<3 loving the motherland <3. Esther’s new Facebook profile picture looks like an advertisement for AsianDating.com. The magenta áo dài bulges at her grapefruit breasts, then funnels into a waist which looks small enough to fit between my hands. I flick through the comments: ‘Vietnam beauty’, ‘I’m pho you’ – beside a profile picture of a middle-aged White woman holding a baby is ‘looking gorgeous, Esther. Great to see how connected to your culture you are’.
I pull the sleeves of my Western Sydney University hoodie over my knuckles as the State Library’s air-conditioner begins whirring. Unlike Esther, I know that I cannot be ‘connected to my culture’ because I look lumpy and stumpy when I wear áo dài. I tried wearing it when I was in Los Angeles preparing for Tết with my mother’s side of the family. My arms looked like chicken drumsticks that stretched the silk until it was see-through, so my auntie lent me a purple qipao that was ‘too big for her’.
Opposite me, an Asian girl hunches over a HSC Maths Extension 2 past paper book. She rolls the sleeves of her Year 12 jersey which has the North Sydney Girls High School logo and the nickname ‘99%FatFree’ below it. Her arms are sticks that bulge at her elbows. She has Esther’s oval face and chalky slapped-on makeup. 99%FatFree twirls a pencil between her fingers while staring at a right-angled triangle.
A White boy with a blonde quiff slides into the seat beside her so that their elbows touch. ‘You’re studying for the HSC too?’ Quiff looks at her book, ‘wow, Maths Extension 2— I suck at Maths.’ He hands her a strip of paper which starts with ’04’, ‘maybe you could be my Maths tutor over coffee? Or tea, if that’s more your thing? I’ll buy you a Chatime.’
‘I’ve got a boyfriend,’ FatFree tilts away from him. Her cockroach leg eyelashes flitter. Her hoarse voice reminds me of the deputy principal in my old primary school whom I caught smoking in an out-of-bounds area when I was in Year 2. I imagine a cigarette between FatFree’s purple talons. She glances at me. Her eyeliner looks like black daggers sticking out from the corners of her eyes. I look down, only to meet Esther’s white-teethed supermodel smile on my phone.
‘Well,’ he places his strip of paper on the right-angled triangle, ‘you can give this to your boyfriend then.’ A grumbling chorus of ‘uuhurrhurrhurr!’s bursts from five beach boys whom Quiff scampers back to. Even though the State Library feels like a refrigerator, they all wear tank tops with palm trees or bikini ladies printed on them. One of the boy’s left nipple shows through the arm hole of his tank top. FatFree twirls her ponytail at the beach boys. Probably gets this all the time.