I told you about finding that “Feedback” link the other day. I found more there than I had anticipated. One of the people who wrote turned out to be a longtime reader who seemed to know me quite well. However she was not all that happy to write comments and so I never knew she was there. But luckily I now know, so this is for her.
Dear Rebecca, thank you so much for those links you gave me, you should see my reactions in some coming posts. But today I want to tell you just a tiny bit of my connection to Vietnamese people whom I have met over the last thirty odd years. Some of my other readers will have heard this story before so I won’t elaborate any more other than to say that the boys I met in that small school in that inner suburb of Melbourne affected the way I thought about Vietnamese, and Greek and Italian and Lebanese and all the other people who have come from other countries to find a life in Australia.
You know how some old bores want to tell jokes all the time and they start with, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” But they don’t mean it. Well I am not going to ever apologise for telling this story again and again.
St Joseph’s College in North Fitzroy was my favourite ever school to teach in. Unfortunately it was ‘rationalized’ out of existence by the gentrification of so much of inner suburban Melbourne. The school had as many different nationalities of people as it had students. There were a large number of Vietnamese ‘Boat people’.
One day I asked each boy in one of my Year Seven classes to give a talk on “How my family came to live in Australia.” It was appropriate because all but one student had been born overseas.
Tam was a small happy boy and he told us the following story.
‘When I was six my mother and father sold everything we owned to get gold to pay the man who would get us out of Vietnam. Then one night we went down to the river and crawled onto a raft and floated downstream until we met the Mekong. There we got onto a bigger boat. There were ten other families. With us were my mother and father and my baby sister Li. Li was only two. As we went down the river we had to be very quiet because the soldiers would hear us.
Finally we floated out into the South China sea. The men who worked the boat started the engine and we set out for Malaysia. On the first day of the trip we were attacked by pirates who stole almost everything on the boat. We were very frightened.
The next day we attacked again by different pirates. All of the children were in the bottom of the boat in the oily water and our job was to keep the little ones quiet. The pirates were very angry that we had nothing for them to steal so they beat most of the men and attacked the women. They took my auntie with them and some of the other women.
On the next five days the same thing happened and I saw my mother attacked by the soldiers every time. On the eighth day the pirates were so angry that they killed my mother with a sword and threw her into the sea with some of the other women and men.
I don’t remember how many days went by but near the end when all of the children were hiding in the bottom my little sister Li started to cry. The pirates came and took her and started to play catch with her, throwing her from our boat to their boat and back. The leader of the pirates got angry and held up his sword and caught Li on it like a satay stick. Then he threw her in the sea. I was very, very sad.
The next day we saw the coast of Malaysia. The pirates were attacking us and the Malaysian navy just waited until the breakers tossed us onto the beach. We had no engine because the pirates had stolen it a couple of days before. We stayed in the camp in Malaysia for three years and then we came to Australia.’
Tam spoke for about ten minutes and I have left a lot of the story out because it is so terribly true, but by the time he sat down there were tears pouring down the face of every student and adult in the class. It came to “Question Time”. Someone asked Tam, “Tam, if all that happened how come you are always so happy?”
“Because I’m here. And because I’m alive.”
And Tam was, without any doubt, the happiest smilingest student in the school.
And now reading what I wrote a few years ago I can’t help but go back to that room where the mixture of tears and laughter still make a cocktail that breaks open my heart.