herself is willing, and quite able, to inflict significant pain on other people, sometimes to avoid further pain to herself, sometimes to prevent pain happening to other people.

The theme of shared pain makes for a very interesting exploration of the dystopia that Octavia Butler creates: in a society in which pain, suffering and human's baser instincts prevail, what, exactly, assists us to transcend it? I am taken with this idea, and I would like to see how Octavia Butler explores it in the sequel.

Here's something else Octavia Butler says that resonates with me:-
"Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we're as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned."

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Last weekend we dismantled our last standing bookshelf. The books came off and got placed into two piles: to be stored and to be given away. My partner took the shelves off; I collected the little shelf pins; and then he took out a screw driver and unscrewed the brace. Now we had multiple pieces of wood, quite a few bullet shapes and one long x-shaped piece of metal. The pieces of bookshelf were carefully placed into our little car, and driven over to my partner's parents' place for their use. Earlier during the week, we had dismantled the second last standing bookshelf and driven it to my sister's workplace, where it was reassembled for her to put multi-coloured folders on. A few weeks ago, we had dismantled the first lot of shelves.

Over the past few months, our walls have been getting more and more naked. Our living room is now devoid of books on walls and I feel bereft. I am used to being surrounded by all these books – some I've read, some I've been meaning to read, some I would never read (my partner's DH Lawrence's and Thomas Hardy's being prime examples) and some that I have forgotten that I even acquired. I always enjoy that surprise, as you are browsing your own shelves, of making a discovery.

There is a room in my house, however, that has been getting more and more full. In one corner is a stack of archive boxes: 7 stand comfortably atop each other before my partner looks askance at me as I raise a box of books above my head. Seven is the limit for stacking archive boxes when one is 5 foot nothing. Along the floor are all the books that we will not be keeping. As visitors come to our house, we take them into this room and gesture magnanimously at the books on the floor: Take what you will, we say. Please, we beg.

I have taken to making care packages of books, to be given to people as I have fare-thee-well breakfasts, lunches and dinners with them. I put great thought into what books I choose to give to people. I start with what I know of their reading, and then I attempt to match, and expand. I have given a friend, who is spiritual, creative and feminist, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Saints and Angels by Ivan Klima and Journey to Ithaca by Kiran Desai. A friend who reads indiscriminately trash and high literature provided “it has a good story” has had foisted upon her Possession by AS Byatt, Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and a number of novels by Carson McCullers. My niece received my complete works of Shakespeare and Norton's Anthology of Drama. I was so proud when she squealed in delight: I gave her an unexpected hug and kiss, and both of our faces suddenly got smeared with whatever goop she was putting into her hair. A friend who reads fantasy got my partner's science fiction thrust at her, with me yabbering away about the number of Michael Moorcocks that she can have (except that I have to check with my partner first).

My workmates, however, have not been so fruitful. In the lunchtime lift, I was nattering away about all the things that needed to be done before we go, when my work colleague said: Oh! And all your books! Oh, I know, I exclaimed, that's the real big task. Another newish work colleague looked bemused so the first colleague explained that I had a lot of books. Oh really? Newish Work Colleage sounded interested. So I plunged in with: Yeah, heaps! Do you like to read? If you would like any of my books, I'm more than happy to give them to you. Great she said. I was so excited – more people to give books away to. What do you read? Name a few authors and I'll see what I've got that's compatible. She grins happily and says: Thrillers. John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer. Oh, I have to deliver my disappointment and choke back a desire to say that I don't read ariport fiction, unless I am at the airport and desperate. I say lamely, Well, we read very broadly so I'll see what we've got. We've got nothing suitable, is what, and I already know it. So does she. We will not be talking books again.

The most difficult task so far has been refining my filing. A few years ago I worked up the gumption to throw out my law school notes. They went into the rubbish bin quite gleefully, with me surprised that I had kept them through two house moves. Last weekend, I finally tackled the folders that comprised my honours thesis, Latin and ancient history courses. I remember that when I finished my honours thesis, I arranged my notes and photocopied journal articles and book chapters into well organised and clearly labelled folders. I had this intention of trimming my thesis and submitting it somewhere for publication. I never got around to doing that, and I barely looked at my honours thesis after I handed it in.

I picked up the folders labelled such riveting things as: “Feminist Historiography”, “Women – General”, “Messalina – Specific” and opened them. Inside there were handwritten notes, tabbed in a variety of colours, highlighted in other colours still. There had been much cross-referencing going on way back in the ol' honours thesis days. I opened another folder labelled “Latin” and found typed out the texts that we worked on through two semesters of Latin. Beside the typed out text, I had laboriously typed out my translations. And I recalled that, not only did I do all this typing up, it was superfluous. I had done the translations painstakingly by hand, and only after it was corrected in class did I type it out. And I had kept reams of vocabulary exercises and grammar notes. No wonder I am so uptight about grammar. I kept the text and translations, but I ditched everything else.

I went downstairs and outside, pulling the bins under our study window. My partner threw the folders out. As the folders of paper sailed into the recycling bin, my pout got deeper and my frown more pronounced. When the ceremony was over, I trudged back up the stairs, now shivering from standing in the cold in only thin trousers and singlet, and curled myself into a morose ball of regret on one corner of our couch. My partner sat down and put a hand on my knee: you didn't have to throw all of that out. Years of my intellectual life, I said self pityingly. All that stuff I once knew. Gone. If only I was really sad enough, one lonesome tear would have rolled down my cheek. My partner curled comfortingly into me and drew the corners of his mouth down to express his sympathy, and affectionate mockery of my theatricality. Don't worry, I said. By tomorrow I'll have completely forgotten about it all.

I have not quite forgotten, because this blog post has been churning away inside me. But now it's written, my regret will fade away. All that intellectual stuff, gone indeed.

We are leaving Brisbane in less than two months time. Our house is getting emptier as we rid ourselves of the accumulated detritus of our past lives. I am looking forward to living with as few possessions as possible. My only weakness, I suspect, will be books.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I lied.

Okay. So I am breaking my promise. No scandal nor wit here. But there is some acrimony.

Work Choices was so exciting, and so all-consuming in its constitutional interpretation expansionism (yes, all 411 pages!) that I almost let this and this slip under the radar. The whole cases are here and here .

Of course, I don’t get paid to read an immigration case, but I’ve done it anyway. For your elucidation alone. That’s how much I care.

Australia’s highest court has decided that Australia’s greatest international humiliation – our continuing inhumane treatment of asylum seekers – can continue unabated.

Each of the asylum seekers in the two cases were Shi’a Muslims of Hazara ethnicity living in Afghanistan. Each came to Australia seeking refugee protection visas and was granted Temporary Protection Visas. When they applied for permanent protection visas at the end of their temporary visa, they were rejected because, according to the Refugee Review Tribunal, they no longer had a “well founded fear” of persecution in their country of nationality. The High Court by a majority of four to one*, said that the Tribunal was correct. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked to intervene as amicus curiae (a friend of the court, helpful and knowledgeable). The UNHCR was permitted to provide written submissions, but not make oral argument.

* no prizes for guessing the dissentient: Kirby J.

The concept that refugee status can come and go is almost laughable to me.

I am not usually one to disparage our justice system. There are often constraints on doing justice, because of how legislation is framed. There is precedent to contend with. I am actually very good at explaining the legal basis for decisions I disagree with. I understand legal reasoning. But that does not change my reaction. I think the conclusions in both cases are very sad for Australia. I shake my head in sorrow, my throat catches and tears come to my eyes. This is all I can do. I am powerless.

This decision requires an asylum seeker to establish, years on, why they cannot return safely 'home'. Anecdotal evidence isn’t good enough. That an asylum seeker gets occasional letters from family still in the 'home' country, saying that an uncle or cousin or neighbour or someone else entirely was killed or has disappeared is not good enough. I don’t know what is.

A regime change is not enough to show that it safe to return ‘home’.

An individual who has been persecuted, marginalised, mistreated by government has absolutely no reason to trust government. Of whatever kind. Whether their birth country, or an attempted adopted one. It will take a lot for a regime change to manifest its trustworthiness to people who have no reason to trust.

It is very easy, when you are comfortable and secure, to be unable to see how someone else is uncomfortable and insecure. It is very easy to think that that person’s perception is flawed. To blame the individual’s subjective experience, rather than objective reality. But you could be wrong. What is objective reality anyway? What would it take for you to be in their shoes? Watch the movie Three Dollars. It ain’t perfect (although it does have David Wenham in it). I found most striking how well the movie elicited the fine line between middle class comforts, and jolting poverty.

I am an Australian citizen. I am legally trained. I am comfortable navigating within a variety of social and economic circles in Australia. I am articulate. I know my rights and entitlements, and how to assert them. My annual salary probably places me within the upper middle class category. I have loving family, a home and food whenever I want it. I have fulfilling work and enjoyable (if somewhat insufficient) leisure time. I have never been imprisoned. I have never not had enough to eat. I have never feared for my life – although my parents have feared for theirs, and mine by proxy. I was a mere infant when I left Viet Nam. But I returned with a little trepidation. I made light of it in a blog post, but it was real.

I read a profile recently of a Vietnamese language interpreter, residing in Brisbane, in the illustrious Courier Mail’s “Q Weekend” magazine. It was lying around the lunchroom and I was munching on a sandwich. I still have not worked out how to read a novel while eating a sandwich. Anyway, this interpreter was asked whether she had returned for a visit to Viet Nam. She said she had not. When asked why, she said that she did not trust the government, still. Madam Interpreter left Viet Nam in 1976. She started out working as a kitchen hand but, having a knack with languages, learnt English sufficiently proficiently to help her fellow Vietnamese cope with the mainstream language in their new society. Perhaps, 30 years on, after doi moi, Madam Interpreter does not have a well founded fear of persecution. But the fact of that fear says something: the longevity of an individual’s distrust of government. Madam Interpreter still considers herself a refugee.

Regime change is not enough. Under the International Convention on Refugees, regime change must be fundamental, stable and durable. Only time can answer those questions, and after a sufficient period of time has elapsed, sometimes that person who was a refugee becomes someone else such that returning to their birth country might no longer be returning home. Even if it’s safe.

Caveat (I can’t help it, I’m a lawyer):
I do not profess to have understood the complexities of the High Court decisions because I have only skimmed them. This is a blog post. It’s my opinion because I’ve been inspired to write, by something I’ve read. It’s all a lot more complex than this.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Because I know you care

So, I've been quiet a while.

As per usual - there are reasons and things. I've been prolifically commenting on other's blogs though. Almost like writing a post of Oanh's own.

In any event, I am sure that you will be absolutely thrilled to know that Australia's highest court handed down its decision today in the most exciting constitutional law case since the Tasmanian Dams case.

It's so important, the case is 411 pages long. There are 1227 footnotes! I haven't read the whole case yet - just scanned it for the juicy bits.

Did I mention that I'm a law nerd?

You can read the official summary here. Please note: this is not to be relied upon for legal advice, of course, but I doubt many of you will be challenging Australia's laws for offending our bland constitution anyway. If you're a law student, you probably shouldn't rely on this in your essays or exams, either. Please read at least *some* of the judgment.

Here's my summary:-

It's a washout.

The federal government of Australia, in its inestimable wisdom, made a law about employment that overrode, undermined and eroded employee's rights, especially those found in each of the individual state's legislation (except for Victoria, which had already given the federal government the power to legislate for its people).

Basically, the corporations power is so broad, a vague connection with a corporation, no matter what the actual subject matter of the law might be, makes the piece of law OK.

There were two dissentients: Justice Kirby and Justice Callinan.

Callinan J says:

To give the Act the valid operation claimed by the Commonwealth would be to authorize it to trespass upon essential functions of the States.

The validation of the legislation would constitute an unacceptable distortion of the federal balance intended by the founders, accepted on many occasions as a relevant and vital reality by Justices of this Court, and manifested by those provisions of the Constitution to which I have referred, and its structure.

And Kirby J says:

I therefore consider that this Court should adhere to the conclusion inherent in the hundreds of earlier cases over more than a century in which the Court has held or implied that, whatever the expanding content of the corporations power in s 51(xx) might otherwise permit, it does not sustain a law which, properly characterised, is one "with respect to" the subject matter of s 51(xxxv), that is, the prevention and settlement of interstate industrial disputes. This new Act is such a law. It does not comply comprehensively with the dual requirements laid down in s 51(xxxv) for laws with respect to that subject. That conclusion presents the issue of its constitutional invalidity.

It is an unsurprising, but very concerning, decision.


This is the part where I beg and plead for my few readers to please return, maybe in a week's time, where there will be an interesting post about stuff unrelated to law. I could promise scandal, acrimony and wit. But you would all know that I'd be lying.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

White Wash

I am slowly turning white.

Yesterday, I looked down at my belly while sitting on the toilet and there was a patch of white, roughly 1 cm squared, to the left of my navel. I scrubbed at it. It peeled away like old paint.

"Must have been toothpaste," I thought. "Will be more careful in future."

Throughout yesterday, I found patches of white all over me. Some of it was on my clothes, but most of it was on my orange-toned skin. I was perplexed. When I do my teeth of a morning, I can be vigorous. I am often running late for walking to work. But I certainly was not wantonly flicking toothpaste all over the bathroom and myself. Especially as I was dressed and ready for work (sort of).

Today, I was more careful in the bathroom. As I sat at work - reading, typing and surfing the net (I mean researching) - I notice a streak of white on my left forearm. As I turn my arm around, I see little spots of white. Whatever I have done now, I can't scrape these off so easily.

There are the tiniest spots on my right arm, too. I wonder if it's permanent, if it will spread.

People have described my skin tone as 'olive' and I cannot see how this is correct. No olive I have ever seen has been a kinda browny orange, with streaks of blue and some blotches of red. Olives are either green or a purple-tinted black.

Some have described me as yellow, but I am sure that my skin colour looks nothing like a banana, or the sun as drawn and coloured by children. And I don't think they were referring to my courage (or its lack).

I think that I am definitely orange(ish). Or brown. Or brown with an orange base. Or orangey brown. Anyway, my skin is definitely dark(ish) South East Asian coloured. I am not fair like most of my sisters. I am of fishing stock, and my colour pigment is there to protect me so that I can spend most days sorting through the fish that my father, brothers and cousins have hauled in. I was obviously meant to remain in Viet Nam, and live the fishing life. Or failing that, perhaps the farming life. My fairer sisters were destined for distant shores, less physical labour type lives. Oddly enough, my parents took all of us over with nary a thought for what our skin colour indicated we were fated to become.

These days, of course, I sit inside an office for much of the sunlight hours. The sun slants in through my office window (yes, I've got the window seat) but it is barely enough to warm me, let alone to justify my skin colour. Its greatest effect is in the afternoon, when it glares so horridly from the reflection of the other huge glass covered buildings that I am forced to close my blinds.

My mother wastes precious breaths telling me to stay out of the sun. I do not waste any breath telling her that I don't actually spend much time in the sun anymore. As a child I was often out in the yard, climbing trees and chasing after frogs (in winter) and lizards (in summer). I was a dark brown back then, and I would get darker as the days got warmer. Um often stuck her head out the back door and hollered for me to come inside. I always pretended not to hear her.

When I was in school and playing sport, Um always berated me for the colour my skin would become, darker and darker as the netball season drew to its exciting conclusion (we were never in the finals, but always made it to at least the quarter finals).

I tried to tell my mother that my skin tone was not my fault! I had no conscious control over what colour my skin was. If I was feeling especially rebellious I would tell her that it was HER fault, or perhaps my father's, if I was not beautiful rich-person white but dirty peasant brown. She would retort with the example of my sisters, very few of whom played sport or chased lizards and frogs. I would scowl.

Years inside an office and I might, after all, be turning white. My skin tone is still orangey-brown, brownish, orange-based etc. But I keep discovering these patches of flaky white.

My mother would be so pleased.

Friday, October 27, 2006

My Adventures in the Law - Episode III (or is it IV?)

More legal anachronisms? We're a conservative industry. Change is slow.

Cee says:

"When I began studying law, I never expected to find myself trotting off down
the street clutching a Bible in one hand and an affidavit in the other as part
of my job.

There are two options when one wants to swear an
affidavit, or give evidence in court - one is to swear to tell the truth while
holding a Bible, and the other is to affirm that you will tell the truth

First, let me point out, as Cee does, the ubiquity with which people swear oaths. When I was working at the courts, I was honestly surprised by the number of people who swore on a Bible. Roughly 95% of the population. Part of the reason why people do this, I think, is that they are not offered a choice. They do not *know* that there is an option to do something else.

There are a number of factors that affect their ignorance.

One of the main ones is the law's historical reliance on the swearing of an oath. In eons past, the only thing you could do, if you were giving evidence in a court of law (insert ominous music), was to swear an oath. If you did not believe in the Christian god, you were considered incompetent and unable to provide evidence. A modified version of this is actually STILL the case in common law: if you believe in a god and swear an oath to tell the truth that is binding on your conscience than you can give evidence; otherwise, you are incompetent. (Common law is law made by cases coming before judges, rather than parliament and legislation). Legislation changed that position such that you could give an oath that was binding on your conscience or if you did not believe in a god, to affirm your evidence. The legislation is actually structured that if a person objects to being sworn, than it is lawful for that person to make an affirmation.

I have known a judge to badger a witness about what s/he believes in. If you profess belief in a god or have a religion (eg. Buddhism, which sort of has no deity technically kind of; or Hinduism which has a delightful panoply of them), then the judge will insist that you swear an oath belonging to that religion. I disagree with this behaviour. Part of my reasoning is that a person may not wish to bring their religion into the court process. I think it is perfectly acceptable to say: My religious beliefs are so and so, but this is a secular process and if I fail to tell the truth, it is the secular system that will punish me. My religion will judge me in other ways.

Another reason is that the whole system is alien to most people. They are uncomfortable with it, and it is their lawyer (if they have the financial wherewithal to obtain one) who will assist them to navigate the system. This discomfort is magnified if they are from a different culture to the white, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian mainstream.

And, as much as we forget it sometimes, lawyers are everyday people too with their assumptions, weaknesses and flaws. Lawyers (as indicated in Cee's post, and supported by my own experience) are often completely oblivious to differences, assuming that everyone is the same and we all spring from the same belief in a god. Or they are lazy (in thinking and action). The way the law is structured is that you have to object. A person unfamiliar with the system, unknowing of their rights and, in the courtroom context, probably uncomfortable, is not going to speak up and say: oh, well, nominally I might be Christian but I don't really believe in God. Is there anything I can do instead? It is up to the lawyer - the supposed expert - to assist their client.

It's a two step process. Step one: I always ask my witnesses: Will you affirm your affidavit / evidence, or will you swear an oath? If they look at me blankly, I will take the time to explain what I mean. Step two: If they tell me that they will swear, I ask them what religion and what holy text they require. And I stamp my feet if our library does not contain that holy text. Because it should. We have not yet had the problem of not having the appropriate text, but I am prepared to make a fuss if the occasion ever arises. And I believe every equality interested lawyer should be prepared to do the same.

Personally, I think an affirmation is preferable, for everyone, because one can take it, have one's conscience bound and be bound by the legal system, and not have one's religion brought into the matter. But that is not how the law is structured. I modify it in my practice.

The first time I had to sign an affidavit for work, the person who drafted my affidavit did so with a swearing clause. I went through the document and calmly and neatly hand-wrote over the clause wherever it appeared (usually thrice: the beginning, the end and before any attachments). After I signed it, the senior lawyer who asked me to do the affidavit thought the crossing out and hand-writing looked unprofessional, so she asked the secretary to amend the affidavit and me to re-sign it. Now it's known throughout the office that I affirm rather than swear. It is as if I am a trouble-maker and must be treated more carefully because of it. I take this in my stride and pretend that it is normal. I try not to notice the eye-rolling that goes on.

Second, as pointed out in my "two step" guide to taking witness evidence, there are MORE than two options. Enshrined in legislation (and this will interest you, Cee, if you were not already aware of it - Oaths Act 1867), is that Quakers, Moravians and Separatists, even though they believe in the Christian god, are permitted, by law, to affirm. Isn't that generous of the law?

But the whole point of this exercise is to tell you a little something about those Other oaths that hover around the courts.

If you're Muslim, you can have a Koran (and it will be wrapped in cloth); if you're Jewish, you can have the Torah. I had to laugh at the Buddhist oath: first, it was based on Mahayana Buddhism which, though it may have the more populous believers, was nevertheless not universal. It went something along the lines of "I swear to tell the whole truth and if I do not may my eternal soul be damned throughout all my incarnations" etc. It was appalling.

But the one that really got my goat? The Chinese Oath. It involved repeating a litany of "I will tell the truth" etc, breaking a saucer, standing up then sitting down, and then snuffing out a candle, or five. What? Apparently these bizarre rituals arose from imperial practises in the Chinese court, which got adapted into her (or his at that point in time) majesty's courts of justice. So, it was always going to become very quickly obsolete (if it ever existed at all). Second: Chinese. What is "Chinese"? The most populous nation in the world, with a large diaspora, and there is something known as the Chinese Oath? Ridiculous. What if you are Christian and Chinese? Do you have to do this little oath dance instead of swearing on the Bible? (Insert Muslim / replace Bible with Koran // you get me drift).

If I were confronted with this, with my knowledge of the law, assertiveness and comfort in a courtroom, I could resist it, point out the error, ask for my right to affirm. But if you do not know, if it is all alien, if you have no comprehension of the system and are afraid or unnerved, you may just think this is what is expected of everyone. And then, you will perpetuate the system's belief that it is doing the right thing. The only way this will change is if lawyers educate themselves and intervene on behalf of their clients.

But you know what I find most disconcerting? – and this goes to the separation of state & religion, as well as to the reminder that we are, anachronistically and unexpectedly, still a constitutional monarchy – that in some courts the bailiff still says: “God Save the Queen” before the judge sits down.

It's an uphill battle, that's for sure.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A little Library Thing

I now have a Library Thing.

There are a couple of reasons why I've done this.

Mostly, I just kinda like it and I'm a bit of a geek. And by golly but I do love lists.

A lot of my new visitors (who usually are one-offs!) seem to have found me via some of the books I've reviewed. Of course, I'm probably not going to review books I've read in the distant past and I feel that it is a pity that people will miss out on a recommendation towards some of those books if I don't have a little list somewhere (I'm thinking Simone Lazaroo and Duong Thu Huong in particular). And it saddened me to see that I was one of only two people who'd reviewed The Full Story, and one of only five who reviewed The Gangster We are All Looking For (yes, I googled my own posts - but just to see what else would turn up, honest. I'm not an egomaniac. Oh, wait, I am a bit of an egomaniac). A real pity, particularly for Gangster, as it is such an insightful and lyrical work.

I considered writing a post of all the influential books I've read - but I don't like lists without explanation, and it would have been too long and taken up too much time and too difficult!

I've also read a number of book memes which started me thinking.

The most recent one was a list of Women Writers. The task was to bold what one had read, italicise what one wanted to read, place some kind of symbol beside each of (1)an author one had read but not the book listed, (2) author one had heard of but not read yet, or (3) an author one had not heard of at all. Of the lists I've seen, I've generally read or at least heard of most of the authors. But what I was saddened to see was that so many excellent women authors had been left off the list. Generally speaking, lists will leave people off and one can always quibble with the criteria for inclusion. Nature of the beast and all that. But sometimes such wonderful authors were left off (eg. Maxine Hong Kingston, whom I would expect to be part of any woman author canon) while others less meritorious were left on (eg. Amy Tan, whom I've certainly enjoyed but is not of the literary calibre of Ms Hong Kingston, in my (probably not very) humble opinion).

Another book meme which got me thinking was a list of "World Writers". There was a glut of authors from / having a connection with India but only a very few from Africa (yes, the whole continent) and Australia, and none from Viet Nam. Sure, these lists show the biases and limitations of the makers (as I have my own, and my own blindspots) but I wanted a way to get out the names of great writers of literature, preferably Asian (with a distinct bias towards Viet), preferably women and with a leaning towards Australia.

Thus, My Library Thing was created.

If you think this is all I read, you are wrong. But of what I read, these are the works I think need more attention. Some are there not because they do need more attention (eg Banana Yoshimoto) but just because she's really great. And if you're wondering, I love Haruki Murakami and have all of his books except for my two favourites (go figure!?), but he's remaining OFF my Library Thing. He really has enough attention (he takes up 9 out of the top 10 places in the "Asian Fiction / Asian Writers" group) and I'd like to see more diversity. On which criteria I might need to take Ms Yoshimoto OFF my Library Thing, because she's number one on the top 10 list! (But if she had not been on my list, the Asian Fiction group would not have found me so quickly - no more than a few hours!)

Library Thing strikes me as a very useful recommendation service. It is most often through other people - whether in my non-ether or ether life - that I discover authors I have never heard of: eg. Pham Thi Hoai (thank you NT) and Kien Nguyen (thank you Sume). And now, I can also be recommended books by all the other Library Thingistas out there.

Not that my Books in the Waiting Room need to be expanded upon ... now we just need an internet program to create more time.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

ooh - Pho!

Pho is iconic Viet food. There are other dishes that speak strongly to me of home & family (I will write of these eventually) but pho is ubiquitous, and accessible. And delicious.

I have fond memories of pho on weekend mornings. A pho weekend was time off for Um. Um did not cook pho very often - it was not one of our family specialties. Pho weekends always felt festive. Every one of the kids had to help out more than usual because Um made pho so she did not have to spend all day at the stove. Sometimes she would disappear for the rest of the day. We were a little giddy with the freedom to eat whenever and how much we liked, and to clean up as we went rather than watch the dishes pile up to be a mountain of washing after the meal. Pho is best prepared the day before. The broth would bubble away in our largest saucepan for hours and hours, filling our home with the delicious smell of burnt onion, star anise and beef. Um always made sure to have enough for every one of her greedy kids to have at least two bowls per meal, plus enough for any guest who might drop in - welcome but unexpected.

Pho weekends were wonderful. Overnight, the gastric juices would be busily working away and I would wake delightedly anticipating pho for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. And every meal in between too.

Ba would have collected all the necessary herbs (basil, perennial coriander, mint) from our garden and I, and some of my sisters, would wash and pluck the herbs, placing them into large tubs to be collected and added to our bowls of pho. Someone would slice onions and chives. We would collect fresh bird eye chillies from the garden, slicing some and leaving others whole. These would be arranged into little bowls: one for whole chillies, one for chopped ones. The pre-prepared chilli sauce (a devilish blend of garlic, salt and chillies of which I have never been able to eat more than a teaspoonful in any of my meals) would be taken out of the fridge and placed on the kitchen table. Someone would slice lemons and we would all argue about how best to slice them: along their length, across their middle or into random cubed shapes.

The task I liked least was washing the bean sprouts, and yet, I like eating them so much! Um was very particular with bean sprouts. She used to grow her own in the laundry sink with rags of fabric, but after a while this became too troublesome, she too tired to do so. Home made bean sprouts went the way of home made tofu: a distant childhood memory. Um bought bean sprouts from the local grocer: large bags of these thin white stalks with a yellow nodding head. Bean sprouts from the grocer were never fresh enough for my mother. She would turn them over and over, and then give them to me to "sort out". I hated sitting there with two tubs full of water: one for the unsorted sprouts and one for the sorted sprouts. I would dip a hand into the unsorted sprouts and extract a handful of limp stalks. I had to remove the overly limp stalks, any blackened heads and all trailing strings. I then dumped the sprouts into the sorted tub. Invariably I would do a bad job and Um would lean over my tub of sorted sprouts and bring me another tub of water: the sorted sprouts need to be sorted again. Um knows I do such a bad job that these days, she never asks me to sort the bean sprouts.

In the meantime (as I am bent, huddled and grumpy over the beansprouts), one of my sisters would have cooked up the pho noodles: flat, thick rice noodles. Pho refers to the meal, the broth and the noodles themselves. Sometimes we could get fresh noodles from the grocer (you are more likely to be able to, these days) and sometimes they were dried packet noodles. If fresh noodles, they needed a good sniffing to make sure that they were truly fresh (a sour smell indicated that they were not) and then the noodles were dunked into freshly boiled water to be 're-freshed'. If dried noodles, they needed cooking in vigorously boiling water until they change from murkily diaphonous into pristinely white.

Ba would be somewhere else slicing different bits of beef into thin pieces, halving beef-balls (processed frozen beef that must be terribly bad for you and yet are unaccountably scrumptious) and separating stomach lining from fat (I never ate these). Ba would also be peeling prawns: an unusual addition to pho but one of my sisters did not eat any beef (although she had no qualms eating the beef broth!).

Thus a pho-assembly line would be formed: mountains of noodles in colanders; plucked sprouts in large bowls; delightful sprigs of fresh herbs, sliced onions and chives on plates; and platters of red slices of beef, round grey beef-balls, yellow stomach lining and lucent fat. The prawns had their own separate plate for my beef-averse sister. Grabbing a large bowl, you would place first a decent handful of noodles, covered in onions, sprouts and herbs and then a selection of beef. You then spoon boiling broth all over the noodles; I like to spoon a bowl-full of broth, and then spoon some out and spoon more in to really cook the beef. I then add more herbs and sprouts (I like some cooked and some crunchy). You then go to the table to add chilli (whole, sliced or sauce), squeeze some lemon juice and add some hoi sin sauce to your broth. You start eating - and you don't have to wait for the eldest to sit down and pick up their chopsticks before you start.

When I was just becoming a teenager, I and my brother (who is two years older than me) ate a lot for our apparently slender bodies. We were both active kids and both participated in a lot of sports at school. I was a long distance runner and a netball player. He was a soccer star and volleyball king. (He still is. I am not.) We would come home from school ravenous. When we arrived home, we barely called out "Um, Ba, we're home!" before compiling meals out of breakfast and lunch leftovers, cooking up some instant noodles as the base and then scoffing everything down before our dinner meal no more than two hours later. Whenever I think on how much I used to eat as a teenager, I am amazed. I am sure that, each day, I must have eaten at least half my body weight in food. Okay, that's an exaggeration. Perhaps only a quarter of my body weight.

There was one particular pho weekend where we had guests regularly dropping by. To be polite (and possibly also because I was/am such a glutton), I would fill up a bowl of pho and sit myself down with the guests to eat too. I found myself eating seven bowls of pho before 11am. Ah, the heady days of sporty, fast metabolism youth.

Um does not cook pho anymore. We have all left home now, so she does not need those days off. Rather, one of my brothers-in-law is the pho cook. I have never cooked pho for myself. If I want pho, I either go out to a Viet restaurant in West End, Darra or Sunnybank, or phone my sister to ask when her husband is next cooking pho. Next year, when I will no longer be in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, I might have to learn how to cook pho for myself!

I am intrigued by people who quest for "the perfect bowl of pho" or "authentic pho". There are a few on this site: PHO-KING

Poor misguided souls - there ain't no such thing. You can have very good pho, less good pho and may be even bad pho (although I find that difficult to imagine).

But if you're looking for "authentic", well - that's a whole other blog posting. In summary, authenticity is a misnomer. It is non-existent. Sure things can be not quite right but "authentic" structures distinct criteria for exclusion and inclusion: to say that one bowl of pho is authentic suggests that other bowls of pho are not. If you have a bowl of pho in Viet Nam, it's bound to be authentic, no matter what it tastes or looks like, nor whether it contains herbs and sprouts, hoi sin sauce (or that other more mam like sauce that the north seems to use), has lemon and chilli on the side, or anything else that might be structured as pho. If you have a bowl of pho out of Viet Nam, it is probably based on someone's recipe, and they probably have some connection to Viet Nam - whether they or one of their parents' was born there, or they worked/studied there, or have some other interest or connection to either the country itself, or its people, or even only its cuisine, and that bowl of pho is probably "authentic" too.

You are going to think me a terrible luddite but, when in Viet Nam, I desperately craved a hamburger, with chips. I wanted meat, tomato, lettuce and thick bread. And chips. So I ordered the same from the hotel we were staying in. I got a delicious burger on lovely dense bread and great chips - I would call that an authentic burger.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Pho King site is great. And I will use it as a guide should I ever find myself in North America, looking for a good bowl of pho. And I can and will happily tell you where to go in Brisbane to get a good (according to me) bowl of pho. My brother-in-law's place is first - but you might have some difficulty wrangling an invitation to his house. Otherwise, Quan Thanh on Hardgrave Road is the best place I know to buy a bowl of pho. In the city, AJ's Vietnamese House does a mean bowl. If 'authenticity' means to you that the food is prepared by a person of Vietnamese origin, as far as I can tell, the people at AJ's are not Vietnamese. I know only from listening in on shouted kitchen conversations and my attempt to order "pho dac biet" in Vietnamese. I got a blank stare - so I ordered "special beef noodle soup" in English instead, and that got the desired result. (A delicious and steaming bowl of noodles, beef, herbs and bean sprouts). In Darra, I would go to Cam Ranh (run by a Viet-Australian man) and in Sunnybank I would go to Little Taipei. Yes, Little Taipei does the best pho in Sunnybank (according to me).

But I can't and won't tell you that it's the authentic thing.
Unless of course, I am being ironic.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Full Story

by Brian Caswell and David Chiem

I read this story while on holiday. Its 100-odd pages took me barely half an afternoon and I was in tears at the end. My partner had fallen asleep, but I read on, through a blur of my own tears even as I felt myself manipulated by the over-wrought plot.

The story opens from an odd perspective: a woman, watching her son and his lover. It ends in the same fashion. The woman, we come quickly to realise, is a ghost who watches over her son. From this point, the story branches into the perspectives of her son – a young Viet-Australian man who has recently given up his law studies to pursue writing – and his lover, a young long time Australian woman who is studying art. The story tracks their romance, but predominantly it focuses on two themes: their interracial relationship and the relationship between Viet-Australian father and son. There is also an interesting, and somewhat unbelievable, sub-story concerning the past of the young woman.

There are some wonderful elements of truth (as I see it) in this novel: the pressures and guilt of a migrant life, the sadness of a lost homeland, the soaring joy and depth of young love, the sense of the Australian bush (Blue Mountains, New South Wales, in particular) and an internal battle between self-will and desire to please one parents. I was really moved by the evident guilt of the young Viet-Australian man. The predominant emotion to characterise how I feel towards my parents, is guilt: I feel that I am a constant disappointment to them even as I strive to lead my own life, within the parameters of their approval. I am less conflicted, angry and blindly rebellious as I was when I was a teenager, and they are more accepting of my choices as a grown person.

The Full Story of the story is a neat parable about a peasant and a king, unveiling individual layers of reasoning and complications in a full life to get to more and deeper elements. In some ways this parable (a very Vietnamese one, even if I say that with the caveat that 'Vietnamese' cannot be defined) reminded me of the Roman fable about the Twelve Tables. (Forgive me if I get this wrong – it comes from memory of long ago Ancient History classes). This story goes that a wise elder has twelve stone tables on which immutable laws have been engraved. The wise elder tries to sell the twelve tables to some patriarchs for one piece of gold. The patriarchs scoff at the wise elder and refuse to buy. The wise elder smashes three of the stone tables and then offers the remaining nine stone tables to the patriarchs, but this time for three pieces of gold. The patriarchs are incredulous: there are fewer immutable laws now, but they cost more?! Indeed, says the wise elder, their value has increased because they are all that remain of the original twelve. Of course, the patriarchs scoff again, and so it goes: the wise elder smashes a further three and increase the price by three times. Eventually, the wise elder has only three immutable laws left, and the price he now offers is one hundred pieces of gold. The patriarchs do not scoff. They buy.

So how is that Roman fable connected to the “very Vietnamese” (my words and my impression) full story of The Full Story? That story is about a peasant who has a very special horse and who refuses to sell it to the King. No matter how much the King offers, the peasant refuses. And unpleasant things occur for the peasant when he refuses the King, until the very last offer to buy the horse, which the good peasant refuses. He is rewarded for his uprightness in comparison to the other villagers, who have given their precious possessions to the King for various immediate rewards.

I have been deliberately vague in the retelling of the story – because naturally the parable is integral to The Full Story. It is probably a universal lesson, rather than a uniquely Vietnamese one, that the truly valuable things in our lives are not material or monetarily valuable, but I recall this being a strong element of my growing up: the lesson that family, honour and friendship was more important than material success and acquisition.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I have been, and continue to be: Lazy.

So here are some ten trivia tips about me. Don't expect to win any trivia nights with these.

Ten Top Trivia Tips about Oanh!

  1. Wearing headphones for an hour will increase the amount of oanh in your ear 700 times.
  2. The oanh-fighting market in the Philippines is huge - several thousand oanh-fights take place there every day.
  3. Oanh is the only one of the original Seven Wonders of the World that still survives.
  4. If you drop oanh from the top of the Empire State Building, she will be falling fast enough to kill before reaching the ground.
  5. I had to delete this one because it was offensive to Oanh!
  6. Oanh invented the wheel in the fourth millennium BC.
  7. Plato believed that the souls of melancholy people would be reincarnated into oanh!
  8. Europe is the only continent that lacks oanh.
  9. Devoid of her cells and proteins, oanh has the same chemical makeup as sea water.
  10. Oanh is the smallest of Jupiter's many moons.
I am interested in - do tell me about

I had to delete no. 5 because I found it offensive.

But the rest are amusing. I liked this so much because of the prevalence of ancient historical references. And if you know how to pronounce my name*, no. 3 is quite entertaining.

Number 8 is to be rectified in the near future. This trivia fact will be false by February 2007.

Thanks to the archives of Moment to Moment.

* I could just tell the rest of you how to pronounce my name. Like the number: one. Yes. Really. No, it's not unique / different / unusual. It's very common.

If you are in New York, USofA, I hope no Oanhs fall on your head.
This blog shall return to normal blogging services in the fullness of time.
When the writer stops being lazy,
or her life starts letting her,
or something similarly miraculous.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dream a little dream

I know that, when younger, I dreamed in Vietnamese. One day I must have started dreaming in English – but I don't know when that happened. I am told, by my ever-present and piercingly observant partner, that I occasionally speak in my sleep what he thinks might be Vietnamese. Of course, when he hears Vietnamese, he might just be hearing sounds and the gibberish I utter in my sleep may have the tones and inflections of Vietnamese, but it could equally be just gibberish.

Once I was on a bus and I heard a woman speaking in Vietnamese. I listened in, as I have a tendency to do (consoling myself that it is a way of refining my language skills rather than invading another's privacy). I could completely comprehend everything she said but the man's voice that responded, did so with only meaningless vowel sounds. I tried as best I could to make them out, but even the words I could have guessed by imagining the dialogue were not emitted by this man. I could not resist turning around to look at him, to make sure that he was Vietnamese, or to check that the woman actually had a companion and was not talking into a phone. The woman had a companion and he looked Vietnamese. But I could not understand even the simplest of the things I was expecting him to say. It was most perplexing. I wonder if my partner listens to some of my conversations with my siblings in the same way. One moment, we are perfectly comprehensible – the next, mere vowel sound falling out of our mouths, resembling words he might have known but which cannot be grasped by his brain, cannot be shaped into some meaning.

For years I had this recurring dream:

I walk into a house and a disembodied voice says: "Come here." I look around and see a flight of stairs, heading downwards. As I turn to walk down the stairs, I find myself carrying a tray of food.

I walk down the stairs carefully balancing the tray. Sometimes, I walk into darkness, sometimes into blindingly bright light, and sometimes into warm-yellow tinted hues.

At the bottom of the stairs there is a man. When I am eye-level with him, I offer the tray of food. He is holding a gun, pointing straight at me. I drop the tray. He pulls the trigger. I scream - and wake up.

This dream was consistent in its themes. The house, the flight of stairs, what was on the tray of food, how the man appears - these details change. I can recall that, in the early versions of this dream, the voice spoke Vietnamese. I recall that in another version, the blinding light basement, was full of shiny metal, like a B-grade science fiction movie. And I recall clearly the dream in which I was carrying pizza.

In my early teens, I attempted to wake myself before the dream ended. I knew, when dreaming this dream, exactly what would happened (after all, I dreamed it so often). I knew I should not listen to the voice, and yet I did. I knew the carrying of the food was humiliation, a symbol of my oppression, to be mocked by my executor. And yet, I always descended the flight of stairs, and I always offered the tray of food, before being shot. As the years went on, the dream took on an added nightmarish meaning: I was powerless to stop myself from walking into my own demise.

I had this dream at least once a month for 2 - 3 years until I forgot about it. Then, in my early years of university it came back. But what the dream did not realise was that in the intervening years, I had learned to control my dreams. I was not always successful, but I could often head off the worst parts of a nightmare. More often, I would wake myself up in the middle of the dream and lie awake, re-plotting it. Then I would sleep again, let the dream start from the beginning and attempt to influence its end. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was not.

The last night I dreamed the stairs-food-shot dream, I was carrying pizza. The first version, I was shot. Lying awake after that, I decided what I had to do: I would still be obedient - I had to descend the flight of stairs. But I could rebel in another way. At the bottom of the flight of stairs, I threw the tray at my tormentor and then turned around and ran back up those stairs, through the corridors of the house and out again, into sunshine.

When did I learn this trick? I had a lot of nightmares – this was my way of ensuring I got a decent night's sleep. One of my nightmares was so vivid, and I was so disturbed, that my screams while I was sleeping brought my father into the room, shaking me violently awake. He took me upstairs with him that night, and made me sleep in the living room nearer to him and my mother.

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that the frequency and intensity of my nightmares was unusual. Not long after that piece of knowledge embedded itself into my overly-receptive imagination, my nightmares seem to have disappeared. I do not have nightmares anymore. Isn't that odd?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Walking Home

I have always been a walker – it is my preferred travelling means to the unreliability of public transport, the unpredictability of taxis and the expense (not to mention parking hassle) of a private vehicle. There are downsides of course: pragmatic shoes, sweating in Brisbane sweltering heat, limited distances and time.

When I was a carefree university student (ha!), I lived in a lovely student neighbourhood that was, as the crow flies, a mere kilometre from the university grounds. But there was a river that wound its way between my Queenslander share house and my place of study, and no bridge. To get to university I could either catch two buses – one into the city (away from the university) and then do an about-face to head back towards it – or walk about half an hour – again away from the university but keeping it always in my line of sight – and then alight onto a CityCat (catamaran / ferry – Brisbane's pride and joy). Both took me equal amounts of time, so my preferred method was to walk and then catch the CityCat.

Often I would stay at university quite late. At least half of my days at the university I stayed until the library closed (I'm not incredibly studious – my days usually did not start until after lunch). I would catch the last CityCat home. There was a bus which met the CityCat and that went into the city, skirting near my house. Occassionally I would catch it if I was laden down with text books or the weariness of a too-long day with my head in those dusty case books. Through some quirk of time, the bus ride and short walk home cost me as much time as a much longer walk home. So, usually, I walked home too.

One night, as I was leaving the law library and strode off towards the CityCat terminal, a young man ran after me. He studied law too, and lived nearby. I did not like him much. He was pleasant enough but, even now, my lip curls as I think of him. He was greasy. He was, I surmised, a sexist boor . He had a girlfriend who stood behind him and whom he proudly identified as 'looking after' him and making his packed lunches. His girlfriend was Asian (I never spoke to her, nor she to me, so I can be no more precise than that) and he gave off those shudder-inducing waves of Asian fetishism. These are all my impressions, and my prejudices, and I freely admit I could be wrong. I had a non-Asian boyfriend at the time, and he often blithely and to my great irritation opened conversations with: “Where's J?” Because I knew I would have to endure him on the CityCat and in future classes, I slowed down to let him catch up and we made small talk about our studies and assignments.

As the CityCat pulled into our home terminal, he asked how I was getting home and I said that I was walking. He offered to give me a lift home and I politely declined. He said: “What would J think of you walking home? It's dangerous.” I snorted. “It's none of J's business that I walk home, actually,” said I, bristling. He stared at me, and then said - “If you were my fiance, I would not let you walk home.” Sometimes people push me over the edge, and he'd done it. But a veneer of politesse remained with me as I said, as pleasantly as I could: “Good thing for both of us that I'm not then.” A woman nearby must have heard the contempt in my voice, because she said to me, to my disbelief: “Dear, he's just tryng to be kind. Why don't you accept his lift?” And I was gone. I gave up my best behaviour and let me colours show: “Lady,” I said loud enough for him to hear too, “He and you are condescending pricks. And I can take care of myself.” I could feel them shaking their disappointed heads at my reckless back. I'm not exactly proud of being horrible to that woman – but I had no regrets about finally telling the greasy man what I really thought of him. No more pretend niceties in classes or in the library. I see him occassionally about the city, and his eyes flicker recognition, and I respond in kind. But we don't bother saying anything to each other. And that's just how I like it.

I have only once had an unpleasant, and slightly dangerous walking home encounter in my many years of walking home at 9 or 10 at night. I can assure you the man who followed me ended up more frightened of me, than I of him, when I finally – sick of walking a circuitious route home – confronted him and asked him to leave me alone (in no uncertain terms). In retrospect, the confrontation was reckless, but I had been poised to run should it turn ugly.

I walk to and from work now, too. It takes me a bit longer than half an hour, which is roughly the same amount of time as the bus, depending on traffic and the number of other people trying to get to work. A lot of people are shocked to discover that, when I leave work of an evening, I walk home, even when it is quite dark. Especially in winter, I can be coming home in the complete dark. It is difficult to evade the concerned murmurs of my co-workers. Occassionally I lie to them: little white lies about how I intend on travelling home. Once, one of my bosses on seeing my trainer enclosed feet insisted that I accept a lift home from him. Now, I try to leave at a different time to him so that he is not burdened by generosity.

People who have concerns about me encountering dangerously crazed and criminally intent people on my walking commute, do not always realise how much more dangerous the young professional men are, at a post work Friday drinks function. I am always more on edge, more alert and more often uncomfortably confronted when walking through the city on a Friday night than I am when walking along the river home on weeknights. They move in groups, these self-assured men, and they goad each other on. Sometimes into reprehensible deeds.

I recalled all of the above CityCat story when I read Galaxy's blog, and in particular, her Public Transport Diaries. I once attended a talk on sexual violence where the speaker insisted that women live in fear. To illustrate it, she asked us to write down what we would do if we were working very late in the office. Unthinkingly obedient, I started scribbling the things I would do: phone/email my partner; check the time of the last bus; grab a taxi voucher from work if it was permitted. The speaker stopped us, and asked a few women if they noticed anything when they started to write their lists. No, was the general response. She asked some women to read out items from their list. Similar things to mine – ring a partner, move the car closer / check public transport times etc. Then the speaker asked some of the men what they did, and if they noticed anything unusual when writing their lists. Mostly the men would phone a partner, and that was all. The speaker, with her view of the audience said this is what she noticed: Whenever she asks a group of men and women to perform this listing task, the women, almost as a cohort, bury their heads and scribble frantically. The men put pens in mouths, write one or two items and look around, waiting for the speaker to resume. Her point was that women live in fear because they take all these safety measures. She was not suggesting that women should not take care of their safety – merely highlighting that the threat of violence to women was, at whatever level, real for all women. And not present for men.

I am not stupidly and recklessly setting off into my endangerment. I do not wish to be constrained by a fear of violence; a fear that is misplaced because violence usually emanates from someone one knows and rarely the archetypal stranger in a dark alley. Rather, I undertake some basic safety measures, and I remain observant of my surroundings as I walk home (even when plugged into my orange i-river). Although I have a partner sometimes waiting for me at home, and sometimes on his own way there, I prefer to rely on myself for protection, and for transport.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Who am I?

In my preparations for travel to Viet Nam last year, I made multiple copies of my passport details page, asked a workmate to certify the copies and then placed the copies in a variety of places – my 'personal items' drawer at work, in my filing cabinet at home, in my sister's filing cabinet at her home. I was fearful of losing my passport. Visions of me at the Australian Embassy in Ha Noi, attempting to persuade a bureaucrat of my identity and unable to do so drove me to this neurotic over-planning.

I have little proof of who I am. My father keeps a tatty piece of paper that was our travel visa to Australia. It has a yellowing photo of me as a girl aged about two, squirming on a chair. There are similar photos of a sister and brother, squirming on the same or a similar high-backed plastic chair. My mother is also on this flimsy piece of paper, younger and more worried looking, with a deceptively smooth brow and glossy black hair that will be shaved off as soon as she reaches Australia. My father is on a different piece of paper, with two other sisters and an uncle – a pretend brother. These slips of paper were kept by Ba with a pile of important papers inside an envelope stashed under his mattress, and it was only about a decade ago that one of my siblings bought him a folder, with plastic sleeves in which to place and hopefully preserve the documentary evidence of our existence.

These flimsy bits of paper were pulled out at intervals whenever we needed to 'prove' our idenity: opening bank accounts, enrolling in school, getting a job, renting a house. The fold lines are deep, and little rips creep along where we have not been careful enough.

I do not know if, in Viet Nam, we had identification papers. I do not know if these were lost. Whenever I hear or read about all these terrible persons arriving on Our Shores (not on Our Terms) without the correct documentation, I think: That's how we came – with nothing to evince who we were.

I accumulated identification evidence around me as I grew. When I was 7 or 8, my parents became 'naturalised', taking the citizenship oath that their English language classes had taught them. I am a mere name on the back of my mother's certificate – and this is all the evidence of my citizenship, my nationality. When I opened a bank account at age 11, it was my first independent evidence of me, unconnected to my family. Then, age 16, I got social security documents and my driving learner's licence, followed rapidly by my driver's licence. Soon after, I applied for a passport and out came the tattered, yellow travel visa. The only proof of my date of birth. I took copies of the visa and my mother's citizenship certificate, got them certified by a Justice of the Peace at a bank and have them still, stored away in my own safe places.

I did not apply for a passport because I had overseas travel plans. I wanted more proof that I was myself, but especially that I was Australian. Before I went to Viet Nam, I would pull out the passport and check its expiry date often – to ensure that I would renew it without trouble when the time neared.

Viet Nam was my first trip overseas and out of Australia. The first visa in my Australian passport, although Thailand are the first stamps (we flew Thai Airways). When I told work, making light of my very real fears, about my concerns that I would be in Viet Nam, passport lost and having difficulty convincing the Australian embassy that I was indeed an Australian citizen, one of my bosses earnestly stated that I should call and he would help me out. My fear was probably overblown, a touch on the paranoid side. But I do have tendency to absent-mindedness.

We had no difficulties at any of the airports we passed through, although I was ramrod straight and alert, particularly in Ha Noi where my excitement at being in Viet Nam was quickly dampened by the austere and rather forbidding atmosphere. The customs officials took one look at my passport and knew I was Vietnamese. Clue number 1 – my name; clue number 2 – place of birth. They spoke to me, but their accent was so thick I had no idea if it was Vietnamese or English, or another language they were speaking, and I just stared blankly back. When I realised that the official was only exchanging pleasantries, I smiled ruefully and left the queue a little wild-eyed.

At every hotel we checked into, we had to pull our passports out and present them to reception staff. At the Saigon Morin Hotel in Hue, where we arrived dripping wet and bewildered after an incomprehensible exchange with our new tour guide, reception asked to keep our records for the duration of our stay and I refused. We reached a compromise whereby reception would take copies of our passport and return them to us – but we had to wait until dinner time. We left to visit the markets, dodging clingy vendors and then to the the elaborately rambling tomb of the emperor Tu Duc. When we returned our passports were safely handed back to us and I was relieved.

From Hue, we drove to Da Nang and into Hoi An. The drive had taken all day because we stopped at a few spots on the way (but thankfully did not go near any of the claimed 'China Beaches'). We were shown into the lovely reception area of the Hoi An Life Resort in the soft drizzle of non-stop rain we had encountered since flying into Hue. Staff at the Life Resort had, to my surprise, never before encountered Viet-Australians. They told us that no Viet-Australians had ever stayed there and were impressed by how rich we must have been if we could, like all the white travellers, afford their rates.

Because there were three of us, an additional arm chair had to be located for me to sit in while we went through the usual check-in procedures. First off – our passports. A young woman came with drinks for us but by this stage, I was frantically rummaging through my bag for the case that I kept my passport in. It was not there. I waved her away, panic setting in. My sisters, too, stared at me in horror as I patted down my person, then my bag, then my backpack, opening and closing zippers in increasing terror. One of my sisters sat me down in a chair and made me talk my way through what I had done with my passport. Rational thought was gone.

The Australian Embassy is in Ha Noi. I will have to travel there by car because you need a passport to fly. How long will that take? I am going to be stuck here. I am going to miss my flight. I can't go home. What if they do not believe me? I left my driver's licence, everything else at home. Only a passport (gone!) and my credit card (still on me). When did I last have my passport? I don't know. Where is it? Why is it not here? Where else could I have put it? No where else. It has to be here. I could not have dropped it. Could I have dropped it? But where? When? I've been so careful. Really, I have!

I must have looked as panic-stricken as I felt because our driver came into reception to ask if everything was alright, to see if we needed interpreting help. The last thing I could recall doing with my passport was taking it off reception staff in the Hue hotel and then heading off for dinner, intending to stash it away in its safe place after dinner. But I did not recall stashing it away. I pictured myself putting my passport into my pocket jacket and missing. Maybe it fell on the floor of the hotel. Maybe someone had picked it up and handed it in. What if someone picked it up and pocketed it? But I was not wearing my jacket when we returned from Tu Duc's tomb. I had not been cold. I had my raincoat slung over an arm, bag and camera straps criss-crossing over my chest.

I was readying myself to ask the driver to take my back to Hue. I turned to my sister to ask her to do it, because my Vietnamese was not good enough, too impolite. And all the while I was still thinking: But where? When?

The passport was in an inside pocket of my raincoat. I had put it there to protect it. And then I had forgotten and left the raincoat slung over the back of a chair inside the van at all our numerous stops. I was so relieved at finding my passport, I almost hugged the driver. All the potential mishaps from a lazily left behind raincoat crowded into my consciousness but I pushed them away. My sisters' sympathetic relief turned into the type of berating mothers are very good at after their child returns safe from some misconceived adventure. One of my sisters demanded that I let her keep my passport, but I refused.

I had no further passport misadventures during the rest of our time in Viet Nam and then our few hectic days in Thailand before returning home.
My paranoia about losing my identity was realised in Viet Nam by my own easily distracted mind, ever on the present and drifting away from practicalities. I still have a fear that I will be unable to prove who I am because of lack of hard evidence– everything is built on some other piece of paper. I have more now – a lease, my legal admission documentation, employment contracts. But I am still worried that if I lose one – the big one – , the rest of this identity house of cards will fall down around me and there will be: nothing.

Inspired by an Odd Traveller

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Banh Canh

I am a little later than I should be. She said to arrive at 11am, which means to come at 10.30am. I come at 11.30, not entirely my fault. Maybe I slept in.

She hasn’t started yet, she says. Flustering around me, she pulls out two bags of rice flour (I’ve just been to the shops, it was so busy). Where did you go?, I say conversationally. With exasperation, she says ‘Inala’, as if there were any other shops nearby that she could go to to buy these bags of rice flour. They are each about 400g of fine bright white powder, in a clear bag with red writing all over. The writing is in a variety of languages: Viet, Thai, Chinese, English. I remember being little and being shown these bags, with careful instructions to come back with the right one (red writing for rice flour, blue writing for tapioca starch). I hesitate to tell her you can buy these at the local Coles; I don’t want to start an argument – today, I am being good. Minus the turning up late – she’ll forgive me for that.

I wander over to my father who is resting on his recliner chair, eyes closed. Shopping has clearly worn him out. Sitting down on the arm of the chair, I place light fingers on his knee. I used to sit on that knee but now I am too large, he too frail. He opens his eyes and I greet him - “Ba”. He acknowledges me with a grunt and closes his eyes again.

My mother (Um) has boiled some water and she pours some into a large bowl, into which both bags of flour had been emptied. With a large serving spoon, she mixes it in and tells me to ‘ne’ it – she will bring me the tapioca starch which she left downstairs. 'ne' is a word I had not heard before. She bustles off and I look down at a large tub filled with white dough. I have never done this part before. This has always been done before I arrive and my job is to turn the mountain of dough into large rice noodles. It is just like playing. I think about it and figure she must mean to knead it.

Um does not teach me to cook. She does not show me. I often ask her to cook things with every intention of coming by early to watch how she does it, to learn before it is forgotten how. She always starts too early for me. I have resorted to downloading recipes for Vietnamese dishes from the web. Tradition expects that my mother in law will show me how to cook, teach me how to look after her son. The notion is obsolete.

I am also the youngest. My mother had shown some of my elder sisters her cooking – they helped her in the kitchen. I did too but I did the odd jobs, the jobs you could trust the youngest kid – easily distracted and petulant – to do. You should never give the youngest kid a time consuming task, unless the reward was great. Something like “fetch me the butcher’s cleaver” was about what I could handle. Maybe rinse the vegies and herbs and sometimes, put the rice on. Nothing too involved. Beetles, praying mantis’ and lizards always needed to be found and homes built for them (they often also needed supervision so they would stay in the insect mansions). I could rarely be expected to stay in the kitchen long but I could always be called in for those urgent fetching errands.

There were exceptions. Fresh tofu was one: I could stand and curdle that tofu for happy, anticipatory hours; my taste-buds eager for the silken flavour of home made tofu, my greed overcoming my need to rescue unwilling insects or climb frangipani trees in the neighbour’s yard. Banh canh – today’s lunch – was another. The store bought noodles were nothing on the flavour and texture of home made ones.

Um comes back: “Where would you like to make them, on the floor?” No, I say. I’d prefer the table. Better for my back, used to sitting at computers all day. She looks at me strangely and says – it is easier on the floor. “Oh, I just prefer the table”, I say diplomatically. “That’s why your back aches, Um”, I don’t say.

I spread out the bowl, a chopping board, a plate and another serving spoon. I wish for music, but not aloud in case Ba hears me and turns the Vietnamese radio on. Um has gone again and it’s just me and a large bowl of dough. I put my whole hand into the dough, only to withdraw it and run to the tap. The dough is hot. After running my hand under cold water for a while, I come up with a plan. I go to my bag to get my book. Using the serving spoons, I turn the dough over, break it into bits and generally mush it. Then, as the steam rises, I bring the book to my nose and read. When the steam subsides, I repeat.

Is it ready to ‘se’?” Um says. I guiltily put the book down and say – no, the dough was too hot and I could not knead it. She looks at me again, to inspect whether I really am her daughter or some hopeless Australian who just looks like her daughter. I’m both, honest. She looks at the book. I show her my splotchy red hand – a hand that reads books more often than it plunges itself into hot dough. “You put hot water on it” I accuse. “Of course I did”, she says impatiently. Pity we came to Australia for a better life, education, opportunities. Look how I’ve turned out – unable to knead dough.

‘se’ is a verb. It is in the present tense. All Viet words are in the present tense. Yesterday, I se the noodles. Today I se the noodles. Tomorrow I se the noodles. It feels as if I have always se the noodles. You use the same word and it does not matter what the time structure is (although if you are my parents, early is best). Context is important to ascertain meaning. Context is all you’ve got to go on. Unfortunately for the dough, my context is higher education and a professional job. My hands weren’t toughened in the context of bonded labour (traditional Viet marriage). Context is also my family.

After about an hour of lonely ‘se’, my sister turns up, both kids and husband in tow. She sits down beside me, youngest kid on her lap and starts chatting. I invite her to join in the fun, but she declines. Her husband helps instead. They are a liberated family. In another hour, another sister turns up. This time, the kids are in the lead (they’re older). They too sit down. I invite them to join the fray – to speed up lunch. Luckily, they do with enthusiasm.

To ‘se’ is to roll small parts of the mound of dough into smaller, long, noodle-like parts. Picture yourself playing with playdough as a kid. Remember making worms? Just like that, only not colourful and hopefully hygienic. Repeat. Repeat some more. It is better, if you can manage it, to have family turn up and arrange themselves around you. They should start chatting, the louder the better. Some should join the ‘se’ and others can outright refuse to. For added interest, the kids could cry. Maybe one of them should be super cute, and say something precocious, preferably bi-lingually. Another is probably on the cusp of being an adult and she’ll want to talk about hair, boys and clothes. You will try not to be disdainful, but you won’t succeed especially when she tells you she is reading magazines instead of books. You will despair (even though you were that way yourself).

Um is downstairs, making the soup to accompany the noodles. I always miss out on this part because I am the person who ‘se’. As if telepathically connected to the mountain of dough, Um turns up with the soup when there is one tiny hill left. We divide it and ‘se’ in excited conclusion – the last few are thinner and less consistent, but made with more laughter.

The noodles are cooked in soup (it has crabs and prawns – we were fishing folk ‘back home’). Bowls are placed in front of flour dusted people, and we sit down elbow to elbow to eat. Fresh eschallots, coriander and pepper is added to your taste. Ba likes large pieces of pepper so he takes the lid off the grinder and places whole peppercorns into his soup. I mimic him and discreetly choke on one behind a cough. We have banh canh for lunch. Its flavour is enhanced by our work and the warm chatter.

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