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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