Country of origin
From North Vietnam to South Vietnam
I was born in North Vietnam. In 1954, when I was four year old, my country was divided into two: the Communist government controls the North; the South was under a Republican regime. For a limited period of time, people were allowed to choose the regime they preferred before the barrier between the two parts closed. My parents owned an enormous house, a shopping centre and a weaving factory in the North, but they decided to leave all their property and join the 800,000 people moving to the South. Empty-handed with their five very young children, they comforted themselves by saying: “As long as we are still alive and healthy, we can start our life all over again.”
Even now I can never forget the quiet and beautiful autumn views in my front garden during the very first years of my life, the flood which one covered half of my home town, and especially the day of farewell when my grandmas, uncles and aunties took turns to embrace me, kiss me, sob goodbye to me while my hair and cheeks were drenched with their warm tears.
Our first years in Saigon, the capital of the South, were very difficult. Even though there is only one language spoken throughout the country, the difference accents created some misunderstandings, hostility and suspicion, between “foreigners from the North”, as we were called, and the Southerners. To avoid being made fun of, my mother dared not open her mouth to bargain at the market like all other women. My brothers, sisters and I were abused by children at school or in the neighbourhood just because we were different in our accent, outfits and games. As a result, I was a very lonely, timid and sad little girl during my primary schooling.
Gradually, the discrimination faded away when the local residents had had enough time to get to know us, to understand our values, to appreciate our contributions to the society and, most important of all, to realize that we were also Vietnamese like themselves.
My parents again succeeded in their private business , so I enjoyed my life as a secondary and university student.
From city to remote town
I graduate from university to become a secondary teacher in 1971. All new, young and single teachers had to go to remote areas for at least 5 years before they could be transferred closer to the capital. In war time, further from the capital meant less security as troops from the North now developed the National Liberation Front in southern villages and used guerillas to fight against the Republican Army.
I was sent to Moc Hoa where people were torn between the two governments: Republican during the daytime and Communist at night. People had to slave in the paddocks to be able to pay tax to both governments. If a family sent their sons to the Republican Army only, at night the Communist troops would appear like ghosts, haunting around, chopping the father’s head off. If they sent their sons to the Communist troops only, their house would be burnt down and they would be imprisoned by the Republican side as they were considered Communists. Therefore, the wisest way was to send an equal number of sons to both armies, or if that was impossible, to set up false altars to their sons, pretending they were dead.
Communist troops hid pressure mines underneath the main road, which led to Moc Hoa. The buses that took me back and forth from Saigon to my school every weekend could explode at any moment during the trip, if their wheels happened to run right on top of a hidden mine. No one could tell where the mines were until suddenly they turned the unfortunate vehicles and passengers into scattered pieces. At first, I was extremely frightened and tense during the hazardous journeys. But gradually, I looked around and realized that other passengers were so calm. Our people believe strongly in fate or destiny. This helps us accept our worst fate in calmness and cope well with whatever happens. So I got used to the danger.
My mother cried every time I came home and went again. She kept repeating these questions: ”What makes you play games with death? Why don’t you give up that job? Why don’t you stay here to help me in business? Why don’t you want an easy and safe life in Saigon?” I also asked myself the same questions many times; therefore, I knew the exact answers. Firstly, after twenty-one years of living in a strict and traditional family, I desperately wanted to move out of my parents’ house and their protection to see the world outside and to start my own life. Tradition forbade me to leave home unless I got married, otherwise I would be considered immoral my society and my parents might disown me to retain the family’s honour. I didn’t want to be married yet, so a faraway official job would be an excellent excuse for my adventure. Secondly, as mentioned above, millions of civilians were sharing the same fate with me, and millions of soldiers were in much more danger in daily battles with Communist enemies. Thirdly, and most important of all, my students’ eagerness in learning, despite their extremely hard lives, and their respect and affection for me drew me back there. Little did I know at that time that later on, thank to those very dear students of mine, I would escape from Vietnam in 1981.
From Republican to Communist regime
April 30, 1975, the last day of the Republican regime! Thirty years of civil war came to an end at last! No one, not even the communists themselves, could believe that the North would win the war. People blame the USA for suddenly cutting off military aid to South Vietnam. During April 1975, millions of people from all over the South fled to Saigon, thousands of them died on the way. By the end of April 1975, more than 100,000 people left Vietnam in panic. My parents decided not to evacuate. They said they had had enough with the evacuation in 1954, not being young any more, and they did not want to start their lives again, especially in another country.
Saigon was renamed Ho chi Minh City. The new red flags were now flying everywhere in the South. My parents whispered that the colour scared them; at it symbolized the thirst for killing of the cruel victors. They guessed there would be lots of revenge and punishment; blood would spill all over the South. But young people, or city people who had never had any experience with the communists, were more optimistic; I was among these. I had been growing up in wartime. I had been longing for peace for so long. I was thrilled to see my country re-unified. To me, no matter which side won, it was time to stop fighting and killing each other, it was time to rebuild our country together, after all we were compatriots.
I was eager to co-operate with the new regime, but it soon disappointed me in many ways.
On its very first days in power, it took over large and middle-sized private businesses and imprisoned or executed the owners. All the bank were closed and all customers’ deposits were confiscated. My parents were wise enough to voluntarily donate their business to the government in time, so they were safe.
By the end of May 1975, millions of former senior officials, military officers, literary people and intellectuals were sent to “re-education” camps. At first, they were told by the government that the re-education course was only ten days long and that no one should bring much luggage. But once they were in the camps, the truth was revealed to them: “You are the most dangerous enemies of our people. You should be executed at once. But lucky for you, our Communist leaders are very generous, so you are only kept here for re-education. If you show no improvement, you’ll be here for good.” The camps were called by South Vietnamese people “hells on earth”, where prisoners were turned into moving skeletons by extremely hard labour, starving rations and cruel torture. Many of my students’ fathers and brothers died in the camps. Many others survived but were very sick. The ten-day course became a five-year, a ten-year or a life sentence for millions of innocent souls.
In June 1975, my oldest brother was arrested for no reason. At midnight, five armed security policemen banged at our front and back doors and forced my father to open them. They rushed in, searched everywhere, turned our house upside down, then handcuffed my brother and took him away. Things happened so quickly and unexpectedly we could not even cry. My brother was only a former high school principal. I comforted my parents “They’ll soon find out this is merely a mistake. He’ll be set free soon.” But several months had passed by before a stranger came to my house with my brother’s message on a tiny, dirty piece of paper: “Oh Pa and Ma! I’m dying! Please save me by any means!” The man was recently released from the prison cell where he had been locked up with my brother. Through him, I knew that my brother was suspected of being a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent because he had spent two years studying librarianship in Australia and had come back to Vietnam in December 1974. They interrogated and tortured him to find out why he hadn’t left Vietnam for Australia when the South collapsed. My brother told them the truth; that he wanted to be close to his family and to live in his homeland, and that the course in Australia has nothing to do with the CIA in the USA. But they did not believe him. Instead, they believed that he was a stubborn and most dangerous man. They handcuffed and fettered him all day and night, threw him into cold water until he fainted, beat him cruelly and gave him only half a bowl of thin broth per day. He looked to my parents as his only helpers, but how could my parents help their beloved son when they themselves were powerless? My brother was shot dead in August 1975, despite dozens of touching appeals from my parents to the Government.
In September 1975, the currency was suddenly devalued by the government. Again, people were robbed blatantly. Many families committed suicide as they were turned destitute overnight. Each household was given a maximum of 200 new piasters. For a family of nine people like mine, 200 piasters were just enough for a month’s food.
Also in the same month, all books and printed materials published before April 1975, including bilingual dictionaries and textbooks on science, math and literature, were destroyed and forbidden. My family was very fond of books. We had been spending a fortune to build up a valuable family library, which we were very proud of. Now we watched our treasured books being burnt, trying not to cry.
By the end of 1976, almost 200,000 people were forced to move to New Economic Zones (NEZs), which were remote virgin lands or old battlefields. Many thousands of people were killed by malaria, or by mines and bombs left from the war. I was transferred to a high school in a NEZ. I had to teach eight hours a day, six days a week. On Sundays, I had to attend classes on Communism or labour on the collective farms. With no machines or buffaloes, we worked with our bare hands and with cheap quality tools. Fertilizer was scarce, our tears and sweat couldn’t help revive the dead lands, so our crops were almost nothing.
What disgusted me the most was the threat and stress I had to permanently cope with at school. There, I had to follow the main theme, which was prescribed for the whole education system from kindergarten to university: hatred of the old regime, of capitalism and individualism and love for Ho chi Minh and other Communist leaders. As a literature teacher, I had a prescribed daily program to stick to, which consisted solely of propaganda pieces and works written by the communist leaders. I had to assess my students’ achievement by their loyalty to the government, not by their knowledge or effort. Like a parrot, I had to repeat what I learned from the Sunday classes and read from new textbooks. Actually, I felt myself more pitiful than a parrot as every word I repeated hurt me badly. My family’s properties had been taken away, my dearest brother had been shot dead, my parents had aged drastically in sorrow and day by day I had to preach that the regime was wonderful, the leaders were brilliant and generous. I knew my students didn’t believe what I preached either, as their fathers and brothers were also dying slowly in the “hells on earth”. Did I dare speak my mind? Absolutely not! I didn’t want anymore trouble for my family. Among the students, there were always some spies. Many of my colleagues had been handcuffed and taken away in front of their classes only because these spies had reported to the authorities some careless words said by their teachers, words which, according to the authorities’ analysis, sounded anti-communist.
Motivation for leaving and difficulties
Many families in my neighbourhood quietly and suddenly disappeared. So did many friends of mine. No one knew they had escaped until they found out that their houses were empty or until they received their letters from overseas. These letters described how they organized their secret trips, how they were chased by the patrols, how they suffered the high waves and the storms, and how they were attacked by the pirates. I knew that only a small percentage made it, most were caught by the Vietnamese police or killed by storms or pirates. But I decided to flee. Freedom is invaluable, my life is also invaluable. I’d rather have both or neither of them.
My salary was only enough for my modest breakfasts; therefore I still relied on my parents for finance. They had to sell their furniture, clothes and other belongings to buy cheap food for the whole family. Could they afford to pay an enormous sum of money for me to escape? They could if they sold their last property- the house. I didn’t want to be selfish. Moreover, having money was one thing, finding a good and true person who could help me out was another thing. Many people lost their fortunes and were put in jail because they trusted the wrong person-one who was a cheat or a spy.
While I was waiting for my chance, my older sister died in 1979 of malnutrition and my younger sister died in 1980 of illness and lack of medicine. My younger brother was forced to join the army and went to fight in Kampuchea. My big family was now reduced to half the size in such a tragic way. As I was the only daughter left and my parents would need my care, I gave up my hope of escape. I prepared myself to stay back forever, putting up with the regime I resented.
Preparation for leaving
But in 1981, an unexpected visit from Hong, my old student in Moc Hoa, marked a turning point in my life. Hong said he and four others, old students of mine, had, for the past two years, been building a 13 metre long, 2.5 metre wide boat, while pretending to be fisherman. They were familiar with the routine they would use to escape, and with the checking times at checkpoints. The government set up checkpoints at every 10 kms along the roads and riverbanks in Vietnam. To go from one town to another, we had to write an application to the authorities, explaining the reason for the trip. If lucky, we would be given a permit, which we had to present to the police at every checkpoint, together with our identity cards. If we passed a checkpoint without stopping, the police would shoot us. My students found out what time the police at a particular checkpoint were busy eating and drinking and neglecting their duty. They wanted to take me with them as they loved and trusted me. My parents urged me to join them, because this was the best chance I would ever have. They could have made a fortune by selling tickets to people who wanted to escape with them but they had no commercial intentions, so I contributed some money to buy a map and a compass. Vu, our boat captain, was only twenty years old but very competent and trustworthy. He was an excellent mechanic. To avoid being suspected by the authorities, he bought used motor parts from different places, then built a powerful motor by himself. He also thought out a terrific plan for the journey. Some extracts from my diary will reveal what his plan was.
The dangerous journey (extracts from my diary)
9.00 p.m. Sunday 27/9/1981
Hong comes from My Tho to inform that everything is ready and I have to go to My Tho by bus with him tomorrow morning. I try to calm myself down, but I can’t. I feel like crying but my eyes and throat are dry. I look around my dear home, everyone and everything appears so solemn and quiet. I stare at them as if I haven’t ever seen them before. I will be parting from them forever, won’t I? The coming adventure is very different from those I made to Moc Hoa in wartime. This is a one-way trip. If I make it, I’ll be a refugee for the rest of my life. Should anything go wrong, I’ll end up in jail or in another world! Tonight is the only time for me to cry for what I am going to lose, because tomorrow morning I’m supposed to act as normally as possible when I leave home. Hong breaks the heavy silence by talking about the plan for tomorrow. According to him, I only wear an old shirt and a pair of black trousers and carry in my bag nothing but a bottle of wine wrapped in red cellophane and a packet of incense. Hong also gives me a permit that Vu bought for me. The wine, incense and permit will help me get through the checkpoints from Saigon to My Tho, as I am to lie to the police that my uncle’s son has just died, and I am going to his home in My Tho to pay respect and share the grief. Vu carefully chooses this trick because he is afraid that I may cry on the way; if so, the wine and incense will explain to the police the reason for my read eyes and tears.
4.00 p.m. Monday 28/9/1981
Things have gone smoothly as planned. I came to My Tho market at noon. Hong disappeared in the crowd after reminding me of the rest of the plan. I crossed Tien Giang river by ferry boat to go to Ben Tre province district. Vu was waiting for me at a cafeteria by the riverbank. I pretended not to know him. I walked past him to make sure he saw me.
After I finished my cup of coffee, he left the cafeteria with me following quietly behind. He led me through many winding alleys to a fishing hamlet. Now and then I looked backward to make sure that no one was following us. Most people organize their escape at nighttime; Vu organized ours at daytime, therefore no one took notice of us. At last, Vu stopped at a house with a thatched roof; its door was already open. Two people came out and joined us, the bags in their hands also showed some presents wrapped in red cellophane. We went to a sampan and Vu rowed us to the boat. I am now safe in the boat waiting for other small groups of people to come.
4.00 p.m. Wednesday 30/9/1981
62 people are on board now. The crew is on the deck. The passengers are squashed in the cabin like sardines in a tin. Young children have been put to sleep with sleeping tablets before going on board. No one is allowed to make a single noise. We are ready to leave Mekong River for the sea.
8.00 p.m. Wednesday 30/9/1981
We have passed many checkpoints. In five minutes’ time, we’ll get to the river mouth; that is the last and most dangerous checkpoint. Vu had bought a legal license for his boat and fishing permits for the crew, but if the police suspect and search the boat, we’ll be arrested at once. We plan to hide in the mangrove bush, waiting until midnight. But it’s suddenly pouring with rain. The sky and water are as dark as ink outside. We change our plan was the rain will give us cover. We are passing the river mouth now. The engine is running at full speed. Everyone is breathless and extremely nervous.
20 minutes later… I’ve heard a cry of joy from Hong: “we’ve made it!” Then suddenly the engine has stopped dead. The gear box has broken. Vu is now quickly and skillfully replacing with a new one with his friends’ help.
Last night and this morning we were terribly seasick. Everyone, except the crew, vomited until there was nothing left in their stomachs. The wind was very strong and the sea was very rough. Vu wanted to go southwest towards Malaysia, but the wind blew the boat southwards. Big waves poured water into the boat hold. Young men had to take turns to scoop the water out.
The dynamo was burnt out. Again, Vu had predicted this trouble. He calmly replaced it with a new one. I am very thirsty but I don’t want to drink because if I do, I will vomit and get more tired and thirsty. Hong gave me a slice of fresh orange. I hold it in my mouth, feeling revived.
The sea has been getting darker and darker. We realize that we are lost; we have gone too far out to sea instead of towards land.
We saw about ten international merchant ships today. We used our flash, burnt out clothes and waved a big white flag, but they ignored us.
12.00 p.m. Sunday 4/10/1981
This morning Vu stopped the boat to fix some parts of the engine. It was really a beautiful Sunday today, but everyone was too exhausted and anxious to enjoy it. The crew had their first snap after many exhausting days and nights. Some strong young men cooked a big pot of broth. We were having our first meal on board when a boy shouted out: “An aircraft! There! Up there!” Everyone rushed to the deck and the cabin roofing, shouting and waving. The crew woke up, made an SOS signal with a flash, again and again. Clothes were put together and burnt. The aircraft saw us. It descended very close to our boat, circled around above our heads many times, then flew away. Only five minutes later, three warships appeared on the horizon. One of them, the USS Roark, sailed directly towards our boat. It stopped in the distance. A motorboat from the ship was launched and headed for us. An engineer jumped onto our boat, examined our engine and certified that it was broken (actually, Vu had quickly and wisely damaged it not long before). The engineer used radio to talk to his captain for a while, then turned to us “Our captain gives the order to pick you up. Congratulations!” My tears, which had been kept in for a long week, now flowed out freely and continuously. Many officers and sailors on the ship rushed to the deck with their cameras to take photos of our boat, while others got ready to rescue us.
I am now perfectly clean and recovered after a warm shower and a light meal on this benefactor ship. The new uniforms they gave us are too big but much better than our revolting old clothes. My companions are sleeping or watching TV, only I am sitting here at a balcony, looking at the blue sky and dark green sea and writing these lines.
The USS Roark sailed into Penang, an island off Malaysia this morning. Officers and sailors were allowed to go onto the island for shopping or entertainment. But sixty-two of us have to stay on the ship, waiting for entry permission from the Malaysian government. An officer came back from Penang and showed us an article about us in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper.
U.S. SHIP SAILS IN WITH 62 “BOAT PEOPLE”
Penang, Wed. – A US navy frigate arrived here today with 62 Vietnamese refugees it picked up from a boat drifting in the South China Sea.
The USS Roark sailed in at 9a.m. and was anchored a mile of the Kedah Pier. It was immediately placed under quarantine by the Malaysian authorities.
Officers from the US Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have arrived here from Kuala Lumpur for investigations.
Navy sources said the USS Roark, part of the US Seventh Fleet, was in the South China Sea with its 200 officers and crewmembers on board last Sunday when it received a signal from an aircraft informing it of people in distress.
“With the instructions given, the USS Roark sailed towards the refugee boat” the sources said.
“The refugees-men, women and children-were then taken aboard the ship”.
On checking the boat, the crew found that it had run out of fuel and food supply. “We cannot confirm how long these people had been drifting in the sea” the sources said.
The ship, which is on a routine call here, is scheduled to leave on Monday for the Philippines.
The sources said the ship would have to take the refugees with it on its journey until it could find a port, which agreed to accept them. Several programmes, which had been planned for schoolchildren to visit the USS Roark, had been cancelled.
Long days in the refugee camp
This is a telegram I sent to a dear friend of mine in Melbourne, as soon as I came to Kuala Lumpur, after seven days on the USS Roark:
“Rescued by US ship. Inform my parents. Send me money and sponsorship. Thinh Hoang, USS Roark, Sungei Besi Transit Camp, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.”
As I was picked up by a US ship, I was supposed to be settled in the USA, but I insisted on asking to go to Australia. The Australian delegation members were so pleased to hear that a refugee rejected the USA for Australia that they came to the camp to see me, and approved my application straight away. My case was very unusual, as most refugees preferred the USA. I told them about my eldest brother and what I knew about Australia through him. They sympathized with me and promised to put my name on the earliest flight list to Melbourne. I didn’t need my friend’s sponsorship anymore.
While waiting for the flight, every day in the camp seemed as long as a year to me. We were locked in the camp and treated like prisoners by the local police. Life was monotonous with daily routine, waiting in a long line for a litre of hot water and a pack of instant noodles in the morning, waiting again in an endless line for a bowl of rice and a tiny piece of rotten fish at lunch, and again for the same rice and fish at dinnertime. Day by day nothing ever changed. Three thousand and five hundred of people in the camp share the same boredom and anxiety. Only on Fridays, when the mail came, did people become excited with hope. But letters received were very scarce and money sent by relatives or friends was rare. Therefore the mail days brought more disappointment than joy.
My friend’s first letter didn’t come until Friday 20/11/1981. His bank cheque of $A200 also came on the same day. Being destitute for so long, suddenly I became so rich! I went straight to the only shop in the camp to buy sugar, beans and coconut to cook a big pot of delicious sweet soup to give a party to the orphans in the camp. I also bought material to make a traditional Vietnamese outfit for myself to wear on the day I left Malaysia for Australia. I gave some money to people who had been in the camp for many years and who suffered the most as they had lost contact with their relatives or friends.
My pocket became almost empty again, when the loudspeaker read out my name from the flight list for Melbourne on 24/11/1981.
First day in Australia-Enterprise Hostel
Dear Mum and Dad,
I and fifty-five other refugees left Sungei Besi at 6.00 p.m. yesterday. Two buses took us to Kuala Lumpur airport. From there the DC10 flew us to Melbourne. The meal on the Boeing was the best meal I have ever had in my life, not only because it was the opposite from what I had in the camp, but also because it proved that I was a free person from now on and the long nightmare was over.
After 7 hours and 35 minutes flying, the Boeing landed smoothly on the airstrip of Tullamarine Airport at 8.00 a.m. (which was 5.30 a.m. in Malaysia). Walking down the ladder, I was hit by the freezing cold and couldn’t stop myself shivering. They told me summer would come in five days and now was the best time of the whole year. I couldn’t imagine how terrible the winter cold would be!
At the airport, we were divided into two groups: thirty three people waited for another flight to Adelaide and twenty three people including me were transported to Enterprise Hostel by bus.
The hostel staff waited for us and gave us a very warm welcome when we stepped out of the bus. After the check-in procedure, I was shown to my room. It was room 14 in Block A, Birch Building. Everything looked perfectly neat and clean. I liked it here very much.
After having lunch at the hostel dining room, I asked the way to Springvale Shopping Centre, and then went for a walk. Before I left the camp in Malaysia, people gathered around me, cried and begged me send their letters to their relatives in Vietnam, because they could not afford the stamps and because their letters had more chance of getting to Vietnam from Australia than from the camp. So I had forty letters to post and only twenty dollars in my pocket! At the post office, I gave the bundle of letters and the twenty dollars to a lady behind the counter. She weighed every letter, put a stamp on it, and entered the price into the register. At last, the total was nineteen dollars and eighty-five cents! I was so glad to have enough money for those letters that I forgot to spare one stamp for this letter. Please forgive me. I know how desperate you are to hear from me. I hope I can borrow some money from the hostel to send you a telegram and to buy myself some second-hand warm clothes.
Melbourne is very different from Saigon. There are more cars in the streets than people on the footpaths here. Most houses are one storey and no doors are open! I am still too excited to feel lonely but the immense quietness here makes me homesick. I miss our permanently busy, noisy and crowded streets. I miss our dense town where everyone knows each other, cares for each other and doors are wide open during the day to welcome whoever wants to drop in for a chat or to borrow or return something. Food is abundant and nutritious here, but I miss your delicious cooking so much, mum.
Shops and supermarkets here impress me the most. They are full of goods, all sorts of goods. People are free to choose what they like, if they agree with the marked price, they pay and get the item. How easy and simple it is! I wish I had money to buy you some presents; some canned food, so that you don’t have to wait in line for hours for your horrible ration.
To have money, I have to work. But to be able to get a job, I have to learn English first. The English spoken here is very different from the American English taught in schools in Vietnam. Now I am like a deaf and dumb person. Without an interpreter, I’m hopeless. A bright future is waiting for me but I have to struggle my way to get it, and English is the key. Please cheer up. Don’t worry about me. If I did not fear any dangers and hardships in the horrible past, why can’t I overcome difficulties and trials in this promising present? Half of my dream has come true; the other half will come when you join me here. It will take us four or five years to reunite. I’ll try my best to make that reunion day the greatest day in our lives, by working as hard as I can and by earning as much money as possible, so that I will be able to take you from the airport to our own home, which can be small, ugly and old but which belongs to us! That is the only way to fulfill my duty as your only and beloved daughter, and to compensate just a modest part of what you have been sacrificing for me all your lives.
I’ll write to you every week. Please write to me as frequently as possible, as I miss you so much. Every night I meet you in my dreams, sometimes I see myself back home, and my tears wake me up. Please take good care of yourselves, keep yourselves not only safe but also healthy and joyful for our great reunion day. If you can’t smile as life is hell there, please think about me and smile for me. Please give my best regards to our relatives, friends and neighbours, I miss them all.
A stanza from my first poem in Australia- “I am in deep happiness”
Freedom is blooming as new sunshine,
My eyes are reflecting the immense ocean of trust and love,
The tree of future is full of buds and young branches,
I am in deep happiness and I know it.
A letter from home: Bad news and anxiety
Ho chi Minh city, 22 June 1982
I am sorry to tell you that our mother has been suffering from severe backache. She can’t walk, stand or even sit up. Doctors say her backbone is seriously lacking in calcium due to enduring hardship and malnutrition, so it can’t hold her hold her body properly anymore. Every slight move hurts her badly. Doctors advise her to lie straight in her bed and have as much rest as possible. They say nutritious food and good medicine will help her recover sooner. But as you know, our family can’t afford either of them. Our father has also been suffering from stomachache due to continuous worries and insomnia. If you met your parents now, you might not recognize them. Sickness has changed them dramatically. They forbid me to tell you about the bad things from home. But I am sick of covering up the truth and lying that we are all well here. I believe that you are brave enough to read this letter. I also hope that you can help our mother before it’s too late.
I know that you are on the dole and doing your English course, it’s unfair to put our family’s burden on your shoulders now, but this is urgent, and you are the only person we can count on.
I am looking forward to hearing from you. Please be calm. Take care. We all miss you and love you.
My brother’s letter came to me in mid-August 1982, right at the worst time for the Australian economy. Thousands of people had been out of work. Many factories had closed down. With my limited English and self-confidence, I dragged my legs from factory to factory, day by day, trying to look for a job, but in vain. Someone advised me to do piecework at home, but I couldn’t afford even a second-hand sewing machine. Someone advised me to stick to a particular factory, to keep on coming back and waiting there, and to make the boss feel moved by my patience as well as my desperate situation. Surprisingly, this method worked! A shoe factory boss let me try a job which was to stitch a V shape to decorate tips of leather shoes. He gave me whole morning to practice. The job looked simple but was actually difficult for me, as I have little experience in sewing and no experience in using the machine. It went too fast for me to control it. I tried and tried.. Three hours had passed.. My back, arms and hands were stiff and exhausted… my clothes drenched with sweat… but the V shape I made was still deformed. The boss shook his head, “I’m sorry that I can’t accept you. It’s lunch time now. I have to go out. Bye bye.” I burst out crying: “Could I please stay here and try until you’re back? Just give me a last chance, please.” The kind man nodded his head and went. So, a miracle, I was successful in making a nice V shape as he came back, and got the job.
Some poems written in December 1982
(They describe my loneliness, homesickness and tiredness after long hours in the factory.)
Walking up in the middle of the night,
My heart is full of frustration.
The cold loneliness and sadness
Have penetrated into my bones.
Why don’t I scream?
Why don’t I run wildly?
Why am I staying here
As soft and hopeless as a piece of cotton?
Struggling heavily, for life or death?
Scenes are dizzily rotating around me
I find myself: a sick dog
Curling up in tiredness and misery.
Starting to rot away
are the buds on my Tree of Hope
Starting to run out of strength
are my flopped legs and arms.
CROSSING A RIVER
Alone, I cross a cold river in the afternoon,
Continuous rain spreads a smokey white net
And saturates my homesick heart.
Only me in the boat, but it seems overloaded.
Sobbing and staring at the distance
Trying to look for my faraway homeland,
I can only see the emptiness and motionlessness.
Oh! My life has been drifting in nightmares!
Shifting within Australia and reasons
Within the first ten months in Australia, I moved from the hostel to Sunshine, from Sunshine to Sydney, then from Sydney back to Melbourne to live in Ardeer. Later on, I left Ardeer for Northcote then Carlton then North Melbourne, and now Rosanna.
After every exhausting shift, I promised to myself: “This is the very last time. No more!” But always something came up and forced me to move on like a gypsy. For instance, when was sharing a flat with a girlfriend in Sunshine, my parents urged me to go to Sydney to join my twenty-one-year-old cousin, Ha, who had just arrived from the camp. After two months living together, we had a big argument, as I couldn’t stand the fact that she had too many boyfriends, went out too much and made no attempt to study or work at all; and she criticized me, and said that I was an awfully old-fashioned spinster who stupidly clung to unsuitable Vietnamese traditions while living in Australia.
I went back to Melbourne, shared a house with a Vietnamese family in Ardeer and worked like a dog in the shoe factory.
In 1983, I passed the English entry test and was approved for the Diploma of Education course at La Trobe University. Ardeer was too far away, so I moved to Northcote to be able to get to the university with only one bus.
The workload of this one-year course was very heavy, even for the Australian-born students; therefore it was a real nightmare for me. Later in the year, I moved to my classmate’s high-rise flat in Carlton so that we could study together, travel to and from the university with her car, and share the cooking and chores. Only by doing so, could we help each other to catch up with the work and finish the course successfully, as she was also a new arrival, from Turkey.
In 1984, I passed the employment interview with the Education Department and got a job as a Vietnamese Community Language teacher at Richmond West Primary School. Having a secure job, I felt more settled, so I allowed myself to go out with my friends in my spare time. Tien was introduced to me by a colleague of mine, at the end of 1984. Tien was the poorest of the five men who wished to marry me, but I chose him because his family situation was very similar to mine, and he himself had all the characteristics that I admired from my eldest brother. We got married in September 1985, and I moved to his high-rise flat in North Melbourne. In this year, I was also transferred to Debney Meadows Primary School, which is very close to my husband’s flat.
Early in 1986, I saved up enough for the minimum deposit and met the requirements for a home loan. My husband and I are now living in my own home, a little old weather-board house in Rosanna, waiting for the rest of my dream to come true-the great reunion day with my parents.
Friends and benefactors in Australia
When I was in Vietnam, my parents were my great benefactors, but I didn’t realize that until I was thousands of miles away from home, struggling with life, all by myself.
I viewed the USS Roark crew and the Australian delegation members as my saviours as they saved me from death and hopelessness.
I was extremely moved when Judith, a widow with two young children in Sunshine, voluntarily visited me at home every week, explained to me the way of life in Australia and helped me to practice speaking English.
I have been treasuring the love and care I received from Anna, a very kind lady in Ardeer. Before I knew her, I had walked along her street on the way to and back from work every day. I had watched her pretty house and beautifully decorated front garden with admiration. I had wished her door would open once for me to see the artistic owner. One day I happened to walk side by side with Anna along the street. She greeted me first and talked to me. Busily concentrating on the conversation, I didn’t realize she had stopped in front of her house until she cordially invited me in for a cup of coffee. It was she who was the owner I wished to meet! I told her about my wish come true. She held me tightly in her arms and kissed me: “Oh, my child, you can drop in here any time you want. This is your home from now on.” By that time, I was in the worst doldrums as described in the poems “Midnight” and “Crossing a river”, and this is coincidental meeting with this wonderful lady cheered me up tremendously. She has become my dear Australian since then.
Amongst the great benefactors who helped me to get through the pressure and difficulties of getting back my teaching career is my lecturer H.M. Her hard working life itself is an excellent example for me. I understand that she devotes her life to what she believes in; a happier school life and brighter future for children with little English, and a better chance for newly arrived non English-speaking background migrants who want to become teachers to help those children in more practical and efficient ways. Since 1975 she has taken students like me into the Diploma of Education course to train as bilingual teachers to cater for the high population of non-English speaking background students in Victoria. During my course, I intended to drop out several times due to my lack of self-confidence, but it was she who patiently persuaded me to remain and who used her lunchtime to help solve my academic as well as personal problems.
I am grateful to Jenny, a lovely friend of mine, who has spent an enormous amount of time to look for a suitable house for me. A nice house in a nice area at a cheap price to suit my little pocket of money was not easy to find. But she made it, with her pleasant manner and patience.
My people don’t use “thank you” often like the way people use it here. We reserve it for special occasions when someone does a really good thing for us and we feel really grateful to that person. I would like to say thank you to many other friends and colleagues, apart from those I have mentioned above.
As for the people who look down on me, thinking they are superior to me only because they happened to be born in a country different from mine, I am not angry with them. I only wonder: “If they swap their life with mine, how far would they get through the hardship?” I strongly believe that our true values are implicit in what we ourselves attempt to achieve in life, not in what we inherit from someone else.
Ai Cơ (Thinh Hoang)
Victoria, Australia, 1989
Retired highschool teacher