The view from here: Shirley Le
Stories from Western Sydney
Cô Trang's housewarming party
CÔ TRANG AND her husband, Chú Triều, had put their redundancy payouts from their seventeen years at Australia Post into building a red-brick McMansion in Berala. It was the Australian dream on roids. All the other houses on the street – fibro, white, square – looked like forgotten Lego pieces tossed from a toy mat. Mum and I walked along the footpath where dandelions scratched at my ankles. A pair of battered Converse hung from the power line by the laces, swaying against the cloying heat. It felt like a storm might crack the sky apart by five o’clock. The McMansion looked like something out of Neighbours, but you knew it was Vietnamese from the pungent smell of nem nướng (ground pork smothered in fish sauce and garlic) streaming from the windows and the mountain of shoes that lay on the welcome mat. Once we were inside, I made a beeline for the lounge room.
There were three white gummy bracelets and a thick black silicon band bearing the words ‘No Pain, No Gain’ wrapped around Teresa’s wrist. The rest of her outfit had the same watered-down emo vibe: black cargo pants and a camo-print crop top with spaghetti straps that showed off her hipbones and clavicles. I sat next to her on the suede sofa. A thin film of plastic covered the whole thing and I was scared to move around because every time I did, it sounded like a fart. Everything had that new-car smell that made me feel nauseous. Teresa looked as shrink-wrapped as the sofa, with acne-scarred skin pulled tight over her cheekbones and jawline.
‘Even the fuckin’ TV is wearing a condom.’ Teresa pushed her jagged fringe out of her eyes to get a closer look at the red velvet obscuring the widescreen Panasonic.
‘Where did you get your lenses from? Your eyes look like gemstones,’ I said to her.
‘Thanks babe.’ She inched closer, her French-fry fingers still holding her fringe back. Her breath smelled like stale Wrigley mint chewies. ‘I ordered them off Pinkyparadise.com. Bought like ten of ’em. That was a week’s worth of my Priceline shift money gone in one go. Oops!’ Then she let go of her fringe, scooped all of her hair in a fist and pushed it over her right shoulder. The bones in her left shoulder and chest jutted out from her skin in parallel lines. There was also a fine layer of hair growing all over her arms. Her black hair and amethyst eyes reminded me of Homura Akemi, a character from a Japanese anime series called Puella Magi. Last Wednesday night, after binge-watching the first ten episodes, I looked up each character’s profile on Wikipedia. It was four in the morning. The only sound outside my house was of the train galloping out of Yagoona Station. I squinted into my laptop and murmured at the screen, ‘“Homura is known for being unnaturally good at everything she does, including academics and sports. This makes her instantly popular, even though she is cold and demeaning towards others.” Whatever, booorriinnggg.’ I jabbed the escape button until the screen went black.
‘RA ĂN, RA ăn!’
Time to eat. There were good acoustics in a spacious house like Cô Trang’s. Four oldie females, Cô Trang, Cô Tuyết, Cô Hằng and my mum, were calling us into the backyard. Teresa and I walked to the kitchen area where all the women were cutting up thịt heo quay – roast pig. All the oldie males, five of them – Chú Triều, Chú Hùng, Chú Lông, Chú Tạng and Chú Khánh – were sitting on plastic chairs in the backyard, smoking and drinking VB under a fountain in the shape of a naked woman. Teresa and I were each handed a tray of food to bring out to the main table where the men were sitting. Teresa carried bò nướng lá lốt – beef wrapped in betel leaf – and I carried the thịt heo. The salty smell of the beef and the five-spice powder smell of the pork made me impatient. Teresa and I were allowed to eat when the adult females started eating and the adult females ate once their husbands started eating. I yearned for the feeling of that crispy pork skin cracking against my teeth. Mum never let me eat the fatty bits of skin but today I was going to sit next to Teresa and there was no way my mum was going to tell me off for eating in front of her. Last week, Cô Hằng came over to our place and saw me scoff down two bowls of rice after school. She praised me and suggested that I come to Cô Trang’s party so that Teresa would be encouraged to eat more.
Teresa and I walked barefoot down the tiled stairs and reached the men under the fountain. I glanced over at Teresa and found her balancing the tray on one hand. The other was covering her nose as if she was carrying a tray of dog shit.
‘Chaaaaa, cái gì đây? Ngon quá ha,’ Chú Hùng smacked his lips, either at the trays of meat or at us, I wasn’t sure. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin was the colour of sliced beetroot. ‘Teresa and Shirley hả? You plus you, divide by two make the perfect girl!’ He slapped his thigh and his laughter lead the chorus of donkey hee-haws from the other four Chús at the table.
The top of my cheeks, right under my eyes, started to heat up. I plonked down the tray of food as fast as I could. I wanted to tell this guy he had a face like a scrotum but he worked on the same shift as my mum. How would she face her friends for raising a hỗn daughter? I was already fat, could I afford to also be rude? I turned around to scuttle into the house. Teresa was standing behind me with the tray of bò nướng lá lốt still balancing on one hand. Her back was straight and her lips were tightly closed. Her other hand was clenched in a fist beside her hip, which she suddenly pounded against the bottom of the tray. The fifty pieces of bò nướng flung into the sky and rained down on the Chús’s heads like shrapnel.
Shirley Le is a member of the Sweatshop Writers Collective and has a degree in Media from Macquarie University. She has worked in radio, producing youth shows for SBS Vietnamese Radio, and has curated events for TEDxYouth. She won first prize in the ZineWest 2014 Writing Competition and has been published in SBS Online, The Big Black Thing and The Lifted Brow. She is the recipient of the 2017 WestWords CAL Fellowship and has performed her writing at the Digital Writers Festival, Wollongong Writers’ Festival and Sydney Writers Festival.
Photography by Bethany Pal.