Previously: Truc follows his sibling’s footsteps and studies medicine. But he breaks with tradition – moving out of home before he’s married, and then going out with someone who’s not Asian.
As a mother, I know the heartache of seeing adult children move away, even if that might be best for them. If I were to put myself in the position of Truc’s mum, I would say that the Leyland brothers have a lot to answer for.
Truc explains it this way. ‘The first opportunity I got, I took off and went to Darwin. I lived there for a year and explored Kakadu and Litchfield. I must have travelled from Darwin to Kakadu at least ten, twelve times during my weekends and holidays. I used to go into Kakadu a lot and explore and camp in there.’
Truc had secured a trainee position in Emergency Medicine at the Royal Darwin. If the hospitals were giant hostels for the unwell, then the Emergency Department (ED) would be the front desk. The ED has to deal with whoever walks in, manage all manner of trauma and illnesses. The specialty is at once broad and time critical.
Perhaps there is no better antidote to this high-pressured environment than trekking through rainforest so old it feels timeless. Hike till you’re hot and cool off in a water hole. Hungry? Fish. Tired? Set up camp.
‘Once I took two weeks off, borrowed a friend’s four-wheel drive and just drove through the Kimberley region all by myself. Went all the way up this remote coast to this Aboriginal settlement called Kalumburu and camped there. No one ever saw a Vietnamese there before, I’m sure.’
‘What was that like?’ I ask.
‘That was amazing, yeah. Really good.’
‘Did you meet Aboriginal people there?’
‘Yeah, yeah, they owned the settlement and the campsite was run by them. So I had to talk with the owners and they gave me some taste of some of their food and one of the things I ate was bush turkey. They hunt down bush turkey and smoke it and gave me some to try. Beautiful.’
‘Did it taste like chicken?’ I ask.
‘More like duck.’
‘They took me out fishing. Yes. That was great experience.’
‘Did you prepare your four-wheel drive like the Leyland brothers said to?
‘The first time I went, I must admit, I was pretty naïve. I had a pretty rugged four-wheel drive and I had camping gear. But that was about it. I was pretty inexperienced. You’re young and you’re stupid and you just hop in the car and drive. Went for a long drive and looked at all these places. I saw a lot. The natural landscape was very pretty – lots of gorges, waterfalls. The coast at Kalumburu was beautiful. Fishing was sensational. After that I kept dreaming about going back again and see more. I wasn’t particularly scared of anything. But that was probably naivety more than anything else. The second time we went was a few years later and I went with Nancy.’
I had already heard Truc and Nancy’s story when I came across a curious fact of history that stayed with me because Nancy is from El Salvador. In the twelve-year civil war, the Americans supported the Salvadoran government while the Russians supported the leftist rebels. Many of the weapons supplied by the Americans had been left over from the Vietnam War. Superpowers supply arms to small nations and magnify the scale of destruction. Wars had displaced Truc and Nancy’s families, but a shared sense of adventure drew them together, two young people from different continents, different cultures.
In an email to me, Truc sets the dates and times right and explained how it unfolded:
From March to June 2001, Nancy and I did a four-wheel drive camping trip through WA and the NT. We had planned to move to Cairns and live together in the second half of 2001 and our jobs had already been lined up. Despite being the rebel in the family, I still had a bit of traditional Chinese mentality and I did not want to be taking Nancy away from her family and living with her unless I intended to marry her.
When we stayed at El Questro station, I booked a cabin on the station instead of camping. I proposed to Nancy that night. The next morning, still buzzing from our new engagement, we walked to Zebedee Springs and spent the morning relaxing in the hot spring, with Nancy admiring her little diamond ring the whole time. The ring was bought from a jeweller in Kununurra, and the diamond was only small, as I had very little savings then.
In 2016, my husband and I go over to Truc and Nancy’s place for morning tea. An elliptical object on their kitchen windowsill catches my eye. Nancy picks it up and passes it to me. It fits snugly in my palm and rattles when I shake it.
‘It’s the seed of a boab tree. Truc and I were driving up north and this Aboriginal man offered to carve something for us. We didn’t know whether he could carve or not, but we sat with them. The women kept saying sister, sister wanting to tell us their story.’ Nancy lifts both hands and pats the air with her palms to demonstrate how the women connected with her, how keen and friendly they were.
The carving on the furry boab seed reveals a smooth off-white skin below. The name of the artist – Evans Davies – is carved onto the seed. Davies has also carved a symbol that looks like a face with a headdress, the symbol reminding me of Maya pictures of the sun. I turn it over and see carvings of two four-legged animals, with large ears, which I cannot identify.
‘Bandicoots’ suggests Truc. ‘They wanted to earn something for a cask of wine. I think he asked me for five dollars for it. I think they sell things like that in art shops for a bit more.’
‘A hundred dollars,’ says Nancy. ‘We saw some in Port Douglas for a hundred dollars.’ Their children take it into school sometimes for show-and-tell, that Australian primary school practice where children stand in front of their classmates with an object of their choice and talk about it.
Over coffee and croissants, we discuss schools, scholarship exams (whether it is possible to prepare for them), and music lessons (how to get children to practice). Truc admits to the small worry that if society is so competitive, and he doesn’t send them to a private school, is he in fact disadvantaging them.
When Nancy gets up to prepare lunch, Truc opens his laptop to show us their family holiday across the Nullarbor, up the coast of Western Australia and through the Kimberley Region in a camper driver. There is a picture of Nancy sitting on a camping chair, with their youngest daughter on her lap, looking at a book. The little girl was at the age when she was supposed to be learning to read at school – they had taken their children out of school for four months – so they had to set aside time to read with her every day.
‘It got harder and harder because all she wanted to do was to run off and play,’ laughs Truc.
‘I like travelling and I think Australia has a lot of offer,’ he says. ‘It is a very expensive place to travel unless you do very basic camping. There’re big distances, but a lot of beautiful places. When we travel we don’t bring their electronics and they just go and play on the beach or under the trees or in the river somewhere. I want them to learn that even when you have nothing, you’ve just got each other and you can still be so happy.’
The first time I had come to the house and Truc told me his story, I asked him if he felt as if he lived between two cultures.
‘I don’t feel that I’m conflicted, in two different worlds. I suppose I bring up my children with a little bit of that. They have to respect their elders but at the same time I want them to have this Australian sense of adventure, to have an enquiring mind, to query ‘What I’m doing, am I doing the right thing?’ Just because someone says you have to do this, doesn’t mean necessarily that’s the right thing to do. Whereas the Asian culture is: Do exactly as you’re told and don’t question.
‘At school, I’d like them to do well academically, but I want them to know that a high achieving career isn’t the only thing in life. There’re other aspects of life that they can appreciate even if they have nothing. They can still be happy with themselves, and their friends and their family support. They don’t need to be wealthy, high achieving professionals to be happy. Whereas the Asian culture tends to be you have to do really well academically, have a good job otherwise it’s not good enough. I don’t want them to feel that way. I want them to feel that as long as they’re happy, and they’re independent, that’s good enough for me.’
This is the serial online release of ‘Refuge’ by May-Kuan Lim. The next episode, Refuge #9 Empty Meat Hooks, will be published next Friday, 26 April. Subscribe for links to new instalments delivered to your inbox.