Sunday, April 30, 2006

Que Nha

This incomplete bridge is one of the reasons my family left Viet Nam. My father's land, and my father's family's land, was taken by the government for reasons that included the building of this bridge. Twenty something years on, and this is the bridge. It sticks out no more than 10 metres from the river bank - indeed it is not even joined to the river bank, just a random structure of concrete and steel, jutting out of the Mekong, without purpose and abandoned. It makes a joke of our leaving for a new life.

These neat rows of well-tended vegetable garden is where my family home was.

I am pleased that my father's home is now a thriving garden of watermelon, herbs and 'rau cai' (a medley term for an assortment of green vegetables necessary for all meals). Ba is an excellent gardener, and it is appropriate that the home he built should birth meals for his younger brother's family.


This is my uncle's home, which is directly behind the garden above. It is made of concrete and corrugated iron; inside it is tiled and cool. It is a rich man's home for the region.

On one side of my uncle's house lives another aunt - older than him, but younger than my father - one the other side is another uncle. Their houses are built of palm and patted clay.

My father is sitting in the left corner - the guest's place where he sits and is served tea, coffee and food, where brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews come by to meet him. One of my female cousins leans against the door, taking a break from her daily work, or calling a child home. A cousin's husband is carrying around his son, stooping to pick up something. A visiting uncle perches on the banister, chatting with my father; and the uncle whose house it is, is gathering the tea things - to make more tea, so the decade of catching up is lubricated well into the late afternoon.


This is one of my younger male cousins, resting from his work. He is perched on the fishing net that delineates where this place is. It is an unamed place, except for the number of the fishing net (9). This is Hang Day Chin - fishing bay no. 9 - where my family hail from.

Sunday Scribblings – Why I live where I live

I live in inner-city Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I have lived in Brisbane (excepting a 7 month affair with Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) the entirety of my conscious life – I have no memory of living anywhere else.

But I was not born in Brisbane. I was born in a place three hours travel by boat from Ho Phong, near Bac Lieu, halfway between Ca Mau and Sai Gon, in Viet Nam. My family left Viet Nam for many reasons: one was my Grandmother; another was that our land was taken from us. It is for another time that I will explore the reasons we left Viet Nam.

The reason we ended up in Australia was accident – or a malicious joke. In 1975, three of my maternal uncles – numbers three, eight and nine – naively accepted a US troops offer to take any Vietnamese who wished to leave the soon to be Communist governed country to the land of the free. They were, along with other guile-less Vietnamese men, women and children, unceremoniously dumped in Hong Kong. My distraught grandmother wanted to join them. Uncle number 3 was her eldest surviving son, uncle number 9 was, at the time, her youngest son. They applied, and their application was accepted, to come to Australia.

In 1979, a portion of my extended maternal family left Viet Nam. With them went my eldest brother (Hia Hai) who had a weak heart, my second eldest brother, The Black Belt and my second eldest sister, Big Boss. On the high seas, their boat was picked up by the Italian Red Cross. My grandmother, grandfather, maternal aunts, uncles, cousins and Hia Hai, The Black Belt and Big Boss lived in Italy for more than 12 months and applied through the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees to go to the US, where they thought my uncles were. Somehow, my uncles had got to Australia. Somehow, the now Italian resident portion of my family found out, and somehow, they came to Australia in early 1981. The Australian government allocated the family housing in Brisbane, Queensland. Hia Hai was fostered to an Italian family and remained in Italy for a decade.

In 1982, my immediate family – Um, Ba, the balance of my siblings (3 sisters and 1 brother) and I – left Viet Nam. We went by boat to Malaysia, where we lived in a refugee camp at Sangi Besi for 12 months. My family were allocated government housing initially at Wacol – a place that is now Brisbane's adult men's prison. We eventually moved to inner-city south Brisbane – an industrial and multicultural suburb – which has now become trendy.

Inner-city Brisbane is where I grew up, where I made friends from Hong Kong, China, Korea, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Thursday Island, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam. As the years got on, my family could not afford the rent so we moved to a suburb that was no more than 10 kms from Brisbane City, but felt, to a ten year old, like half a state away. When I was old enough, I moved back.

I love Brisbane. My family are (mostly) nearby and the town is big enough, and small enough, to suit me. The inner-city is multicultural, cosmopolitan and environmentally aware. Mountains for my partner and I to explore are not far away; a large brown river much like the river of my origin winds its way near my home; the weather is temperate and pleasant for 10 months of the year (December and January are almost unbearably hot). It is not perfect – but nowhere is. One day, I will move away – but I undoubtedly expect to return. I am fierce about being Australian, because of my Vietnamese features, people expect me to be from somewhere else.

I am not.

I am, and always will be, from here.

Que Nha

This phrase is among the new words I learned while traveling in Viet Nam. I was rather taken with this phrase – it has so many meanings and connotations that are so apt.

My eldest brother wrote a translation of it in a power point presentation that he did for our mother's sixtieth birthday. The translation he used was: home-town. But it connotes and denotes so much more than this.

Firstly, it is pronounced “wey na”. The 'wey' has a downwards inflection: a sad, somewhat nostalgic lilt. The n in 'na' is hard, like it is being choked out of the roof of your mouth, carrying thoughts too difficult for you to express. And 'na' is said with an upwards inflection, as if you are aching with a question that cannot be asked.

Secondly, if your family hailed from the Mekong delta, as my family do, this phrase suggests a sort of backwards-ness that people from country / rural regions would be familiar with when other people refer disparagingly to their home-town. It is said with a toss of the head – to indicate it is behind you. It suggests a rural backwater, a place that time has left behind.

Thirdly, the first word – que – rhymes with (and it will only take a slightly wrong inflection to turn it into) the word for embarrassed. The little rhyme play conjures up an affectionate shyness about admitting to the rural village that you hail from.

Lastly, the phrase means my home town – but it means everyone else's home town too.

When in Sai Gon (Ho Cho Minh City though no Saigonese calls it that), people would ask us whether we were travelers (du lich) or foreigners returning home (Viet Kieu). We were both. However, in the north, we were more du lich. In the south, we were very much Viet Kieu. This term is a pejorative but also an identifier that has been embraced by Viet Kieu the world (France, Canada, the USA and Australia in particular) over.

In any event, after we told people we were Viet Kieu, the very next question was: when are you going to que nha?

They never had to ask where we were from; instead, after asking when we were going to que nha, our answers would invariably tell them where our family were from. If they felt like it, they would also tell us about their que nha and it could be days travel away from our que nha.

Such a wonderful catch all word – so simple, yet so complex too. Just like home.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Racism Case Study (5 years old)

Wide-body is two years old. He attends family based day care – he goes to a neighbour's house where the delightful Margie, who could be anyone's grandmother, looks after about 5 kids, ranging in age from almost walking to ready for school. Wide-body attends with his first cousin on his father's side, who is a mere few days older than him, Grump.

Margie bathes the kids every day. One day, the eldest in the group who must soon leave it, Emmy, decides that she is all grown up: she will help Margie bathe the younger children.

Margie allocates Wide-body to Emmy. Emmy sits beside the tub, scrubbing and scrubbing at Wide Body's skin. She finally says, in near tears, to Margie: It's not coming off!

What isn't? Margie says in return.

Here – look! Emmy will show Margie – but she is showing Margie Wide-body's arms.

Wide-body is like me – a deep orange-based brown; he has some blue tones which I do not think I have.

Margie tries to explain to Emmy that Wide-body was just born that way – it's his natural skin colour. But Margie tries using 'Wide-body's family all have skin that colour'. Emmy's smarter than that – she knows what a cousin is. So she hauls towards Margie the white example of Grump. Grump is like her mother – a bit whiter, with a pleasant yellow undertone.

Oh oh – we have a problem.

We are different from you, Emmy. And, Margie, we are different from each other too.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hoi An

Hoi An is a beautiful town.

We sat in this cafe staring out as the river rose and rose even though the rain had stopped hours ago.

And then men on hondas, with women clutching their waists, whizzed past. I wondered how high the water would come. My answer was - so high that we had to exit the cafe through the back door. The poor street seller who had his wares laid out on the footpath - had to pack up and move elsewhere.

Anonynmity in Hoi An

This is one of my favourite photos of me. Mostly because I don't really look like that. And it's such a well composed picture, don't you think?

Taken at the delightful Mango Cafe in Hoi An town. There are chyrsanthemums in the foreground, the window is painted in bright blue, a palm tree and Hoi An's main river just outside.

I had a splitting headache but loved the town. My sisters wanted to do more shopping but I wanted to watch the world go by. I'm just not into haggling when a little woodpecker is jabbering away behind my right ear.

I sat outside for a bit and chatted to three male tourists at the opposite table. The Accountant took this photo while I wasn't paying any attention.

I smile a lot - happens when you grow up and your mother is telling you always to smile. The three men were nice enough and I told them a little of my history. They were a ragtag bunch of travellers - little in common except that they were on the same tour. The youngest was Greek and had been in Australia a few months prior, the two older were from the UK and America. They were intrigued by the fact that my sisters and I spoke a mish-mash of English and Vietnamese.

After I told them we had been Viet refugees and were now Australians, the American delighted in wanting to know if I was going to visit My Lai.

I was short with my response. No, I said. Why not? He said.

I stared at him.

I don't think it is appropriate, I said primly.

He stared at me. It's your history, he said.

I looked at him quizzically, my ire growing. I could not really articulate why I did not want to see, and that it had never occurred to me to visit, My Lai. I had been shocked by his asking. Although an important part of the American War, and an iconic turning point in the rest of the world's understanding of who was really being hurt in that war, I could not bring myself to contemplate visiting a place where so much horror and agony had occurred. I can't imagine making it a place to visit, on a tour of a country. Just like, though it is not part of my culture's pain, I would never vist Auschwitz.

It was difficult enough to contemplate reconciling myself to the Viet Nam of today, let alone the Viet Nam of 1976. And what about my history beyond the war that got Viet Nam to the notice of the rest of the world? Just because the Viet Nam / American war and the My Lai massacre might be part of this man's guilt and understanding of Viet Nam - it wasn't mine. I didn't quite know, and don't know still, what is my understanding of Viet Nam. (My guilt is more explicable.) But there's more to it than the War.

I don't recall my answer after that. Some muttered politeness and we left.


I've posted something here that probably really belongs here.

Once I'm done posting pictures from Viet Nam, I'm sure I'll have my genres cleaned.

And anyway, I don't want to put pictures on this blog. It doesn't have the excellent black background that frames photos so nicely. Yes, my aesthetics are boring.


Written for Sunday Scribblings - thanks, Cee!

I am sitting in the tiny airless back room of an old work-place, my arm draped self-consciously over a crumpled work-mate, Dee. Dee is crying and I am doing a paltry job of comforting her. I'm awful at this sort of stuff at the best of times but now it's worse - I really have no empathy with her situation.

She delivered an ultimatum to her boyfriend of many years, Karl, and he did not do what she wanted him to do.

Dee is tall and blonde, a commercial's dream with her smooth tan and invitingly bland beauty. Karl is muscular and gorgeous and black. They make a striking couple. Dee wants the dream - the white wedding and 2 kids, and she's turning 30 soon. Karl is still a child, still wanting to sow his seeds. It's so sadly stereotyped that I fail to comprehend it.

Dee has told Karl that she cannot wait any longer for him to ask her to marry her. He must ask, or leave. Karl chooses to leave.

"I've always wanted a chocolate baby" was Dee's reasoning for why she was so heart-torn about breaking up with Karl. I am flummoxed. I leave to get Dee water and tissues, and cowardly hope someone else will take my place, making the meaningless soothing sounds but with more conviction.

Dee's words shocked me. They were wrong from so many angles. But I didn't discuss it with her - I have a little more heart than that.

Chocolate is food. And a description of colour. But did Dee start dating Karl with the hope that one day his genes would mix satisfyingly with hers to produce a 'chocoate baby'? Has Dee imagined the colour of the child she wants - a smooth dark like the best Lindt, or more milk based? Dee has managed, in this one neat phrase, to conjure up a sickening commodification of children and of race.

A child is a person with all the fullness, complexities and richness that personhood brings. And so is a person of colour. I worry about people who want babies because they're cute. What about who that baby will become? How that baby will become a (hopefully) flourishing human being? And Dee has taken this to a dizzying extreme - not just to hope for a cute child, but one of a certain colour.

I can't imagine that Dee would have made a bad mother, or partner. She was a warm and generous person, but to want a child like a type of cake is repulsive.

To be reduced to the colour of your skin - as a future child because it is the colour your parent wanted his/her child to be or as a potential partner because you could contribute to a child of some wished for colour - is racism. Dee would never have thought so because she was sleeping with someone of another race, participating in an interracial relationship. But I perceive her desire for a chocolate baby as deeply racist - perceiving a person predominantly for the colour of his/her skin.

I haven't kept in touch with Dee. I wonder what her life is like now and whether she has a child. And I can't help it - I also wonder what colour that child might be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Byron Bay Blues Fest!

Highlights of the 5 days of music madness: in no particular order.

Undoubtedly – Eddi Reader. Whose surname is one who reads books; not – as I thought – rhyming with Eddie Vedder. At least confusion is now eliminated. She's a Scottish singer, who tells wee stories prior to her songs. Eddi sings the songs of Robert Burns (among others) and is probably best known for having once demanded that all her relationships be-eee-eee per-FECT!

Memorably, Amadou and Mariam – Malian musicians. Amadou plays guitar and Mariam serenely rubs loving circles on his head and shoulders as she sings.

Deliciously, Fish Tacos. Not a band – although that would be a pretty cool name – it's food. Good food. Made by the imaginatively named: Fish Taco Co.

Surprisingly, Rain. Lots of it, all in a few hours, mostly on my head. Rain causes mud. Smelly mud.

Magically, Plasticine People (not their real name). Street performers themed: the sea! the sea! – with a majestic dragon (the serpentine kind), bobbing jellyfish, dancing seahorses and comic crabs. They entertained children and the child-at-heart (me, and every other festival goer).

Ukuleles. I want one. Oh, and Taasha Coates, of The Audreys soon-to-be fame plays mean ukulele.

Yee ha!

Once upon a time it was uncool to like country music. And then people rediscovered the joy of jigging and the banjo, mandolin, squealing guitars and harmonica were no longer pariahs in the trendy music scene. Now I see gorgeous young ones in designer dreads and funky fashions dancing it up to the country-est of musics and my heart goes: Yee har!

Irish accents. Australians have always loved the Irish accent but I discover that I am particularly partial to it plus uncontrolled dancing. If you can leap about a stage, arms akimbo and legs a-kicking, you're in with a mighty good chance of taking me home. If you can also hold a tune while doing the above, consider me your bestest fan ever.

Hitch-hikers. My partner and I would have to be the most anxious and amusing hitchhiker picker uppers. Our first set of intrepid hitchhikers – a guy and 2 gals – we had to wave down. I brandished my bright-yellow 5 day music loving wristband and pointed at their green only-3-days-and-therefore-less-cool-but-still-music-loving wristbands. My partner had to honk the horn before they noticed we were going to give them a lift. The second was a lone young man. When he found out we were going to the festival and not all the way through to Byron Bay town, he backed away from the car. We ruminated on what we had done wrong. Was I too eager to tell him that we weren't going into town? Should my partner have suggested that we drop him on the other side of the festival where he might have more luck scoring an appropriate ride? He was two days worth of conversation – and we didn't even mention his very groovy (but somewhat weather inaccurate) jacket.

Dreadlocks. Once, I wanted some. Now, I work in a conservative, anti-dreadlock industry. There were feral dreads, reggae dreads, groovy dreads, fashion dreads and hippy dreads. Some were unwashed, some were beaded. All were cool.

Singers who think you can sing and harmonise too. Just because I am enthusiastic does not mean I can hold a tune. Or a note. And don't expect me to harmonise – I can and will disharmonise all around me. (It's just the sort of girl I am).

International mega-stars who tell stomach hurting stories about how said mega-stardom still doesn't score the girl said international mega-star had a crush on in high-school.

Sleep. Not exactly a part of the festival, but definitely a highlight.

Middle aged men who are so into the music that their feet are tapping. Against their better judgement, no less.

The 8(ish) month old baby with lime green trousers and matching headphones. Looking all the world like a wee hippy / gansta rapper.

Being 'spotted' for our Threadless t-shirts. One guy pointed at my chest and nudged his friends – who all grinned and gave me the thumbs up. I grinned back because I knew it was appreciation for 'Nuts' rather than sexist ogling of my boobs. Another stopped me and said: Hey! Is that a Threadless T-shirt? Cool. And the hippy asking for money who inquired of my partner's Roadblock: What does it all mean, man? We didn't know but we were sure it was deep. Man.

The fact that no matter how full my back-pack, I pass through security with nary a glance. I even joked about having vodka instead of water in my water bottle and they laughed. I mean – how honest do I look? Bet that wouldn't happen if I had dreads...

Couples in matching outfits. Groups of young men in matching pink singlets. The colourful tambourine man. Girls who photograph themselves giggling in front of artists whom they haven't listened to. Being assertive / aggressive in queues – I'm better at it than most people.

Hothouse Flowers, Taiko drumming and Davell Crawford – piano and egoist extraordinairre.

Shaking it to Femi, Jigging with Fiachna and Giving it up for Marva.

I love you, guys.

Now I'm off to sleep!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Beautiful Bonsais and Gargantuan Gates

Bonsais at Thien Mu pagoda, Hue:-

One day, when I am old person with two much time on my hands, my own home and control of the weather (ie no drought), I will have bonsais. And they will be as mesmerising as these - even if it is only because I am competitive. Throughout Viet Nam's temples and pagodas were numerous delicately crafted bonsais (large and small). They are such meditative plants.


Something that is not meditative are these incredibly ornate gates in the imperial citadel. The splotch is a rain-drop - not me being a terrible photographer.

If only I were still an ancient historian - I could turn my hand to archaeology and assist the Vietnamese to restore their tourist attractions and historical monuments. Some gates were well-kept.

Others were not:-

There were also ancient paintings hailing from the 14th century that were just happily on display, close enough to be touched by all and sundry (except for the sundry short people) and photographed by everyone - except me. It was my ethical stance - my camera flash was not going to contribute to the further deterioration of the imperial paintings. It is not worship of material items - merely recognition of historical value. In the same way that we should tread softly in rainforests and areas that retain their pre-human beauty, so too should we preserve the precious endeavours of our forebears.

Of course, it all comes down to money - the tourists bring in the bucks but they also contribute to the destruction of the things they have come to see. Vicious, vicious cycle.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sticks & Stones

Do you remember the phrase: Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?

Why do grown ups tell children such blatant lies?

I was a school yard scrapper – you picked on me and I fought back. When I was 6, playing 'catch and kiss' I changed the rules of the game: if you caught me, it was best if you let me go because if you kissed me, I punched you. When I was 7, I pushed a kid off a foot bridge (about a metre off the ground) when he said my family were peasants – my parents worked for his parents.

When I was 9, a boy twice my size called my brother (two years older than me) a “slant-eyed chink”. I was spoiling to fight, my arms flailing about as my more sensible brother held me back. The school principal stumbled across the fight – everyone had gathered around the three of us: Craig the hulking racist boar, my brother ram-rod still, his back to Craig and his arms around me – who was screaming and yelling “take that back – take that back” and trying with all my might to get closer to Craig – to punch or kick him or do something to make him feel the hurt I felt when he called my brother (and hence, me) a slant-eyed chink. We weren't Chinese for god's sake!

The principal said in that awful patronising sing-song voice I hope never to use on a child: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. I turned on the principal and cried: But he's been the mean one! Not me! Don't tell me off – tell him off!

My brother said to me, quietly but with the force of his good heart: He's right, Oanh. No words of white round-eyed idiots can hurt us. My brother's words made me pause; I grinned. He grinned back. Craig and the principal looked shocked. My brother and I were sent home – Craig was taken back to the principal's office and his parents called.

When we got home, my brother did not tell my father what happened and I followed his lead. But I was still so angry and hurt I burst into tears at home, seemingly for no reason. My brother took the blame, saying he had been picking on me.

I can't remember all the school scraps I've had but I've never forgotten that day at school – the way two stupid, inaccurate phrases alienated and hurt my brother and I.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Communist Propaganda

I think that I shall let these speak for themselves. Why get myself into more trouble?

Officially a dolt

Oh my goodness.

I had no idea that people were commenting on my blog. I thought I truly had this blogging thing sussed - and now look!

I mean, I just turned comment moderation on because I got a comment about visiting some site and making money. Yes, what a brilliant idea - and then I deleted it - and went looking for ways to spam-proof my precious blog.

I always did wonder how comment moderation worked ...

So I am figuratively slapping my forehead and nervously giggling in embarassment.

thanks, Cee - for pointing it out. It's good to have another blogger in real life who can tell me when I am an internet idiot.

And thank you, Sume and Ji-in, for your encouraging thoughts.

Laziicat - stop being lazy. I want your thoughts too.

See y'all out there in the ether.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Temple of Literature

The imposing entrance gates to Viet Nam's first university:-

As you enter, this vista of peacefulness greets you:-

The accountant's reflection in the honour roll:-

I loved the Temple of Literature. I wished I was on my own and I would have sat myself down on the inviting grass, opened up whatever book I had at the time and whiled the rest of the day in the complex.

I would also have loved to have been a student of the Temple of Literature. I can picture myself, nose buried in book, mind half composing poetry and hoping to become a public servant (har har). Oh, except that I would have to have been a man. No, thank you!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


When I was in Viet Nam, I held a half hope that the landscape would bring sub-conscious memories to the fore. No such thing happened. Other than an ability to speak the language, and looking a lot like everyone else, I was effectively just another tourist, observing and photographing the landscape but not feeling as if it belonged to me. And nor should I - after all, when my family left Viet Nam, I was a mere two (going on three) years old.

I have known for a long time that my childhond memories - if such they can be called - are actually crafted from repitition of family stories. I'll get around to telling some of them here - but some I may not. I have known that they are not true memories, as far as I know.

The only memory I have, which is not part of a story told to me by my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins and which might therefore be considered 'true', is a murky one of an old woman's voice. The voice murmurs at me and beneath that voice are other women's voices chattering away at different volumes, arcing and diving in stirring crescendoes and susurring sotto voce rhythms. I believe the memory is of my paternal grandmother, or an aunt, rocking me to sleep in a hammock while the other voices are the women of the family, continuing their daily work amid companionable chatter.

When I fall asleep now, sounds around me often speed up and slow down the way this memory of women's voices plays itself inside my head.

Is that a memory? It is an impression of noise - there are no pictures that accompany it. Sometimes, when the sound flows back to me, I can almost see ... something; but is it my imagination, forming the figures, or a memory of people as I fall asleep as an infant?

This is how I have always felt about being Vietnamese, and the country of Viet Nam itself. I am grasping at something - there is a reality there that pulls me in but I can't capture it square on: it slinks away and I am afraid that I fictionalise the rest.

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