Written by Mai Nguyen
5 minutes. It was 5 minutes into the date before he popped the question. ‘Where are you from?’
It doesn’t matter who asks me, whether it’s the catcalling tradie and his rammer on Kilburn Street, or the old lady on the bus with the wiry hair and too much lipstick. Every time I get hit with the question, I always hesitate approximately 4 seconds before I answer. I know they want me to say where I was born – Vietnam, in the vibrant, historical city of Hanoi. And after those 4 seconds, I do, and I always make sure to give them a smile as they start gushing about how much they love ph? or bánh mì.
Of course, I don’t really talk about how I’ve lived in Australia the majority of my life and I have more memories of this country than of my hometown, or how, although I am not a citizen here, this is my home, and even though I am a citizen of Vietnam, I don’t know if it is home. That lengthy sentence usually stifles people. Even the tradie.
‘Vietnam! I was born in the capital city.’ The Kensington Hill garden trail was a beautiful place for a first date. All sorts of objects from famous stories were tucked away in secret corners, like the Nimbus 2000 hanging from the fig tree, or the Narnian lamp post half-hidden behind the eucalyptus.
“Every time I get hit with the question, I always hesitate approximately 4 seconds before I answer…”
‘Oh, cool! I’ve never been overseas so I don’t know what it’s like. So, what’s it like?’ We stopped to sit on a log, right outside Bag End. I turned away quickly and smiled. It wasn’t going to be a typical ph? discussion.
‘It’s a pretty city. Lots of Vietnamese-French architecture. And the people are really lovely.’
I peered at him, sitting there in his Nike Airs and North Face jacket. His skin tone was almost the same as mine – pale, discoloured, and yet, anyone could tell he was White and I was Asian. Here I go again. This focus on skin, my skin, his skin, their skin, and how just because I was born in this skin, my identity has been shaped. It’s supposed to be an organ. Why can’t it just be an organ?
‘Well, your English is really good.’ He stood up and tried to open Bilbo’s door. It was locked from the inside. I wanted to be a smartass and say his English was good too, but I didn’t.
‘Thanks! I moved here when I was 8, and it’s been 12 years, so that’s probably why.’
‘That’s pretty cool. Can you speak Vietnamese then?’
A bougainvillea bush grew right next to the log, all magenta and pink. I rubbed a leaf between my fingers. It was soft, like Mum’s skin on the back of her hand. Grandma said all the kids in their war-ravaged neighbourhood thought she was a porcelain doll, skin white and velvety. Those same kids grew up to chastise my sister on the day she was born. Bronze and coppery and wrinkly, straight out of the womb. ?en, they called her. Black. A slight exaggeration, but Vietnamese aunties are good at that.
“This focus on skin, my skin, his skin, their skin, and how just because I was born in this skin, my identity has been shaped. It’s supposed to be an organ…”
Dad always said to ignore the haters. I always thought it was easy for him to say. His skin glowed chestnut, tanned and singed from the sun. But everyone loved it. A darker man looks strong and proud, they’d say. His skin was fitting to his name – Quang, which literally meant “the sun”. Maybe that’s why my parents believed it was fate that they ended up together. Mum’s name meant “the moon”. She glowed like ivory too.
‘Yeah, it’s more like Vietlish though.’
‘Oh, so like both in a sentence?’
‘Yep.’ The words didn’t come so easily. Our skin made me agitated. He sat down next to me, his Nikes touching my greyed Kmart shoes. He stroked his thumb against mine, soft and gentle. I looked at his hand, his long fingers, and the organ that stretched over them. Maybe in a few years, I’ll tell him that I was never nervous on our first date. I just never spoke because my obsession with skin filled up all the empty spaces in my body. It clogged up my stomach, weighing me down just enough for me to still breathe, but not fully live. It spilled into my larynx, blocking the words from coming out.
But that’s the thing. I might not even be here in a few years. There’s no way to properly plan for the future when you’re astray in an immigration system designed to kick you out. They don’t want us here, Mum always said. It doesn’t matter if I am an Honours student or I speak perfect English or I pay taxes.
It all comes back to skin. This organ, this layer of epidermis full of melanocytes. My skin wasn’t pearly like Mum’s or scorched like Dad’s. It was somewhere in between. Like me. Stuck in between my home and my home.
A gust of wind blew past us, churning the leaves on the dirt trail.
‘I love the wind,’ I said. ‘This is my favourite type of weather.’
‘Oh. Well, I hate the wind.’
I closed my eyes and imagined the wind blowing me away. Far, far away, past Buddhist temples and sausage sizzles at Bunnings and airport officers in uniforms and rickety bánh mì carts. Past Vegemite jars on supermarket shelves and cracked roads and towering churches and women clutching Louis Vuitton rip-offs bought from street vendors. I imagined it blowing me home.
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