My neighbour’s succulents lie sideways on the floor, the soil making messy arcs on her WELCOME mat. I leave home with the usual shopping list: hard vegetables, milk, random shit from Target. Google Maps says I’m 1.8km from Target, the furthest shopping destination from my place. I start listening to Vietnamese Bolero, my mum’s favourite music, while making my way to Northbridge. YouTube features a low-budget ad for mums trying to teach their children the English alphabet before playing Thiên Duyên Tiền Định: the song is about a man who poses as a fortune teller to tell his love interest that her fate is to marry him that year.
In Northbridge, posters featuring virus clipart images and the message DO NOT PRESS THE BUTTON wrap around a traffic pole between Yong Tau Fu and Grab N’ Go Convenience Store. Usually, everyone starts with wanting to do their bit in the COVID-19 crisis and leaves the pedestrian light to go bip… bip… bip… The red and green lights for cars keep alternating, the other three pedestrian crossings’ green men flash. This one stays red: bip… bip… bip… Eventually, the person waiting before me stamps the button. Today, the frustrated pedestrian is a Vietnamese woman with a pram. Her elbow hits the button, ‘cái đèn này có bị hư không?’
I mentally rehearse my answer to her: không nó vẫn bật lên được. Em thấy nó chớp chớp một lần. The last time I spoke Vietnamese was with my mum two months ago. She was telling me that the Vietnamese population in Northbridge were recent arrivals because tiếng Việt của họ xấu và không đúng. Apparently, they use ‘Chinese-sounding’ words like siêu thị instead of thực phẩm which she thinks are ugly and wrong.
The woman at the traffic light glances at me, then looks down at her baby. I want to speak Vietnamese, a way of saying, ‘don’t worry, we’re in this together.’ What’s this though…? This is the time I entered a café on this street and a man ran out screaming that he didn’t want to catch coronavirus. I open my mouth—no, my diacritics might get muddled. That’s what happens if I haven’t spoken Vietnamese for a while. My Vietnamese-speaking capacities recalibrate after a few lines but if she hears my messed-up accent, she’ll assume I’m a whitewashed Asian who doesn’t care about our culture.
Eventually, the woman with her pram and I jay-walk, quickening as a car begins veering towards us. I guess asking a stranger about traffic lights is weird. Our pedestrian light flashes green but only after we’ve already finished crossing. The woman powerwalks ahead of me. I glimpse her baby’s blonde tufts.
Pottermore was onto something when it assigned the mole as my spirit animal. I use Perth train station as an underpass connecting Raine Square and Target. There’s something about train stations that eases me. Back in Sydney, I worked as a customer satisfaction surveyor for Transport NSW. In Central Railway Station, I dashed with my clipboard, pretending I was in the chase scene of a spy movie. My adversaries would never catch me. I knew all the express tunnels and obscure fire stairs as well as I now know the cracker range across Woolworths and Coles. Understanding a place that can seem like a labyrinth to others makes hiding simple which is great for paranoid wimps like me. Even someone raising their voice to talk on the phone makes me jolt.
Down here, I’m shielded from the weather and potential harassment from homeless people and self-proclaimed messiahs. Rowdy people don’t use the station as an underpass: too many security guards and cameras. It’s especially good for times like these, when people are apparently spitting at Chinese-looking people for dragging COVID-19 out of the underworld with their dirty unhygienic practices.
Personally, I haven’t seen any anti-Asian incidents. I blend in with the other Northbridge Asians. Wherever I am, I always end up in the Asian precincts: Sydney’s Campsie and Marrickville, Lisbon’s Martim-Moniz and now Perth’s Northbridge. It must be a self-protective camouflage instinct.
After ascending the stairs two-steps at a time, I find myself staring at the Target sign: once again, my body has decided to tackle the ‘random shit from Target’ first.
Random shit from Target includes $3 jelly soap and an ugly shell necklace which I ‘thought I could work with’ because it was on SALE. I sit along the wall in my apartment scrolling through the Bolero playlist. I look out the window to see an enormous mountain on fire, only to realise that the fiery mountain is actually the sunset glowing through clumped trees.
Office building spires light up a darkening sky one by one. This was the view on the morning of WA’s border closure. I fancied myself a character in—? A Kafkaesque drama? A Bolero track about separated lovers?
Lovers… Apart when I’m away from home, my interest in Vietnamese music increases when I like a guy. Maybe that’s why I’m so into Vietnamese music right now. The last person I hugged before social distancing requirements was a previous tutor in Sydney. He had crowded lower teeth like my sister’s and his speech always sounded muffled. We’d been discussing topics like psychology’s role in perceptions of low and high art since I was 19. After several years of one-on-one coffee outings and emails, I talked myself into liking him on the way home from a surveyor shift. I’d caught myself grinning in the train door reflection while thinking about an email-exchange about me becoming the Theoretical Psychology hen for future undergraduates. What’re you doing?! I had asked myself while struggling to pull the corners of my mouth down, smiling like a lovesick puppy? No, that’s a terrible idea—Wait! People might—!’ Too late. ‘People’ might take issue with his whiteness and our age gap, assume I’m a self-hating, gold-digging mail-order bride. Even YouTube seems to think I’m trying to teach Eurasian toddlers English at home. Maybe the acquisition of beauty items from Target is an unconscious anti-feminist impulse to pretty myself up for a dominant patriarchy he belongs to, my reawakened fascination with Vietnamese Bolero an unconscious attempt to orientalise myself for his white gaze—Maybe identity politics is playing dirty: no one can actually unscrew heads to inspect what anyone is ‘unconsciously thinking’.
I think back to my tutor and I laughing when I flapped my elbows to illustrate the ‘Theoretical Psychology hen’ point. Will I talk to anyone that way again? Emma Hazy Minami’s cover of Plastic Love plays. The music video’s actress Reina Triendl dances around her bedroom with an imaginary partner before slumping against the wall to think about the missing lover. We’re only human—I flit around the tiles with my hands on an imaginary man’s shoulders as Triendl does. Feelings are just feelings—my miming is terrible, hands slicing into the pretend-partner’s body as if he is made of gel.
Frances An is a Vietnamese-Chinese-Australian writer born in Western Sydney. She is currently living in Perth to complete a Psychology PhD on corporate misconduct (LinkedIn).Copyright © 2020 Frances An.