Born in Vietnam, made in Australia

by Pauline Nguyen

Selected for Best Australian Essays 2010

MY PARENTS ARE known as members of the ‘first generation' of Vietnamese refugees, who came to Australia after the Vietnam War. I, however, am known as part of the ‘1.5 generation'. Born in Vietnam, made in Australia. We are the children of defeated warriors who have tried to come to terms with the present life, and the act of negotiating the past with all its rules and traditions, in the hope that the two very different cultures could blend into one well-adjusted whole. This always seemed better in theory than in practice.

When Saigon fell to communist rule, in 1975, my father realised that he had no choice but to escape Vietnam. And the only way that he could do this was to build a boat and smuggle his family out to sea. I was three at the time and my brother Lewis was two. My grandmother begged my father not to leave. She couldn't understand how a parent could risk perishing at sea. But my father is a very determined man.

He stands at just five foot one, a little shorter than me, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in fearlessness and determination – and he had already made up his mind. He would rather die trying than risk imprisonment. Or a fate far worse, the re-education camps. ‘It's not enough that they want to take our freedom,' he would tell me. ‘They want to take our thoughts as well.' My father was determined that if we died, we would all die together.

So in October 1977, armed with only a rudimentary map and a compass, my father steered our tiny vessel out into the South China Sea. We spent days drifting and waiting and praying. We prayed that a foreign ship might come and save us. We prayed that we might find friendly shores. We prayed that the pirates wouldn't attack us. We prayed that our supplies would not run out.

Our prayers were not always answered. Ship after ship ignored our SOS, and at gunpoint a group of Malaysian soldiers pushed us off supposedly friendly shores before we landed in Thailand, where we spent a very difficult year in a refugee camp. Australia finally accepted us and put us up at the Westbridge Migrant Hostel, in the Sydney suburb of Villawood. My father quickly found a job working on the production line at the Sunbeam Factory in Campsie – on the graveyard shift from 2 pm to 2 am, the job nobody wanted.

The train ride home was the worst, he would later tell me. Every night was dangerous. The locals threatened to beat him and the worst bigots threatened to kill him. ‘Go home to your own country, you bastard,' they would yell.

My father cried every day going home on that train. We all cried a lot in those days. We came into a new country with nothing: no job, no house, no money. We didn't know the laws, the language or the systems. My father had nightmares – the same dream, over and over. He's back in Vietnam, preparing for our escape. He's back in the water, drifting day after day with nowhere to go. And then he wakes up.

 

MOST VIETNAMESE WHO came to Australia during this time settled in either Melbourne or Sydney. My father chose Cabramatta, in Sydney, for its strong sense of community. He liked the idea that a number of his friends had already set up a life for themselves in such a short time. He understood that the secret to their success was hard work and unconditional dedication, often fuelled by underlying desperation. It didn't surprise him that many of them had become astute business people, showing great aptitude as shopkeepers.

In the mid-1980s, my father fed his sudden urge to open a video library. ‘Asians love action movies,' he would say. The blockbuster releases at the time were Full Metal JacketPlatoonBorn on the Fourth of Julyand Good Morning, Vietnam. My father found a prime location in the centre of bustling John Street, the spine of Cabramatta's thriving commercial centre.

‘But why a video library, Dad?'

‘Same as the driving school,' he said. ‘No one else in Cabramatta's doing it.'

My father was considered a pioneer in the business community. Before opening a restaurant, he had dared to approach the local council about outdoor seating and shop renovation – a considerable feat for a new Vietnamese migrant. He became the first to offer alfresco dining, which proved a huge success.

Our restaurant offered a place for lonely migrants to meet and chat in their new and native tongues over a shared meal or coffee and ice-cream as they sat and watched the world go by. It made my father happy that his contribution and participation had helped so many rebuild their lives with confidence and hope.

Everybody works hard in Cabramatta. Seven days a week, the commercial centre is at full steam. Rest time comes once a year, in February, to celebrate the Lunar New Year. For most of their lives, my parents have worked seven days a week from 6.30 am until 10.30 pm. My father has closed the restaurant only once, when my grandmother passed away.

 

MY FATHER HAD constant flashbacks to the war. Part of his job as a lieutenant in artillery was to go back to the scene and count the dead bodies after a kill. One shell killed so many. The scars from his own bullet wounds resemble a question mark down the length of his spine.

Determined to succeed, my father took on a second job and then a third. At home he was always angry. He had an anger that none of us could explain. He would throw and smash things, and yell. Sometimes, he would just stand there and scream.

It wasn't long until he started to offload his anger on my mother, then on us, his children. My father was determined to raise four high-achievers. He wanted to make sure that the sacrifices he and my mother made were honoured.

If someone were to ask me what I remember most about my childhood, I would tell them it is overwhelming fear. Fear followed me everywhere, every day. My father kept three instruments of torture: a stiff and shiny billiard stick, a flexible cane whip and his most effective weapon, fear.

Twice a year we would bring home our school reports with dread. For every B, he caned us once. For every C, he caned us twice. We had to lie flat on our stomach and not budge until he finished, blow after blow hacking at the flesh on our buttocks and thighs. When he was done, he threw us a dollar for every A.

He used to say, ‘I created you and I have the power to destroy you.'

At seventeen, I ran away and spent many years hiding from my father. I would look over my shoulder everywhere, paranoid that familiar faces might follow me.

 

THERE COMES A time when you need to conquer fear. For the sake of my mother and my brothers, and for all the shame I brought my family while I was away, I reluctantly reconciled with my father. I would go home to visit out of duty. I hated those visits. I hated the sense of claustrophobia and suffocation I felt in his presence. Our meetings were stifled, false and tense.

What I hated the most was the realisation that I had grown up to be like him. I too was angry all the time. Angry at my loved ones, my friends, my work colleagues; angry with the world. Angry at myself. Angry people are very skilled at noticing all that is wrong.

Later, when my partner and I decided to have a child, I was determined that this cycle would end. I was determined to not be the same person I had always been, because I was frightened, frightened of history repeating. Frightened of treating my own child the way I had been treated.

Towards the end of my pregnancy, I landed a book deal to write a memoir about my family. As I wrote, my fears returned. I worried: How could I possibly survive my father's reaction to the story?

There are ten chapters in my book. It's not meant to be a scathing account of my father's behaviour, but a beautiful story about personal freedom, family and hope. But in order to talk about the good things I had to talk about the bad things. I planned to finish the book and give it to him, so that he could see the full arc of the story. As I wrote, a cloud of dread hung over me.

By the time I finished the seventh chapter, my father demanded to read it. I freaked out. The seventh chapter was the most confronting, the most scathing about him – the most difficult chapter to write. I thought, He can't read it now. But you don't say no to my father: I had no choice but to hand over my unfinished manuscript. The story of his life, written by his prodigal daughter.

I didn't hear from him for two months. I needed to finish my book and move on, so on Father's Day I decided to go home and face the music. With my beautiful baby daughter, Mia, I drove home to Bonnyrigg to confront my parents. I was so nervous and scared I could hardly breathe.

 

I'M NOT SCARED that he's going to hit me; we've passed that stage, I'm scared because my writing exposes him and our family stories and secrets to the world. I'm scared because he might give me some ridiculous ultimatum and say, ‘I forbid you to publish this book.'

I'm scared because I'm about to do something that's never been done before. I'm about to take responsibility to end this family's pattern. I'm about to confront my father to make things better.

So Mia and I wait at the front door. I've brought a case of my father's favourite red wine as a peace offering. When the doors open they take Mia, kiss her, cuddle her; they're so happy to see her. I see that they've made a feast for me. When we sit down to eat, I ask, ‘Dad, what do you think about my story?'

‘It's good, it's good, but there's just one thing wrong.'

‘What's that, Dad?"

‘The fish-sauce recipe's wrong.'

‘What do you mean, the fish-sauce recipe's wrong?'

This can't be happening.

Later, I ask him again: ‘Dad, what do you think about my book?' I get the same answer about the fish-sauce recipe. I'm frustrated that we're never going to define our relationship. We're never going to connect; I'm never going to finish my book; I won't be able to move on. I get Mia ready and gather our things.

I'm just about to leave when I ask him one last time. ‘Dad, what do you really think about my book?'

And in a voice sad and serious he says, ‘Do you know why Buddha sits on a lotus flower?'

‘No, Dad. Why does Buddha sit on a lotus flower?'

‘There is nothing as beautiful as a lotus flower. Out of watery chaos it grows. Emerging from the depths of a muddy swamp, and yet remaining so pure and unpolluted by it. So pure you can eat it, all of it, the leaves, the roots, the seeds, the petals. But the lotus flower has another characteristic. Its stem you can easily bend, but you cannot easily break. It has tenacious fibres that hold the plant together.

‘My children are lotus flowers. You have grown out of the aftermath of war. You have grown up in Cabramatta during its murkiest time. And you have grown out of me. I am mud, I am dirt, I am shit. I am very lucky to have you all.'

With those words he gave me everything I had been waiting for. He never apologised, but he acknowledged the harm he had inflicted. Now, when I think about my father, I think about forgiveness; I think about redemption, and about hope, and about unfailing courage in the face of adversity.

 

IN OCTOBER 2007, Murdoch Books published Secrets of the Red Lantern. It has been translated into two languages, won numerous awards and touched the lives of many people. This made my partner, my brother and me realise that as restaurateurs, business people and human beings, we have a social responsibility to make a difference.

At Red Lantern we have embarked on a journey to promote ethical eating. We use the freshest in local sustainable and organic produce, and aim to leave as light an environmental footprint as possible, while staying true to our Vietnamese origins. We have transformed Red Lantern's backyard into a ‘garden of tranquillity' where we grow our own herbs and vegetables. We recycle everything, even our food scraps. Our aim is to reduce our garbage waste by at least two wheelie bins a week.

 

WHEN I WAS asked to write a second book, my initial answer was no. I had to face many personal demons to write the first book. As I was about to decline the offer, I received three letters. It was a Friday morning, and I spent most of it in the back shed of our restaurant sobbing.

The first was from a woman who lives in Western Australia. She wrote that after reading Secrets of the Red Lantern, she felt an incredible sense of loss and guilt. Loss, because before reading the book, she never knew what it meant to be an immigrant, refugee or boat person. And guilt, because she had mistreated the immigrant kids at school. Now, twenty years after leaving school, she needed to make amends.

The second letter was from a couple living in Woollahra, in Sydney. They celebrated the wife's birthday at Red Lantern and bought a copy of the book. They wrote that some onions must have got caught in the pages, as they both sat up all night reading and crying tears of applause. They said that although it was a Vietnamese migrant story it was also their story, and their story had never been told in such a way before. They had fled Nazi Germany.

The third letter left me speechless. A man from Cecil Park, in Sydney's outer west, wrote eight pages. He too was a victim of child abuse, and after reading the book he was inspired and determined to return to his home country to try to find the reasons for his father's behaviour. He wrote that he was inspired to go back to Ireland to try to find answers, and compassion and peace.

The next thing to do was to ask my parents, and my nervousness and fear returned. When I told my father about the second book, his answer threw me. ‘How can you say no? You cannot. There are so many people out there with stories to tell but no voice to tell it. You have been given this opportunity and you must say yes.'

So with the blessing of my parents and the powerful words of others, I have agreed to write a second book, another Secret...

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 27: Food Chain © Copyright Griffith University & the author.