My very first and frosty Australian Christmas lunch

It was a frosty Christmas lunch and the very first for me - a Vietnamese refugee.

It was a frosty Christmas lunch and the very first for me – a Vietnamese refugee.

Coming from a refugee camp in Malaysia, I arrived in Australia at the end of April 1984. After staying a week at Enterprise Hostel, Springvale, Melbourne, Sister Petite Peach took me to a six-bedroom Burwood-parish house that accommodated thirteen Catholic Vietnamese refugees and me – a Buddhist.

A couple in their late 30s who acted as the head of the house and their two young children occupied the main bedroom.

The other eight girls, one girl’s ten-year-old brother and I shared five bedrooms.

Some girls had no relatives in Australia. Some only had married brothers or sisters and they could not live with their families.

I dreaded weekends, public holidays or school breaks because they were the time the girls spent with their relatives or boyfriends, leaving me alone in the house.

1984 marked my first Christmas in Australia and I had been spending the empty, lonely time sewing dresses, skirts and shirts to wear to RMIT in February the next year. It was noon on Christmas day when Father Smiley came and told me: “hiMe, you are at home by yourself so I’m taking you to lunch.” It was a total surprise.

Father Smiley was a tall, stocky-build Catholic parish priest in his 50s who always wore a meek smile on his face. The girls in the house always reckoned he was a nice man. Since living in the house, I only saw Father Smiley occasionally at the girls’ birthday parties.

Father Smiley took me to a house several houses from mine and across the road. A bespectacled, intellectual-looking man in his 30s opened the door and gave Father a welcoming smile but I could see that he was taken aback when he realised that I came with Father Smiley. Father Smiley told the man: “hiMe is having her first Christmas here in Australia. She is a Vietnamese refugee who escaped by boat.” As I was introduced to him, the man gave me an indifferent facial expression. I felt awkward entering his house when he looked at me in an unfriendly way.

It was the first time I set foot in an Australian home. Sitting at the dinning table were a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. The man’s wife smiled and hugged Father Smiley. She also smiled at me.

The children were well-behaved at the table. The couple exchanged pleasant conversations with Father Smiley. The man never looked at me. He casted his eyes down or gazed in a different direction if I glanced at him. His wife didn’t avoid my glance but for the whole lunch, she and her husband never talked to me.

I felt like I was a shadow and not a living human sitting there with the other three living ones.

When it was time for dessert, I saw the pudding was set alight after rum was poured over it. The boy was given a slice of the pudding with a silver coin hidden in it and he beamed. His Dad said: “Now you’ll have luck all year round!”. His sister giggled when she discovered a coin in her pudding slice too. Father Smiley explained to me that those coins had been cleaned before being inserted inside the pudding and it was a sign of good luck for those who found it. I still remember the dessert scene so vividly today!

I went home with a heavy heart. I felt I was deliberately ignored at the lunch. I regretted attending it. I missed my family so much. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t!

Why didn’t the couple converse with me? Did they think that I was a worthless who came from a country that is abundant with poverty and tropical diseases?

Did they know that in Vietnam I attended the best highschool there was, built according to a modern Western model? Did they know that I learnt English twice over, with two distinguished English and American pronunciations as well as French and that I was an interpreter in the refugee camp? Did they know that I wasn’t an economic refugee but a political one, that my Dad was in the Communist jail and my family was threatened by the Communists? Did they know that the gold Mum had at the time was worth approximately $300,000 AUD now, and that her jewelery, gems, diamonds and cash that she hard earned as a children’s wear designer/producer/wholesaler weren’t included. Our four-storey house in Vietnam was now worth nearly 1 million AUD and I hadn’t counted the value of our car then which could be up to $80,000 AUD now.

Since that Christmas lunch, I developed a complex about myself as a refugee in Australia. I repented that I wasn’t patient enough to wait till the American Delegation turn up after the Christmas and New Year break in January 1984 and apply to go to America.

I sadly learnt a few years ago that Father Smiley had passed away many years earlier.

I miss you Mum, I miss you Dad,
I miss you bro, I miss you sis,
It’s Christmas time but I feel sad,
A family can’t go amiss.

A Christmas meal that I regret,
Hostility that I was met.
I don’t know why Aussies are cold!
What’s wrong with me? If I’ll be told?
(Rispetto-style poem)

Image credit
by Josh McGinn.

It was a frosty Christmas lunch and the very first for me - a Vietnamese refugee.

It was a frosty Christmas lunch and the very first for me – a Vietnamese refugee.

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8 thoughts on “My very first and frosty Australian Christmas lunch

  1. I’m really enjoying your writing, as it gives me an insight into a side of the Vietnamese people that is otherwise not so easy to see. I’m married to a Vietnamese girl from a fantastic, modern family, and have lived in Vietnam for seven years. There are members of my in-laws who have written autobiographies shedding some light on life during the hardest years, yet they all lack something more personal in their story-telling. My family prefers not to talk about those years, usually dismissing them as being the past, so unimportant.

    I am a teacher of a number of different subjects, to Vietnamese of varied age levels and abilities in Saigon, and as such can offer a perspective you may not yet have considered.

    In teaching a foreign language (in this case, English), one must also be aware that cultural understanding is critical in being able to effectively use that language and therefore resonate with your intended audience. Therefore. my classroom content is usually part-ESL / part-cultural orientation. I’ve seen too many Asian immigrants in Australia being unable to fit in, and too many Asian students in Australia becoming depressed – some even returning home before they complete their degree. Under deep scrutiny, it is clear that the reasons rarely stem from Australians being cold to them, but rather because the Asian way of communicating is so very different to ours. Vietnamese tend not to speak until spoken to, and will not volunteer information about themselves to outsiders or often even their friends. This is a deep-seated part of your culture, and as such you’re possibly not aware of just how alien that is to Australians.

    So, my simple question to you, in response to your “Did they know…” paragraph is this: Did you tell them?

    I always teach my students to be bold, confident, forth-coming and to express themselves willingly. Doing this will make life in their new English-speaking country a lot easier, and friends will be made very quickly.

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  2. I’m glad you told this story, but I’m sorry you had to live through it. I hope you’ve had many happier Christmas experiences since then. If you ever come to Canberra, you’ll always be most welcome at our table at any time of the year.

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  3. Again, I am sorry for your sake that this was your experience.

    To be honest, I have been tempted to write another mythbusting cultural book, but this time about Australians. They can be a lot less friendly than generally believed. Every day I express some frustration about the people I live among now. I hope they are not typical for metropolitan Australians of 2014, but very probably they are typical of what Australians were like in 1984. Frankly, the majority seem petty, inconsiderate and mean.

    However, the deeper truth is that they behave this was because they are unconscious. The Buddhist response would be to show compassion about their disability and the reasons for it, and to help them, though that’s easier said than done.

    I am not making excuses for the family you met. They were pretty horrible to you. Yet here are some factors you could consider. If you could try to take it less personally, and see them as victims of their circumstances the way I see the Chinese as victims of theirs, it may free you of some of the pain.

    In 1984, any Australian man in his mid 30s would either have been a combatant in the Vietnam war himself or would have known plenty of people who were. I saw that it takes a long time for such people to stop seeing any Asian face as their enemy, some never do. In my opinion, they never really tried and Australian culture generally did not encourage this kind of reconciliation. People of that time were content with stereotypes.

    I also think that Australians of that era “suffered” very slightly because of the war, yet reacted out of all proportion. They behaved like bratty children, carrying grudges for years over quite trivial suffering. Yet the Vietnamese, who suffered horribly, responded with dignity. You might consider what it takes to raise people to that level of maturity. I think that without deepening experiences, people remain children all their lives. Australian society of the time was not very deep, and life was far too easy.

    Another factor is that any family close enough to a priest to invite him for Christmas dinner would certainly be highly religious. In my opinion, religion mostly represents and brings out the worst in humanity. Religion has no relation to spirituality and is usually opposite. For all their crap about peace and tolerance, a strongly Catholic family would probably not be the most spiritually evolved members of their society. I’ve seen it. In my opinion, they would be a bit more bigoted and petty than was common for the era.

    I don’t know what they thought of you. It’s pretty clear they didn’t think of you at all. They were hypocrites to their own values. I am not excusing their behaviour. Yet at least unconsciousness always has reasons, and knowing them may help you.

    If I have learned anything from being part of Australian life for nearly 47 years, it’s that most of the common folk aren’t worth the effort. Educated and sophisticated people from any culture are unlikely to get along with them. Forgive their limitations, they cannot help it and did not choose to be that way.

    Instead, find the conscious ones, those closer to your level, who try to lessen the suffering of others.

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