The plastic chair is a Vietnamese cultural institution. If you’ve never seen one, then I am not sure if my description will do it justice. It has a square top with a hole straight through the middle and four legs of the cheapest plastic you’ve ever seen. It comes in a range of colours but the best ones are always red.
Some of the chairs are short and replicate that squatting height (good for washing vegetables over your garden bed). Others are tall (normal chair height) and require you to hunch forward so you don’t overbalance. It is cheap and versatile, and it goes with absolutely no one’s decor. It weighs almost nothing; it represents so much. It is an ambassador of Vietnamese street food; a loyal companion to all good phở. It is culture. It is nostalgia. Sometimes, it is even a makeshift bin.
For Vietnamese families in Australia, the chair is an integral part of community life. Lending a stack of chairs establishes a social contract that says: “let’s begin a back-and-forth of favours until one of us dies.” The survivor will then bring a stack of chairs to the funeral as a final gesture of goodwill (but this is also in case all of Springvale decides to show up).
I don’t own any plastic chairs myself and would have no idea where to buy them. For me, they serve a personal rather than functional purpose. They are cues; keys to memories I thought I had forgotten. One glimpse of that deep red (is it for luck? Prosperity? Longevity?) and suddenly I am on the streets of Sài Gòn, petrol fumes swirling around me. One glance and I am eight years old, huddled over a GameBoy while my uncle sings Careless Whisper on his home karaoke machine. I see tea ceremonies, funerals, family barbecues; the plastic is in my DNA. No doubt one day these chairs will fill the oceans, but for now they float through my memories weighing almost nothing, but carrying so much.
In the spring of 2011, my mother called to tell me my aunty had died.
“Oh,” I said before pausing a very long time. “Are you okay?”
I had on me at that moment approximately 90 Vietnamese words and none of them were condolences.
“Okay,” she said before pausing just as long. “Did you go to uni today?”
I said I had but I was lying. “Good,” she said, “can you bring some chairs when you come down?”
“The red ones?” I asked.
“Yes, the red ones.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll come at 5 o’clock.”
“Okay, good,” she said and there was another long pause. I reached for my 90 words again.
“I’m sorry that she died.”
“It’s okay,” my mother said. Then before I could say anything else, she was gone.
My aunty was the oldest of my mother’s siblings and when she died, she had already survived everything else. As a teenager, she had fled from China to Vietnam where she watched her country fall to the communists. In 1987, she and my mother’s family clambered onto a fishing boat in the middle of night to set sail for an uncertain future. A few years later she ended up in Melbourne's south east. It was there that I knew her.
I am exaggerating slightly when I say that I knew her. I didn't know her well. I knew what she went to church on Sundays and that she spoke Vietnamese with a Chinese accent. I knew that she didn’t smile in photos and that she kept her pension hidden in Danish biscuit tins because she didn’t trust the bank. I knew that she wore dentures and that she watched the Australian Open. I am fairly sure that she believed in ghosts.
I knew that she didn’t smile in photos and that she kept her pension hidden in Danish biscuit tins because she didn’t trust the bank.
After she died, I watched my mother clean out her room. Her drawers were full of clothes that had never been worn, all the tags still attached. The clothes themselves were not remarkable. Just a few polyester coats preserved for the sake of preservation. My mother put them in a pile to donate to charity. Then on a red plastic chair, she started another pile. These were the clothes that had been worn. This pile was small and it was made of shabby jumpers and homemade shirts. I could see where holes had been patched again and again. I ran my fingers over the sleeves; I touched the fraying seams. They felt so fragile. I tried to picture her in them but it was almost unbearable. I made an excuse and left the room.
Standing in the hallway, I thought about the red pocket I had been given that year and how I had squandered it on such frivolous things. I thought about the speeding fines, bubble tea runs, Transformers at the IMAX. I felt guilty and childish. I forced myself to look back at her things one more time. The afternoon sun shone through the window. The plastic chair was like a plinth, revealing the contents of a life barely lived.
When I was a six my cousin told me that my aunty had walked from China to Vietnam and met a witch who put a curse on our family. “That’s why she doesn’t have children,” he said, looking up from his Tamagotchi. I thought it sounded exciting, like something out of Deltora Quest. I asked her about it one afternoon.
“Tua Ee, is it true?” She was sat on a red plastic chair, the short kind, and she was tying bean curd into knots. She thrust a bowl into my hands.
“Either help, or go away.”
I dropped the bowl and ran. I never asked again.
The morbid curiosity I had felt was short-lived. Deep down I knew that her life was unknowable to me, just like my grandparents’ and parents' lives would always be. They never talked about history except in the odd mention of vague horrors: pirates, camps, the Tet Offensive. But these were only spectres and they lingered for merely moments before disappearing completely.
My life was not like theirs and could never be. I was born in Australia and all that I had ever known existed within its lucky boundaries. Their lives were split across continents with pieces held captive somewhere distant and unreachable. Our generational gap was real and it grew wider with each passing year. They did not want to bridge that gulf by sharing their stories. The past did not embolden them to.
As I grew older, I also realised that I was not blameless. I had contributed to the growing divide. The languages my family spoke were languages I was shedding, deliberately at first but then, completely by accident.
As I grew older, I also realised that I was not blameless. I had contributed to the growing divide. The languages my family spoke were languages I was shedding, deliberately at first but then, completely by accident. I was like other immigrant children I knew who had been raised on Cheez TV and starved of representation. Australian perfection looked like Dolly magazine and Home and Away; it sounded like Kylie and Savage Garden. I wanted to speak that language too. I wanted to answer my mother’s calls on the bus without drawing attention. Being multilingual did not make me feel accomplished and when my parents sent me to Vietnamese school on Sunday mornings I slept at the back of the class and resented them. On days I felt brave, I skipped class entirely and walked to the milk bar to spend my red pockets on Wizz Fizz. When my elders spoke to me in Teochew and Vietnamese, I responded in English. This happened more and more until one day—as if someone had taken them while I wasn’t looking—I realised that almost all my native words were gone.
Thank You. Happy New Year. Roast Pork. Sugar Cane Juice. These are some of the words I still know. Oh my God. Studying Business. Not yet married. Those I had to learn for special occasions.
Some of the phrases I knew were so ingrained that I spoke them reflexively.
“Hello Tua Ee,” I would say when I saw my aunty (always by title, never by name).
“Have you eaten?” she would ask. I would put my hand on stomach and nod. “I have eaten.”
Occasionally she would try to ask me something more specific. “What are you going to do when you graduate?” I would pause for a long time before shaking my head in defeat. I knew that I was too late. The ties that bind had come undone.
When my mother called to say that my Tua Ee had died I knew that my life would be no different. I put my phone in my pocket, climbed out of bed and went looking for the great stack of chairs. I had to move dozens of boxes to get to them because my parents are hoarders. I found a brand-new Tiger rice cooker, New Year’s Eve paraphernalia from 2004 and multiple VCRs. The chairs were in a corner covered by a huge bin liner. I unveiled them like a priceless statue at an auction.
That night, I drove to Tua Ee’s house with the chairs in the boot of my car. My cousins had already arrived and were smoking by the side of the house. They were adults but they hid their habits from their mothers, partly out of guilt and partly out of fear. Dozens of cars lined the street and people hurried back and forth carrying pots of food. There were kids running in the yard and I even heard my uncle laugh. Out of respect, no one tiptoed around the dead.
I saw people I hadn’t seen before and wondered where they had come from. I saw a man walk up the driveway with a stack of plastic chairs in his arms. Beside him, a woman carried rolls of thin white gauze. I recognised that these were rituals, but I didn’t understand them. At that moment, my mother stuck her head out a window and called my name. “Bring the chairs in,” she said, “more people are coming.”
“Okay, I’ll do it in a bit.”
I wanted to stall the grieving and the chaos so I lingered outside. I went over and joined my cousins in our ritual of keeping watch between puffs of smoke. Then my mother called my name again and I heard her outside-slippers approaching. We scrambled to hide what we were doing, but it was not enough. Through the lingering smoke I saw my mother shake her head from side to side. I was sure that she was going to yell. I was even surer that we deserved it.
Through the lingering smoke I saw my mother shake her head from side to side. I was sure that she was going to yell. I was even surer that we deserved it.
She opened her mouth and we braced ourselves. But then she closed it again without saying a word. Instead, she pulled up a red plastic chair and put on top of it a bowl of carefully sliced fruit.
“We saved the sweetest fruit for you,” she said.
I sheepishly reached for the 90 words I knew. “Thank you”.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
But it was not nothing. I looked down at the bowl, while her silence still ringing in my ears. The red chair framed it in perfect symmetry. It looked like a painting in a gallery. All of a sudden, I wanted to cry. Each piece of fruit had been cut so carefully that I could picture her with a Kiwi knife in her hands, jade bracelet knocking against her watch.
Maybe it was the selflessness of her silence. Or maybe it was because I had seen her sacrifices a million times before and never recognised them for what they were. But they were the language we still had in common; one that I understood. Her gentle gestures spoke so lovingly. I only wished that I deserved them. So I picked up the chair in my hands and brought it closer. It was so light. It weighed almost nothing. In that moment I saw it for what it was: an anchor to a place I knew I would not inhabit forever.
Amy Duong is Highly Commended in the 2020 SBS Emerging Writers' Competition.
Roots: Home is Who We Are (Hardie Grant) is on sale July 28. The featured writers include: Alana Hicks, Nadia Johansen, Amy Duong, Nakul Legha, Karla Hart, Sita Walker, Jason Phu, Trent Wallace, Tania Ogier, Miranda Jakich, Bon-Wai Chou, Prateeti Sabhlok, Amer Etri, Cher Coad, Sam Price, Rosie Ofori Ward, Lal Perera, Monikka Eliah, Serpil Senelmis, Margarita D'heureux, Maha Sidaoui, Kaye Cooper, Esmé James, Naeun Kim, Jackie Bailey, Michael Sun, Caitlyn Davies-Plummer, Hugh Jorgensen, Dianne Ussher, and Courtney Theseira.