Previously: Truc and his family arrive in Australia. Truc’s parents, Mr and Mrs Huynh, work long hours on farms in the Adelaide Hills while the children learn to fend for themselves.
Within three years, Mr and Mrs Huynh had found a solution to the problem of the industrial age, the problem of having to leave home and children in order to earn a living. They rented sewing machines, brought them home, and began churning out garments from mountains of pre-cut fabric.
The family moved from Rosewater to Kilburn, a suburb that appeared to exist for machines and production lines rather than for people. Giant smoke stacks, grey fences and black asphalt dominated the landscape. Scrawny trees looked like an afterthought.
Truc recalls moving to Kilburn Primary, ‘Starting at Grade Five, my English was better. I socialised better and had lots of Aussie friends. There weren’t many Vietnamese in that school. I was not victimised in any way but there were lots of rough kids, naughty kids, who used to bash other kids.’
By working sixteen to eighteen-hour-days, Mr and Mrs Huynh were soon able to buy their own industrial sewing machine and overlocker machine. Later, they were even able to afford luxuries like a television set.
After school, Truc would switch on the TV, turning dials as big as twenty-cent pieces. Settling himself in front of the huge wooden box, he followed the adventures of Leyland brothers – in their white tees and bell-bottom trousers – as they drove their four-wheel-drive around the vast Australian outback. Truc also loved watching Malcolm Douglas in his akubra, wrestling crocodiles, smoking out oysters and fishing his way across the top end of Australia.
Sometimes, the insistent rat-tat-tat of the sewing machines in the background would stop and his parents would yell out for help: I’ve made a mistake, please come and unpick the stitches. Truc never shouted back, ‘why me, why not the others’ or ‘wait till this show is over’. Children did what was asked of them, naturally. That was part of the Asian ethos.
As the months passed, Mr and Mrs Huynh developed the unhealthy pallor of people who spent long hours sitting indoors. But how else could two semi-skilled workers with only a smattering of English support five children during the 1990s, the worst recession Australia had seen since the Great Depression?
After five or six years of sewing, Mr and Mrs Huynh secured a bank loan and purchase a plot of land around thirty-five kilometres north of Adelaide in the suburb of Virginia, which had become Adelaide’s main supplier of fresh vegetables.
The Huynh farm sat beside an almond farm, sandwiched by the Gawler River to the north and Robinson Road to the south. There were a few glasshouses on the property and Mr Huynh built several more until they had forty glasshouses in total. They planted cucumbers, zucchinis, capsicums and tomatoes that they trained on wires that hung from the ceiling.
Mr and Mrs Huynh didn’t employ any staff or own any machinery; they worked six and a half days a week and all the children helped out every weekend and during all school holidays. The whole family would move from their Kilburn home to live on a small house on the farm during school holidays and every member of the family pulled their weight.
Truc remembers one stinking hot summer’s day, shovelling manure from the pile dumped in front of each glasshouse, he and his older brother breathing in the fine particles trapped in the glasshouse so that when he blew his nose at the end of the day, even the gunk came out black.
Harvesting was most demanding in summer because the temperature in the glasshouses was typically ten degrees higher inside and could reach forty or fifty degrees Celsius in summer. To avoid heat exhaustion, they had to run in and work feverishly to the point of collapse, before running out to cool down, repeating the cycle until the harvest for the day was done. Truc remembers packing fifteen telegraph cucumbers to a bag.
‘Premium ones,’ he says, ‘not those you see in the shops these days. Good season, $5 a bag; bad season, $1 a bag. And we’d go into the shop and see them selling for a dollar each! You work so hard, bring up these cucumbers for three or four months and someone else earns the money. I feel for the farmers.’
Owning a market garden wasn’t so bad in the school holidays when the family lived together on the farm, when the children could fish in the Gawler River, or build ramps for their bikes, or play with the dog in the wide-open spaces when the work was done. During term time, however, Mr and Mrs Huynh had to leave before the younger children woke up, and returned around nine or ten at night, after they had gone to bed. Mrs Huynh would then cook the next day’s dinner and put it in the fridge.
‘For us older kids, we coped with it okay. But my younger siblings, they didn’t see much of mum and dad and I think that had an impact on their growing up and their’– Truc clicks his tongue, searching for the right words –‘attachment with mum and dad.’
By the time Mr and Mrs Huynh bought the market garden, Truc was well into his teenage years.
‘I had to catch two buses but we went to Woodville High because from Pennington, my oldest sister had started schooling there. I had a good group of friends. We got along well with the other ethnic groups. We didn’t get into any trouble.’
‘Did you have friends who were Vietnamese and Australian?’
‘The group was all a bunch of Vietnamese boys, but we were friends with the Greeks and Italians and Australians as well. I was fortunate, I suppose, that my group of friends were all relatively academic. That helped a lot, I suppose. So I did well at school and got the scores and chose to do medicine, went to Adelaide Uni,’ he says.
‘Do you think your older brother and sister, their choices of medicine influenced you?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, my sister started her schooling in Australia around Year 8. So she had only a few years to learn English before her Year 12 exams and it was quite fortunate that mum and dad chose to make her younger than what she was, otherwise she would have ended up starting in Year 11 or Year 12 and there would have been no chance to pick up the English and do well at school. Originally I was interested in Electronics Engineering but when the time came to make a final decision, I decided that I’d do medicine, maybe for the prestige, not sure.’
After graduating and working as a doctor for three years, Truc decided to move out of home and rent a place with a couple of mates. His parents were horrified and asked, ‘You’re not married. What would other people say?’ His mother refused to speak to him for over a year.
‘Wow!’ I say quietly.
‘Yeah, because I’d broken the family law,’ laughs Truc. ‘So that was a reflection of how different we are. I remember, my younger brother telling mum and dad that his girlfriend was Vietnamese, and because we’re Chinese – she’s Vietnamese, she’s not Chinese – even that was a bit of an issue, you know. Yeah. So, very backward I suppose, back then. And I was the one who broke them eventually. I moved out of home and went out with someone non-Asian.’