Excavating old memories is neither pleasant nor straightforward

Photo: The Late Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser with Van Pho (author) and his wife

Excavating old memories is neither pleasant nor straightforward, and sometimes trauma aggravates the experience and reveals things long buried.

. There are some events in our lives we will never forget. I was born in a small village called Tân Thành in South Vietnam. My family home was opposite the village market, and a river was behind it, quietly taking water and life’s rubbish out to sea. The village was where my father met my mother when he was seventeen, working as an itinerary hawker.

. In 1963, the communist insurgency staged a surprise attack on the village. My house was accidentally bombed in the crossfire. The whole family fled the warzone with only the clothes on our backs. I looked back. The stark image of my family home burning and the concrete bridge collapsing was burnt into my memory.

. After being uprooted from Tân Thành, we were provided with a small place to live in a large building to share with other families. However, the building itself was a horrible place. It was used to host communal functions, mainly funerals. To reach home after school, I would have to walk down a long dark corridor past a room where coffins were placed before burial. It was always dark inside the room, with only some candles and incense burning. Sometimes, I saw people dressed in traditional white funeral clothing, all crying. I was sure there was a ghost inside watching me. My heart would thump, and my knees turned to jelly as the fear gripped me.

. Several years later, my family moved into a new home. It was just opposite the local hospital. Besides all the typical doom and gloom of a hospital setting, the noise of ambulances and other traffic and the constant stream of people in and out was my new life experiences. Nevertheless, this new place was far better than the previous one. Of course, I still witnessed deaths and human grievances but at least from a distance!

. Near where we lived, beside a row of tamarind trees, was a vast estate over one hundred years old. It had been subdivided and rented out to a dozen families, primarily labourers and servicemen, along with their children. Usually, I would go there after school to play with those kids. Unfortunately, they teamed up and bullied me because they considered me just a lone boy from a family full of girls. I realised that being true friends with these neighbourhood boys was perhaps just a bridge too far. Yet I continued to hang around with them and put up with their bullying because I needed friends. My time living in the communal building had left mental scars, and I didn’t want to return to that time of loneliness and darkness.

. Then, on Wednesday, 30th April 1975, once again, it was communism that delivered another devastating blow to my peaceful life. It was the day that communist North Vietnam overran democratic South Vietnam. As a fifteen-year-old boy, standing between childhood and adulthood, I was caught in the grip of a new fear, the uncertainty and insecurity of what living under communist rule might mean.

. There were many unforgettable events that happened to my family during this period. But I just wanted to cite only one. I had a book collection. Each book was my treasure, my hope, and it gave me something to aspire to. I grew up with some book characters because I had read them so often. When the new communist government kicked off a political campaign to destroy the remnants of the old culture and lifestyles, I had no choice but to burn them with my own hands!

. In 1978, I completed my secondary schooling and undertook a tertiary study with a Vietnamese literature major after passing the highly competitive university entrance exam. During those university years, political indoctrination (or brainwashing — a correct name of the game) was so heavy. The whole thing was like listening to the same old record being played on a gramophone, over and over, until the words began to blur into monotonous noise. We all played the “Let’s Pretend” game. The professors pretended what they said was the truth, and we students pretended to believe them. Each kept their honest thoughts hidden inside but outwardly energetically followed the Party line. Everyone had been sold a lie and promised a world that would not exist. Whatever they said against those lies was a symbol of stubbornness and an act beyond redemption. I was careful not to show any sensitivity and often did my best to have stayed out of silly debates, even though the arguments put forward were laughable, childish, and often illogical. It was excruciating for an extrovert like me to bite my tongue and say nothing. Whatever I did or said would be seen as a symbol of stubbornness and an act beyond redemption. Finally, guilt for being silent wormed its way into my conscience. I realised there were no places for people like me in this society, even if I desperately wanted to belong.

. My anguish became worse as time went on. My life was one of tension, fear and anxiety. It was like standing on a loose rock on the very edge of a cliff, knowing that at any moment, I could fall into the abyss below. I wasn’t really living. I thought seriously about leaving Vietnam regardless of the consequences.

. While studying, I stayed in a student dormitory. Opposite the dormitory was an old Catholic church. Just glancing at it, one immediately knew that the church’s glory belonged to the past. Its once-manicured garden had become a wilderness, providing a bushy cover for prostitutes, beggars, and the homeless. The splendid architecture, the holiness of the cross and the serenity of the nativity scene at the front was no longer a deterrent to the new society’s undesirable elements.

. Sometimes in a state of relentless despair, I walked to the dormitory gate and stood looking at the church across the street. Its doors were still tightly closed. People said that churches always kept their doors open for the needy. At this moment, I would have loved to sit inside that place of tranquillity. But, sadly, its doors weren’t open.

. My mind returned to Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”. My understanding of that statement wasn’t that it was a direct attack on religion per se because he acknowledged that God had existed but just thought that He was dead. Every individual faced the possible absurdity of existence alone.

. I looked up at the cross, trying to refocus my thoughts. I had read that, in the first century, the cross only meant one thing to people — a slow and horrible death as a savage form of capital punishment. I had also read that Christians believed that, because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, those who placed their faith and trust in Him alone for salvation were guaranteed eternal life. That, without death, there would be no resurrection. That was why the cross meant hope and revival.

. As I gazed up at the cross, the message became clear, like a light in the darkness of my anguish. I should not give up living because pain and suffering were part of my life journey, like a train slowly steaming its way from station to station on its way to its final destination. Some stations were good, whereas others were bad. Some things must be put to death to allow new life to grow.

Was Nietzsche right when he said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”? He believed that the world was full of suffering that lacked any overall purpose or meaning. However, he thought that our ability to deal with this suffering and endure and overcome hardships was an essential exercise in building power and character. Would I ever discover my power and true nature in this cruelly inhuman system? Would it make me a better or a worse person? What meaning would I find in my suffering?

. Escaping Vietnam by boat at that time was a dangerous business. Plans must be done in secret because if they were leaked or discovered by public security, all people involved would be severely punished by lengthy jail terms or even death sentences. In addition, while crossing the sea, refugees would lose their lives due to the unseaworthiness of their boats, the rampant piracy, the lack of food and water, the adverse weather elements, and no rescues by passing ships.

. I had a conversation with my father about my traumas. He understood and agreed to fund my escape to save my sanity.

In late May 1981, by arrangement, I travelled to a coastal hamlet near the port city of Vung Tau. Sometime after midnight, with the love of my life, Thế Nga, we jumped on a leaky unseaworthy fishing boat illegally built in a remote jungle, heading to sea. I passed my point of no return in Vietnam.

. The boat was tiny but dangerously overloaded, well above its designed capacity. We were ordered to overthrow our belongings to keep it light and float. Then we faced endless problems with the engine and fuel. There was absolutely no food on board, and the water had been rationed a cupful daily. Many commercial ships passed our boat, but no one stopped to pick us up. On the seventh day, we were totally lost at sea after traversing hopelessly without a working compass. Finally, the boat capsized during a violent storm. I was fortunately plucked out of the sea alive near an operating oil rig within the Indonesian territory.

. On the safety of the rig platform, I was overjoyed. I had crossed the bridge. I was unchained. I was like a bird let out of its cage, at last, soaring high up into the heavens.

. From now on, I could hold up my head proudly without fear of rejection and persecution.

. After spending almost eight months in a refugee camp in Indonesia, I was accepted for resettlement in Australia. In January 1982, I arrived in Melbourne with great excitement and anticipation. Initially, there were huge issues with the language and cultural differences. I found various jobs at the factory to rebuild my life. Later, I returned to university to gain tertiary qualifications in a different field — science and maths, which I hated so much during my secondary school years. Then I became a professional, working for multi-national and large Australian corporations across various industries over the last 35 years. I have always been acknowledged by my employers for my passion, commitment, dependence, integrity, and responsibility.

. My past wounds have been scarred over. I have emerged from underneath their weight. My old fear was replaced by compassion, and forgiveness has given me freedom.

. Recently, at a work lunch, an older lady with a European heritage asked me, ‘Are you considered yourself Vietnamese or Australian?’. Then she smiled in a way that robbed the question of any ill feeling. I took a deep breath. My old traumas suddenly resurfaced.

. ‘What makes us who we are? Is it where we were born and grew up? Or what language do we speak? What clothes do we wear or what food do we eat? I know who I am. I only think about my life in this country I love. Did it matter whether we were ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese, English, Croatian, Greek or Italian, or so and so if we had the same life, the same experiences here?’

I paused, then resumed:

. ‘There was a Vietnamese expression “the motherland is a bunch of sweet starfruits”? I don’t know why starfruits were chosen, as they are rarely sweet and usually terribly sour. Maybe, the relationship between a person and their motherland is like a taste of starfruits. We are all Australians sharing the ebbs and flows of this country.’

. Glancing at my workmates, I saw most of them nodding in acknowledgement. I smiled. It was going to be alright as “we were individuals, but we were also one”.

. The lady who had asked me the question threw her arms around my shoulder and hugged me. A sense of belonging overwhelmed me! I was proud of my heritage, and everyone respected it.

. This year, the anniversary of my birthday was a couple of days before Easter. I’m at the age of doing reflection more than looking forward. One of the benefits of having to live in this free society is that I became a Christian. I was an atheist in Vietnam because the regime taught that ‘religion was the opium of the masses’. Easter is one of the most important Christian celebrations. Christians glorify and thank for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, meaning He conquered death and redeemed us from sin.

. I am sitting here in the comfort of my home in Warburton, Victoria, to write these words. The place overlooks a seemingly endless, faraway mountainous range. The sun is just above a tall gum tree in the paddock, and its rays illuminate different spectrums of the range, creating various colours to give an indescribable beauty. Everything around me is lush and green, and “I think to myself, what a wonderful world!” (Louis Armstrong).

. Australia has been a lucky country for me. Like my father, I learned never to give up and have never felt like an outsider. Australian people have genuinely opened their arms to embrace me like a family member who had just returned from overseas.

In his famous song, My Way, Frank Sinatra sang: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few.’

. However, unlike the singer, I haven’t had any with my decision to leave Vietnam 41 years ago!




A Bridge Too Far is the true story of a young man growing up in southern Vietnam. At the age of three, he became a war refugee.
At fifteen his country was overcome by the communist North and his family was branded the enemy of the people for being bourgeois Chinese. From then on, he was a target for state-sponsored racism and discrimination, with the net slowly tightening around him until he could no longer go on.
Escape was his only option!

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