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.

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