Friday, January 27, 2006

Three Wishes

To start, my selfish wish:

More time.

Then, I would do things like lie under a tree, gazing up at the sky. I would see my family more often, I would read more, write more, cook more, clean more. What a life I would lead if I had more time...

This picture taken on a lazy day in high summer.
View from the ground, up to the sky,
through the leaves of a magnificient Moreton Bay fig.
Orleigh Park, West End, Qld.

Wish number 2: (also selfish)

My own home. My own place.

I have always wanted my own space - when you are the youngest child of eight, you never have much that is all yours.

My own home would have idyllic contemplation space.

This is Tu Duc's reading house - Viet Nam's notable and literary emperor.
It was large enough to be my house.

Last wish -

Happiness for all my loved ones.

It's a big wish, because I have a lot of loved ones.

And I expect the wish-granter to listen to my loved one's notions of what constitutes happiness for them.

Picture taken somewhere at Ayuthaya, Thailand.
Sorry I can't be more specific - I was on a tour and completely disoriented.
I don't much like tours...

There is an excellent movie, Stalker, by brilliant Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky is a simply brilliant film-maker.

It is sort of a science fiction movie: about a young man who works as a guide (Stalker) into a somewhat mythic world where there is a room. Every person who steps into this room has their innermost, deepest and most heartfelt wish granted. Stalker has never himself stepped into the room because he is afraid of what his innermost wish is; because, as he tells one of the current set of people he is guiding towards the room, one of his previous 'clients' stepped into the room, only to return to find - not his extremely sick brother healed, but - a pile of money.

The big question of the movie is how well you know yourself.

Would you step into this room?

Is this what wishes are about? Ourselves? When I make my three wishes - bland as they are - I am revealing to you who I really am - the things I aspire to. But what if someone else were to pluck from me my three true wishes - would they align themselves with what I wish for, for myself?

Happy Sunday.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


In case you are wondering, this photo is just because.
It's unrelated to my ramblings, which are soon to follow.
Ceiling of a Wat (temple) in Thailand.

Cee has started a collaboration - and she's hit on a favourite of mine: Lists. Oh, how I love lists! So, though I cannot promise that I will consistently post a list on each Monday, I am most enthusiastic about posting lists.

And she's chosen a great one to start: books.

Just before I start, here's another tangent:

The wonderful Judy Horacek has a great cartoon with the caption:
"Behind every great woman...
There's rather a lot of lists."

In no particular order:

Book I:-
Thea Astley's It's Raining in Mango
Gorgeous and evocative writing, so pungent with the sense of North Queensland.

Book II:-
Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony
I read this instead of studying for my exam on Classical Mythology in first year university. I got exceedingly high marks on that exam ;-) When I grow up, I want to write just like Roberto.

Book III:-
Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller...
A thoroughly thought-provoking and quite hilarious book of twists and turns, swings and diversions.

Book IV:-
Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind
I would read everything by this most humane of authors. This work struck me most powerfully.

Book V:-
Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood
Isn't it good?

Book VI:-
Milan Kundera's Immortality
and almost everything else by Milan Kundera, but reading this always makes my throat catch.

Book VII:-
Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
This novel swims as you read it - the lines are blurred through your tears.

Book VIII:-
M John Harrison's The Course of the Heart
Heart stopping magic.

Book IX:-
Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead
A wonderful read for (want to be) writers everywhere.

Book X:-
Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice
Because I hope to be an ethical lawyer and I believe literature will take me there. Martha Nussbaum seems to believe so too and she's a much more complex thinker than I ever will be.

I find it difficult to limit myself to ten books - and I usually recommend to people based on what I know of them; this List is the ten that would undoubtedly appear if you kept at me about what book to read ...

What ten books would you recommend?

Monday, January 23, 2006


Coffee in Viet Nam was fantastic. It very rarely looked like this:

Really, it only looked like ludicrously dark coffee in a pristine white cup in the hotels.

In street cafes, a metal filter sits atop an itsy bitsy glass half filled with sugar and your highly caffeinated tar drips steadily down. As soon as you were ready, you discarded the filter with aplomb and downed your coffee in one (or two) gulps. I take my coffee strong, black and without any sugar. Unfortunately for me, I kept forgetting to ask for coffee without sugar and felt restrained by politeness to return my coffees once I got them. I had enough nous to ask for "ca phe phim" to ensure I did not get awful instant stuff but only once managed to ask for coffee with no sugar.

Ice coffee is also better in Viet Nam because there's no milk, ice cream or cream! Heaven for we lactose reluctant types. Ice coffee is "ca phe da den" - which is literally coffee ice black. Again, you have to ask for no sugar which most people interpret as "a little sugar". My Viet language skills are wanting but I thought I go "no sugar" correct and polite; and yet the waiter responded with "a bit of sugar?" I was flabberghasted. My politeness overwhelmed so I just smiled and nodded.

I did not take a photo of ca phe phim. And I did not buy a Vietnamese filter either.

Looks like that's two more reasons to return.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reluctant Refugee

This story is not mine.

While traveling my sisters and I spoke with a young man, working as a bell boy at one of the many 4 star hotels we stayed in. We fascinated the local Vietnamese who worked at the hotel. They had never before had guests who were of Vietnamese origin and were curious about us. I happily conversed with whoever asked me a question.

This young man called me “Miss Oanh” and I found it at once deferential and amusing, and inappropriate and startling. I had not asked anyone their background, beyond asking whether their family lived locally and the usual Vietnamese questions of how old, married yet, kids yet. I did not know how to go about discussing their lives, especially in light of how I must appear to them: same same but so very different.

This story jolted me. I was reading at the time, waiting for bby. There was slow, light rain and I had meandered around taking photographs of lotuses as my sisters chatted to each other and eventually to this young man. I listened to his story but did not close my book. I found myself unable to look at him.

I am ashamed to say that I have forgotten his name. Let’s call him Binh.


When Binh was young, his family lived near Hoi An. Hoi An was Viet Nam’s first coastal port town. It was soon overtaken in importance by nearby Da Nang and became a quainter, quieter version of its bustling and brash sister. The beaches of Hoi An are reputed to be very beautiful, unmarred by war like distant China Beach or Vung Tau.

In 1983, Binh was 8 years old. I can see him as a child – his face is one of those that do not look like they changed much from childhood. He has a lightness about him, an openness. On a day in 1983, Binh was playing on one of Hoi An’s beautiful beaches that open out to the great blue-grey ocean. It cannot have been particularly late in the day, but Binh cannot remember what time of day it was, or where the rest of his family were.

Binh plays and, like children everywhere, he is easily distracted. He pauses to watch a random collection of people in quiet chaos climb aboard a boat. He may have seen some of these people before – with his mum at the market or in the street. Some may be his neighbours. Binh is young, he does not really know what they are doing. It is a strange thing: the sobriety with which so many people – men, women, children – undertake this business of boarding a boat. Some of the children cry or struggle, as young children will, but the adults are oddly quiet.

Binh watches for a long time. It seems as if whole families get on the ship, and it seems as if it will never end. He comes closer because he is an intelligently curious child, and continues to watch. A few men approach him but he is too busy watching the families, the other children his age, to notice. It is not until the men are almost upon him that he sees them. They are determined, unfriendly. Inchoately realising their intent, Binh turns to run, struggling away from their snatching arms.

But Binh is 8 years old. He is neither strong nor fast, and he does not evade the men. They bundle him up, struggling, onto the boat.

For uncountable days and nights, Binh sits fearfully in the dark, with other children and women. He does not speak, is profoundly confused. Mothers try to draw him out, but most are too caught up in the web of their own lives and their own frightened children. Binh does not know where he is going or with whom.

Things happen on the boat. There are moments of noise and chaos, followed by silence. All of it is meaningless to Binh.

One day, he is taken out of the boat - pushed and shoved forward. When he looks about him, he stumbles. There is little he can see other than the bodies of people – people who have become familiar but are still unknown to him. People who look like him shout out, pull him forwards, push him backwards. He does not understand them.

Binh ends up in Hong Kong. He lives in a detention centre for 6 years, alone, with other lonely boys. Some of them were on the boat with him. Some of them were not. He is educated in the detention centre and learns a little of the language.

Binh makes friends in the centre but new people arrive and other people go. The numbers dwindle; it is not uneventful living in a detention centre: there is a desperate kind of community there but not one that lasts.

When Binh is 14, he is taken aboard another boat, larger than the one that he remembers when he was 8. He fills out a form about who he is and where he came from. Binh is deported. Back to Viet Nam. Back to Hoi An.

In Hoi An, Binh cannot find his family; to them, he is long dead.


Binh has made a life for himself. I do not know and cannot imagine what the years between when he was 14 and now must have been like for him. I wish I could say that his is an unusual story but it is not. So many young people were kidnapped because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So many became reluctant refugees.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Home again

I have returned from Viet Nam and I am ... ambivalent.

Only a tiny portion of the trip was about visiting my family home in the South Mekong Delta. The tourist part will be discussed elsewhere - I am still doing my best to keep my genres clean.

The landscape around Hang Day 9 was undeniably beautiful, and poignantly bare in places. Where our house once stood, a thriving garden of watermelons, chilli trees and random herbs now live in neat rows. My uncle's house is a new structure of concrete and tiles, bright and gaudy in the way rich Vietnamese like, and is directly behind where my father's house was. It is luxurious for the region. I preferred the dark palm leaf huts with their patted down clay floor. All my father's family have given up rice farming, and some have given up the fishing life, hiring out the fishing nets to people who are poorer and have to work harder to survive.

Nevertheless, the area is still very dependent on the river. Travel was entirely by boat - our initial trip out from Ho Phong to Hang Day 9 was on a small, low 'long tail speedboat'. It was about one metre across, 7 metres long and half a metre deep. One could stand in it reasonably comfortably, but 3 sisters, Um & Ba plus all our luggage filled it up quite quickly. The rest of our travel on the river was on a suong - also a long tail speedboat but this time only about 70cms across, 4 metres long and about 30cms deep. One could not stand and it was best if one sat serenely in the middle, with as little shifting as possible. The locals squat, but our cousins knew we would not be accustomed to doing so and had placed reed mats on the floor of the boat for us to sit on.

I felt lost and timeless out there. We left when the tide was high, ate when we were fed and went to bed not long after dark. I never knew where or when I was going next and I never grasped the geography of the twists and turns of large river and little and littler tributaries.

I wished to be left to myself more, to wander around the prawn filled dams, my grandmother's tomb and the gardens surrounding the area but each time I walked off, someone would follow me for fear that I would get lost or fall into the river. My westernisation comes out most strongly in my desire for peace and quiet and my inability to spend lengthy amounts of time with people. This all manifested in a migraine which I could not shake the whole three days I was there, because I could never lie down in a cool, dark and quiet spot.

The twists of filial relationships confused me and I called most of my male cousins: older brother (hia or anh - also the polite term for any male). Many of them are older than me and almost all have young families. Most traced their relationship to me, meaning that they were to call me older sister (che) and I to call them younger sibling (em). I could not do it. I was so useless and dependent out there, I had no claim to demand a term of greater respect.

My female cousins I did not see very often. They were almost always busy in the kitchen or garden. They woke before me and started breakfast. After setting up and clearing away breakfast they disappeared into the garden to collect the vegetables and begin preparing lunch. And after lunch, the routine was repeated for dinner. I wandered into the kitchen a few times to talk to them but was ushered out again after it was discovered I did not want anything. I offered my washing up services but was politely declined. My mother suggested that I would be unable to do the dishes because I was unfamiliar with how it was done. When we wished to bathe, my cousins boiled water for us and came to get us when the water was ready. I felt coddled and suffocated. The only cousin I spoke to for a lengthy period of time was excused from serving duties because she had a child still at the breast. She conversed with us in between dealing with her young son.

My position would have been no different if we remained in Viet Nam. I was only served because I was a guest; in another life, I would be serving. All my female cousins called me 'che' but I tried to use their names. Even they called each other by filial denominations and I was confused again.

I found Viet Nam beautiful and moving, and I could imagine living there - as a foreigner in the city. I could not live as my cousins do. I have changed too much to be able to accept their life. I am too outspoken, too feminist, too intellectual and too different.

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