Cabramatta by Vincent Lam

First of all. The Nineties and Cabramatta meant pork rolls and chicken rice, at least for me anyways. It meant science existed in schools and never at home where mum’s word was law, and hanging out meant Happy Cup and Red Lea chips. Sounds mundane and quite unreasonable right? Still, it’s a period of my life I’ll never forget; the place that is home.

In those days, life meant getting the right grades (and if you haven’t heard about Asians before, A+ is the only acceptable grade). Death meant not achieving this passing standard: simple black and white. It’s the weak meagre you against the shoehorn-armed parents (shoehorn can vary depending on what’s most accessible at the time). It was never explained well, and usually forced upon someone who never truly understood the blind chase of accurate calculations, and drilling of words. But perceptions changes as you grow old alongside those who’ve oppressed those childhood dreams; no son, being a writer won’t pay for your bills. If you’re lucky, the parental connection isn’t irreversibly damaged by time or by rage, and it’s not too late to share such appreciation.

Family is everything, you know?

That’s what underlies the community of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived here with nothing but their limbs. Those whose language skills (and I quote my dad here) are half a tank of shit, not fully mastering any due to the shifting environments of their youths. You can see it when asking around the older folk with an Asian-looking face. Watch as the Vietnamese that shifts to Teo Chew when you don’t understand, and the Cantonese and Mandarin that’s added to the mix after. Then the English that is pretty distinct to gulla-mut-da [Cabramatta]. It’s colourful. It really is, and it’s a bustling taste no child raised there ever forgets.

Even today, the aromas that make Cabramatta are very much alive. Just see the residue on John Street every night. Though the smells of pandan and coconuts are being pushed aside a little by whatever new food trends hit Newtown and Taiwan (it’s a race really). Have you had your Boba yet? Other than food though, it sometimes feels like we’re a small town where everyone knows everyone. Every second person hears gossips about every shop and would have comment about some bad deed here or there. It’s like the story of the Arthur Street sugarcane stall. Whispers say it karma for them to lose a son, selling a business, only to compete from a new store two doors down. You can sit on either side of this one, but everyone at the very least knows about it, some way or another. It’s because there truly isn’t much going on: just the occasional drug deal gone wrong and drive-by shooting, apparently. No biggie.

I guess the saddest thing I heard recently was about the grandpa who broke his hip walking home at night; a cold night, which held no mercy for the aged man. He was my dad’s friend who distinctively rejected a ride home that particular evening, opting for a more leisurely pace. Even sitting here, many kilometers away, I feel it. The emotions that somehow channel to the children of such a place, carrying these sentiments to wherever we wander. Like our parents, the world is just another trip away, but memory instilled by this unique diaspora will always find a way to us as we explore new and novel experiences abroad. But there is one thing I’ll remember no matter where I go: one thing that persists no matter how many frequent flyer miles accrue. And that is the wholesome broth of pho that almost every damn shop there will serve (even though some were only average at best).

BIO: Vincent Lam wrote, “As an Australian Born Chinese, with some Vietnamese heritage mixed inside somewhere, I’ve always found home to be confusing topic. As time goes on, I find that it’s easier to answer the question, having even written a piece as a means of catharsis for myself.”

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