ZW14 – Second Place

Stephen Pham

You nod and look down as the shopkeeper speaks to you freely in Cantonese. You walk out of the store clutching your can of roasted coconut juice, past the old ladies sitting on benches selling spring onions they pulled out of their backyards just this morning, past the duty-free shops for aspirational Asians whose houses have two kitchens and two living rooms, and past the bakery whose owner raised their eyebrows when you went past the other day, taking a drag from your cigarette. A small lady whose puffy cheeks have grown over her eyes rattles a tin at you. You glance at where she came from and recognise only the flag, yellow with three red stripes, pinned up on the board; the people and the places photographed are foreign to you. You dig into your pocket and drop a dollar twenty into the can. She turns away.

At work the next day, a man with wire-framed glasses and is pink as if his entire body were a scab that had been peeled too early, praises your grasp of English and tries to guess what country you’re from. You tell him you were born in the King George V Memorial Hospital in Camperdown, and that you have never left the country. He says that’s a shame, because Vietnam is so beautiful. He says that Thailand is a beautiful country too. He smiles as you drop crumpled notes and receipts into his hand. It’s hard not to think of that same smile on his face as his eyes drink in the bodies of poor brown children.

On your way home, you stop by an ATM. You examine the notes in your hand while fingering the holes in your shirt. You stuff the notes into your pocket. Your stride lengthens every time you check over your shoulder. You finally get home. All the lights are off. The flyscreen door has been broken for eighteen years; it clacks as you lift it with two hands and close it. You turn on the light in the kitchen and check inside the pot on the stove. The yellow cabbage leaf looks gummy as it floats about with bits of carrot and beef mince that has been in the freezer for months. You replace the lid.

At the end of the dark hallway, there is a door, slightly ajar. A strip of blue light radiates from it. You knock once. There’s no reply. You open the door, and the smell of eucalyptus oil rushes at your face. Your mother is twisted around the special pillows that she’s bought for her legs, her back, her neck. Among the nail clippers, auto-massage tools, and empty vials of dau xanh on the red vinyl chair next to her bed, you place the wad of bills.

Later, you are lying on your $100 mattress, its wire frame broken, jutting into your ribs. You turn onto your back, your hands folded across your stomach. You realise you’ve forgotten how to say ‘father’ in Vietnamese. You tuck the faux-mink blanket with the Mickey Mouse print under you and wish you had a doona.


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