Recently, as I was printing off a draft of my upcoming little book at Officeworks, I struck up a conversation at the counter with the sales person and another customer.
I said that I was about to publish a book regarding the asylum seeker debate. I explained to them that it wasn’t going to be a conventional story. I said that it involved dark comedy.
What really struck me about the conversation was that the bald man asked me whether I had just recently come out of detention. Did he mean from Villawood Detention Centre? Yes, I had thought. But what gave me away? My accent? I didn’t think so. I have an Aussie accent. Ironically, English is, in fact, my first language. I am not fluent in Vietnamese but that story is for another post.
Upon reflection, I thought not only was it a valid question, but it was a confronting question. Not that I treated it as such at the time. To be fair, he was a really nice bloke, well spoken, intelligent, and he certainly didn’t mean it to be a confronting question. He was genuinely curious and quite sympathetic to asylum seekers.
I would like to think given I grew up in Australia and the qualifications I have which rely on the use of the English language (journalism, writing and law), that I belong to this great country which has given me so much.
But the question has resonated in the back of my mind.
My assumption was that had I been in detention it was more likely than not that I was an asylum seeker who had not fully yet integrated in Australian society. But I have, haven’t I? I have lived in Sydney since June 1975.
In a way, I felt that after all these years of applying my qualifications in an Australian working environment, they were a bit peripheral when trying to respond to the question.
I had said no — that I hadn’t gotten out of detention. I had said that I came here with my family when I was 4 years old — that we came as refugees after the Vietnam War in June 1975; that we stayed at the East Hills refugee hostel when we came here; that Dad was a persecuted journalist during the war against America and France. He looked pleased with my response.
Yet, to this day, the question has disrupted my thoughts.
I’ve been educated from kindergarten to the HSC. I have three degrees and one diploma. I have a NSW driver’s licence; Australian citizenship; Australian passport (which says I was born in Saigon). I think, I will need to check, but I believe that I still have my school report cards from high school…Come to think of it, and I know this is a bit peripheral, too, but my name is engraved on a steel plaque at Homebush, at the site of the Olympics, where I was a volunteer, one of 50,000 or so… I believe, but I may need to verify this, that I have an Aussie accent, too.
That internal monologue is a bit of an over-reaction. And yet, I still don’t know how to answer that question.
My late Dad passed away on 2 February 2006.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’m writing a war novel inspired by the old man. I have said that I’m still working on the novel and don’t expect it to be finished in the near future… It’s a big epic task for me given the historical period I have to cover in order to give true depth to the story.
Recently, and I meant to do this during my Masters writing course, I have written a feature article about him. It’s about 6000 words. It is partly non fiction and fiction. I hope to submit it soon to a local newspaper or magazine for their consideration.
The draft novel has been in the making, at least in my mind for the last 18 years.
But the feature article I have done explains how I am putting together the novel together. Dad left me with bunch of notes of his life and from those I am filling in the gaps of his life with fiction.
As I say in my feature article, Dad was a meteor. The title of my feature article is “My Dad, the meteor”. I won’t go into it too much, but given that he had a hard upbringing — being on the streets — and the fomenting revolution against the French Colonial regime, the patriarchal and conservative society he grew up in — let alone the destructive impact of the war itself — I concluded in my article that he was capable of violence stemming from his fury. Dad was also emotionally distant from my sister and I when I was growing up. The 1975-1978 period was a traumatic period. My parents divorced and Dad was hospitalized as he had a mental breakdown. It is a long and complex story.
If it isn’t published in a newspaper, I will publish it on my blog and on Kindle.
And what is the Mr Miyagi connection?
He was the embodiment of an Asian father to me. When I watched The Karate Kid in 1984 — we jigged school to watch it — I fell in love with that character because of the way he responded to Daniel-son. Mr Miyagi was distant but loving. That’s how my Dad was. I know that it is ironic, but that’s how it was. More interestingly, Mr Miyagi was a lover of bonsai plants.
I have bonsais at home. They symbolize regeneration. You prune and cut their baby tree branches, and most of the time they grow back. All in a little pot. Life goes on for them as long you nuture them. Elsewhere in this blog I have written about second chances in life. Bonsais are therefore my “second chance” to come to know Dad. And as long as I write about him, he never goes away.
As I write my various pieces of writing, more of the past connects in ways I did not foresee twenty years ago. Bonsais are a second chance because at night time, when I water them, I have a quiet moment to think about Dad’s legacy. I think about how distant he was. I think about how he gave me a second chance to come to Australia. I think about how UTS gave me a second chance to study something that I would ultimately love — writing.
The act of pruning a bonsai, like the acting of writing, is an act of love; both acts respectively give life to something in the form of new leaves of spring and a raw perspective of a man with strengths and flaws. My act of writing about Dad’s past in my novel, about his near death experiences during his life, allows the heart to love.
As I continue to think about how I might not belong to Australian society because I was, and still feel the legacy of being a refugee, more of the past catches up with me. When I say “the past”, I mean stories of my family from over fifty years ago. It is a past that is filled with the mysteries of Dad’s life. And it is some of these mysteries that I will weave into the novel.
Through the act of writing about him and reflecting on the nodes of life — Mr Miyagi and the bald man who asked me about detention — I begin to understand how I do; how I will fit into Australian society.
Oi, oi, oi.