Arriving in Australia from a Malaysian refugee camp in April 1984, I stayed at a six-bedroom parish house in Burwood, Victoria together with thirteen other Vietnamese refugees. On Christmas Day that year, when I was alone in the house, the parish priest took me along to an Australian parishioner’s house and I had my very first Australian Christmas lunch there. It was a frosty lunch as no one spoke a word to me. More than thirty years later, I still wonder why those Australians were cold to me.
I was hungry for friendships from the women in my local breastfeeding group after the birth of my first son. Yet, despite how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a friend. The group leader explained to me that “We have nothing in common with you!”
When my first baby had colic at six-week old, I used to push his pram around my Canberra neighbourhood to get him to sleep. My husband didn’t want me to continue doing so for fear that people would soon discover that there were Asians living in the suburb. In his Sydney suburb, many Vietnamese houses were vandalised. I still feel unsafe walking around my suburb these days.
I noticed that whenever I spoke Vietnamese to my young sons in public, I attracted unpleasant looks as if Australians don’t like to hear foreign languages spoken around them. I since developed a complex about speaking my mother tongue in Australia.
When we wanted to buy a house in an expensive, diplomatic suburb, we were puzzled why the agent kept reminding us that we have to make sure we would have enough to live on after paying the mortgage. My friend later explained to us that they didn’t want the presence of Asians in that suburb.
At writers groups, when I read out my writing about my father, a Signal Corps Lieutenant Colonel, who refused to evacuate at the Fall of Saigon, in each occasion there were persons commenting that America was a war monger and gun violence was rife in the country. I could feel the heat was on around me as people continued to talk about Australian anti-war protests in the past. I felt that I am hated for I am the face of the Vietnam war that Australia was reluctantly involved. I had the wrong impression about Australia as South Vietnam’s ally. I am wary to talk about “my” war with Australians these days.
A lawyer working at a Legal Advice Bureau that provides free services to the public once told me: “Your English is bad, I can’t understand you!”. For the first time in my life, I was so shocked to hear it. My English and French teachers always praised me for my accurate pronunciations and I was so confident of my English. Three years later, when unknowingly I consulted him as a private lawyer, he told me differently: “You speak and write such good English!”.
At a work lunch, the talking topic changed from Vietnamese food to Cabramatta. Foxglove – the middle-aged blonde staff – said: “I went there once. The whole street was full of Vietnamese shops!”. She ended her statement with a disapproval facial expression and pursing lips.
In The Big Fat Book of Aussies jokes by Warren Fahey, chapter 11 – Them not us, there is a joke ” Where are the Australians?” about a Somali migrant walking down the street to thank Australians for letting him in the beautiful country. The Somali man only encountered an Irish, a Vietnamese, an Iraqi and a New Zealander because all the Australians were at work. I felt so offended at reading the joke. After migrating to Australia, my father went back to study for two years then worked as a librarian for thirteen years, retiring when he was seventy-three year old. My sisters, brothers and I are all working full-time.
Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in 1996 to the Australian Federal Parliament, “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”; her anti-Asian view made me feel threatened living in Australia. “Asian” is a dirty word here.
It pained me when a few years ago I read on the Internet that Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told colleagues following the fall of Saigon in 1975: “I’m not having hundreds of f***ing Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their religious and political hatreds against us!”. I felt really insulted, unwelcome in this country and how ignorant I was of Australian political parties.
I have summed up my feelings on this Racism topic in a Ghazal-style poem:
Towards me, some people have no tolerance,
So in this country, I loathe my existence!
I wish to change my skin, my hair and my eyes,
To gain more acceptance for my existence!
I feel like a deserted island floating,
Cut out of mankind, that is my existence!
The sneers at me, the hurtful comments to me,
Make me feel so condemned for my existence!
It’s a sad fact that I have long realised,
Freedom comes with hatred of my existence!
by Steven Depolo.