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?
by Josh McGinn.