by Frances Gia Phung An
“Stella knock before you–?!”
I insisted too late as my 12-year-old daughter, Stella, barged into my study. Her socks slipped on the wooden boards as she scrambled towards me, tipping over the water bottle on my table.
She tossed a glossy card at me. It was a photo from when I was in my second year of university. Despite being 18-years-old, I appeared like a child, starry-eyed, hair scooped into black twin tails. A huge non la sat on my head, the price tag still hanging at the back. The red fabric of the Vietnamese flag draped at the corners where my tiny fists gripped it.
“Were you part of the revolution and everything? Did you get to see Ho Chi Minh?! Did you get a red book? What about the scarf? Can I see it? The scarves look soooooo cute! I wish my uniform had a scarf,” Stella gushed.
“How old do you think I am?” I demanded, “I was born nowhere close to the Vietnam war. This photo’s from a culture festival at uni.”
“So you never saw the Vietnam war?”
“Of course not. I was born in Australia like you. The Vietnam war was during MY parents’ generation.”
“Well, SOR-RY,” Stella answered, “I don’t know dates and stuff. A culture festival though… How boring.”
“What were you expecting?” I groaned.
“Guns, trenches, secret missions, forbidden romance—,” Stella sighed.
“About that…” I angled my face away from her as she mentioned ‘forbidden romance’—she’s only 12, I thought to myself. We can save that tale for another time.
“Not a spring roll stand,” Stella muttered, thankfully oblivious to my guilty reaction. We stared at the photo. The child holding a red flag: she was not a Communist nor an instrument of propaganda. Yet many years ago, my parents had grossly misinterpreted her smile.
When I was young, I begged that the war would end.
This was my room. The door was to be open at all times. My concentration wavered as I imagined my father glaring between the gaps in the hinge. They rang me every day. They emptied my bag like security guards at an airport. They rummaged through every paper in my folder. My mother was sent to watch me under the guise of ‘study-well’s and ‘I-love-you’s.
Above my desk, the red eye of the security camera mocked me as I crouched in front of my door. I squeezed my skull as my father banged outside.
“Why you have Communis’ friends?!” I imagined his face turning crimson as he wrenched the door knob, trying to break into a cell. My father screamed in Vietnamese to my mother, “what’s wrong?! Why won’t she open the door?!”
My mother called to me from outside, “open the door. Your dad is yelling at you because he loves you. Can you understand what I’m saying?” She switched to painfully broken English, “Daddy yel-ling because he love you thôi.” She wrapped against the door “hel-lo?! Can you hear what I’m saying?! Hel-lo?! Hel-lo?! Hel-lo?! Hel-lo?! HELL-LLO?! HELL-LLO?! HEEEELLLLL-LLLLLLO?!”
The culture festival photo lay on my desk, revealing a girl’s smile that popped out from the black hole of my pencil case. As sweat gathered in my palms, I clasped my hands together.
Now, I sat in the counsellor’s office, begging to the back of a desktop computer. KidsHelpline and Black Dog Institute cards sat propped up like Christmas cards along the walls. Untouched brochures from BeyondBlue lay in neat piles on a low table that had been etched with a motley of comics, expletives and other masterpieces. My knees squeezed together on the coffee-stained couch.
“No… Yes, I’ll call you later,” the counsellor assured someone over the phone, “I-I’ve just got a uni student right now… No, but her parents are coming in too— Alright, I’ll try to make it short.” As the phone clacked into place, she groaned. As she bent over to retrieve a paper clip, her pink scalp showed beneath her stringy blonde hair. The rolling office chair creaked painfully beneath her.
She flipped her frilly scarf-jacket off the arm rests.“So you say your parents have PTSD or something? Because of a photo?”
“Um… I suppose,” I mumbled.
She scoffed, “but your father doesn’t get scared by loud noises or try to hit you, does he?”
“… No,” I replied.
“Then I think everything is okay,” she insisted, returning to her desk. “You’re a uni student now. I understand how hard things can be and how the world is against you,” the counsellor chuckled, “I was once a young adult too. I know all about this life-sucks-and-no-one-understands-me business. But deep down, your father really cares about you.”
I waited outside when my parents arrived at the office. The counsellor’s muffled mutters became inaudible but my father boomed out in an attempt to conceal his accent.
“Oh! I’m VERY proud of my child! She’s very good!” He asserts, probably with that slight bow and obsequious prayer hands as he swats down whatever suggestion the counsellor makes.
“Stressed—And depressed? I see. Sorry—She has a bad habit of overacting but she’s not stressed or depressed.”
“We love love love her very much because she our child. I understand: in Australia, chil’ren tell their parents what to do because it’s their right. If she need anyt’ing we very happy listen and follow everyt’ing she asks. Because in Australia, chil’ren tak’ no responsibility because they young but parents must.”
Contemplative muffles followed by a laugh.
“Thank you for tel-ling us madam.”
The door creaked open.
“Haallo! Is everything good now?” He stretched out his syllables to me as if enunciating to a toddler. His gums bled as he forced a grin. Inside the office, the counsellor called my year’s coordinator on the phone.
“No, it was nothing serious,” the counsellor stated, “the father is a tough, Chinese parent. But in the end, he’s a really nice man who loves his daughter.”
After Stella had heard my story, she glanced at the photo one more time.
“Your parents sound… Kinda freaky,” Stella replied, “but —I’m not sure about something.”
“What?” I asked.
“If the photo had caused so much trouble, why did you keep it?”
“I considered destroying it,” I swivelled my chair to face Stella, “but I decided not to—I can’t forget what I’d done anyway. That was why I needed to keep it. So that even now, when I look at the photo, I can know for sure: that’s not the face of someone who tried to traumatise their parents, a Communist or whatever they called it. That person was just…”
A child: Stella. Her eyes darted from corner to corner as she examined the photo. Stella, with her black hair, resembled the girl in the photo. Yet unlike that girl, Stella had not been frozen in a pro-Communist stance, caught in a mid-war struggle. The front door clicked open. Abandoning all thoughts of the photo, Stella rushed to greet my husband. I let out a sigh of relief.
The war had finally ended.