Craving Candy: Chapter 2

Her grandmother had loved ‘her stories’.

Some of the happiest times in her childhood were sitting on the lumpy uncomfortable couch beside her wiry mother’s mother; a woman who never seemed to be still unless her shows were on. A tiny woman whose couch barely registered her bird-like presence.

As her grandmother had aged, she had become more and more gaunt; the years carving out her face and stick-like arms while her friends in her new country blew up like pale engorged balloons and had pendulous breasts that sat upon their swelling abdomens.

Asian women sunk into themselves, white women bloated. Both looked at each other with envy; one for their white skin and apparent prosperity disease and the other for their doll-like physiques and apparent warm healthy glow.

In the evenings in that small house in that small dusty street – as the searing sun finally dipped below the horizon and night descended in a furious rush of humidity and mosquitos – their neighbours trundled over to throw meat on the barbeque and feed them strange new dishes such as potato bake, and cauliflower bake and coleslaw (disgusting wet cabbage!) and then huddled in their tiny living room to watch General Hospital and other American soaps.

Evening was the closest her new country got to the home of her childhood. The short sharp dusk sparking a cacophony of cicadas and bugs and strange new birds swelling in the air around them and then going suddenly eerily silent in the darkness; the night’s suburban quiet broken only by the odd curlew or gecko.

On Sundays after a lacklustre and half-hearted sermon at the local Catholic Church, they would shuffle on in to that same living room to watch dramas from her homeland. Smuggled in illegally on tapes for the old creaking VCR and translated in real time by her brilliant Aunt who had picked up English as fast as French, Chinese and her native Vietnamese.

At first the neighbours had cast eyes at them askance, fresh off the boat and free finally from their demoralising stint in a series of refugee camps. But the God of the Sacrament and the God of the Stories had brought them together in the end, slowly but irrevocably. They were a part of something.

Her mother was Buddhist, staunchly so, and had refused to convert. But her grandmother had embraced Catholicism just as she had embraced capitalism and even embraced the Chinese restaurant she cleaned and cooked and waited in from 6am till the end of the dinner rush, with only a break for those small dramatic interludes with women with which she had everything and absolutely nothing in common.

They lived in one 3-bedroom suburban house, the nine of them. Her two sisters, mother, grandmother, Aunt, two girl cousins and a distant relative they’d taken when they ran. He was trapped in a house of oestrogen, one unburdened by the demands of demanding men and driven by three imperatives – family, religion, work.

Her mother and grandmother muddled along despite their new but vast spiritual divide. As a child, her job had been to study study study. Whether to honour her ancestors or to not commit the sin of idleness: in the end both generations came to the same conclusion. Her job was to pull her family out of its sudden, devastating, newly-discovered poverty through her grades.

Eleven years old when they’d finally left the camp and barely 12 on arrival. She’d picked up English quickly and aggressively, out of necessity but also out of skill. She had the benefit of her Aunt’s talent and teaching – the perfect confluence of nature and nurture. And by the time she started highschool with her peers at 13, she was speaking like a native and happily spending her Sunday afternoons on that couch helping her Aunt translate dramas in real-time for her pale, fleshy neighbours who always brought her strange but beautiful baked goods – lamingtons, Anzac biscuits, jam drops. All washed down with bitter Bushell’s Tea and instant Moccona drunk with barely any sugar.

In exchange, her talented mother grew vegetables in a large back yard, punctuated with the ubiquitous Hills Hoist clothesline trapped in concrete in the centre of the quarter-acre block. She took gifts of meat she then turned into noodle soups and stir fries and served ice coffee, sickly sweet with condensed milk.

In other suburbs, worlds collided with a bang or moved around each other in an intricate dance of avoidance, like a moving Venn diagram with the circles for ‘work’ or ‘school’ overlapping in small slices while the giant wheels around them barely meshed.

But in their small pocket, their blip in the suburban wasteland of middle Australia, they somehow fit together and that feeling of community, of belonging, of togetherness through difference would stay like a core inside her. Like her core of dramas.

In recent years, she’d swapped the manic soaps of her youth for the glossier Korean makjangs and endless weekenders. Sold as bootleg DVDs and then available on illicit steaming sites and then on legitimate ones with fast English subtitles and eventually on Netflix. Every aspect of her life – even this – had become so easy.

Maybe that was the real problem. The real prosperity disease.

Not the jowls and the sinking bosoms of her grandmother’s CWA-supporting, churchgoing, hardworking blue collar white friends but this endless 24-hour ease.

Her life – hard work, struggle and penny pinching till the end of her MBA – had smoothed out since she and her Uni boyfriend took on the whitegoods business his Korean parents had started and turned into a success. And hadn’t that been what she’d liked about whitegoods? The ease? The years crammed into that small house with the unnecessarily-huge backyard and her mother’s constant grinding domestic work – wash, wash, wash – and all by hand.

Ease. A women’s ease.

She had proven to have the head for business; the late Mr Park the skill of relationships. He was a kind man, a personable and empathetic man, a natural people person. She was not, had never been.

He’d stayed in Sales and Marketing while she had climbed her way to CFO then CEO then president and now Chairwoman of the Board. People could talk nonsense about her ‘marrying well’ but her husband and in-laws at least saw the truth. It was him in all his laid back, unambitious glory that had married well.

The first Mrs Park turned on the television and sighed. She’d married well, that was for certain – just not by their standards nor the standards of her own mother and grandmother.

He’d been kind. Relaxed. Family oriented. He’d loved her and his children more than work, more than wealth, more than his family’s status or his parents’ face. He’d have rather made time than money but had understood the memory of financial insecurity and the desire to prove herself in this strange new homeland that had driven her ambition.

He’d let her be her and loved her for it.

“She works so many hours and her house is still spotless!” her in-laws would gush, unaware of the awful truth that he was the one who got up at 5am to do the cooking and cleaning. It was he who stayed up while she was in the office, scrubbing toilets and washing floors, preparing the next day’s meals and claiming credit for none of it when relatives commented on it.

“Yes her women’s work is always done,” he’d say earnestly as though it was physically possible for her to work 16 hours at the office, keep her house spotless and take care of two children. The things we expect of women.

She’d lain awake at night dreaming of the day when they could afford the domestic help to take the pressure off his endless, unvalued, invaluable support of her dreams.

What would he think of their son and his bullying? His entitlement?

Maybe her mother was right and she should have been home more. Maybe financial security wasn’t the most important thing she could have given him. If only her husband had lived longer. She surely wouldn’t have made such a fundamental mistake if he hadn’t abandoned her like this.

She kicked off her designer shoes and settled on the couch in her perfectly-coiffed glory, wine in hand, pearls around her neck. There were no uncomfortable lumps in this couch, no harsh scrubbed floors in her pristine, palatial home, no grainy bootleg in her DVD player.

She wondered when she’d started to look like the Chaebols in her dramas or even if she’d unconsciously moulded herself in that image. Maybe those years of them all crammed into that tiny suburban home watching images of glamour on their heavy small-screened television had given her an image of success distorted by America’s neoliberal cult. Maybe this was where she’d gone wrong?

Or maybe, just maybe this was where she could make it right.

Because today of all days, her drama gave her an idea. Maybe not a good idea. But an idea nonetheless. If dramas were the cause of her problems, maybe they could also be the solution.

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