Christine Lai

Dragons on my red envelopes and Jerseys


A stranger walks into a football stadium with his fourteen-year-old daughter in tow. His deep voice bounces off the wall and its reverberation settles into a nervous ball within my chest. Wearing an oversized jersey and a flat cap with a bunny right in the middle, his swagger is unmatched.

“Hey Jackie Chan-”

He calls out to me twice, beckoning me over with two fingers as he stands squarely beside his daughter. A lazy smirk is attached to his incomplete set of teeth, and he asks me to take their photo. 

This is my normal. 

Growing up in Sydney to immigrant parents of Vietnamese and Chinese descent shaped my version of what the ‘everyday’ looked like. One of my earliest memories involved a young girl with a unruly fringe, hot-pink tricycle, with furry material attached to each handle, and a small basket tied to the front in a salmon-coloured dressing. The apartment that I first called home was mostly tiled-floor, small and cosy. We had to walk up three flights of stairs to get inside, and I familiarised myself with the dark wooden handrails that had etched-in initials of the first residents that lived there. Filled with plushies sprawled on the floor, soft foam alphabet mats, and Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham lying atop the heap, there was a nurturing quality to the organised chaos that I came to know as my home. 

My dad is an avid sports fan, and vignettes of my childhood typically involved my mum pulling at weeds and giving the flowers a trim whilst my dad patched in the radio to listen to the live commentary by Ray Warren and hear the play-by-plays of whichever rugby league teams were competing. This has been a staple for as long as I can remember. At the age of six, my dad and his family of 10 left Vietnam to seek refuge in New Zealand. Just as the league sport was, and still is, a large part of the Kiwi national identity, it became an extension of his own, and I inherited his love for the sport and all of its gritty parts. 

I’ve been inundated with an array of sporting memorabilia over the years, exchanging smiles with strangers whose eyes light up at the sight of the red and white colours, proud on display. My hats alone spill onto the floor from their place on my bookshelf, and the warmth that emanates from a collective following, provides a cushioned landing; an unspoken understanding between us that states: whatever happens, we’re in this together. 

The Lunar New Year (Tết) is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar, and usually extends for the duration of the entire week, with the granting of public holidays in Vietnam. Having grown up in Australia, though the Lunar New Year is not recognised as a public holiday, it is the one time of the year that families come together to wish each other a prosperous year ahead, sharing traditional desserts and gifting red envelopes (Li Xi) whereby the favourite grandchild becomes evident as she puts her wad of cash with neatly bundled notes packaged inside the various red pockets. Blessing are invoked, and a chorus of good luck and wisdom is displayed through the traditional dragon dance. 

Dragons are a large symbol in Asian culture, and one of the 12 Zodiacs ascribed to the Chinese calendar. The intersection of my loyalty to my rugby league team, and my ethnic background stems from this very notion. I was born in the year of the dragon, and my mum would always relay the dragon’s significance as a zodiac and sign: how it carried authority, leadership and would grant me success in life. When I started watching the footy as a kid, it seemed like a no-brainer that I would choose the same namesake that had been described as strong and powerful, in the rugby league arena known as The St George Illawarra Dragons. 

We made a family event from these screenings. The ‘Friday Night Football’ became ostensibly known as Rugby League Night, and occasionally dad would microwave popcorn, pop it in a large bowl to share, and regardless whether our teams were playing or not, my brother and I would don whatever apparel we had and make ourselves comfortable on the couch. 

Over the years, as my interest began to wane, my dad’s vigour remained. After dinner, he’d wash the dishes, only to stop and stare at a replay point, watching the various angles that the cameras provided; the water still running. The exigency and impassioned nature of his footy following persuaded me to return to the exhilaration of watching the sport after an accumulation of short moments whereby my curiosity was piqued by the live broadcasting of a try and the tone in which it was delivered. 

Dad still yells from downstairs to let me know of a stellar try that I just “cannot miss” from time to time, it’s become an unspoken tradition. 

Despite my ardent fervour for competitive sport and watching rugby league from the comforts of my living room, there is an abject dissonance that occurs within me when attending rugby matches at a live stadium. The alloy of rough, unapologetic men with their manspreading that should cost them an extra half-seat, turns the stadium into a sea of loud-mouthed hyenas. These unfiltered thoughts and unruly roars permeate my conscious first-generation Vietnamese self.  

In spaces where the drinking culture is fortified, where people hold overpriced beer in plastic cups as they squeeze their way in to be seated, boisterous uproar temporarily held upon downing a beverage, I hold myself together tightly. The architecture of my body wrapped in a cool exterior, deflecting any potential form of human contact out of fear that the direct acknowledgement of my character will suddenly compel them to single me out as the black sheep of the flock. 

The last eight months have brought undulating waves of tension and disquiet in public spaces. I am hyperaware of the glances thrown my way and am unsure whether to direct that as a quick look or one that carries disdain and microaggressions in a capsule. Trying to extricate myself from these thoughts is a strain. And entertaining the idea of surveillance in real life is just as scary as the next pop-up ad that comes up on a Facebook feed after a few Google searches. 

While casually browsing presents for a friend’s birthday, an older white woman walks past holding her handbag tight to her chest with one arm and uses her other arm to physically distance herself from others. No one else is nearby. Her outstretched arm signalling a clear message, “Stay away.” I watch her walk down the hallway and ask a worker where the ladies changeroom is. I follow her silhouette until she’s out of my reach. Moments like these make it hard to discern what is a mode of safety in the Covid-19-world, and what is an act of hostility. 

Within this private versus public dialectic, there is an interesting dynamic between the idea of comfort and discomfort, especially in the general space that the majority of rugby fans are found. Perhaps it’s the fact that for a diverse sport that has an ingrained Australian culture and avid fan-base, there is a lack of representation in Asian players which adds to the inherent dislocation that I find in attending games with a demographic that has a blasé approach to people like me. And, despite the fact that my dad is one of the biggest football fans I know, he doesn’t go to many footy games. There may be a part of him that is unconsciously holding back. 

I haven’t had this conversation with him yet, because I don’t know how to bring it up. There is this internalised pressure holding me back from going to games because of past experiences, and this heightened dread of what could come from attending one. Reclaiming control is a challenge that I am consistently battling. I want to reconstruct my reality as I see fit, intervening in the current state that my narrative has allotted me with. 

For Father’s Day, I took my dad to a footy game. Ripe with rivalries, the occasional raucous comment and light-hearted jeers slipped through on occasion. Though I am still dealing with the idea of reclaiming power and how best to resolve the blinding gaze and subjection to microaggressions or explicit comments, there is a resounding knowledge that my absence will only forcibly continue this method of erasure. I will cement my place as an equal, and plan to bring my dad to more footy games in the not-so-distant-future so that we can watch in rapt attention, alongside the stream of fanatics, with the world at our fingertips. 

About The Work

“Dragons on my red envelopes and jerseys” is a non-fiction piece exploring the intersections of Chinese-Vietnamese identity against the grain of rugby league, a staple of Australia’s Western sporting culture.  Christine sutures the ambiguous and fluctuating level of discomfort felt within a sphere that is predominantly occupied with white males who drown out other voices and take up more space than they need to because they can. She offers a gaze that is unflinching, pointing to the weighted presence of an outsider whilst asserting a breath of calm to this abject dissonance.

About The Creative

Christine Lai is a photographer and poet whose work seeks to capture in-between places where time appears to stand still. She is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies, majoring in English and Film. She was one of the virtual “Writers in Residence” for a new essay-writing program run by the Bankstown Arts Centre and Sydney Review of Books for the 2020 Bankstown Biennale. She was also part of “The Writing Zone”, a mentoring program that partnered with Western Sydney University and the Writing Society Research Centre for writers and arts workers in Western Sydney in 2020.