Hauquan Chau on a cultural island in Sydney, Australia
Every morning, Mrs Tran walks a few blocks to the market with her daughter. She is 98 years old, and even after the accident she is out to enjoy the fresh early morning air in Cabramatta, a suburb in the northwest part of Sydney.
On this particular clear morning they see a man lying on the sidewalk, looking as if he were basking in the sun on Bondi Beach. But Cabramatta is miles from any open water. He could be dead or in a deep sleep. His eyes are closed, and he is sprawled eagle on the sidewalk. The daughter takes her mother’s arm and they walk around the man. She suspects it’s another drug user who passed out the night before, sleeping off the heroin. It’s no wonder Cabramatta Station also has a nickname, Smack Express.
Just past Friendship Arch, and on John Street, the store owners are raising their steel shutters and opening the boxes of fresh produce and hollering out in Vietnamese or Cantonese the specials of the day. For Mrs Tran, it sounds like home. She was born in Ho Chi Minh City, raised eight children there and immigrated to Sydney over 20 years ago. She is Australian by nationality now, but speaks no English; in Cabramatta, it matters not one bit.
In the food court, the tables are crowded with older men and women sitting in groups talking loudly with a drink in front of them. Perhaps they are reminiscing about their younger days back in Vietnam, or proudly announcing their grandchildren’s latest achievement. Every time she comes here, Mrs Tran is reminded of her husband, Mr Tran, who often spent mornings here with his friends, eating dim sum or playing Mah-jong. But that was many years ago.
After making purchases of fresh fruits and vegetable, mother and daughter make their way home. The man they had seen earlier lying on the sidewalk is gone. Perhaps a good Samaritan checked to see if he was okay, or he just woke up from his drug-induced sleep, looking for the next hit. Mrs Tran’s daughter, grown-up with her own adult children now, has other errands she has to attend to so she drops her mother off at her younger brother’s house.
Mrs Tran had eight children of her own. During the exodus out of Vietnam after the end of the war, she lost three of her sons in the South China Sea, presumably drowned or robbed and killed by pirates. The rest of her children also left Vietnam, seeking new lives afar in Canada, United States and Australia.
When she was 70 years old, after being sponsored by her children, she came to Australia.Outside of this three or four block area of Cabramatta, she is little aware of a foreign land where the people have a different culture and language, a continent filled with strange animals and plants. Since she came to Australia, her country, her nation is Cabramatta, a little piece of land that had been transformed into something familiar, something that could be called home.
At her son’s townhouse, she now spends most of her evenings in her bedroom. One night, fifteen years ago, she was out of bed, looking for the washroom in the darkened hallway. Perhaps her mind wandered that night: Where was she? Back home in Vietnam? How did she end up in the house with the large veranda overlooking the street? And where was everyone? Why was it so quiet? The next moment, she realized she was unable to move, her body lying on one of the bottom steps. Fortunately her injuries were not serious, and when she fully recovered the family decided to move her downstairs to the garage, refitted as a bedroom. Now, in the evenings, she is alone, and immerses herself with Buddhist literature, photo frames and albums, randomly packed with photos sent by her family from all over the world.
She takes out a photo, pointing to one of her three daughters, saying their names and then pausing as if to say something else but never manages to get the words out. She runs her fingers over some the faces, unsure of whom they are. A daughter? A granddaughter? The resemblance is there, but why can’t she remember? In the dim light, it’s hard to make out the details. She only has the photos and hasn’t met many of them for decades. The other problem is the people in the photos never age. Who knows if that young girl with glasses, the one with the bangs, is her great-granddaughter of her oldest son or in fact her own daughter back in the old country?
In the frames, there are photos of her and her late husband, who stands at almost six feet, in contrast to Mrs Tran, who is only five feet tall. His hair is swept back, revealing a large forehead. In many of the travel photos, he is wearing his usual attire, a brown suit, loosely fitted. He is standing beside his wife, both with the same bored expression on their faces, standing erect with arms both at their sides. Here’s one of them in Hong Kong with the neon signs jutting out into the streets as a background. And here’s one when they visited Canada, standing in front of the parliament building in Ottawa. Always with the same disinterested expression. No smiles, no gestures, no funny faces. Just an old couple right in the center, as if they were photoshopped from one backdrop to another.
After reading through some Buddhist scripture that tells her about what to expect in life and what follows after death, she comes out of her bedroom and into the living room. She squints her eyes as she adjusts to the fluorescent lighting. The white-tiled floors are bare except for the occasional set of shoe tracks or hair ball that blows past like tumbleweed when the front door opens. There is nothing on the walls for decoration, just an off-white colour that matches the colours of the tiles, giving the whole living room a septic look. The only decoration is a collection of metal models of airplanes on a bookshelf and Mrs Tran’s shrine to Buddha, with incense sticks and oranges stacked neatly in a triangular prism. There is also a sofa, a coffee table on which there is a stack of travel guides. Mrs Tran’s youngest son, Quang, is there on the sofa, rifling through a guidebook about Germany, just back from working at City Rail, occasionally glancing up at the television.
On the news, the report of a home invasion in this area do not seem to interest Quang as he looks at the pictures, with panoramic shots of isolated forests, and snow-capped mountains of the Alps. Little has changed since he moved into Cabramatta over 30 years ago. The needles scattered over the sidewalks or in the public restrooms are still there; the people on welfare are still waiting in line to get government assistance; the few young Asian males who thought life would be easier here are still choosing life in gangs rather than earn minimum wage as labourers.
Quang looks forward to his next vacation. He may go to Europe for two weeks. A constant reader of travel guidebooks and technical manuals, he’s travelled all over the world, and when he is back he fixes things around the house in his free time. The ceiling just below the upstairs shower is leaking. It will take more work for that job as the leak could be coming for any of the pipes that are criss-crossing within the kitchen ceiling.
In matters of love he seems to have failed, twice married and twice divorced. The first wife, a once meekly devoted woman who he had brought back from Vietnam, soon became empowered and decided to leave and head to bigger pastures to look for a better man than Quang. Perhaps she wanted to leave her past for good, away from Cabramatta that had always reminded her of where she had come from, a poor peasant girl in a small village just outside Ho Chi Minh. She must have noticed that Quang did not resemble the images of tanned men she saw on television every day. With a native-born, Caucasian Australian, she saw her future. The second wife, to the whole family’s resistance, was also sponsored from Vietnam by Quang, but she just as quickly left.
He’s shorter by a head than the Australian average. With just a halo of hair that curves around the back of his head, it makes him look older than his 46 years. The large-framed glasses make his eyes seem to pop out. And when he walks, his head sticks ahead, his shoulders hunched up. Physically and socially, he’s an outcast.
In Vietnam, where he often visits, Quang suddenly undergoes a transformation. He becomes a prince from a distant land, full of riches and affluence, to bestow his favours on the lucky maiden. With his aviator sunglasses and his Billabong polo shirt, he is the walking image of Australia. Although he grew up in Vietnam, he can no longer call it home. He is used to the comfort of life in Australia, to be able to pick a destination somewhere in the world and be there by the year’s end. In that, he fits the laidback lifestyle of Australians. But then when he returns to Australia he turns back to the short Asian man, who stands at the edge of mainstream culture, looking in, knowing he will never truly fit in.
At work, the gaps are even more noticeable. He works for the public train system, maintaining and fixing the signals. While his colleagues are talking about the weekend, their families, and just shooting the breeze, Quang is in his car alone, ready to go to the next job. On Friday nights, they ask him to go out for some drinks. But Quang says no, he is busy. He always says no.
It wasn’t always like this though. When he first came to Australia, like many immigrants, he wanted to be one of the blokes, to fit in, so at first he felt honoured to have been asked. But he soon realized his physiology did not fit well with alcohol, especially the large quantities of it that his colleagues consumed on Friday nights. The more he resisted, the more his colleagues kept pushing, trying to get him drunk, to join the union of drunkards, an initiation rite to be one of the guys. To be a true Australian it seemed was to be able to hold your own liquor. Unfortunately, Quang failed. He got sick most of time, or just passed out. After that, he turned down any and every invitation he got.
The only time he ever sounds excited about his job is when he talks about getting free rides on the trains. He could travel across the whole continent if he wanted with just a flick of his employee ID. Get away from it all: the job, the petty family feuds, the responsibility to his mother, and the constant nagging from his family to settle down, get married, and have children.
Now, he just works and goes home to cook and care for his mother. Late in the evening, when his mother is in her own room, he is in his with the television on, playing a Chinese drama or movie, trying to drown out the techno-music from the young couple next door.
At home, he fixes up the townhouse. The small backyard is littered with old furniture and tools haphazardly placed here and there. A hammer, a hand-saw, a pair of pliers, and other mislaid tools atop of cinder blocks or on the ground, covered with weed. A serpentine coil of barbed wire winds along the perimeter on the ground, all rusty and knotted. The fencing is made up of rippled corrugated steel that seems to have been pounded directly into the ground.
Cabramatta was always a stepping stone of sorts, a transit point. For many families, once they established themselves here, it would be time to move on, to more affluent whiter neighbourhoods, the first tentative steps into assimilation. Families who worked hard enough to climb the social ladder would not be considered fresh ‘off the boat’ any longer, outside the main stream Australian culture, but part of it with neatly trimmed lawns and lawn furniture. Suddenly, those families could talk the talk, pick up the slang, the accent (at least their children can), to progress from their humble beginnings to finally fulfilling the Australian dream.
But Quang, even after thirty years of living in Cabramatta, has no intention of moving. This is his home in Australia, and he considers himself more Australian than Vietnamese. But when asked what it means to be Australian, Quang cannot answer. For his mother, Mrs. Tran, to be Australian is to be able to take those steps to get from her home to the market, to look over old photos of a life lived through not only of war and lost, but also of renewal and birth.
One day, Quang gets an international phone call from his nephew, who plans to visit Sydney from Canada. His nephew asks him if it’s okay to stay at his house. Of course, there’s two spare bedrooms. How’s the weather? It’s getting a little cooler in April now. Is Sydney far from Ayers Rock? Yes, you’ll need to take a plane. Where do you live exactly in Sydney? It’s called Cabramatta, about 30 minutes from the airport. And the beaches? Are there beaches near Cabramatta? No, no beaches here. It’s far from the ocean. The closest beach would be Bondi.
Hauquan Chau has been published in the Best of Creative Non-fiction Vol.2, and is currently teaching writing at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.