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.

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