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The wave, or what was left of it, upset the boogie board and sent Edgar sprawling into the backwash. He sprang to his feet and stood, crying—screaming, really—as loud as he could, tears rolling down his sand-smeared face. Edith, his sister, was on her own board, out just further than I had said she could go, throwing herself at the oncoming waves and cackling every time she was tumbled under. Edgar pointed at her, still crying, regressing to his toddler self when he would stand unsteadily at the water’s edge, babbling in terror if any of us—mum, sister or I—ventured too far into the waves.

I had always been more like Edith, I thought, as I kept half an eye on her bobbing form while scooping Edgar up in my arms. I had cried like this as a child. I remember the tail end of those storms, like coming to consciousness after fainting, the rage already fading, leaving only the concern—and the judgement—in the eyes of all those around me. But never at the sea. I remember the feeling: freed somehow by salt spray and the crashing rhythm of water, so much so that it was on a school camp, down on the surf coast, that I had finally felt at ease, at least for a time, with my schoolmates, with my body. I had been the first to stand on my longboard, for a second or two before falling, moments in which I was no longer what I appeared to be—skinny, short-sighted, painfully shy and Viet—but was, instead, transformed. Or should I say annihilated—or at least, dissolved—until I came tumbling back down?

Still holding Edgar, waiting for his interest in his own distress—in the modulations of his voice, and the undulations of his feelings—to subside, I looked west along the beach towards the cape, past the families clustered along the shore around their sun shelters, inflatable animals, sand buggies, paddle boards and eskies, for any sign of Cảnh.


When I’d first met him, my mother’s nephew, we’d been on our way to a resort in Vũng Tàu. About halfway from Saigon, we left the highway to stop in a hamlet on the bank of a small river. There, before we went down to a house that had almost slipped into the water, we saw Cảnh in another ruin, this one a building with neither a roof overhead nor any doors in its frames. As we parked, I saw him inside, head down, lining up a shot on a snooker table, its green surface rust-red from wind and rain—I would later see this up close for myself when I went wandering through the hamlet, followed by the village children, though not, I remember, by my cousin. Down at the house that was almost a boat, I saw him again. A furtive, skinny boy—skinnier even than me—skittering past us, his Australian relatives, to check on a series of fishing lines set up on a rotting balcony. But there was no denying my mother, who saw only a pair of fifteen-year-old cousins, and so an hour later we were sat side by side on the minibus my parents had hired, bumping against each other with every pothole but otherwise having nothing to do with each other for the fifty kilometres to the sea, which—incredibly, it seemed to us—Cảnh had never seen.

That had been many years ago, and I had had no reason to think I would see him again. Then, just before Christmas (my mother again, ever the fixer) my cousin arrived at our house. He had come, circuitously, following a word-of-mouth trail of work, from Coffs Harbour, where he had spent a season picking blueberries. I was to take him in—my mother would have, she said, but there were more jobs in the inner city.

He slept in our study: a kind of bungalow where I normally tried to work. He was still sullen, still skinny—I was not any longer—but now he spoke English, with all consonants intact and even the shadow of a New England accent, picked up no doubt during his abortive liberal arts degree at the new American university in downtown Saigon. We had been surprised by that, Lauren and I—by his English, and his familiarity with Milton and Dostoevsky—a surprise that repeated, to my shame, the surprise of teachers and other students’ parents when I did well at literature and history rather than…well, they never quite articulated that part. In fact, it had been to find somewhere quiet to read that Cảnh had gone off down the beach as soon as we’d arrived, leaving me to take the kids into the water. He’d have been better off staying at home, I thought—in our place, that is, in Melbourne—but Lauren craved an empty house. And it might do him good, she said, to get away, have a swim.

But I had forgotten that he couldn’t swim. Perhaps it was the way he picked through the shelves in our study, carrying his selection with him everywhere until he had finished it—this week it was Proust, the second volume—as if an interest in literature was somehow linked to an ability to swim. I should have remembered, of course; that first time I’d met him, we’d driven straight to the beach at Vũng Tàu, without even stopping at our hotel. I had watched from my seat as he got out of the minibus with my mother and then stood just next to the open door, gaping at the waves pounding away at the sand. I remember, in the afternoon, once we’d checked in and changed, going down to the rows of rental banana lounges and watching as big Russian men, still travelling old Communist routes, got pulled under and spat back out by the waves four or five metres from where they’d been standing. After a while, Cảnh had finally said, Is this the sea?

And I had thought at first that he was disappointed—as if he were saying, Is this really it? Is that all? But before anyone could answer he had turned to one side and thrown up against the bus tyre.

He stayed away from the beach for the rest of that trip. Each morning, I would leave him in the room we shared at the resort, and find him there again when I got back before dinner. There was only one time that I remember leaving the room together. I’d come back early, having had enough of swimming, and to fill in the time I planned to walk into town. To my surprise, Cảnh said he’d join me. So we walked together that afternoon, not speaking, until we passed through a small market—just two rows of trestle tables lining an alleyway, with produce heaped in neat piles on top and below. At the end of the alleyway the tables were laden with meat: big cuts of what looked like pork, smaller slabs of what might have been beef. Live fowl looked out from inside metal cages. We passed a goat tied to a pole while a woman haggled for it. And then there were the dogs, their heads severed and placed on the table like trophies, eyes open and snouts pointing up to the sky. I felt the bile rising in my throat, and the flush of nausea and shame, thinking that I was going to vomit right there in the middle of the market. He must have noticed that something was wrong—I felt myself hurried along, out of the alleyway and back towards the sea. We walked back to the resort that way, along the sand, with me on the ocean side, breathing in the tangy air, still saying nothing.


When he first arrived at our house in Clifton Hill, I thought that nothing had changed—that we would continue along our parallel paths, not talking. He wasn’t interested in the kids, and they quickly accepted his presence, such as it was, in our lives. That might have gone on indefinitely if he hadn’t been knocked over by a huge Irish setter coming out of the river at Deep Rock. He’d been on a long walk—reading, of course—down the Merri Creek and then up the Yarra above Dights Falls, when the big red dog had bounded into him, knocking him and his book into the dirt. What is it, Cảnh had asked me later, absent-mindedly massaging a sore wrist, about the people around here and their dogs?

I’d understood what he meant. The parks around our house are always full of dogs, off their leads and straying in and out of the dog-free zones. It was a bit of a sore point for Lauren and me because Edith had never got used to their animal movement, their leaping and sniffing and chasing, and it would always upset her whenever some dog would appear in one of the playgrounds, owner nowhere in sight.

When I was up north picking fruit, Cảnh had said, there were working dogs—I understood that. They were smart animals, useful, and good companions for long days in the fields. The blueberry farmer, he never hired European backpackers, only Asians. You’ve got nimble fingers, he would say to us. You won’t bruise my fruit. And you work bloody hard. And he’d laugh. He paid us by the punnet, eighteen cents for each one. The best pickers—the ones from Malaysia with no visas, who worked the farms for years, dodging immigration, they could make twenty dollars an hour, or more. Me—I picked like a European. I was making a hundred dollars for ten-hour days. Out of that, we paid him to live four-to-a-room in a shack with no air conditioning, way out of town. And again for the bus and his driver that picked us up to go to the farm, and to the shops on Sundays, our only day off. We, too, were useful animals.

But here, neither the pets nor I are useful. Yet the dogs have the freedom of the city. They go where they like, and to not love them—even when they knock you over, or steal your food, or shit under your feet—is an affront. Laughing, Cảnh had added, I’d like to learn their secret.

I might have said, but didn’t, that the time we’d walked on the beach at Vũng Tàu, coming back from the little market, I’d been thinking about the stories my parents had always told me about the Aussies who’d barked at them when they first arrived, who’d talked about cats in their dumplings. And as we walked, I was thinking: So it was true all along.


After the incident with the Irish setter, Cảnh and I would walk together in the mornings before I took Edith and Edgar to their holiday programs. We talked about books.

There’s one writer in particular, he said to me, who opened me up to literature. Really, one story by that writer, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, about a retiring general. The general returns from the army to live with his son and daughter-in-law. The general does not really know his son; he has always been away at war. The son and his wife are well educated—he works as an engineer at the physics institute, and she, a doctor at the maternity hospital—and they make a healthy living from her side business, breeding alsatians. The poor woman who lives with them, a simpleton, had been taught to cook pork crackling and mushrooms and braised chicken, though she herself never eats that kind of food. After a lifetime in the army, the general does not understand his family. The initial excitement and pride that the household feels at the hero’s homecoming quickly gives way to embarrassment and confusion. His Vietnam is not their Vietnam. The general’s grandchildren learn foreign languages, a niece scandalously gives birth a few days after her wedding (‘these days, it really is difficult for a young girl to keep her virginity’, they tell him), and the general’s son suspects his wife is having an affair with a local poet who reads Lorca and Whitman. To everyone’s relief, the general’s old unit invites him to visit on their upcoming manoeuvres. A few days later, the son gets a telegram. His father is dead. The family rush off to the war cemetery, but the funeral rites are already finished by the time they arrive. The general’s death is a kind of release for them. Life returns to what it had been before. Which is to say that everyone can go on forgetting in peace—forgetting traditions, forgetting the war, forgetting the old man.

Cảnh continued: How can I describe the effect this story had on me? Everything Thiệp depicts is still true today—even more so. If you go to the right parts of Hà Nội or Sài Gòn, you’ll see alsatians, labradors, poodles, fur thick with the water in the air, dozing in gilded cages. More trophies than pets—living proof of frivolous wealth. Who remembers the war now?

He sighed.

And what do local poets read? Not even Lorca or Whitman but Vuong, Kaur. Thiệp saw all this, predicted it, and he weeps for all that is forgotten. But he laughs at his own weeping too—that’s the thing, he is not exempt. The narrator, the general’s son, writes, ‘I regard these lines as the incense of incense sticks lit in remembrance of him.’ The gesture of mourning is heartfelt. But what kind of remembering is this? The narrator’s story is absurd, its characters venal, ignorant. If this is a eulogy then the general’s life was lived in vain: he won the war but lost the peace. And the narrator—and Thiệp—knows it. The story ends with an apology for the preceding lines, ‘If anyone has had the heart to read them, I beg your pardon.’ Those words rang in my ears as I studied literature at the American university, said Cảnh. The story had led me to that degree. But it also undermined it. Every time I wrote an essay I felt as if I should sign off with an apology. As if all my sincere efforts were sacrilegious—thinking I was honouring the dead when I was really desecrating their graves.


Edgar was laughing now at the waves, terror forgotten. As I put him back down on the sand, I wondered what Cảnh had thought about the barbecue the day before.

As I arrived in the morning from Melbourne, I was still undoing the kids’ seatbelts when my mother came out to herd us to her neighbours’. The Wilsons had invited us all over for their Australia Day bash, and my mother, having forgotten to tell me, bundled us down their driveway, anxious not to be late. Ray and Judith, retirees, had moved in around the same time my parents had bought the beach house. They’d got along right away, drawn, no doubt, by their shared credo: sameness at all costs. On the one hand, it meant every gift had its counter-gift. When Judith had come over with a hamper one Christmas, my parents had countered with a Barossa Valley shiraz. The debt accrued from birthday gifts for my children, always delivered months late because my parents wouldn’t be at the beach for weeks at a time, was expunged by cheese platters and boxes of cherries. On the other hand, sameness also meant not-different. It meant that even in their ineradicable differentiation there had to be something fungible: after all, hadn’t Ray and Judith migrated too—hadn’t they been Ten Pound Poms, and yes, hadn’t they also faced their trials? Baptism by fire, a rite of passage. An Australian tradition. But once you’re in—where else would you rather be? And, above all, there was a common interest in the prices of all things: real estate, of course, but also Costco memberships and Boxing Day sales, power bills and petrol.

Their house, covered in Aussie flags, had an identical layout to my parents’, only inverted, so that for the rest of the afternoon I kept turning into walls. Judith, who greeted us at the door, gushed over the children, insisting they looked just like my mother (such Vietnamese noses, look at their skin, such a beautiful colour, if only I could get a tan like that) against my mother’s protests (but they have such Western eyes, oh, but they are so pale). Cảnh, who trailed in behind us, was dismissed with a couple of words—my nephew, from Vietnam—and then we were in the backyard under a Southern Cross shade sail, making small talk with the Wilsons’ extended family while Ray grilled our meats. After we’d eaten, or tried to eat—I’d seen Cảnh, from the corner of my eye while the Wilsons’ adult son explained my research back to me, hiding a napkin with a half-chewed sausage-in-bread behind a pot plant—Edith was ushered out from the house by my mother, wearing a boxing kangaroo bucket hat two or three sizes too big for her, to sing ‘We Are Australian’. She’d learnt the song at school, in lieu of the official anthem, and she sang it now with gusto, as if it were a Disney ballad—fitting, in an odd way, for that first verse about tall ships and first Australians—before we all joined in for the chorus, an off-key homage to the Qantas ad.


Humming the tune to myself now in the sun shelter while the kids stuffed themselves with biscuits, I looked again for Cảnh. But I only saw a commotion—a flurry of bodies moving towards the water, blocking my view of whatever was happening, so that I had to scan the faces of the families still sitting on their mats and towels to gauge the seriousness of the situation. Down by the water, the concerned bodies made way for a lifeguard. I thought, ridiculously—unforgivably—of a headline, ‘Another Asian Tourist Drowns at Victorian Beach’.

But before I could get any further, I finally saw him, skirting the crowd who were now clapping politely, while a lifeguard escorted a pale but otherwise unhurt swimmer back towards the surf club, as if they, the crowd, were at a footy match and an injured player had just waved from the stretcher.

Squinting against the sun, I could just make out Cảnh’s figure in the distance, distinctive in his slacks and loose shirt, head down, reading, when those all around him were stripped to their bathers and looking at the sea, or each other’s broad, sunny faces. I thought I could see a dog running after him, yapping at his unresponsive back, and the owner, unconcerned, or maybe even a little annoyed, not at the animal but at the man who offered no friendly word, no forgiving acknowledgement—unnatural, that—to be reading, to be elsewhere, when the water was right there—unseemly, undeserving, un—