Chapter 1 Vietnam

Previously: Truc and his family survive a harrowing escape from Vietnam and wait for resettlement at the Songkla Refugee Camp in Thailand.

An alien new world

Blond superhero Flash Gordon outsmarts Ming the Merciless in full colour. The special effects are so compelling that Truc is transfixed. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand any English. He can see armoured aliens zapping Flash Gordon to the ground despite the superhero extending his hand in friendship. There will be no easy way out for our hero; battles must be fought, and won, to save the earth.

That Qantas in-flight movie was completely different to the only other on-screen entertainment Truc had seen – Vietnamese operas on black-and-white TVs belonging to other people. The day in April 1981 was a day of many firsts: first flight, first movie, first taste of apples and grapes.

In Adelaide, Truc and his family were billeted at the Pennington Migrant Hostel on Grand Junction Road. They were allocated their own hut and given blankets and cutlery. Laundry facilities were shared. They took their meals at a communal dining hall, an old Nissen Hut, where they struggled to get used to the nourishing high-fat, high-dairy food.

A row of Nissen huts
Gepps Cross Migrant Hostel with Nissen Huts similar to those used at Pennington.
Picture credit: Dr Karen Agutter, the University of Adelaide, & Catherine Manning, Migration Museum, ‘Gepps Cross Migrant Hostel’, SA History Hub, History Trust of South Australia, http://sahistoryhub.com.au/places/gepps-cross-migrant-hostel, accessed 5 April 2019.

Having grown up on a diet of rice and vegetables in Vietnam, the Huynh children were much smaller than most Australian children of the same age. Because of this Mr and Mrs Huynh deducted two to three years from each child’s age on registration forms and this is how Truc started in Year 2 at Pennington Primary.

It was a small neighbourhood school, within walking distance from the hostel. He remembers his first teacher as a lovely lady who created a wonderfully nurturing environment in her classroom.

The schoolyard, however, was a hostile place. Even the youngest children shouted: ‘Speak English’, ‘Go back where you came from’. Every new wave of migrants fertilises the vernacular with a fresh crop of insults inspired by differences in appearance, culture, and language. Nothing much can be done about appearance; culture links people to the past, a grounding all the more precious during times of upheaval; language is the one variable that can be acquired with relative ease.

The Vietnamese children had a special hour-long English lesson every day with a Vietnamese teacher and an Australian teacher. This was a tremendous help. At home, the Huynh children practised English ceaselessly. Eventually, they spoke only English to one another and even when their parents spoke to them in Vietnamese, they replied in English.

At some point in the future, Truc would realize with surprise that he was thinking in English. But these were early days and Truc resorted to his fists to defend himself. At least in schoolyard, there was comfort in the knowledge that a teacher was never too far away, but walking home alone in the dead stillness of the afternoon was terrifying.

‘I remember being attacked by a much bigger kid. Again, racist remarks and then being pushed and thrown around to the ground. … I was very upset, scared, angry,’ says Truc.

 ‘Did your brothers and sister look out for you?’ I ask.

‘Not really, they had their own friends and I think they all had their own battles to deal with.’

This street attack taught Truc that you couldn’t always count on someone else being there for you. No monks in saffron robes. No dad to dig a hole in the kitchen floor. Sometimes you just had to rely on yourself. Scouring his surroundings, Truc found a sturdy metal bar. It felt good in his hands. Something solid. Something he could use if that kid, or any kid, came near him again. He put it in his school bag. Just in case.

In this alien new world, family dynamics changed. With grandfather still in Vietnam, there was no one to care for the children during the day. Truc’s parents would leave early in the morning to drive to the Adelaide Hills for work. Truc and his siblings quickly learnt to pack their own lunches and get themselves to school and back.

Money was a constant struggle. The family could only buy bare essentials even with both Mr and Mrs Huynh working long hours, picking fruit and pruning vines; things were very expensive in Australia.

When Truc’s teacher organised a mid-winter excursion for the class, she told him that proper footwear was required. But Truc continued turning up in socks and thongs because there wasn’t money for a pair of shoes.

One day, after school, his teacher brought him to a Goodwill store and bought him a second-hand pair of sneakers so that he wouldn’t miss out. It seemed as if Australia had a great capacity for kindness and cruelty, and you could never be sure which you would encounter on any given day.

Mr and Mrs Huynh found all sorts of ways to earn a little extra money or to make what they earned stretch a little further. The family ate stir-fried Brussels sprouts for dinner every night when it was in season at the farm. After dinner, one of the sacks lining the laundry wall would be tipped out, and the whole family would sit around peeling onion skins till tears streamed down their faces. Then they’d put the peeled onions back into the sack for collection by the pickling company at the end of the week.

‘Memorable experiences,’ laughs Truc

The next instalment – Glasshouses get very hot – will be published next Friday, 12 April. Subscribe to receive links to new instalments in your inbox. Catch up on previous instalments here.