‘One taro milk tea with pearls, regular size, quarter sugar.’ The lady behind the counter squawks back my order. Her thick-rimmed glasses slip down, showing the red dents that they leave on either side of her nose. She dumps a receipt and fifty-cent coin in my hand.
‘Cám ơn cô,’ The fragrance of brown sugar syrup and black tea seeps into my nostrils. My fingers curl around the receipt so the coin doesn’t slip out. Her eyebrows lift, drawing horizontal creases in her make-up, which looks like hardened glacé icing. When I was in high school, my mother told me that women who wear make-up are sluts who don’t care about their study.
‘Ủa? Con biết nói tiếng Việt hả?’
‘Cũng nói một chút thôi,’ I wedge my backpack between the counter and my knee so I can stuff the change into a Totoro-themed purse.
‘Nhìn mặt con giống người Tàu,’ She shoves the cash register twice before it clicks shut. Everyone tells me I look Chinese. I have my Cantonese father’s almond eyes and trough-shaped chin.
‘Tại vì ba con là người Tàu và mẹ là người Việt.’ According to my father, người Tàu is a derogatory term that Vietnamese people use to describe Cantonese migrants in Vietnam. I use it anyway, since I can’t remember the proper word for ‘Cantonese’.
‘Con biết nói tiếng Tàu không?’
‘Cũng nói một chút thôi.’
‘Con gái giỏi thế.’
The shop tiles are smooth and shiny like grass jelly. The sepia wallpaper is plastered with quotes: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’ and, ‘All that glitters is not gold’. As I walk further I can see through to the back of the shop. Cylinders of jelly in yellow syrup sit on the tiles, surrounded by muddy footprints.
My ears bristle as a pop song blares through the speakers behind the counter. I recognise the muffled guitar riff and auto-tuned ‘heeeyyy yaayay oooh huhu.’ It’s Hari Won’s ‘Hương Đêm Bay Xa’. I remember watching the music video in high school because I thought that listening to Vietnamese pop would improve my Vietnamese. The music video starts in a café with an Asian boy trying to snap a photo of Hari Won without her realising. Hari Won and the boy start dating until she discovers that he is cheating on her.
The varnished wooden table wobbles as I place my backpack on it. An ode to coffee hangs on the wall:
a cup of coffee
shared with friends
is happiness tasted
and time well spent
I notice a girl two tables away staring at the coffee ode too. Her hair is dyed brown and looks like Hari Won’s, clinging to her sweater like spider webs. There is a large pearl milk tea in her hand. It reminds me of the girls back in school who drank Oak flavoured milk every day and complained about how hard it was buying clothes because even the smallest sizes in shops were too big. Meanwhile, I choked on papery lettuce leaves in the Year 12 common room, hoping that an all-leaves diet would deflate my protuberant belly.
The girl holds the milk tea against her face, changing the angle of her head with each tap on the screen of her iPhone. Maybe she is the real Hari Won. I peer at her face in her phone’s viewfinder. Her face is a round, yellow version of the singer’s, with the same A-shaped nose and double eyelids. She looks like the squirrels I fed salted cashews to when visiting my mother’s side of the family in Los Angeles. I tell myself that Squirrel must have ordered the ‘zero sugar’ option because there is no way that she can be so cute and small.
A lipstick drops out of her Michael Kors tote, which is an imitation because the ‘K’ is meant to face the other way. Squirrel hops off her seat to shove it back into her bag. She puffs her cheeks as if to tell me, ‘You didn’t see that – I swear I’m not wearing make-up.’ No-make-up make-up either turns out too shiny like hers, or so bare that there was no point putting it on. Her thick, straight eyebrows slant downwards like the sides of a roof. Her glossy lips make me think of hardened saliva layered like oil paint. My fingertips trace the side of my face, along acne bumps, which map out the area where my fringe scrapes skin. When I tied up my hair to eat dinner my mother cried ‘trời ơi, trời ơi, trời ơi’ as her black eyes followed the trail of pimples along my jaw.
The hollering of high school boys draws my attention to the front of the shop. I hear something about a xiao jie, young lady, in Mandarin. The boys are default characters in an RPG game, all lanky and tanned with short black hair and monolids. The collar of one boy’s sports uniform pops out through the top of his black hoodie. The second wears a tweed blazer over his navy sweater, which has a brown zig-zag pattern cutting through the middle. He acts like the gang leader, pushing the third boy, the shortest of the three, into the shop. Shortie wears an orange polo shirt, like the waiters at Phở Gia Hội, and black shorts.
Blazer plops Shortie onto the seat opposite Squirrel, then takes Sports Collar with him to a table at the front of the shop. According to my mother, Chinese boys check out Vietnamese girls as if they are appraising laptops lined up at Officeworks – their hands skim the shiniest ones before coming closer to examine smaller details like keys or scratches on the screen. She calls this ‘fluttering’ but her Vietnamese accent turns it into ‘flurttering’.
I look at Squirrel who flicks through photos of dolly Asian clones on Facebook. She flashes a smile at Shortie before connecting white earphones into her phone. Her foot waggles under the table as she stuffs the earphones into her ears. Squirrel looks like she’s used to this flurttering. Boys never flurttered around me. I tell myself that this was because I was too bận học, busy studying, to find a boyfriend, even though the ten smartest girls in my grade all had boyfriends. They lined up on stage to receive gold certificates for coming first in this-and-that subject at the HSC graduation ceremony, looking like a J-Pop girl group with their silky hair and flagpole limbs. Meanwhile, I squeezed the fat around my wrist, thinking about how unfair it was that some girls got to be pretty and smart. Three years later, I wait here for my post-exam bubble tea, too bận học to have found anyone to celebrate with.
I watch Shortie saunter away from Squirrel. Blazer tugs on his tweed collar before swaggering over to the seat beside her. He props one elbow on the table while rattling in Mandarin to his friends. All I catch is, ‘Qian… qian… qian.’
The cashier finally comes with my order. ‘O-kê, 飲, 飲’.’ Wait – she’s Cantonese too? She holds a plastic cup of taro milk tea with tapioca pearls. Her simper reminds me of my mother, a bobble head toy that giggles, ‘Your child is very good,’ and, ‘She must sturdy very hard!’ The cashier places the cup beside my bag. The condensation around the plastic makes a watery rim on the table.
‘À, 多謝– Cám ơn cô.’ The porous fabric of the bag massages my fingertips, numbing the skin. I stab the sharp end of the straw into the lid and drink, slowing down at the tapioca pearls. I must not choke.