Previously: In 1990, Josie arrives in Australia to study English as an international student. Lacking the funds to renew her student visa, she becomes a visa-overstayer and slides into an unrelenting cycle of moving to avoid deportation and working to support herself. In the winter of 1993, she begins work at a Fremantle laundry.


Fremantle Laundry

One afternoon, pulling into her driveway in her Torana (which she had sent over from Adelaide), Josie saw two immigration officials waiting at her flat door. Fortunately, she had already lodged her claim for political asylum around the end of 1993 and would not be deported.

She describes the encounter to me, ‘They accused me, “You don’t have any rights to work.” I said, “What am I going to do? Do you want me to steal? I have to survive. I don’t have Medicare. I don’t have any protection. I have to work. Even better, I pay taxes.”’

But she handed over her passport because asylum seekers were not allowed to leave the country while their case was being processed.

Perth Video Shop

In 1994, after working at the steam laundry for one year, she had saved enough to buy a video-hire shop near Perth’s CBD.

She explains the phenomenal success of the shop, ‘From 93 to 95, many people like me could not go back to China. That shop brought Chinese TV series like free food for the people, yeah, spiritual food, entertainment and information exchange. People come. They don’t want to leave. They just want to talk to each other and talk to me. It became a very important cultural centre for them.’

One day, a Chinese couple told Josie that they wanted to sell their restaurant business as soon as possible and asked her to advertise for them. As post-graduate students without travel restrictions, they wanted to return to China because the wife’s father had cancer.

There was a buzz of excitement in Josie’s shop when her customers heard of the restaurant for sale. Many were of the opinion that someone should buy it. After all, many of them were already working as kitchen hands and chefs.

Josie’s Chinese restaurant

‘There’s an opportunity there but they are a bit scared because twenty or thirty thousand dollars take so long to accumulate. It was all xiěhàn qián, blood and sweat money,’ she laughs. ‘So I bought it; not for me because I don’t have time – I still had the video business. I invest; you guys make the money. You just give me a little bit of interest.’

Chinese Restaurant

That was the theory. But when the restaurant was shorthanded, Josie cut onions, chopped meat and stir-fired vegetables. When the food wasn’t good enough, Josie took the chef to other restaurants to taste their food. It was her crash course in restaurant management.

All this while, her application was making its way through the Immigration Department. Josie took an English test, underwent a character check and submitted many more documents, documents that demonstrated she paid taxes, was self-employed, and that her businesses were generating jobs.

Prime Minister Keating might have capitulated over the Chinese, but he created a win-win situation by merging compassion and economics. From the political asylum applicants, the government sought out the most qualified applicants, those who were under 45 years of age and Josie was one of them.

In 1995, Josie received her permanent residency. Her first thought was to visit her parents in China, whom she had not seen for five years. In China, she reconnected with successful banker friends. She even helped one of them start an import export business and closed the first deal.

Josie’s home city of Xiamen in 1995

But she found that she did not enjoy the lifestyle in China and could not fit in. Unlike her friends who would find roundabout ways to say unpleasant things in order to ‘save face’, she had become like a straight talking Aussie.

So Josie returned to Perth, sold her businesses and enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in International Business at Murdoch University. She subsequently won a scholarship to do Masters in Business Administration at the University of Western Australia. While she studied, she also tutored to support herself. Through this, she realised that she would rather work with people than with money, and enrolled concurrently in a Graduate Diploma in Education.

Australian School

Sitting with her in her office, it is obvious to me that her years of study and experience have come together in a highly profitable way for the school. Apart from teaching Chinese, Josie also manages the lucrative international business arm of the school, specifically attracting full-fee paying students from China.

Despite her busy schedule, every now and then, Josie hops in her car and drives to some obscure location. She explains, ‘From time to time, the human soul needs to exile itself from the collective society. There is loneliness in your soul, restlessness, pain, and anxiety because your soul is looking for a place to rest.

‘Now that I have come to the end of my story, I want to tell you that I did all this to try to fulfil my soul, to be a professional who embraces literature and to influence my students to love literature, to love life, to understand the meaning of life, and to pursue a higher level of thinking. The better you understand yourself, your values and your purpose in life, the better you will do.

‘But a migrant from another country has to fight for everything. Deep down there is sorrow because you don’t have familiar soil to grow in. It is hard for adult migrants to change. I can change my lifestyle; I can drink wine, eat cheese; I can embrace the whole political debate, but forever, deep down, I never feel fulfilled, but probably that’s not just because I moved to another country, probably that’s just human nature.’


This was not the story I had expected when Josie told me that she was a political refugee. If I had to write her story as a play, the key actors would be the Tiananmen Square protestors, Deng Xiaoping who sent in the army, and Bob Hawke who promised that none would be sent home. These would be the moments of high stakes, high drama, high passions.

Josie, who came here to learn English, the immigration officials who seized her passport, the people who hired her despite her not having work rights, and even Prime Minister Keating who inherited a promise, they would be the secondary roles, people figuring out what to do as the situation evolved, people figuring out what to do given the hand they had been dealt.

I would write a play not so much about communism versus democracy, old guards versus young students, East versus West, but about people, human faces and human tears, played out within Canberra halls, immigration laws and business bottom lines.

Maybe this is always the case. Maybe it is always about the human face, but we can be tricked by complicated and convoluted systems and think that people are accepted or rejected on so simple a basis as legal versus illegal or the number of points on a migration scale. We can be fooled into forgetting that people enact laws and establish scales that delineate.

Nothing is cut and dry in this messy business of seeking asylum. Offering asylum may be Australia’s obligation under the Refugee Convention, but it may be motivated by self-interest, at least some of the time. Likewise, the refusing of asylum may have less to do with the merits, or lack thereof of, and more to do with a sense of self-preservation.

These truths can be transmitted by inflection, by attitudes, by unwritten mandates from powerful people in high office to people further down the organisational chart, caseworkers and bureaucrats who actually deal with people seeking asylum.

This is part of the free serial online release of my book Refuge. Next Friday 14 June, Chapter 4 on Sri Lanka begins: Refuge #16 Like My Mother. Subscribe for links to new instalments delivered to your inbox every Friday.

One of the challenges of teaching language to adults is finding reading material that is relevant, interesting, and suited to their ability. I’ve therefore adapted Josie’s story as a three-part series suitable as an English teaching resource.