It was my father’s 67th birthday. What had brought us here? ‘Here’ refers not to one locality, but to a moment, streamed across seas and through internet connections. The term ‘Zoom party’ rang in my ears as I started the meeting. Faces of uncles I hadn’t seen in seven years popped up. I saw my elder brothers each with a beer in hand, and my father, sitting in front of the altar in our family home. Offscreen, boisterous discussions about what constituted the best piece of sashimi occupied my mother and sisters. Everyone, a drink in hand, as if to say– I am pausing the world right now. To say – it doesn’t matter we cannot leave our homes, we have this, and I feel it as you do – the frosted glass against the inside of my palm, we are holding hands and clinking glasses.
The call lasted six hours. My father dipped in and out the room, took cigarette breaks between pouring bourbon and cokes and laughing with the gallery when another person’s camera froze on an unfortunate facial expression. I felt guilty for being seventeen kilometres away from my family. Away from Canley Heights, away from the home that I had moved out of the year before. I wondered if my mother and father felt something similar, only instead they had thousands of kilometres to simmer on and 35 years of distance from their siblings and their parents’ graves and their siblings’ children and so on. My sister L was offscreen the entire time, and though I knew she was sitting on the couch, I noted the absence for how it did not feel like a happenstance, but an open wound. It is a difficult thing to have gotten used to not seeing her, but the sharp pangs have dulled. I guess it was as is so often called these days, ‘the new normal’.
L began having lower back pain in 2017. A year before, she’d tripped on an escalator and broke a bone in her ankle. I remember her walking through the front door with her jeans torn; dried blood soaked into the jagged rips that hung with the stiffness of burnt bark. Slowly, that bone healed in a way incompatible with the rest of her bones and sent shooting pains straight up her leg and to her back through the nervous system. The effect was both inward and outward; the arduous process of learning what it meant to live in a fashion that was apparently incompatible with the rest of the population; welfare support fixed with government notices that you are a burden.
I have discovered that my immediate family can be avoiders when it comes to their own health, much as I avoided dealing with my mental illness, or didn’t go to the optometrist until years after I knew I needed glasses. I use the word avoid, but truthfully, I suggest that each of us had our own impertinent self-interests that affected our capacity to see into the future, to try and turn off the route we found ourselves well along the way on. And because I can be cruel, I am determined to assert that we were conscious of all this, though I know most often we were not.
Now, I love to sit across an empty chair with my therapist behind me and talk to my young self or write an essay about a past grievance with a neat and happy ending. Tied up with a bow, I hold onto the idea that I am a better person. I think to ask my father about his past, but I do not. Was there a pinprick in time that foretold the way his life would turn out? This and that, did he see them coming? My sister, I wonder what she thought of those nights when she had to miss work. The increasing frequency of the days when she was bedridden, and we had begun to worry. And for each of us, what waves led us here? In all the unease, we know to say pandemic, or lack of governmental response, to speak of the unprecedented nature of all things, and this is true…oh my god is it true…but I am always looking elsewhere, into the ripples of return, into the rearrangement of moods and now ourselves.
I wrote that last paragraph three weeks ago, or was it four? I had a plan for writing this essay, one that would allow me to think about my sister, to ask these questions about what time had meant. The next paragraph was to begin like this: ‘By mid 2019, L had had to quit her job, and was bedbound the majority of the time.’ I think, I could cut and paste that line, save it for later in a new document called ‘SCRAPS’ or ‘TO ADD’. Methodical? Hardly, but now I’m thinking fuck you, you fucking ‘writer’ why do you need to talk about any of this? I am angry, I cannot stop swearing. I’m thinking, stop mining your family’s history for your self-aggrandising bullshit. I meander away from this. I come back. I let it go.
Two weeks after my father’s birthday, nine of my family members in Vietnam, all on mum’s side, tested positive for it, it truly being the thing I do not want to write out. Perhaps I think this makes it less real. There were eleven dot points in my essay plan, you know.
- START HERE. Cut to Dad’s 67th Birthday Zoom…etc etc.
- Bring the hallway in…etc etc.
It keeps going.
- The steam off the rice bowl… etc etc.
I asked my sisters whether I should call mum. I knew she wouldn’t talk to me. I know this because she was previously worried about my brother C. He lives in Vietnam too, and when the numbers went up, I rung her. She cut the call short. Her voice broke just before the phone clipped. I can’t write sentences longer than this.
I want so badly to focus on the hallway where my family lives. If I were standing in the hallway, I would see (notice the use of subjunctive here, inflections of hope and fear and guilt) everything I’ve missed. I would see the chair, the table, the worn-down chopsticks. I would see quivers on lips. We wouldn’t use them to speak about anything or that or this or something else. I would listen for my mother calling down the hallway for a cup of tea, and a cup of instant coffee (two packets), and a thermos of warm water, and another thermos of a different tea. When I was living with her, I would get so frustrated. Why that much caffeine at nine at night? It’s not good for you. Now, I would say yes as if our lives depended on it.
Tell me I’m being dramatic if you wish, that’s alright. In Maria Tumarkin’s book Axiomatic, the essay ‘history repeats itself’ stuck with me. She writes:
In front of me is time. Time is not a river. It is two strangers on a train whose briefcases touch as they hold each other. Two men who’ll never ride the same train again.
And a little while later:
Stars rain from the sky like shards of glass. Time makes room for timelessness. Creation is always a catastrophe, a shattering. Everything has already happened. The past does not move through the present like a pointed finger or a shadowy confessor in a long cloak. The past is not told you so. Not this is how it all began. It is a knock on the door in the middle of the night. You open the door and no one is there.
It is simple in these ways. The Zoom call was significant because it was the first time my dad and his siblings had spoken as a group in years. Will you believe me when I say it was something beautiful, something untouchable, not at all like those oafish Optus television commercials? Not seeing my sister L hurt because I miss her, and I know she isn’t as well as she wants to be. Mum got wasted on two red wines which she sculled down and then had to be taken to bed and it made me proud to be her daughter. These are the moments that keep living over time. Not what age my father was turning, or the name for what L was living through, or the fact that mum wouldn’t have felt this carefree if it had been two weeks later. I’ve curled my fingers over these images, and they’ve become so precious, approaching a status of liquidity, softening within the warmness of my mind. I mean to say as Gaston Bachelard says about a house, that ‘in order to live in it, great elasticity of daydreaming, a daydream that is less clearly outlined, are needed’. I’ve imprinted a crux into time, and I keep it tightly wound in Morpheus’s dew so that I am closer to them.
I made a short documentary for a university assignment about how my parents met. An exercise that seems youthful to me now. To a score of Erik Satie’s Gymnoédies, black and white stock footage of building rubble plays between fuzzy images of my father and mother, while I narrate with sorrow the artifices of the story. Mum and Dad meet in a detention camp in Vietnam after each board boats to escape the country. They fall in love. Dad finishes his three years first. Mum, only on her second, escapes the camp by hiding in a passing-by farmer’s truck and travels to Dad’s ancestral home. They get married. They have my sister H. Six days after the birth of L, Dad boards a boat and time happens and then two years later he is in Australia and four after that he sees L for the second time as a six-year-old in a shiny yellow áo dài, lying on her back atop the luggage trolley with her hands behind her head. They have my brother C. They have me. We move to Sydney. We are in a home. We are happy, and other times we are nowhere near happy. It truly is an incredible story. I am in this university classroom telling it. I get a high distinction, and when I think of it now, I cringe at the memory of adding the black and white filter because I knew it would work.
The story of my parents as Vietnamese migrants is not all that has defined them. Though, as the rhetoric goes, the shared history of migrants wanting more for their children provided the pathos needed for me to remain engaged in my schooling. I’ve understood throughout the years that this went deeper than a sacrifice to be rewarded. It was a vision of bliss, a daydream of a house filled with degrees, loyal children, and a restful life. I drift off with this thought and think it may be naïve to imagine anything this way. I am hesitant of neat endings in the face of fear. I know I have forgotten that restful doesn’t necessarily mean untouched, and realise I am being too precious about the journey of time. I don’t want anything to hurt us. I sense that I leave you thinking I am a filial daughter and a nervous sister, perhaps so inside this family unit I can’t see outside of it. Fragile in my care, desperate in my holding on; I think of lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We are All Looking for. I am a child, and in my hand lies a golden brown butterfly, trapped in a pool of yellow jelly, framed by a glass disc.
Ask me to swing around and pick another topic, I fall instead on place-making, on land, on the jokes I shared with friends as a kid about Mini Vietnam. I am thinking about how my parents and so many Vietnamese migrant settlers were able to create for themselves a community space, not out of sheer determination but through being afforded it by government policy, and with that came an assumption by the others of rootedness that stales and twists in on itself. The idea of that fixed home; what Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow call the ‘projection of a particular class, cultural and historical values.’ We all exist happily here (right?), once again in a way seemingly incompatible with the rest of the population. Last to get it, first to blame. A ‘multi-cultural hub’ as I learnt to call South-Western Sydney in my Year 11 geography class when my teacher circled via the over-head projector suburbs like Fairfield, Merrylands, Cabramatta, Liverpool, Bankstown and with her squeaky black marker labelled them all ‘CHINESE’. I locked eyes with the one other ethnic student in the class and we frowned in confusion. Didn’t have the words or the courage to bring it up.
See it for what it is instead. A melody, not without its dissonances, of one of Australia’s most linguistically and religiously diverse areas: a true global microcosm. Lebanese, Vietnamese, Greek, Chinese, Fijian, Assyrian, Filipino, and more and more and more and more. Locality extending beyond just simple place. Instead, it is a huge lasso of daydreams, of expanding the home and of seeing the future, and reifying the past all the same. My teachers never wrote the names of Aboriginal countries.
I am desperate. What about the hallway? Not just mine, yours?
Last week my grandma passed away from COVID. I must name it because that is what it is. Please do not ask me questions about it. I will tell you what I want and what I want to tell you is that it hurt, and grief must be knowing what to do with the love and care you have for this person and those around them. I hope it is.
My parents moved, as did many others to Australia during the 80s, to give, as this story goes, their children a better life. I imagine if I were to migrate somewhere else now, there would be sorrow, but alongside it, an excitement for strange new things, pushing only into the future. L once told me about a friend of hers who received a call from his mother while he was driving, she called to say that she had fallen in the house and couldn’t get up. He called the ambulance, and then sat bumper to bumper in traffic, crawling his way to his mother’s home. She told me this as if it were a horror story. Take that, amplify the traffic jam to near 7000 kilometres, and add border restrictions. It is a horror story.
Now in my grief, I think of the homes I’ve never been in. The one my grandma grew up in, or the one she bore and raised her entire family in. I think most of all about my Canley Heights home, and imagine myself standing behind my mother, watching her pray at the altar to her mother. Unable to touch, hold, to take down plates from the cupboard to pass to my father as he sets up an offering for the altar, I do what I can where I am. I create a small altar, with no photo as that would mean I cannot move or dismantle it, and I’m renting with my friends, and it is not home. I light three joss sticks, though my father says I do not have to. I then bow to put my grief somewhere. I feel it give form to the incense smoke, watch it disappear into the air, hope it reaches to the other side.
I think about my sister. I think about that Zoom call. I think, it is morbidly curious that I started this essay wanting to analyse the past, that now I am writing about present grief. Perhaps they go hand in hand. I’m sure this isn’t news. I’m young, I’m learning. I want to give as much as I can, I want people around me to care as much they can, for themselves, for others. I am desperate to see ahead, to paint by numbers on a clean white page. I’m sure a lot of people are, or I hope so. Instead, the present binds itself around the sufferer, there are always bigger forces at play, and we resist the scattering of our senses. We tighten the fulcrum to not swing so much, teetering to avoid remembering there are very nearly never any neat endings.
That’s why you look for the parts. 1. 2. 11. The ones that allow for a nostalgia that doesn’t grieve so much for a glamorised and vanished past but lets you see a future in the ripples of return, lets you imagine the world we’re able to live in through polyphonic vision. I run down the hallway, I enter a room, it’s not the same one my parents are in, they turn toward the door, they see me anyway. When the steam floats off the rice, I am watching a pair of hands set a bowl down in front of me. I call L and I tell her I miss her.
This essay was commissioned and published as part of a digital residency program for Western Sydney writers offered by the SRB and the Bankstown Arts Centre.