Hot Desk Extract: Vietnamatta

As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Stephen Pham worked on a collection of experimental essays, Vietnamatta, exploring geography, race and class.

The excerpt below forms a part of the collection, which incorporates autobiographical fiction that examines the interactions between race, class, desirability and shame in dating.

Time-lapse photographs of Sydney trains running along the tracks

Image: Scott Limbrick (modified from a photo by Gordon Wrigley, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Instagram is the devil’s playground. I was sitting on the metal bench outside Twin Wings Real Estate at Fairfield Station, eating a ka’akh, with my phone out, creeping on Courtney’s Instagram. We’d hooked up months ago. It was despo, I know, but it was the thing to do. Haunting one-offs and could-have-beens to remind myself that, at some point, I was desired.

Somewhere in the square in front of me, among the skinny trees, a deep-tanned street-preacher in a black t-shirt and Cabramatta thongs yelled, 'Safe sex? There’s no protection from Sexually Transmitted Damnation!' This clown again. He yells because he doesn’t know how to talk to people, like Hazel Motes, screaming blasphemy and wondering why no-one took him seriously.

Haunting one-offs and could-have-beens to remind myself that, at some point, I was desired.

Back on my phone. I scrolled extra slow in case I accidentally liked a photo from 2014. Then I found a picture of her with a man. Something tightened against my skull. She was in the foreground, thick brown hair flipped back, smiling with chipmunk cheeks in the passenger seat of a van. I’d never seen her that happy. That in-love glow. The guy in the driver’s seat must have been her boyfriend. He had tiger balm red skin. Asian. Nice. So Courtney didn’t just date white guys. Wait. What if she only dated Asian guys? That meant she had a fetish, which would be just as racist. But I haven’t seen any other men in her pics. 

The guy’s left hand was on a huge plastic steering wheel, his right held a crumpled yellowing rollie between finger and thumb sign, and his shoulder-length black hair was pushed down by a backwards cap. A hipster. Whitewashed Asian. But so am I. She had a type, and we were it.

I zoomed in on him. He had beesting lips, gorilla nostrils, and eyebrows like he’s about to drop a spirit bomb in four episodes. Hold up. He was my doppelgänger. To Courtney, I might have been his. That’s why she hooked up with me. A chill spread across my shoulders. This wasn’t a fetish anymore. Or maybe it was exactly that.

I needed to know more. Pressed on the photo once. No tag. Caption: ‘On my way to Fisher’s ghost with Esteban!’

His name was even Esteban. So he was Filo. Chubby Asians. Sporty Asians. We joke about Swagapinos, but this one was genuinely swaggy. Fisher’s Ghost was this festival in Campbelltown. It looked like they were in a van. So Esteban was a muso. Shit. He was everything I wanted to be.

I searched ‘Esteban’ on Instagram in case we had any mutuals. He didn’t even have an account.

My heart sunk. Courtney had been the highlight of my dating history. My first and only White girl. At the time, I neglected to mention that I was dating someone, which bit me in the ass. I really thought she wanted me to break up with my girlfriend Thuy so we could be together. Turns outs she probably wasn’t into me that much. At all. She missed Esteban. Like Amy Winehouse in ‘I Heard Love is Blind’, where the persona confesses to cheating on her boyfriend with his lookalike:

I couldn’t resist him

His eyes were like yours

His hair was exactly the shade of brown

I wished Esteban looked like anything else. If Courtney really did have yellow fever, any Asian would have done. I could have cited racism there. But no, she had dated my legit doppelgänger. The cool doppelgänger. He had long hair, drove a van, and smoked. Probably didn’t piss time away on Instagram. That made me the reject.

I was chasing an image of myself, warped by emasculating stereotypes of Asian men, which I hoped Courtney’s love would fix.

If Courtney was Amy, settling on me as the likeness of her lover Esteban, then what was I? The opposite. I yearned for some notion of White women, going for anyone who fit the bill. No, not even. I was chasing an image of myself, warped by emasculating stereotypes of Asian men, which I hoped Courtney’s love would fix. But even Amy knew that her love was fraught when at the end of the song she sings: ‘Yes he looked like you / But I heard love is blind’.

Now, with Esteban, I was even more confused about what I was supposed to be. I was sure of one thing: no more White girls for me, bro.

Portrait of Stephen Pham

Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers' Collective His work has appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. In 2018, Stephen received the NSW Writer's Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript Vietnamatta.

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