According to Ba, my biological imperative is to marry and have children. I was dozing before this, but his words shake me up. His voice travels far: he and Ma are having their morning conversation with condensed-milk coffee at the back of the house while I’m in the front, but it sounds like he’s shouting in my ear. Quit writing. Get married. Have babies. That’s an order, Daughter.
No directives from Ma. She prefers hijacking conversations with reminiscences of Auntie Mai’s daughter’s engagement party. Never mind that it happened three months ago, Hien looked stunning and have you seen the photos?
Up they go onto the forty-two-inch plasma screen so that Hien’s face is bigger than all of the family portraits, bigger than the big Buddha painting that hangs above the ancestral altar. She’s wearing a white aó dài as if playing the blushing Vietnamese school girl, but her hair’s fluffed up and the blush is unnatural, more eighties bride.
‘Isn’t white for mourning?’ I ask after one showing.
Ma grows prickly: ‘No! White is colour of purity and innocence, like perfumed lotus growing out of muck!’
I think back to when Ma had found contraceptive pills hidden in a shoebox. She waited until I was puffy-eyed and shivering and sprawled on the bathroom floor after my break up with my Chinese-Malaysian boyfriend before rubbing the shame into my face. Whore. You’ll never wear white. No one will marry you now.
This memory I keep to myself. Instead, I look to the dog. ‘Wah, Dog do what?’ Boxer, our bilingual dog, makes sad eyes at me. He thumps his tail once and flops onto the carpet.
Hien has never had a boyfriend before, let alone a fiancé. It was the only respite I had from her, the prime example of the overachieving, dutiful Vietnamese daughter. Despite her private school scholarships, her perfect Year Twelve scores, her Distinctions in Medicine, her volunteering at youth groups, temples, and nursing homes, her humility, her civility, and overwhelmingly annoying amount of cheer, she’d spend Saturday nights alone, watching Pride and Prejudice, whilst I’d be necking boyfriends in the back seat of a dusty, red Corolla. I was better at attracting guys. They preferred the cynical Asian chick who danced and drank beer and didn’t have a health-science degree. None of them stuck around though. I didn’t care. Hien was still single.
When Hien finally found someone, ‘a nice doctor from Springvale’, Ma told me everything she had heard from the Vietnamese grapevine. They met on a country hospital rotation. He’d drive her back to Melbourne after work. She had dinner with his family every Sunday. His parents adored her. Who wouldn’t love Hien? I, on the other hand…I was getting fat.
She got engaged eight months later. Ma announced it like it was the end of communism. She wore her best aó dài to the engagement and bought three potential outfits for the forthcoming wedding. I was lucky to get a grunt out of either of my parents whenever my work got published.
And now, Ba pours boiling water over the bitter coffee grounds and watches it drip through the stainless steel filter. He jiggles his legs as if he’s about to run a race. ‘Daughter needs to focus on securing a good Vietnamese boy and starting a family. She doesn’t have forever.’
I can bear it no longer. I head out into the kitchen. I reach into the drawer where Ma keeps her stash of Cadbury chocolate. I cram four squares of Fruit & Nut into my mouth, spitting out bits of foil. ‘Not birthing babies,’ I declare. ‘Anyone can birth babies. I’m going to birth a book.’
‘Eat too much,’ Ma snaps. ‘You think you can write book, ha?’
I ignore her. ‘Dog lives where?’ All three of us look out of the kitchen window. Boxer is asleep amongst the dirt and the daffodils, dreaming dog dreams. I want to call to him, but he looks so happy lying there in the morning sun so I let him sleep a little longer.