Livo is dipped in a vat of Aeroplane Orange Mango jelly. The sky between the high-rise apartments housing yups coming in from the east and the little businesses owned by ‘the ethnics’ is orange. I have a good view of it all. I work on the fifth floor of an office building near the library and I sit right near metre-long glass windows.
In the office, I have to use words like ‘ethnic’, ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural communities’ just to keep my job, even if those words just lump poor brown people together and capitalise on brownness. But when I’m out of the office, smoking shisha with fellow Westies, we use more nuanced terminology like wogs, lebs, curries and gooks. Sometimes it gets even more technical than that, we say Honorary Leb and Honorary Gook for the random Caucazoid in the group. There’s always one.
My desk buddy at work, a Serb chick named Nicola who has the best blonde balayage west of the bridge, has a sick suggestion before I leave the building for lunch; Cuz, if you suck on a mint in these conditions, you’re basically smoking Winfield’s Optimum Crush Blue.
Nic knows what’s up. A 30-pack of Winfield Blues costs 37 bucks and 25 cents down at Coles. Exxy. According to the Daily Telegraph, breathing in the current air was the equivalent of smoking 34 cigs a day. So, yeh. Might as well make them fancy cigs, right?
Since turning 28 in September, I made it a personal goal to become more financially literate. I didn’t come up with this by myself. My parents want me to own property. They began their campaign at dinner one night. You’re nearly 30 and single. If you can’t find a husband to buy a house with then you’ll need to do it yourself. Facebook must’ve been listening to it all (and translating it from Vietnamese) because Real Estate ads flooded my feed and I was starting to believe that this was the algorithm my life was meant to follow: becoming a landlord.
I started carrying a book with me on my lunch breaks at Bigge Park near Livo Station. Young westies call it biggie like the rapper Biggie Smalls. Every other gronk just says big. The book is Rich Dad Poor Dad, written by Robert T. Kiyosaki, a Japanese-American businessman. I found it at the bottom of the bargain bin at the Hot Dollar in Livo Westfield. That day, I needed to break a fiver so that I could get a samosa at Udaya for two bucks. So it was either Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad or Julia Gillard’s memoir.
The blurb on the Rich Dad Poor Dad sold it for me. The #1 Personal Finance Book of All Time… Explodes the myth that you need to earn a high income to become rich – especially in a world where technology, robots, and a global economy are changing the rules. Well shit brosaki. Sign me up!
I stuck with Rich Dad Poor Dad for five lunch breaks. That’s five hours. I brought Rich Dad Poor Dad to my favourite concrete bench at Bigge Park, the one graffitied with an intricate biro pen drawing of a sparkling anime eye. I like pretending that the eye belongs to Sailor Moon, a soldier destined to save Earth from the forces of evil.
So, it turns out Robert Kiyosaki has two dads. He tells the reader that one dad said the love of money is the root of all evil and the other dad said the lack of money is the root of all evil. I didn’t know what to make of all this. My eyes couldn’t stay open for more than five seconds at a time. Hot wind blows dust and ash through Biggie Park and upsets the cockatoos and pigeons. They fly up into the tree and kick up more dirt. Particles of orange dust and brown dirt land on the pages of the Rich Dad Poor Dad.
Poor Dad was Kiyosaki’s biological father who worked hard but never achieved financial stability and Rich Dad is his friend’s father who built his wealth by investing in the right places. I didn’t acquire this information by reading the book. I got it through a Wikipedia page summarising Rich Dad Poor Dad. I was struggling to read beyond the Introduction which contains a general overview of Kiyosaki’s two Dads. The writing follows a familiar pattern. One dad had a PhD, the other dad couldn’t finish the eighth grade. One dad left behind millions of dollars after he died while the other dad left behind bills for other people to pay.
I keep getting stuck on the particulars. What did Poor Dad get a PhD in? Why couldn’t Rich Dad finish the eighth grade? What bills had to be paid after the Poor Dad died? I couldn’t concentrate long enough to find out the answers. I never learned Kiyosaki’s six lessons that would propel me towards becoming Livo’s next squillionaire. My skin itched, particularly on the patches of adult acne dotting my chin and jawline. I bought a pack of five anti-pollution face masks from Hot Dollar for four bucks fifty. They weren’t P2 masks but they were better than nothing.
It would be wild if this city was perfumed with mango jelly crystals to match its citrus skyline. But no. Livo isn’t that lucky. The bushfires are right near our arses—one in Voyager Point that takes days to subdue, another one in Cecil Hills and a small one in Leppington the other morning. Charred bits of leaves float from the sky. The air is as thicc as an Instagram model and it smells like a karaoke room in the back alleys of Chinatown. It doesn’t put me in a very productive mood because I associate that smell with my early twenties—hour-long rides on the tin can from Bankstown to the city, getting smashed on soju in K-Town and then ending the night chucking it all up while singing Rihanna’s Diamonds.
Unpleasant memories aside, I still go outside onto the smoky Livo streets during my lunch breaks. I need a bit of heat, even if it comes with a coating of rust-coloured dust. The aircon at the office is set to 20 degrees and that’s basically Antarctica for me, a 153 cm tall Asian from the jungle. Plus, the TV in the office right above my desk plays ABC24. The screen shows an endless loop of images. There’s a map of Australia marked with red spots indicating where the fires were, burnt koalas, burnt kangaroos, fireys wiping sweat and soot away to speak to the cameras, Scomo trying to shake Cobargo residents’ hands, koalas sucking water from plastic bottles, people in the city gathering to protest climate change…
Outside my window, cars driving down George Street are speckled with orange grime. Some people wear masks, others just cover their mouths with their hands.
When I give up on Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, I spend my lunch breaks looking for the other Viets in Livo. We boost the local economy by selling banh mi or 24-hour clothing alterations. There’s an old Viet couple who runs Dandy Tailoring on the corner of George and Elizabeth Street, just past the courthouse and the popo.
I take a dress to the Nguyens at Dandy. It’s red and meant to be worn for Tết but it’s too long. Mrs Nguyen at Dandy could tell I was Viet.
Your face looks Japanese but your legs give it away, she explains while she’s kneeling, pinning the dress up at the hem. She pins the hem of the dress so that it falls at the slimmest part of my shins.
When I was in high school, I had a Chinese friend named Ting Ting who told me that my calf muscles would flatten if I rolled a bottle over them each night. I wasted a lot of time rolling my dad’s Crown Lagers over the muscles under my knees. To be fair, karma got Ting Ting too. She bought a plastic peg to pinch her nose each night, believing it would eventually lift her nose bridge. My calves stayed big, her nose stayed wide.
Have you got any plans for Tết? Mrs Nguyen asks. The words come out muffled because her lips are clamped over a dozen dressmaking pins, each with a plastic bauble glued on the end.
I tell her I’m going to the temple.
Well, in 2020, I hope money flows in like a river and escapes like drops of coffee through a filter, she hands me a plastic bag with the dress in it.
Cám ơn Cô. I step out of her shop and cover my mouth with the dress on the way back to the office.
She reminds me of my mum who tells the same story every Tết.
Once, the Việt Cộng bombed Saigon during Tết. The sky flashed orange. That was the end of life as I knew it.
Shirley Le is a second generation Vietnamese-Australian writer who is part of the Sweatshop Writers Collective. Her short stories and essays have been published in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review and SBS Online.