I started my creative writing course this week and the first task in class was to use exactly fourteen words to write a life summary. It was read out loud for the other four classmates and teacher to hear and critique. Gauging from responses and the requests for me to reread the piece, I would assume that I completely missed the brief. My husband suggested that it wasn’t ‘metadata’ that anyone could understand and that I was trying too hard (sigh).
Is it true? Tell me your thoughts (please take pity on me and be gentle, I’m still learning).
An ode to my children:
Two warm embraces,
two sloppy kisses,
causes walls to break,
darkness to fade,
Anyhow, my homework is to write a piece depicting a profound moment in my life, one that I would like to share and have critiqued in next week’s class. For the next six weeks, I’ll be sharing my writing pieces with you to read and enjoy.
A SLICE OF LIFE
I wiped the sweat off my brow with the back of my hand before tugging at the silk pyjamas that stuck to my body like second skin, feeling self-conscious. I was uncomfortable at the thought of wearing pyjamas for day attire but that was how the locals were dressed, and it was imperative that we didn’t stand out in the crowd.
“We mustn’t look like tourists or Vietnamese foreigners. The people will gouge us for every dollar if they sniff us out,” my mother informed me before we left my grandma’s shack, the humble two-room clay house where we were staying.
I took a deep breath, the cloying pollution no longer causing my lungs to seize, prompting a frenzied pull of the Ventolin puffer for relief.
“Daughter, hurry up! Don’t fall behind!” my mother admonished, not bothering to look over her shoulders as she walked ahead with my aunts and cousins, people introduced to me not twenty-four hours ago.
I trudged along, taking in the sights with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. There were street vendors wearing conical hats, squatting on both sides of the narrow lane, their baskets filled with readied merchandise for the day’s sale, hoping to make an honest living. Colourful rows of wicker baskets full of rambutans, longans, custard apples, durian and other exotic fruit not commonly seen in an Australian supermarket, lined the path. I’m stopped every few steps by a person wanting to sell their goods, haggling at a pace that I struggled to keep up with, despite being fluent in the language. I simply shook my head and avoided eye contact as I pushed forward.
My feet slowed to a stop as I saw several ducks laying prone on bamboo mats, feet tied, beaks opening and closing, gasping for their lives. My vision continued to be assaulted by distressed chickens crammed into lattice wooden crates, motionless and eerily subdued. Not a single quack or cluck came from these animals. I glanced away, tears threatened to fall, my throat felt tight, and the contents of my stomach wanted to make a second debut. I understood that these animals were food, but it was inhumane the way they were being treated. It felt wrong.
I turned to gauge my mother’s feelings, expecting to see her as shaken as I was, but her eyes swept absently over the animals and moved on. I felt upset that my mother was unaffected by the disturbing sight. The idea that this was a normal, everyday occurrence wreaked havoc with my sensibilities.
Nervously, I peered ahead to see what other atrocities I might witness. My mother had wanted to visit this market to get some groceries for the big family reunion. I had assumed we were going to a supermarket, like back at home, but instead we were at an open market.
The smell hit my nostrils before my brain could register the makeshift slaughterhouses. I pinched my nose to avoid the pungent odour of raw meat as my hand caressed my churning stomach. Carcasses hung on huge hooks above tables filled to the brim with different cuts of meat and offal. Flies feasted on the bloodied remains that were thrown haphazardly in dirty bins nearby. My eyes bulged at the confronting sight of mutilated pig and cow heads placed proudly as centrepieces. Thankfully, their eyes were closed. I got jostled and pushed as people bumped into my still and stunned form. The impact of seeing death was profound.
“Cousin! Why are you standing there like a stunned ass! Haven’t you seen a dead animal before?!” said my cousin Nga, her high-pitched laugh jolted me from my shocked state of mind.
I closed my slacked-jaw, embarrassed to have been caught unawares and being teased by stranger, even if she was family. I didn’t reply and continued walking. This was supposed to be my culture, my people, my family, but it all felt overwhelmingly foreign to me.
I could see my mother’s laughing face and bright smile, beaming with happiness at reconnecting with her lost family; the family that she had left behind when she became a Vietnamese refugee, the family that she looked upon with fondness as she reminisced on tales of the old days. It’s been eighteen long years of saving money to make this journey back. I was ecstatic for my mother, she deserved this happiness after all of our hardships. She was with her kin, this was her culture, her sense of belonging, her community, her happiness.
I was supposed to feel something being here, stepping foot on this land, being among its people. I needed to feel it; a connection, an anchor, an understanding.
Instead, I was a jumbled and conflicted mess. I was caught between two cultures. I felt the weight of my parent’s pressure to mold me into their perfect Vietnamese daughter; dutiful, meek, softly-spoken, and intelligent. Someone they could see married to a Vietnamese boy from a respectable family, with an equally respectable career. Someone to pop out a few grandkids, live nearby and be dependent on them for guidance and advice. In essence, I felt the pressure of familial loyalty being raised with the strong values and beliefs of the Vietnamese culture. I constantly tried to seek their approval and wanted to make them proud, for they had struggled and given up their home to give me a better life.
I felt guilty for not feeling the same sense of attachment to my heritage and wanting to adopt mainstream Western culture and ideals. I yearned to be accepted by my peers, to be considered Australian. I felt displaced and I didn’t feel like I belonged in either community. I was a vagabond.
How does one find their place in the world if they don’t know who they are, what they represent, feel connected to their culture and heritage, or have a sense of belonging to a community?
It was in the moments of witnessing my mother’s unadulterated happiness being among her community in her home country, that I forced myself to make a decision; be a drifter among both communities, forever feeling displaced or risk disappointing my parents and seeking my truth.
My own happiness was at stake.
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