I met Oanh almost 15 years ago in Thailand where we were both working as teachers. Over 35 years ago she left Vietnam as a small child with her father, mother, three siblings and members of her mother’s family in a small boat seeking refugee in a new country following the war that ravaged Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Many thousands of ‘boat people’ didn’t make the treacherous journey into the South China Sea and were sadly lost to storms and piracy. Oanh and her family were picked up out at sea by a Thai shipping vessel and were taken to Thailand where they were granted asylum and stayed in a refugee camp for a number of months before being flown to Australia and welcomed as new citizens to that country. Oanh’s father tells me that his family were the first Vietnamese to settle in the New South Wales city of Newcastle and they have lived there ever since. His wife’s family moved to Queensland in Australia and his family remained in post war Vietnam and he has not seen them since they left that dark night in the small boat.
To be able to come to Vietnam and to meet my wife and children’s family and to get to know them has been a huge privilege and I am thankful and excited that they will have such welcoming and caring family to connect with in this part of the world for the rest of their lives. Oanh and I keep suggesting to Jonah that he has the ideal base for a ‘gap year’ when he has finished school – but I don’t think he realises the value of this quite yet.
I have taken a back seat during our visit and left Oanh to get on with all the conversation and catching up. They definitely have plenty to talk about! It has been great for myself and the children to see her in full Vietnamese flow and using her native language. It has encouraged the kids and I to also learn more Vietnamese and to use it with the family. Jonah especially has made a good go of it and has been improving his Vietnamese numbers on a daily basis. I have loads of questions to ask about each uncle, aunty and cousin but need to bide my time and I am enjoying just trying to make the connections and map the intricate network of families through my own observations.
Food is such a central focus of Vietnamese (and other countries in SE Asia) culture and social cohesion. Whenever we return to Australia to see Oanh’s parents we are always treated to a Vietnamese culinary delight, it has been the same here in Vietnam staying with her family. Oanh explains that it is the way in which they show love and affection. In fact Oanh’s mum says the secret to cooking good food is to think of the person who you are cooking it for, as it helps ‘flavour’ the food! My children especially like the coconuts that Aunty Tam brings out for them mid-morning for a snack. I wonder if they have brought them specially for our visit and are treating them? They probably are. Their love of children and family are obvious.
It has been good watching our children interact and gain in confidence with their relatives. They have grown affectionately close to a number of the older cousins and there have been plenty of hugs going around. Some of the cousins have their own children of similar age to ours and it didn’t take long for them all to start playing together and causing chaos around the house – language (or lack thereof) is not a barrier as it seems to me that you only need to learn a first name and then everything else is universal.
We have been staying with one of Oanh’s aunts, BaTam, her husband Chu Hat and a couple of their daughters ( I think they have eight children in total – I know one daughter is a nun in Italy and the youngest two are twins who are studying in Saigon). It has been great staying there and getting to know them and we have really appreciated their hospitality and kindness. Chu Hat works especially hard for a construction company and has already left for work when we wake up in the morning and doesn’t finish at the end of the day until late. He does pop home for lunch though and is always smiley and chatty (he speaks some English) and has a beer with me! The two daughters that we have met are a great credit to them and it has been lovely getting to know both Thien and Nhung, I hope we see them again soon in the near future.
It is hard not to reflect and to think about the ‘what ifs’ when learning about the past and the present in such an authentic way. I am looking forward to asking Oanh all the questions I have stored up over the last few days as we head back to Thailand. I am sure she has done much reflecting herself and I will be keen to discover how her memories and perceptions have changed since her first return visit. I wonder if one day we could or should live and work in Vietnam or if my children will ever consider the possibility when they are older?
35 years years ago on Phan Thiet Beach my future father in-law made the courageous but decision to leave his country, his home and his family and took those he could out into the Pacific Ocean to seek refuge. The fates of many lives were certainly held in the balance during that one night. I am certainly grateful that despite Oanh’s father’s paralysing fears of death and the responsibility he felt for so many lives that night, and the deep sadness for leaving the country of his birth that the quest for searching for a better future for his children over-rode those fears. Life would have been very different if he had not done so, not only for Oanh and her family but also for me as I wonder if I would have ever met Oanh if they had not left? As Jonah realised, “So I would not have been born if Ong had not left Vietnam?”
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