We could start somewhere else

On 20 April 1983, my family arrived in Australia.

The story of our migration from Viet Nam to Australia is full of so many threads that I have yet to pull together, yet to fully comprehend.

I guess the real story of my family’s migration to Australia started well before I was born and has its phases: the broad story of why, the intricacies of how and when.

In early 1975, towards the end of the Vietnam War, US troops who were leaving Vietnam made a unilateral offer to take any South Vietnamese who wished to go with them to the US. Three of my uncles, the third, the eighth and the twelfth (Tien, Quan and Y) decided to take this offer. Without telling my grandparents, they left Vietnam with the expectation of arriving in the US and then bringing the rest of my family over. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese who went with the US troops were unceremoniously dumped in Hong Kong, the troops returning to the US without taking my uncles with them. My grandmother did not know where they were, and was distraught. My father, being a practical and logical man, realised that my uncles had gone with the US troops. I do not know how my uncles finally contacted my grandmother, or even when they arrived in Australia.

In 1979, the communist government of Vietnam declared that part Chinese persons were free to leave the country. My family lived in an area that was predominantly Chinese-Vietnamese (Bac Lieu); both my maternal grandparents’ parents had been Chinese and my paternal grandfather was half-Chinese.

My grandmother chose 1979 as the time to leave. Assisting her decision was the government’s decision to compulsorily acquire my grandfather’s fishing business and boats. She went with my eldest brother and the rest of my aunts and uncles (excepting my mother, aunts number four and seven), and their children. At this time, only my immediate family was almost fully formed. Only I, the youngest of eight, was yet to be born. Aunt number six was married and had, at that stage, two sons. Her husband’s mother refused to allow the eldest to leave Vietnam and so he remained. An aunt-in-law, the wife of uncle Tien (number three) had one son. She also accompanied my grandmother.

My family were not strongly political. My father’s family were landowners, and he himself was staunchly nationalist but despised most political leaders for their unethical behaviour. All of my family, both my father’s and mother’s side were pacifist – evading where possible any involvement in the war.

My grandmother, eldest brother, aunts, uncles and cousins went by rickety boat, onto the high seas. I do not know if they went first to Malaysia, as we later would, or whether they travelled as directly as they knew how. I do not know if Australia was then their goal, or if at that stage it was the US. At that time, I believe my grandmother knew that her sons had aimed for the US, but still did not know their exact whereabouts. This astounds me; that with the distance and time, that we still found each other in the end.

This rickety boat was picked up by an Italian Red Cross ship, and taken to Italy. This part of my family stayed in Italy a few years, and under the refugee programme eventually migrated to Australia, because this is where my three uncles ended up. Somehow, at some time, the connection was made.

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