Monday, December 31, 2007

A reflective moment

It's the season to be reflective. So this is me reflecting.

What a miserable blogging year I had. It started off oh-so well, with a blog every week. Every week! And then I discovered (in no particular blameworthy order) Facebook, Online Scrabble, and English summers. There was also the minor matter of my ongoing work-life crisis*, which I am still contemplating whether or not to blog about.

*That's crisis in the current newspaper language. In that it's been stop-start since the beginning of the year and no one is probably going to get hurt, who has not got hurt already.

So, Facebook. It's a great timewaster. I joined just prior to my "becoming a UK solicitor" exams, and spent hours prettying up my profile, loading the books I'd read and movies I'd seen this year and searching the likely and unlikely suspects whom I thought would have joined Facebook. There was a cacophony of internet squeals as old friends from high school and my uni years found me, and kept thinking I was in London. I'm in South East England. Not London. Following on from the internet squealing, I made a number of treks up to London where 'real life' squealing was indulged in, as well as delicious (but rather expensive) meals. My tummy and my heart swelled, and then I returned to my everyday life, one weekend and many pounds poorer. I have, more or less, kept in contact with these rediscovered friends. I am at best a sporadic correspondent (hard to believe, I know), so the mere fact of contact every few months or so is a reasonably good thing.

And then Online Scrabble (or rather, Scrabulous) found me. I don't remember how it all started (the whirlwind of the romance, you see) but, rather quickly, I found myself playing at least 5 games simultaneously. Indeed, I have not played less than 5 games simultatneously since I started playing Scrabble online. This is probably not all that many in comparison to other people. But my time is not my own. From the hours of 9am until 6pm most days, I am required to account for at least 100 six-minute blocks of my time (except for lunch). "Playing Scrabulous" is not a billing code for which I can, ethically, charge clients. I am learning to accept that I will not play a move in every game, every day. And I'm okay with that.

English summers came upon me as a strange, and very pleasant, surprise. Living in Queensland one is not privy to the joy of daylight savings. I guess when one is close to the equator, and generally without seasons anyway, the length or brevity of the day is not really that pertinent. But oh! the length of the English summer days! What joy, what bliss! All those hours to fill with hills to walk on and food to eat and drink to imbibe and friends to visit and music festivals to attend. I had a fabulous but exhausting English summer, in which every weekend - and most weeknights - was filled with some activity. This seeped into English autumn as well, because the trees changing colour was just oh-so exciting, that I had to be out there *looking* at it. And here I am, in the middle of English winter, still pondering the joys of seasons. I love the cold. I grin maniacally as I cycle to work, infecting or disturbing my fellow non-car commuters with my four-year old joy at the frost, the biting cold, and the hope for snow.

And here are some maunderings about me & my work, or my work & my life, or my life, which is mostly my work:-

I remember being quite passionate and *into* my work when I initially started in full-time employment. My job then was more research oriented. I then started work in a private practice firm - I had previously worked in a private practice firm as receptionist / research clerk / general dogsbody and quite enjoyed it. I would have wildly fluctuating levels of enjoyment of my work, but I was also given a lot of freedom to do what I wanted if there was nothing else for me to do. Some days I would be holed up in the library researching, or typing madly, and others I would be surfing the net or reading a novel.

In full-time employment, I worked efficiently and well (I think) and liked best researching an area of law to make a legal argument. My favourite piece was a successful submission to an appeal tribunal: my written argument was incorporated, almost wholesale, into the tribunal's judgment. It was also a great piece of work because I overcame some major personal issues with the client and the facts presented to me, to make that legal argument. I knew when I was able to do that, that one of my major concerns with being a lawyer - the extent to which my prejudices would affect my work - was overcome. That was a great moment for an articled clerk.

I also liked the client interaction and just fitting the facts of their problem to a legal solution. It was, mostly, satisfying work. But there were lengthy periods when I questioned the value of what I was doing. Who was I helping, and why?

Then, I started working in commercial law. Although the work was pretty dry and there was very little client interaction, I found the mechanical work satisfying in its odd way. And it was very clear who I was helping and what I had to do to help them. I was helping a company make more money. Simple. I could put up with it because I knew it was short term, and I got given smaller pieces of research to keep me interested in the law (my bosses knew I liked doing research, and that was supposedly rare). It was like doing factory process work: satisfying when it's done for the simple reason that it is now done. But there's no bigger meaning behind it. Or what bigger meaning there was, was much too long-term and big to be comprehended.

I am now in an area that I believe I want to remain in. But I am not always happy. As a matter of fact, I am sometimes bored. Part of this is my own fault, and not the fault of the work. I could engage myself in it, but I don't. I think some part of me has changed, and I don't love doing this as much as I used to.

The things I like about being a lawyer is fitting a factual problem to a legal solution. What I don't like is that you may not agree with the outcome that you are assisting your client to obtain.

I did say something in a random conversation with my boss which surprised me as being both accurate and true (in that I did beleive it). I said that there is no reason why the people whom we help have to be deserving of that help. If they have the legal right, than we can assist them to assert their right. They don't have to be deserving people. Money should not be the barrier to people asserting their rights - but it often is.

It is very clear who I am helping now - each of the individuals who come my way - and why. It is tangible. But sometimes, I don't agree with it. And sometimes, I don't like it. And sometimes, I'm bored of it. Each of those feelings happens to me every day. And each work day seems to involve some navel gazing on my part. (Navel gazing is also not billable time, in case you're wondering).

Working in the law, on the side of the individual, is not satisfying work. Because you have an almost insurmountable opposition (the case law, the legislative law, the sheer weight of resources on the other side), but you have to believe that your meagre presence is worth something. That asserting a legal right, even if the odds are poor is important to the whole legal structure.

I believe this, and yet it is a hard pill to swallow. To put it into practise everyday is hard.

My 2008 looks set to be more of the same. I don't expect to come to conclusions about how I feel about my work. I do expect to post more often. Let's see how I go.

Happy New Year, all and sundry.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Bluest Eye

I finished this book on the train from one client meeting to another. For many reasons, the book struck me and I hope I was as moved as Toni Morrison wanted her readers to be.

This struck me:-
We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humour. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used - to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only agggressive; we were not free, merely licensced; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.
[p163 of my edition]

There are some books, and films that make me quiet inside. And there are others that have my mind racing. Incomprehensibly, this book did both, at once. As I walked through icy winds from the train station to my workplace, I thought about these words. I thought about being not good, not free, not strong. I thought about how I delude myself into thinking I am these things.

I thought, also, about another passage that struck me in the book. That struck me because it sounded like it could be about me - or at least (or worst?) an eloquent articulation how I am feeling about myself at the moment.

[H]e found misanthropy an excellent means of developing character: when he subdued his revulsion and occasionally touched, helped, counseled, or befriended somebody, he was able to think of his behaviour as generous and his intentions as noble. When he was enraged by some human effort or flaw, he was able to regard himself as discriminating, fastidious, and full of nice scruples.

As in the case of many misanthropes, his disdain for people led him into a profession designed to serve them.
[from page 131 of my addition]

I could keep on in this vein. I could keep typing out passages in some kind of homage to Toni Morrison's ability to hold a mirror to my view of myself, and of the world. I would be doing so mostly to impress upon you the need to experience Toni Morrison's ability to hold a mirror up to yourself. You will probably find different things that hit you where it hurts, that make you confront some ugly truth you don't want to admit about yourself. But you will find them.

The first novel I read of Toni Morrison's was Song of Solomon. Someone gave it to me thinking it was a rendering of the Biblical love story of Solomon. And certainly, it was something like that. (Not that I am overly familiar with Biblical stories, but I suspect Toni Morrison is.) I know, when I read Toni Morrison, that I will be horrified and saddened, and rendered so much more human because of my horror. But I have never before been so discomfited - and not because of the incestuous rape of a character by her father - but by the way she has implicated me - the reader of a piece of fiction - in the act.

I could more succintly say what all the above ramble means: You, too, should read The Bluest Eye.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More Randomness (Eight more, to be exact)

Hedgehog has tagged me to do an 8 Random Things meme.

The 8 Random Things meme has a rules list. I don't like rules, especially the kind that suggest chain lettering. I guess that's what memes are: chain blogging. Anyway, I'll post the rules (cribbed from Hedgehog) but I'm not abiding by the rules. So there.

Once tagged, you must link to the person who tagged you. Then post the rules before your list, and list 8 random things about yourself. At the end of the post, you must tag and link to 8 other people, visit their sites, and leave a comment letting them know they’ve been tagged.

Seeing that eight is the number of children in my family, I am going to tell you a random thing about each of them in order of seniority.

1. My eldest brother is the shining child of the family: a first born, a boy and born in the year of the Dragon. All things must go well for this brother, or else he betrays his lucky birth. Thus far, all things have been going pretty well for him. My eldest bro and I bookend our family well: he can do, and has never done, any wrong. I have been rebellious and troublesome since before I could even speak. My father's affectionate term for my mother is: Mother of [my eldest brother's name]. In contrast, my mother's term of annoyance for my father is: Father of Oanh.

2. Next in line is the Black Belt. The Black Belt is born in the same creature year as me (I baulk from typing Chinese Zodiac but I cannot think what else to call it. In Vietnamese, I would say he was born in the same year as me, but that suggests he is my twin.) This means that he is exactly twelve years older than I am. What else that might mean, I do not know.

3. Finally, a girl! I have great admiration for my eldest sis. She brought me up, is a wonderful mother and amazing cook, and she sure knows her own mind. Much like all the women in my family, actually. But eldest sis has been the one who has forged all the paths for the rest of us. By the time my parents got to me, they were too worn to fight my stubbornness.

4. Another girl! Next sister along is the most independent. She lived for a long time with my grandmother and grandfather, rather than our parents. She always held an aura of mystery for me, when I was young.

5. Another girl? This sister was the tomboy of the family. She and sister above pushed my uncle into the river. And held him there. When I was in primary school, it was her task to walk me from home to school and safely back again. She was impatient with my drifting, meandering ways, and my much shorter legs. She often arrived home without me and would toss her head disdainfully when my parents asked after me.

6. What? Another girl? Although this sister was closest to me in age, she felt the furthest away. She always seemed so much more mature than me. I put it down to her being girly; she, to me being pigheaded. I'm right, of course. After adolescence, however, we became, and have remained, quite close.

7. My brother breaks the chain: one more girl and a row and we would have all been princesses. Instead, he is spoiled rotten. This is very lucky for me. I would have made a crap princess.

8. And along comes me. You already know all about me.

I ain't tagging nobody. And no rules are gonna make me, either.

Also, I am going to be absent awhile (I know I've been pretty absent for ages now. Sorry.) I will be home, and filling my guts with my family's cooking: goi cuon, pho, banh xeo, bun nuouc leo, banh canh, crabs, and fabulous Brisbane food of all cuisines!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

I am a Nerd!

For a long time now, the tags list has been really bothering me. I much prefer a tag cloud. first introduced me to the wonders of tag clouds (gmail having already introduced me to tags) and Wordpress has a tag cloud function. It has been annoying me that Blogger doesn't. Annoying me so much that I contemplated switching blogging platform over to Wordpress. However, I am attached to Blogger and Google otherwise runs my life, so I could not quite make the leap.

Although I was an early uptaker of e-mail and all things internetty, I sort of plateaued. I never learned any html (I cut and paste from other sites). Then I got my partner. When computery-type things go wrong, I plaintively say his name, elongating his single syllable into two. If things are really bad, I use three. Sporadically, and without much commitment, I google to find simplistic me a tag cloud maker. As you can see, just over there to your left, I have finally been successful.

Should you also wish to make a tag cloud and have otherwise not done so, here is the link.

I was so happy with the result, I thought I would make a thank you comment. So I surfed my way over to the original post. Plenty more people have been there before me, with their two cents: 370 of them. Mine seems pitiful, and possibly bothersome, so I haven't commented. Here, and this, seems a better forum to thank the tag cloud maker.

Phydeaux3, should you ever find your way here: Thank you. The list was really ugly. I like the cloud much better.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Book Meme!

Tagged by Lotus Life, who seems capable of magnificent motherhood, full-time work, study and blogging, while I struggle with work and blogging. I suck. But I forgive myself.

1.Hardcover or paperback, and why?

Paperback, all the way. Hardcovers are too heavy: you can't throw them into a bag to take with you, or slip them into a coat pocket, or justify lugging them up a mountain.

In my early university years, and when I was an Arts student, I used to wear a big beige coat that had two enormous pockets. In one pocket, a notebook, my house keys and wallet. In the other pocket, a beat-up paperback and a lollipop. I loved the freedom of those days, wandering the university campus at my leisure, unburdened by a bag and heavy books. I was into Beat literature at the time, so it felt very bohemian to be so unencumbered. The lollipop was to keep me going because I was too poor to buy food: the sugar sufficed until I got home.

I became known in my Classical Mythology class as "The Lollipop Girl". I did not know anyone in the class, so I used to sit alone, up front. The first few tutorial sessions that I went to did not suit me, so I changed. And the first time I introduced myself to my new tutorial class, one of the other classmates piped up with: Oh! You're Lollipop Girl. It's good to know your name at last.

2.If I were to own a book shop I would call it…

Ugh. I'm crap with titles / names. I would probably ask everyone I knew for suggestions, or some random conversation would titillate me and that would become the book shop name. And it would be rather convoluted, and probably not very catchy. Kinda like the title of this blog.

My bookshop would also be a tea room & cafe, pho kitchen, laundrette and cinema. Everyone who wanted to could hang out there for as long as they liked, with nary a purchase required. The tea room would have bird cages, but without birds, because I can't abide the thought of birds in cages. Maybe the bird cages would double as lamps. Long benches and chaise lounges and comfy arm chairs and cushions and lots of little tables would be dotted all over the place, and bookshelves of all sorts and sizes randomly abound. Turning a corner would confront one with a new vista of books and great chairs on which to sit.

And it must be a second-hand book shop. I will know every book that has come into the shop, but I will resist the temptation to alphabetise or categorise them, wishing instead serendipitous book discovery on my customers. I sort of want my book shop to have a cat, but I don't like that cats kill wildlife. So I'm torn on the cat front.

There will be tea of every imaginable description, and teapots, collected from charity stores, of all kinds. Oh! And the coffee paraphernalia. Lots of that too.

My cinema will be cosy and have sofas and side tables. I will show an eclectic selection of film: from anime to horror, art-house to thrillers, with a smattering of period drama thrown in.

And there will be a laundrette because every one needs clean clothes.

3.My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is…

I really like a particular quote from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The quote is about both Atticus and his relationship with his children. It is written initially in high-faluting language and then ends in a great twist of simple childish slang, jerking us straight back to Scout's perspective.

Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.
"Huh, sir?"

Like a lot of lawyers, I suppose, I love To Kill A Mockingbird. I identified quite keenly with Scout, and Jem was definitely my older brother, who is wiser and kinder than me, and whom I worship. Scout is a reading, blustering, naive and occasionally thoughtless, but mostly decent-hearted, tomboy. There's a lot of me in her.

4.The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be…

Roberto Calasso. He is very much alive, and must have a lively, inquiring mind. He is the archetypal polymath, I think, and I would melt in his presence.

5.If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be…

Eh. I probably would not bring the SAS survival guide. I'd bring my Ba.

Book-wise: I really find this prompt an incredibly difficult one. I just can't get past the idea that if I'm on a deserted island, I probably did not plan to be there so I wouldn't know what book I will have with me. And it will have to suffice, won't it? It's somewhat contrary, because I don't have any difficulty hypothesising about an author whom I would like to lunch with, or detailing my imaginary bookshop/tearoom/cinema.

I know that the idea behind the prompt is what one book could I read over and over again, and which would keep me from going insane all on my putative lonesome; I just can't think of one that would fit that bill.

6.I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…

held my books and kept them dry in the shower! yeah!

7.The smell of an old book reminds me of…

other old books: The Life Line Book Fest! I have posted on this over here.

8.If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…

I usually want to be a character in every book I am reading, although not always the lead, and usually someone who is already remarkably like me but better in some way.

9.The most overestimated book of all time is…

The last Harry Potter. Enough said.

10. I hate it when a book…

has lost pages in the middle and you did not know about it when you bought it.

I once purchased a second-hand novel by Richard Brautigan, without realising that it was 'seconds' rather than second hand. My partner started reading it first and churned his way through the first 100 or so pages only to find pages 101 - 157 (or thereabouts) missing. I have never seen him so upset with a book in my life. He threw it across the room, then retrieved it, only to tear at it and, dramatically, bin it. I'm glad it was not me who started reading the book. I'm not sure I would have been so restrained.

I'm craparama at tagging. But I think Katie over at Minor Revisions should give this one a go, to distract her a little from her woes, and also Galaxy, if she can incorporate it into her current segues, and N.T if she can be bothered - (in my comments, as her blog is not a talkie-one).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sugar Bananas

[Warning: This post is all about bananas.]

Wandering through Brick Lane on Sunday with my partner and a friend, we cross the sprawling pavement sellers of myriad goods, commenting on how chaotically like South East Asia it was to be wandering along a crowded street, dodging bikes and touts. Ahead of us, boxes of bananas were stacked up, and a woman calls out: "Normal bananas! Baby bananas!"

I walk past glancing curiously but with no intention of buying anything. "Baby banaNAS!" I take a few steps past her and then say to my partner: "Sugar 'nanas? I have to look." I walk back and look down at the boxes of bananas: they were indeed little, about the size of my thumb. I stop. I pick up a little bag of bananas. I peer closely at their skin: yes! It is thin, strongly indicative of the super sweet sugar bananas of home. I put the bananas down. I have had a huge lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road and I am much too full for bananas. What's more, I don't want to have to carry them all over London, before heading back to where we live in Southern England.

I look over at my partner and friend, who stand amidst the chaos, waiting patiently for me. To the woman standing near the boxes, I say: "How much for the little bananas?" "One pound," she replies. "For each hand?" I ask, confused. Each hand is bagged separately, but some have only three fingers, and some have more than ten. "For the box," she says dismissively.

I am heady with glee. One pound for a box of precious sugar bananas! For the many months that we have been in England, I have been eating cavendish (mostly fair-traded), not even my preferred lady fingers, which we used to buy at the Green Market from a man and his bewildered son, who grew them on their farm out near Gin Gin. In the supermarkets, you can only get cavendish - or dark green lady fingers. No thank you! We eat bananas almost everyday, on our morning cereal and muesli.

I rush over to my partner. "They're only one pound for the box! AND they're sugar 'nanas. Can I have a pound?"

He hands me a pound, wordlessly, and I run back to the stall.

Beside me, a man caresses one of the little bananas and leans in to me: "These ones are good," he says conspiratorally. I look down at the box he indicates, his hand resting proprietorally upon the lovely yellow bananas, still green tipped and the skin so fragile I can almost see it bruising under his fingers. I reply assuredly, my own hand on the box I want, "These are better."

Transferring my box of sugar bananas into two bags, I return to my partner and friend. "Look!" I say, with joy. "Aren't they cute? And they're sugar bananas."

Sugar bananas are tiny bananas. They are, perhaps, the smallest variety: no more than 3 or 4 inches. They are a brighter yellow than cavendish or lady finger, but because they ripen quickly and their skin is no more than a millimetre thick, they are often brown. The flesh, too, is more yellow, a creamy transluceny with clearly visible, but tiny, seeds. My mother likes hers mushily soft - I prefer mine slightly green tinged and harder. It is a battle, at home, of whether the sugar bananas will last long enough to be as ripe as my mother likes, before they have succumbed to my greed.

I am reminded of my mother when we were first able to get sugar bananas in Australia. She came home from the markets triumphantly nursing a large bag of bananas that looked much too ripe for my palette. My mother would often come home from markets with treats for us: bags of sugar plums and rambutans for me, if they were available; durian, mangosteens and custard apple for my sisters. The first time Um brought sugar bananas home from the markets, I was disappointed not to have sugar plums or rambutans. "Don't you remember these?" Um said to us. "I do!" One of my elder sisters took some bananas from my mother and started peeling. I wrinkled my nose at the over ripe smell, and wandered away.

At dinner that night, my mother uses a spoon to slice bits of banana, eating them with her rice. She breaks off a banana to give to me and I say no. "You used to love these," she admonishes. I shrug, a little sulky that I had not got rambutans instead.

The next day, I am looking for fruit to eat. My mother suggests I eat a banana and I say no. She sighs and says, "There are greener ones in the rice bin, but don't eat them all." In our rice bin are many more hands of the little bananas, and none of the lady fingers I think I prefer. I take out one, mostly green tinged, but with bits of yellow. It is kinda cute. I can eat it. I poke its skin and it browns straight away, which does not please me. Nevertheless, I peel and eat it. It is wonderfully sweet and much more pungent than other bananas. I take out another. And another.

My father saves some of the smaller bananas (he hides them from all of us, deep in the dark recesses of the pantry), he dries them out and tries to collect the miniscule seeds. A few years later, we have our own sugar bananas growing in our backyard orchard. I don't know if they come from the seed, or if (as he is wont to do) he has asked for a cutting from the sellers. They don't fruit as often as the larger banana, but they give my mother greater joy. Our house ceases to have lady fingers and I eat only the tiny bananas. Cavendish begin to look obscene, and much too large to be eaten.

Slowly, since living away from home, cavendish drift into the norm. They are the easiest to obtain, the most widely available, and the only ones with fair trade stickers. Even lady fingers have faded from my memory in this green and pleasant land. But, for this week only, fair trade, locally produced succumb to the pleasures of sweet tiny 'nanas. I can eat four in a sitting. Oh, joy.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Walking Home Again

I had a couple of experiences which jolt me with surprise about how I view my safety.

1. Walking home from work

I walk home from work through a large expanse of park, called 'The Common'. I find this an exceedingly pleasant way to end my working day. With the long summer hours, I can even walk home when I have had a late day at work. I tend to change my working shoes into running shoes, and I leave my work shoes at work, under my desk.

Other uses of The Common are fellow walking-commuters, evening-exercisers, dog-walkers and youthful layabouts. I say hi to the exercisers and dog-walkers, but my fellow walking-commuters ignore me (and I them), and I am much too uninteresting for the youthful layabouts.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking home and otherwise meandering inside my own head. There were three youthful layabouts, two female, one male, sitting on a park bench. As I passed, one of the girls said something, which I knew to be aimed at me, but which I did not quite hear. The tone was derisory. I chose to ignore her. Then she spat at me. Frothy white goop landed at my feet; I stepped over it and kept going. Behind me, the boy shouted something I could not make out and all three started laughing. When I got home, I was shaken. No one has ever spat at me before. I have had racist comments yelled at me. I have had sexist comments yelled at me. I have been grabbed, and held, by a mentally unstable man - I did not feel threatened by him and managed to extricate myself. I have had a broken bottle shoved into my face, also by a mentally unstable man, and again, I did not feel particularly threatened (although I was scared). The spitting was just uncalled for. And it made me feel unsafe. (I half knew the man with the broken bottle would jab it in my face).

2. Walking to the shops

I walk to and from the grocery stores. Not too long after the above spitting incident, I was walking home with my shopping. Picture, if you will, a young east-Asian woman in a pinstripe suit with a grocery bag under each arm - one bright orange, one hessian - just minding her own business and perhaps frowning a little as she carried her heavy groceries home. Going in the opposite direction, on the other side of the road, were two young women and one young man. The young man shouted something at me, which sounded like: ra ra ha ha ra. And then there was laughter. I stopped. I went to turn towards them to say something - anything - back. Except I did not know what. And the thought that ran through my head? This is not a nice area. I've heard of cars being burnt here. I walked on in fear. About a few metres later, I got really angry. I hate it when fear prevents me from defending myself against inanity.

3. Running through the Common

I occasionally (I've done this once, but I would like to more, hence the choice of word) run through the Common on my way home, for excercise. Usually when I run in the Common (on weekend mornings) I stick to the large paths. My partner on the other hand has waxed lyrical about how lovely ducking into the woods themselves are.

On my first afternoon run, I took the large paths, then darted off on a walkers only path. I ran up beside the lake and saw a lovely path into the forest, that twisted enticingly out of view. I took it. I ran until I came to a junction where three paths crossed. I chose one that veered off in the direction of home, as it was about roughly time to circle back again. The path I chose got narrower and narrower, and windier and windier. I leapt fallen trees and dodged nettle as much as I could. Then the blackberry bushes grew so close together I had to use my hands and shoulders to clear my path. I had turned so much I no longer knew which direction I was facing. I heard laughing voices in the near distance. I freaked out, did an about face and retraced my path back to the junction, back to the walkers only path, back to the nice large open concreted-over path. Heart thumping more from fear than from the exertion, I jogged on home again.

Not only had the laughing teenage voices reminded me of my earlier unpleasant encounters, I realised that no one knew where I was. My partner knew only that I was running home, via the Common. He would not expect me for another hour, would not start to worry for perhaps another two hours. I know that I would not, in his position. Work would not realise until the next day, and no one knew which direction I headed off in anyway. Only my partner and work would note my absence in the short term.

When I lived in a share house and went running in the early mornings, I drew a map of my planned path and my expected return time for my housemates. I almost always returned before any of my housemates even aroused themselves from sleep. Only one housemate, in my five or six years of house sharing, even saw my map. But I felt much better with the thought that, if I did not return and there was a note to say where I had been, someone would think to come looking for me.

When I lived with my parents, the rule was that I would inform them if I would not be home before dark. In my early university years, my mother got used to me walking out of the house calling out not to expect me home before her bed time. I once overheard my mother on the telephone to my aunt, complaining about how I was always out and she had no idea where. I tried a few times to tell her I was at a library until it closed, but she did not believe me. I think she wanted to believe that I was out with boys, taking drugs and partying hard, rather than holed up on the fourth floor of the law library with casebooks, or the second floor of the arts library with journals. At worst, I was in a cafe or movie theatre with friends. My juvenile delinquency never did get off to the right start.

I have got lazy. I do not do the little things anymore that make me comfortable doing activities which otherwise put me at risk of the nebulous thing out there that is dangerous to young women. I forgot to live in fear, because I have my mobile phone and my partner is well-versed with my habits. But the fear has come back in this New Place, so I need to find my parameters again.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Clearing my head

At the beginning of this year I made a wee promise to myself in relation to this blog: I will post regularly. Up until the last post, I was doing reasonably well; not frequent but at least regular. Then it all fell apart.

I don't have any good excuses. It just happened.

Partially, I have been distracted by thinking about my future. It means I am unable, and unwilling, to think too hard about anything else.

I don't like posting when I have not thought something through and much of what thinking I did do this month was only half thought. I will probably find this post unsatisfactory when it's done, but I have decided I should write, and post, irrespective. It will be what it is, and then I will be back here writing posts that will interest you and satisfy me, again.

Partially, I have been focussed on the mundane aspects of existence. Eating, sleeping, working. And repeat. It does not make for exciting writing, nor is it overly inspiring. I spend my workday planning what I will eat for supper. I spend my time cooking my supper thinking about my workday. I spend my time eating my supper feeling sleepy. I sleep dreamlessly and wake unrefreshed.

Partially, I have been obsessively on Facebook. I am learning to regulate myself - but I do have an addictive personality. It's frightening when the first thought on getting home is: I wonder if so-and-so has played their move in our Scrabble game?

Partially, my partner and I have been making the most of English summers. This means disappearing Friday evenings, or early Saturday mornings to some public-transport-accessible part of England and happily rambling about, and not arriving home until late Sunday, when we have vegemite on toast for tea.

And partially, I have not written on this blog because I have been missing my family too much. When I start thinking of something that I could write on this blog, or something about my family, the corners of my mouth edge downwards and my bottom lip juts out. This blog is too much about my family, and too much about Brisbane. I haven't worked out how to move it on yet, or if I want to. I'm just avoiding confronting the emotions by avoiding the space. It's a tried and true coping mechanism.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Autumn Leaves

English summers are much like Brisbane winters: the sun is bright, the skies are crisp blue and the temperature is mild (in the mid teens Celsius; I haven't a clue Fahrenheit). And both are short-lived. I do love Brisbane winters.

In a few days, it will be autumn here. I am looking forward to autumn, having never experienced it before. My sisters’ favourite poem/song when we were younger was ‘mu thu la bay’ (In Autumn, the Leaves Blow). It is an epic poem about a young, beautiful girl who falls in love with her tutor. He has to leave her in the autumn. Like all good Viet poems, he goes off to war and dies. He never comes back for her, and in autumn, with the leaves falling off trees and blowing around her, she remembers him. Autumn is a poignant and nostalgic season.

Intellectually, I understand this and I recognise the symbolism. Viscerally, emotionally, the images of autumn do not evoke much response in me.

In my formative years, I read the autobiography of Jill Ker Conway (The Road to Coorain and True North). I mentioned it in a book meme. I loved how the landscape and environment grounded and influenced Jill Ker Conway's life and writing. I also interrelate with my environment; I have always personalised my living and working space, and find my moods affected by weather.

My lack of understanding of the English landscape, flowers and plants somewhat disorientates me, and at the same time reminds me that I have to learn, rather than refer to innate knowledge. I am eternally curious about berries and fruits and plants. When we walk in the countryside, I pick and squish and smell and peer. My partner continues on ahead and I chase him every few metres: I linger as something catches my eye, then I run to catch up. I was so happy to find acorns, in their cups, at the height of summer. I had never before seen an actual acorn - the symbol of old England is the gnarled and majestic oak - and the acorn speaks of mysterious connections. I am finding my place in this landscape of soft grass, nettle and acorns.

From early childhood, I wondered how my father related to the Australian environment and the ways in which it was different to Viet Nam. Of all my father's children, I have the vaguest memory of him as a vibrant man. For more than half my life, my father has been ill. But I can call to mind images of my father striding along a beach, or casting out a net and hauling it in with regular, assured movements, or the graceful swing of his arm as he cuts up fish, or the way his huge hands cup fluffy baby chicks, the same hands that will wring their necks in a few months' time. It was wonderful to see my father in Viet Nam, in land that he knew innately. He rested, elbow on the prow of our long tail speed boat, and he looked out at the Mekong. He looked like that land owned him, and he knew its ways. He squinted at the sky and said: It won't rain tomorrow and everyone - local Viet and Viet Kieu alike - believed him. And he was right. I can't describe how much Ba belonged to the Delta area, how he seemed to stand more erect and the pride of the land swelled around him. He shrunk again in Sai Gon, and then back home in Brisbane. But I got a meagre glimpse of who my father was before he came to Australia and I knew that the landscape infects my father, too.


The leaves outside my office window are turning yellow and dropping off. I watch them curiously, and a little nervously because I want them to turn yellow, and then red, and then brown, and then (and only then) may they drop off. They don't mean much to me, these autumn leaves. But I am in a phase of transition now and I wonder if I will attach to autumn the fluttering emotions that currently affects how my identity is swilling into formation here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Bureaucracy

I have been filling out forms, lately.

I am terrible at filling out forms. Especially important ones that relate to me. I am very good at filling out forms for other people. After all a lot of my daily work involves form filling. (The life of a lawyer is a glamorous one, my friends.) From when I was young, I filled out forms for my parents and translated for them: Social Security forms, mortgage forms, citizenship application forms, medical forms. You name it and I have probably filled it out.

The form currently occupying my time is my "Becoming a UK Lawyer" form. It has more illegible crossings out on it than any I have filled in so far. I peer at the question and think: What do you mean? Does that apply to me? I recall having similar difficulties when applying to become an Australian lawyer. Perhaps it is the last way the system can weed out the unsuitables: If you cannot fill out this form, buddy, you're probably not cut out to be a lawyer.

The section on forms in the UK that bother me the most are the 'diversity' questions. A limp appendage to the rest of the form, this part comes last. There is a tick box (yes/no) for whether one has a disability and then a blank space where one can be artful in the description of one's deviation from the able-bodied world. Next, is my favourite question:

Please describe your ethnic background.

Instead of a few blank lines, like the disability question, there are 8 or so tick boxes.

They are:-

1. White / Irish
2. White / British
3. Indian
4. Pakistani
5. Bangladeshi
6. Chinese
7. Mixed Race
8. White / Other

I am flummoxed by these choices. I am exceedingly reluctant to tick the "White / Other " box. So I don't. I'm not white. But I do fit into a lot of 'Other' categories. Instead, I write in the empty space: Vietnamese. There, I am recognised. That part of my form will probably just be discarded as it cannot be inputted into a database and will therefore count as "no response".

I love the Mixed Race choice. You just tick it and then there's nowhere for you to say what mixture. It is as if, once you are a mongrel, the ethnic heritages that go to make up YOU are irrelevant. Mixed Race is a category of itself. And perhaps it is: an additional layer that is more than its composite parts. Nevertheless, I expect the parts that make up the whole are important to the individual. Important enough to be put on a form, anyway.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I have started to complain about the English weather, instead of being my usual chipper self. It has rained, almost without cessation since late May. I can recall two weekends of good weather in the last two months.

My umbrella, a farewell gift to me from my former place of work, could take the battering no more. Admittedly, it was neither wind nor rain that was my brolly's death knell. I sat on it. I heard a little crunching sound, which I blithely ignored. The very next time I opened up my umbrella, one arm flopped sadly. Although the brolly still protects me from the rain, the broken arm taps a staccato rebuke upon my head.

My trouser legs are not protected by any umbrellas, broken or otherwise. The bottoms of my jeans get saturated whenever I walk in the rain, which is almost every single day. Unaccountably, my right leg is better at avoiding puddles than my left: my left trouser leg is wet to mid calf; my right only to my ankle.

If there is rain, Brisbane is never far from my mind. Whenever I wake up to rain, my first thought is: I hope that's falling in the catchment area. This is one of my more unrealistic thoughts. I catch myself before the thought fully materialises and chant a little reminder: You are in England. Someone else is living in my house in Brisbane and it's their job to hope that any rain falls in the catchment area.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Existential Angst

Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. I am a little aggrieved that I still experience this level of adolescent angst about my place and value in the world. Surely I would have (should have) grown out of this? Surely one reaches a point in one's life where one can say: Righto. Here I am and this is what I do and I am content.

Part of my problem is that I just don't like full-time working. It's not that I am innately lazy (at least, I hope not).

There is so much that I want to do, and learn, and read, and write, and observe, and muse, and create - and full-time work does not allow me the time to do very much of it, and sometimes, it does not let me do any of it.

And sleep. I resent sleep too. Why do I need so much of it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Made in Viet Nam

Today I am wearing all clothes made in Viet Nam (with the exception of underwear, socks and shoes). My t-shirt, which I've decided is fancy enough for work, is a turquoise North Face t-shirt and it has a label "Made in Viet Nam." My suit was tailor made for me in Hoi An.

I and my sisters had a ball getting clothes tailor made for us. The lovely tailor was surprised to discover we were sisters; the three of us are a sample of the different-ness of the girls in my family. Though I am youngest and brought up on nutritious Aussie food (har har), I am also shortest, and darkest, with a mop of unstyled long black hair usually pulled back and away from my face in a pony tail, although wisps escape to pester me and dismay my otherwise tidy appearance. My eldest sister is willowy slender with lustrous black hair cut in a becomingly jagged way. My other traveling sister has quite pale skin and light brown hair, also layer-cut as is the fashion.

I am a bit casual about my appearance, and even more so when traveling. My two sisters are much more coiffed and presented. It took us a couple of hours to get ready in the morning: I showered first and was ready in about 15 minutes: I put on one of the three quick-dry trousers I had packed and whichever t-shirt came to hand. Each of my sisters spent what felt like a lifetime getting ready, while I itched to go exploring. I found myself doing stretches and exercises to kill the time while I listened to the shower, then the hair-dryer, then each of my sisters crossing the other's path back and forth from bed to bathroom.

It was quite a revelation for me. I am separated from my sisters in the family by a brother. Until we were teenagers, I shared a bedroom with my brother. Until my brother got embarrassed by his younger sister hanging around, I spent most of my play-time with him. I briefly shared a bedroom with my sister but she could not stand my untidiness and sleep-talking. One of my elder siblings (I can't remember which) saved her by marrying and moving out: then she and I got our own bedrooms. I was about 12, my sister about 15.

Our travel photos are perfectly illustrative of our differing styles. Like good Viet-Kieu tourists, we took a photo of all of us outside every monument we visited. In most of the photos, I am in exactly the same outfit (especially in Ha Noi, where it was cold, so I am in jeans and the one jumper that I brought with me; and in Hue, where it was raining, so I am in jeans and my red raincoat). Each of my sisters, however, were in different outfits, in different pictures. I trawled the thousands of pictures we three had taken: only rarely are my sisters wearing the same clothes twice. Although, one of my sisters took greatly to an outfit made for her in Hoi An and wore it quite a few times.

When we got to Hoi An, we went hunting for a good tailor. The decision of which tailor was made randomly, I think, and based upon who was nicest to us. The tailor we chose was so nice that her brother drove us to a restaurant for dinner, where I forgot that I was not supposed to give money away and promptly gave some to a young girl who asked and we were then accosted by a whole bunch of kids, one of whom became tearful when I said I had run out of coins (it was true, I had no more coins). The restaurant proprietor shooed the kids away, and my sisters and the proprietor looked at me very disapprovingly. I looked ashamed, and felt a bit silly, and then secretly pleased because I'd fallen for a trick that was written in the Lonely Planet Guide! I'm a sucker like so many other people, which makes me kinda in a book!

We spent about three hours at the tailors, getting measured up and choosing fabrics. I was a great disappointment to the tailor. I wanted three trouser suits in conservative fabrics (black pinstripe, navy-ish and beige-ish) with conservative cuts. I wanted one matching conservative dress and one matching conservative, slightly above-the-knee skirt.

The tailor kept trying to persuade me towards a more fashionable cut, a more revealing skirt, or another item that was funky and young. In the end, she chose to cut my clothes rather tightly, and slit the dress either side so that it was halfway up my thighs. I asked her to let out one of the trousers, and had every intention of asking her to let out the others as well, but her brother rushed my trousers to their factory out of town, and rushed it back again in minutes. I felt bad so I just took the other trousers as they were. I'm yet to wear the dress, although the suits are worn in random rotation every day of the working week.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

I don't know why, or how, I came to Margaret Atwood so late in my life. She seems to be the perfect author for me and, as prolific as she is, I seem to have read much more of her non-fiction, than her fiction. I read Cat's Eye on holiday.

One of the things that struck me most about this novel was its insightful portrayal of relationships among girls and women. The protagonist, Elaine Risley, is a successful painter who returns to the town of her childhood, teenage and early adult years to attend a retrospective of her work. Alone in Toronto, she begins to reminisce about her life, and in particular her friendship with Cordelia: her nemesis, or a foil, or the example of what the protagonist herself could have become.

This post is not a review. Atwood's work is excellent, and I highly recommend her if you haven't read her already. Like much else on this blog, this post is about ME.

Cat's Eye got me thinking about my relationships with girls and women. I was a resilient child; I grew into a resilient adult. I had a large family and network of siblings and cousins of both sexes. At home, I was closest to my brother in age and, as a child, in games. I don't remember my very early childhood years but my mother's anecdotes tells of a brash, outspoken, cheeky and rather confident brat. I haven't changed much. I am hoping any child I may have will not be like the young me (I'd like her to be much better behaved!).

The first primary school that I went to had kids from a mish-mash of many and varied cultural and ethnic groups. I formed friendships with almost everyone: Indigenous kids, Islander kids, fellow Viet kids, Chinese kids, Lebanese kids, Greek kids. They were all girls.

Even in early primary school, I knew we weren't 'cool'. We were generally excluded from games of 'tiggy' (a chasing game) and I, in particular, was banned from 'catch and kiss' (I had punched the last person who caught me, before he could kiss me, because he grabbed me around the waist. I did not play by the rules.) We spent our lunch hours in one corner of the playground. There must have been a reason for that, beyond mere choice. After all, the monkey bars and the swings were in the diametrically opposite corner of the playground. I remember playing on the monkey bars and swings AFTER kids had left school for the day. So there must have been someone preventing me from doing so. I have no recollection of who they were, nor why. Although I'd be quite happy to take a racialist stab in the dark.

In grade five (aged eight), we moved from inner city, mixed class, multi-cultural, to outer suburbs, blue collar, mono-cultural. I and my brother were the only two Asian kids the school had ever seen. The school I attended was a very small school, which was a shock to me. Previously, there would have been more people in one of my classes, than in the entire school. It was not large enough to form cliques, so most of the time, everyone played with everyone else. But there was the occasional spat. I got into fights a lot. I have previously posted about one particular not-quite fight.

Grade 5/6 was when the social outcasting bullying set in: I would have been 10/11. My brother was in grade 7, the last primary school year, at the time. At that age, everyone was at markedly different stages of physical development. I was still small and weedy and childlike. So was my brother. Some of the girls who were my friends had begun to develop breasts and hips, and a giggling interest in boys (still germ-filled in my eyes). Some of the boys had a swagger and were heads and shoulders taller than everyone else.

One rainy lunchtime, I came out of class to sit with the usual circle. As I fought for a space between two people, they turned their backs to me, shuffled forwards and closed me out again. I got up and went to sit beside someone else, also in the circle. The same thing happened. I persisted and sat there eating my lunch in a strangled silence. A few of the group got up and moved. Then, one of the girls came over to me. She had, a few weeks earlier, declared that she was my best friend. She whispered that everyone was unimpressed with me because one of the boys, whom another of the girls liked, might have a crush on me. That boy was my brother's best friend, and he was, of course, full of cooties. While she was talking to me, her head swiveled back and forth; she was watching how the other girls were reacting to her talking to me. "I hope you don't mind," she whispered, "but we've all agreed not to hang out with you", and then she scuttled back to the group, who were by now all facing towards me, hands menacingly on out-stuck-hips.

I remember being bewildered, and not saying anything, but feeling that it was absolutely necessary that I did not move; that they move. So I just stood there, looking back at them. I may have looked sad or fearful or confrontational. I don't really know. It did feel like I had done something wrong, but I was definitely not going to say sorry. And they had not exactly done anything to allow me to lash into them, as Craig had. They whispered together, giggled together, and then left. After they had gone, I deflated, and slunk off into the library.

The next day, I did not bother. I went to join the kids in the junior school and sat with kids 2 to 3 grades below me. I played on their swings and monkey bars and fortresses. I played chasey and skipping rope games again, instead of sitting around gossiping at lunch.

Though my friendship with the older girls re-ignited, it never felt true afterwards. I was wary. And if they shut me out, I defended by disappearing off to have more fun with the younger kids. Some days I just played their games, which were much more fun anyway.

In high school, three girls one grade older than me decided I would be fun to pick on one term. Wrong choice. They gave me a nickname (midget), because I was short, and I hung out with girls, one in particular, who were at least a head taller than I was. One of my friends became quite friendly with them, which was fine by me. The three would be sweet as pie to me when my friend was around and horrid to me when she wasn't. My friend did not understand why I didn't want to spend time with them, like she did.

I had quite quickly developed a reputation at high school for being arrogant - I presume because I was reasonably confident in my abilities, and tended towards cold silence when angered. I do recall being hurt by them, but I always did my utmost not to show it. When they taunted, I stared at them and waited until they left. If I was walking by, and they would begin to taunt, I would stop and look at them, stubbornly standing still until they went quiet. Then I would move again.

I broke my silence, once.

I was walking along the crossover area between the grade nines and grade eights, going to class, I think. I was by myself, as frequently occurred. Ahead, I saw the three girls, surrounded by a bunch of guys, one of whom was my friend's boyfriend. One of the girls called out: "There goes lonely little midget. When is she going to get a friend?" I stopped. I turned towards the girls. My friend's boyfriend said: "Oh, leave her alone. She's alright." I spat at him: "I don't need YOU to defend me. I'm FINE on my own." I started to walk off when one of the girls began laughing: "I know what gets midget. Someone CARING about her. Not so tough now, are you midget?" I straightened my probably already ramrod straight back and kept walking.

The girls moved on from taunting me; they probably found another target.

University was different: there were no obvious cliques at university, and the cool girls who would have done all this alienating stuff just did not seem to be around. But they were back again at the very first job I started. Silence and staring does not work so well when you have to co-operate together on projects. I just pretended I was part of the group during working hours, and ate my lunch with other people or by myself, and let the sniggers behind my back be just that: sniggers behind my back. My clothes were not as nice, and I did not like the same movies. If they couldn't be my friends, they were nevertheless work colleagues. They might not like me, but they were definitely going to respect me.

The cliquey work girls did respect me: they sought my advice and assistance when things went wrong. And I would give them my advice and assistance, and raise an eyebrow and sigh when they excluded me from invitations to lunch or nights out.

In a moment of blogosphere coincidence, Minor Revisions has a wonderful piece on this intangible form of bullying, called "Why don't you like me?" I like Post-Doc's mum's advice: (paraphrasing): There are too many people in this world and they can't all like you. And there will be worthwhile ones who do like you.

That's good advice.

I can hear my defensiveness as I proof-read this post. I am defensive. It does hurt to be excluded. But if people don't like you, that's their problem: just as long as they respect your work. Now, I figuratively stand still and stare people down: I stare them down with my work.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Doubling Up

I have to own up. I have received some awards, for which I feel very flattered, and a little taken aback. Because I get taken aback, I try not to think about it. Then I get hit with the same award.

I am a rocking girl blogger.

I am totally chuffed.

Thank you to fellow rockers, Kirsty, from Galaxy of Emptiness, and Hong Lien, from The Lotus Life.

And, er, I have to own up to having received some other awards earlier on in the year when I was still struggling with getting internet connection, a job, a home, that sort of stuff.

I was so flattered and a wee bit flabbergasted by the award I, um, pretended I did not receive it.

That's not entirely true.

I just did not further publicise that I received the award(s).

I was amused, however, that both award givers said almost exactly the same thing about me: [paraphrasing], "Oanh doesn't post frequently, but when she does ..."

So, thank you, to Sume from Ethnically Incorrect - one of the very first kindred spirits I found on the web - and Legal Eagle - who unleashed my inner law nerd into the ether.

I'm going now before my feet twist into a knot, together with my ducking head and I disappear into my own inability to accept compliments.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conversations with my parents

Conversations with my parents are not especially long.

Prior to leaving Brisbane, my father fell sick again. I ditched appointments and farewell lunches with friends to sit in hospital with him, listening to him regaling me with stories of his childhood.

Many years ago when Ba fell very sick the first time, and we had not been talking for ages because of what he perceived to be my wayward behaviour (I moved out of home before I was married - gasp!), I sat in hospital with him until the wee hours, when the nurses would regretfully kick me out. Some of his hospital time coincided with my exams, so I took my books into his hospital room and sat beside him, studying my exciting law texts while he slept. Once, he shook me awake - I had slumped over my text books, resting on his tea tray - and told me to go home. His first illness was the turning of our relationship. I liked being in the hospital with him because it was one of the few ways I could express that I was a dutiful daughter, even though my values were not his. We did not talk much, initially. Then I began to ask questions about his life in Viet Nam, questions I'd never really asked before. He would talk and talk at me, but only when we were in the hospital room together. I would go home and scribble frantic notes.

The most recent bout of hospital time, I sat listening to him tell me about how much he liked school when he was younger. He paused and said: When you are in England, you must telephone your Um & me every three weeks. Promise? I was bemused by the precision of the instruction, and said: Yes, okay. Every three weeks.

I have not quite kept the every three week rule: I am a bit absent-minded and time slips away from me.

My first conversation with my parents was very brief.

Me: Hello Um. It's me Oanh. (Actually what I say is: it's your child. I don't always say my name, which seems silly given how many children my parents have, but they always know it's me. I wonder what my siblings say to identify themselves?)
Um: Is that you, child? [aside] Old Man! Your daughter is on the phone!
Me: Yes.
Ba: Oanh?
Me: Yes. Are you well? (not knowing who I am speaking to, anymore.)
Ba: What time is it there?
Me: (I tell them the time). What about you? What time is it there?
Ba: (He tells me the time. I don't tell them that I have worked it out). Are you cold? Is it cold there?
Me: Yes. It's cold. Are you well?
Ba: Where are you calling from? A phone box?
Me: Yes. We are still staying in a hotel.
Ba: Well, this phone call must be costing you a lot of money. Are you well?
Me: Yes. Don't worry about it. It is not costing very much at all. And you? Are you well?
Ba: Yes. I am well. Your Um is also well. Is there anything else? Are you okay? Your partner, is he okay?
Me: Yes.
Um: I am well. Are you cold?
Me: No. Not really. It is cold here.
Ba: Well, goodbye then. Call again.

The phone dies before I even say goodbye. I stand shocked in the phone box, staring at the receiver in my hand.

My next three conversations with my parents follow exactly this pattern. I find it somewhat funny. I never get the opportunity to tell my parents I miss them (in Vietnamese, the word for miss is the same as the word for remember) or that I love them. I am not even sure exactly what words I should use to tell my parents I love them in Vietnamese. I have never told them. This worries me, because I am so far away now. I feel I should tell them, but I don't know how.

I had the following conversation with one of my nieces, who has previously appeared as Grump on this blog. She is starting to talk in complete sentences.

Me: Hi Grump! How are you.
Grump: Good. I ate pasta today, so I get to have some special (dessert).
Me: Hey, lucky you! Do you miss/remember me?
Grump: No. Oh. Mummy is telling me to say yes. Should I say yes?
Me: [laughing] No. You don't have to miss/remember me. What did you do today?
Grump: Well, I was playing with my cousin until Mummy told me to come talk to you.
Me: Oh. Well, why don't you go play with your cousin again?
Grump: Okay. Bye!

My family do not waste time on sentiment.

My mother is currently grilling me on how I obtain Vietnamese groceries. She lists what the family have been eating, and how she remembers me at every meal, particularly when she cooks my favourite dishes. We had crab the other day, she says. We all missed you. Then she says, This weekend, I am cooking banh xeo. You like to eat banh xeo so much. We will remember you.

I had the longest telephone conversation with my parents, ever, this morning: about ten minutes. The ritual is completed first: time, weather, health. I half expect my father to harangue my mother to hang up but I get in first and tell them that we have a telephone deal where it only costs me about six Australian cents per minute of chatter with them. I then plough on and tell them that I hope my sister is showing them my photos, which I have posted to a website. My mother says no. Then she remembers something: Your sister says you have been walking a lot. I have to agree to this. I do walk a lot. My mother tells me not to. I try to tell her that I am walking for fun, but then I just let her lecture me and I make listening noises. She then tells me about her weekend, how great Bunnings [a hardware / homewares store] is. I listen.

Then she says: Is that all? Do you want to say anything else? Here's my chance! I think about which words to use, how to tell her I love her without sounding too formal, or ponderous. No? Okay, call again. Bye. And she has hung up, and I have missed my opportunity.

In another three weeks, I shall try again.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Sweet Potato and Okra Curry

It was only a matter of time before I started posting recipes.


One largeish onion - diced
A couple of cloves garlic - diced
One tin of tomatoes
A teaspoonful of garam masala
A teaspoonful of ground tumeric

One large sweet potato / kumara - diced
A handful of okra - topped and tailed

Plain yoghurt to accompany the meal (or you can chop some chives into it, like I did)

I used elephant garlic from the Isle of Wight's Garlic Farm. Elephant Garlic is enormous! It is much milder in flavour than usual garlic and is fabulous roasted (but it takes an awfully long time). It is a lot more liquid than usual garlic and seems to have a somewhat bitter aftertaste. This is not a problem when roasting, but it does seem to be a problem when saute-ing. I don't usually mind bitter flavours, but because I used about half a head of garlic, the bitterness was overpowering the other flavours. I dealt with it by adding some palm sugar to take the bitter taste away.

Saute the onions, and when softened and translucent, add the garlic. Throw in the garam masala and tumeric and fry into a nice paste. To prevent burning of the spices, you can add a little bit of water to the mix.

Add the tin of tomatoes and stir into the spice/onion/garlic paste so that the colour becomes consistent. I love this part: I find thoroughly enjoyable watching the colours merge, and the consistency of both sets of ingredient change to something altogether different.

Once the tomatoes and paste have unified, throw in the diced sweet potato. Cook without a lid so that the sauce reduces, but if it's getting too dry, add a little water and perhaps put a lid on, so that the sweet potato cooks through. I like mine still a little bit crunchy.

Towards the end of cooking, add the okra. Put the lid on to cook the okra - it's cooked when it changes from dull green to bright green.

Serve with rice, accompanying yoghurt and, if you're me, soy sauce. I eat soy sauce with almost everything.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Homesick (second instalment)

I miss our Green Markets, under the beautiful Port Jackson figs at Davis Park, West End. I miss the stall I dubbed 'the crystal cave hippies' with their gorgeous carrots, silverbeet and occasional broadbeans, all handed over with long-fingered purple sparkly nails and a smile. I miss the Islander man with his root vegetables, and the banana guy and his young, bewildered son. I miss the lovely old Greek couple who bickered even as they tipped home-grown and sun-ripened tomatoes into our shopping bag. I miss the happy hippy organic folk, who chirped away at me as I collected our weekly groceries and who invariably gave me an extra peach, or some cherries, or a handful of snow peas.

I miss the smell of chai, simmering away. I miss watching all the satisfied people sat under trees eating their scrumptious breakfast of scrambled eggs on rye with tomato chutney and rocket, or French toast with berry compote . I miss the people whom I bought free-range eggs from: I thought they were a cult, with their matching t-shirts and singsong sales pitch.

I miss the abundance of sprightly flowers, which I frequently bought to spruce up our house.

I miss my fellow market-goers: the regulars,like me, for whom it was their weekly shop; the gasping newcomers darting their heads right to left, and back again; the cyclists wobbling away with their fresh prizes. I don't miss the people who insisted on taking their dogs shopping with them. Or the little girl who stuffed a Paris Hilton type dog into her shopping bag. I don't like dogs all that much, but that's no way to treat a sentient animal. I miss the buskers and the young children boogying away in front of the one-man band (I don't miss the one-man band cacophony, although I admire his energy). I particularly miss the woman with her husky voice who channelled Janis Joplin, off key and out of harmony, but -oh!- the gusto.

The vegetables in England are droopier. They have travelled a long way to be here. (I wonder if I am droopier - I too have travelled a long way to be here.) I had expected that, because of England's colder clime, fruit and vege would last longer. But they do not. Broccoli goes yellow after a week, and the stem gets all bendy. Carrots flop.

We try to source locally, but it is difficult because fewer things can grow locally, and the market does not support them. We have to be willing to give away half of our weekend to buy local food.

I am learning what is seasonal; in Brisbane you rarely have to worry about what is seasonal (no seasons, you see). I've been delighting in fruit and vegetables that prefer cold: broadbeans, blueberries, okra; and the joys of strawberries and cherries as we hurtle through summer. I'm eager to see what autumn brings, and what we will eat in the fallow months of winter.

I have eaten many more potatoes here, in the last six months, than I have my entire life. Rather too many of them have been in the form of chips.

And I am slowly forming my impressions of the people at the local farmers' market. They are less characterful, so far, then the Green Market folk - but that may be because I know them less well. Before long, I'm sure they'll all have epithets, and I hope some of them will start to recognise me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On Blogging

While I was transferring some of my photo-blog posts over to this, my talkie-blog, I found something I said early on in my blogging days:
"Is this about books or pictures? I really wouldn't know. I keep having a lovely internal discussion about web-blogs. I won't replicate it here - I would have to spend some time composing an essay." That was on my photo-blog.

I said this on *this* blog: "Clearly, I have somewhat altered the purpose of this blog, by mere fact of this post. Who knows what it will bring."

I started this blog to document my family story. I stopped because I got a computer in which to store my family story and because it was difficult writing and delving into that story in such a public environment as a blog. The blog started becoming about race and identity - because that's a key theme in my family story. Then it kind of evolved (devolved?) from there to be generally about me - this was the fault of writing some things about LAW. I'm not quite a Blawg (law-blog) - nor do I want to be - but I am a law nerd and I do love the law, so I think about it a lot. And sometimes, I just needed to shout out about the law. I think the fact that I started writing about books also drifted the theme of the blog away from race and identity.

I still am very interested in race and identity; it's just hard work thinking about those issues all the time. And somehow (and so far), in the UK, it's less of a concern. Perhaps this is because I AM a foreigner here. So whenever anyone asks me where I'm from, Australia is the answer. And people permit me to respond with 'Australia' (they're kind like that). They don't proceed to ask me where I am *really* from (not like in Australia ...). I am not bothered about clawing for belonging here, because I do not belong. I belong elsewhere, but the clawing there has been suspended.

Rather, I continued with the blog because it was a wonderful exercise in writing, and I let more of myself onto it. I think if you read this, you know me pretty well. I am still reasonably careful not to reveal too much (ie. my address), but sometimes I wonder about the extent to which we are worried about privacy.

One of my greatest bugbears is when a client won't tell me something, using rights-wielding words such as "that is my private information." I have no qualms explaining to people WHY I need to know the answer to the questions I am asking. I have a duty not to go blabbing about their personal affairs to all and sundry, and, indeed, I have a duty not to even tell anyone that they have come to me for legal advice. I want to scream at him/her: I am your legal advisor: you must tell me everything that is relevant (and I am a wee bit better placed than you to judge whether it is relevant). So can I have that information now please? It's not me pruriently prying into your private life. It helps me to advise you fully - and you do want that, don't you? Because I don't want it to come out in court and have me standing there smacking my forehead for not knowing about whatever it is that was oh-so private.

I wonder how 'private' such details as my home address or phone number actually are, when I tell you in florid detail how I feel about a book, or how an individual has treated me. Surely my thoughts and feelings are more private than my contact details? But I don't intend to reveal my contact details. *I* have consented to revealing information about myself. But the people around me have not.

I am also reasonably careful not to write about my employer, or my clients (except to rant in a general way about their existence). I am careful when writing about my family, and friends. And I let my partner vet anything I write about him.

As I have said before, I consider myself to have a digital persona: she has bits that are more exaggerated, or under-emphasised than the me-in-real-life who gets on with her daily life: her household chores and her paid work. We are the same person, but our representation is slightly different. Equally, my representation alters depending on whether I am in a social environment or a professional environment, or with my family, or with my partner. We're all me, but I'm not a lawyer when I'm with my parents, and I'm not an aunt when I'm at work (except that there's a picture of one of my adorable nieces on my workspace). The digital environment is just another place where, though I am still me, I won't behave as e.g. Oanh Lawyer or Oanh Girlfriend.

I did discover that as I wrote, my categories and labels became fluid. I could not really separate race, from law, from gender, from literature. They're all part and parcel of how I see the world, and how I want to explore that in my writing.

Ah, but I digress.

Why do I blog?

The pre-dominant reason is because it is structured writing. Of a different kind to what I do in my daily work, and different again from my dead-tree journal writing (although a lot more like it).

I don't have the kind of blog that tells you what I am doing and thinking moment-by-moment (because I find those blogs riveting for a while and then just mind-numbingly boring). Taken to the extreme, it's Twittering. Which is an inane phenomenon, according to toi (that's me in Viet - bada bam bada boom). I don't even have, anymore, a themed blog. It just is.

I do like each post to be unified - to begin, and to end - and to be *about* something (even if that something is mundane).

I also enjoy the phenomenon of the blogosphere - my commenters and the places I comment; how my thoughts are enriched and expanded upon by others; how things I haven't considered are brought to my attention. I love that I am connected to people all over the world from where I am: the obvious places (Australia, UK, North America), the less obvious but still 'I get it' places (Viet Nam, Malaysia, Philippines) and the bizarre: Uzbekhistan. Granted, the visitor from Uzbekhistan might have been a friend checking in on me while she was travelling - but I don't know that for certain. And my Uzbekhi visitor might not visit again but s/he found me! How did s/he find me? Did s/he get something of value or did s/he roll her/his eyes (just another Viet-Australian lawyer in the UK moaning and groaning about books, movies, identity, and law. ho hum.)

I have many more regular visitors than I have commenters. I am, naturally, very curious about them. Who are you guys? How did you find me? Will you stay? (This is not a plea for you to de-lurk. You are more than welcome to continue lurking; I don't mind. I lurk on plenty of blogs. I am curious though.)

But it is also the commenters in the blogosphere who have me the most worried. On my own blog, I'm yet to encounter trouble - but I'm worried about it. On other blogs, I occasionally get myself bogged down in the comment stream - you get sent off in all kinds of directions - and then you just have to stop. I find the endless comments exhausting. Like the moment-by-moment blog, I am initially riveted and then I am drained. Like watching a car crash, or a pub brawl: it's fascinating, but ultimately does not add anything to my character (or shames me with my own voyeuristic tendencies).

I also get worried about how my time gets sucked into the whirlpool of other blogs - what I like to think of as the Charybdis of the blogging world - and my own blog writing. I think of myself sometimes as Scylla - blogging monster of many heads, grabbing ships of inspirations and sailors of ideas, spitting them out again with vim and some venom. Sometimes, I am Ulysses (or any other mythical Greek sailor who did not make into the canon): I have to navigate a path between Charybdis (reading too many blogs, sinking and disappearing off the edge of the world) and Scylla (self-destructive castigation about blog writing).

I think there is value in blogs: the reading and the writing win out over the inanities, misinformation and time-sucker. But then, I'm biased - because I am a blogger and I think I'm here to stay. There is a world of rubbish out there: rubbish which is equally present in published media whether it be newspapers (here's looking at you, News Ltd) or novels or non-fiction. There is also a panoply of wondrous stuff - more than you will ever read. You find your place, like you do in the real world, and then you enjoy it, learn something and hopefully enrich others too. But the best part is: it's you who makes your blog world - you don't have to be a passive absorber of stimuli: you can create and participate. (I'm so Web 2.0.)

Inspired by Sophie at Sarsparilla, Pavlov's Cat, a snippet from a very brave post by Galaxy and as challenged by Cee, many moons ago.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Home Sick

I miss many things about Brisbane, my family being number one on that list. Inextricably linked with missing my family, I miss the food: my family's cooking, the proliferation of fabulous food places near my home, and the Green Market every Saturday.

I have been ill last few days. Given that we arrived in UK in the middle of winter and this is my first major flu-like illness, I've done quite well. But I woke one morning with the most horrific sore throat: each time I swallowed, it felt as if I was choking on razor blades. Behind my right ear, some cruel pixie was hammering away; all my muscles had liquified but, inexplicably, my joints had become rock-hard.

Everything I ate that day was like cardboard; chewing was a chore and swallowing was distinctly unpleasant. When the food hit my belly, I felt queasy. For lunch I had a salad baguette, but the cursed sandwich-maker drowned my salad in mayonnaise. It was horrid. I passed the rest of my day in a moochy fuzz, which took my workmates aback as I am usually cheerful. I got two bad phonecalls in the late afternoon: one of which effectively destroyed my client's case; the other intimated that the next day would be a flurry of frantic activity in which I would need all my wits about me. I put the receiver down and put my head in my hands, tears pooling just behind my eyes (I suck at being sick).

The best way to deal with feeling so bad is to mock oneself; I wailed: I want my mum! My workmate looked over at me. Oh! she said. What brough that on?

When I am sick, I want to eat chao. Only one person makes it better than my mum does, and that's my eldest sister. When I was a wee thing, I often came home from school all scraped up - I got into a lot of fights. Occassionally, the whole household (me included) had to pull an all nighter to meet a clothes deadline (we were a home sweat shop). My eldest sister would cook up a pot of chao thit (meat congee) which we ate to keep us going, and so that Um did not have to cook a proper dinner.

I can recall quite clearly a particular occassion when I arrived after a rather unpleasant walk home and being told that I would have to neatly fold the mountain of cotton t-shirts in the living room. I was very good at looking pouty when younger (I still do a good line in pouts these days), so when my bottom lip stuck out and my eyes got all mournful, my eldest sis said: There's chao thit in the kitchen. Get some and then come help.

I sat myself down at our octagonal dining table with a large bowl of chao and a porcelain spoon. The rice had been cooking all day and was a soft gelatinous mess intermingled with pinky grey gems of pork mince and dark green rectangles of thorny cilantro, slices of spring onions and sprigs of leafy coriander were liberally sprinkled on top. I added pepper, chilli and soy sauce as I went. Each spoonful revived me. I said to my sister, who was working nearby: I don't know what you put in this. It's like medicine. Um lovingly turned my words into a family anecdote: it is about her appreciative youngest daughter, and her skilled eldest one.

That is still my iconic chao memory. Every chao I eat now is an echo of that perfect bowl: little me at a table, legs swinging and my petty woes peeling away from me as each spoonful of hot, nourishing mushy rice slides down my throat, filling my belly with comfort and love. If anyone got sick, chao started simmering alongisde our usual dinner. We also had chao as late night suppers. There were many video nights that my siblings and I had when we were in our teens, which comprised chao in between b-grade horror movies and Hong Kong martial arts flicks. We got fancy with our late night chao: it became chicken chao, fish chao, crab chao - anything we could think of to add to the pot got thrown in. Some worked and became family standards; some were salutary lessons in mixing flavours.

None of the chao that I cook ever tastes as good as Um's or my eldest sister's, but it's what I make for myself when I'm feeling poorly. The best chao is made with leftover rice. Because I do not eat rice everyday, I have to make chao from scratch*; I'm too impatient for it to turn out the mushy consistency I like, and that is so wonderful on sore throats. Often, I make a clear soup instead - but it's chao that I really want, and chao that will heal me.

* There's a Viet word for uncooked rice, that distinguishes it from cooked rice. I am not sure there is an English equivalent.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Belated BIFF 2006 Round-up

Well, the time draws nigh when, if I were in Brisbane, I would be getting all excited about another BIFF: Brisbane International Film Festival. Seeing that I won't have the opportunity to see any BIFF movies this year, I shall mark the occassion and dampen my nostalgia with this extremely belated post.

Let me start with our selection process. You see, BIFF runs for 10 days and shows “more than 200 films” (from BIFF's promotional). I have been doing this ever since I turned 18 (some of the movies have not been classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification – Australia's resident censorial board – and so one must not be of tender years and disposition to watch). My first ever BIFF, I saw five films. Each year, it increased as I got more money. Then, for my 21st, my delightful family got me a you-can-go-to-every-single-session Gold Pass. Plus they gave me some spending money so that I would remember to eat, too. Most years, I fall sick following BIFF – too many late nights, too little food = immune system kaput.

The very first thing to do is ascertain what you can afford money-wise and time-wise. These days, money is less of an issue and time much more so. Back in the good ol' university days, it was the other way around. I keep telling myself that I will take my annual leave during BIFF – but it seems like such a waste. I'm just hanging around the city, after all.

Next, you purchase the BIFF programme. Sure, there's a free one – but it doesn't tell you anywhere near enough information to ensure a well informed and suitably discriminating choice. I nevertheless pick up a few of these free ones and drop them off to friends and acquaintainces; to encourage them.

Then, you make a list as you read the programme cover to cover. The list should have three symbols (you may chose what symbols you wish, but I prefer the following):-

* - must see

@ - really want to see

~ - want to see

The way I ascertain my must sees / really want to sees and want to sees is a combination of factors: director (very important), whether I predict wider distribution, country of origin, synopsis, reviewer. No one factor takes precedence over another. Although predicted wider distribution will usually rule out a film pretty quickly.

Last, you try to convert your list of movies into a workable timetable. This is the tricky part as you juggle clashes and (sigh) working the 0830 to 1800 grind. In 2006, we had the aid of a spiffy Excel spreadsheet – colour co-ordinated and all.

I have a few film buddies, and they sometimes derail my choices. This is okay – it's part of the fun. One of the joys of BIFF is being told by a fellow film buff, or even a complete stranger, how great a film was, and when it's next on. Then the balancing act of whether to remain with the well thought out timetable or throw caution to the wind and exchange tickets. I've seen some real gems in the 'throwing caution to the winds' fashion.

And then, for about two weeks, you rarely eat at home, you rush from work into the cinema, from one cinema into another and then stagger home, exhausted from the visual and emotional stimulation. Then you wake up and start it all over again. Oh, and you have to drink plenty of coffee and eat lots of chocolate. Sadly, halfway through this year's BIFF I had to give up coffee. I was a tetchy zombie for a good part of BIFF.

But I suppose you are more interested in the films?

This is a list of my highlights.

I'll let you google the synopses and give only my impressions. If you saw / will see any of these, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The expected delights:-

- Jan Svankmeyer's Lunacy

I have loved Jan Svankmeyer ever since I first saw Conspirators of Pleasure. He has such a tactile appreciation of how humans interact. This one showed lots of slabs of steak and sausages rolling about and working their way to empty skulls to flesh them out, as a thematic structure for the madhouse goings-on of the plot.

- The Cave of the Yellow Dog

By the same director who made The Story of the Weeping Camel, this is another vehicle for a nomadic Mongolian family to show off just how incredibly cute their children are. My favourite part is where the young girl – who is effectively the lead – keeps trying to bite the middle of her palm (part of a lesson her mother teaches her). “It seems so close, yet you cannot have it,” Mother says. And Mother is right.

- Everlasting Regret

By Stanley Kwan, he of 'Lan Yu' and 'Red Rose, White Rose' fame. Mesmerisingly shot, stylish and quiet – one gets a keen sense of the main character's desperation and sheer determination. You could compare it to In the Mood for Love if you were being lazy.

The quirky joys:-

- Executive Koala

A koala in a business suit, who works for a rabbit (also in a business suit), goes on a killing rampage in Tokyo. The finale battle scene where everyone revives, hugs each other and then fireworks go off is inanely delightful or delightfully inane. I'm not sure which.

- Princess Racoon

By Seijo Suzuki, who also did Pistol Opera, this stylised mythic opera with hip hop, blues 'n' roots and a fabulous ultra-pop duet is sheer aural and visual over-stimulation. And the golden frog that says “kerop, kerop” like all Japanese frogs do is hilariously weird.

- Men at Work

A Turkish film about four men who go on a drive somewhere (we never do know where), see a big phallic rock and decide it must be toppled. Their heroic attempts come to naught but they recruit passers-by in their obsessive quest, in the meantime revealing much about themselves. Wonderful dialogue.

The sublime films:-

- Into Great Silence

In 1982, the film-maker approached a monastery in Switzerland - Le Grand Chartreuse-, reputed to be the most ascetic in the world, for permission to film on location. The monastery said they were not ready and that they would call. More than a decade later, they do call the film-maker to say: We are ready now. With very little dialogue and intermingled with three repeating quotes, the audience enters the contemplative life. We watch monks pray, chop wood, have lunch and garden. And we watch them play on the side of the mountain. I used to want to become a hermit. This film only flamed that fire.

- The Play

Women in a village in Turkey decide to put on a play about their lives, and in the meantime explore facets of themselves and gain a heart-warming self confidence. Feminist consciousness raising in a very grass-roots fashion indeed.

- Book of the Dead

By a Japanese animator, this film could not be described as coherent, but was certainly beautifully crafted.

- Bashing

This film opened my eyes to a phenomenon I was unaware of: the approbation received by Japanese who had volunteered in Iran, were kidnapped and then released unharmed. Returning home from this ordeal, a young woman finds herself discriminated against: in her work, on the street, at a convenience store. She is spat upon and alternately lectured and ignored. An interesting exploration of ideas about selfishness and patriotism / parochialism.

- Death of Mr Lazarescu

A Croatian film about a man who is dying and trying to seek help. We are privy to the incomprehensible hospital bureaucracy, and its callousness. Being somewhat familiar with hospitals, it is sad to say that there is little difference between a former Communist country and Australia.

The Disappointments:-

- Terry Gilliam's Tideland (don't bother): some fabulously fantastic images. Otherwise a story lacking in something – I think it was heart, but it could also have been convincing plot (even within the surreal realm it established) or characters you cared about.

- Mongolian Ping Pong: could have been charming and just wasn't.Oh, and it took too long.

And the interminable:-

- The Neighbour no. 13: overwrought and meaningless horror, with an attempt to stuff meaning in.

- Longing: A German movie I can't for the life of me work out why I chose (director perhaps?); my partner insists that it was my choice and, unfortunately, I am honest enough to admit that it probably was. I have this to say in my notes, made during BIFF: Waste of energy. Should have slept.

- Corpse – in which I did fall asleep. You probably won't get the opportunity to (it is an Australian surreal film, made in the mid-70s), but if you do, avoid.

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