Cat Thao Nguyen is a Vietnamese author, currently living in Australia. Cat has written about her family’s harrowing journey from Vietnam to Australia in 1979, fleeing persecution from the communist regime.
Her book We Are Here (Allen & Unwin) can be purchased on-line.
The story originally was published in “The Australian”, Feb. 21, 2015
Here is Cat’s wonderfully written story:
What Cat Thao Nguyen found when she dug into her family history
The yellow plastic tablecloth with blue tulips reflected the sun shining through the kitchen window. I asked him about the decision to leave Vietnam, about what he remembered of the journey through Cambodia. A few minutes after we had begun he asked me to stop and then he left the room. “Later.” But later did not come.
The next morning he said he’d found it hard to sleep and when he did the nightmares came. The steam from the instant coffee in the Bankstown City Council mug rose as he spoke. My father looked old. I felt shame and remorse. I had turned the interview into an intellectual fact-finding exercise that assaulted him like an icy 10-page hospital questionnaire in English.
My mother told me she would answer any questions. “Dad is fragile. He is a lot weaker than you think.” So through fragments of stories that my mother and relatives told over time, I was able to piece together a jigsaw collection of my family history. Incomplete, but just enough.
My mother sat silently, steeped in sorrow, in their house in rural Go Dau, southern Vietnam. It was the middle of a December night in 1979. Her mother, father, sisters and youngest brother wept in silence for fear the neighbours would hear and betray them to the new Communist officials: my parents were about to join the mass exodus of South Vietnamese refugees. My parents’ families had been associated with the former regime. My father had already survived a re-education camp and there was word that the authorities were looking for him once more.
The quickest way out was over the Cambodian border, 10km away. They had paid a trusted family friend to hire various smugglers to take them through Cambodia, now under Khmer Rouge control, and into Thailand. In the group to leave were my mother Mai, 26, my father Thinh, 32, my 12-month-old brother Van, my cousin Hai, 15, and my uncle Hong Khanh, also 15.
It would have aroused suspicion to travel as a big group, so my father took the teenagers, Hai and Hong Khanh. Posing as merchants, they took bicycle taxis to the Cambodian border town of Bavet and stayed overnight with a smuggler, waiting. Late that night, my mother, holding the infant Van, moved through the rice fields that lined the road to the border, accompanied by a smuggler. Close to the border, which was heavily guarded with soldiers on both sides, my mother fell into a ditch. Immediately she clamped her hand across Van’s face. Someone yelled into the darkness: “Who’s there?”
Bang, bang, bang. The rapid thunder of gunshots punctured the air. Paralysed with fear, they huddled in silence. When the night was silent they continued to Bavet, where they met up with my father. The next day they took the ferry across the Mekong River and went into hiding, waiting 10 days for the smugglers who took them on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The hungry, tired fugitives and their weak infant hid overnight in the roof space of a small house and then set off for the provincial town of Battambang, 300km to the north-west, following the national highway by foot and at night sleeping hidden in the shadows by the roadside. Days turned into nights, a series of anxious hours until they arrived at Battambang, and then along the railway to Sisophon, roughly 50km from the Thai border.
The journey was taking its toll. Hong Khanh had been bitten by poisonous insects and had open sores on his legs; in agony, he could not walk properly. There was little clean water. Van now had severe dysentery. The next morning, four men on bicycles arrived to take them down a jungle road to the border – singly, and separated by a few kilometres to avoid suspicion. My father went first, then Hong Khanh, then my mother with Van, and finally Hai.
Before they reached their destination, the three riders taking my father, Hai and Hong Khanh abandoned each of them alone near the border town of Poipet, where the surrounding jungles were riddled with landmines. My father took a path made by merchants trading along the border but was captured by guerrillas who took him to a barbed-wire enclosure. That night he lay awake in terror. There was no way any of the others could have made it, he reasoned. The next morning they delivered him over the Thai border to the Red Cross in return for some rice. The horrific journey he’d endured, and the thought of his missing son and wife, had left him devoid of hope. My father promised himself that if he did not see my mother within a few days, he would take his own life.
Alone in the jungle, 15-year-old Hong Khanh had all but given up, his sores so infected he was virtually immobile. Hai, several kilometres behind, had kept going in the hope of catching up with Hong Khanh and had just caught sight of him when a patrol of Khmer Rouge soldiers emerged from the jungle. From the shadows, Hai watched in horror as a blindfold was put around Hong Khanh’s head, signalling an execution was imminent. Then a large piece of wood was swung at Hong Khanh’s head and his legs collapsed beneath him.
Hai ran. In the distance, he saw my mother on the back of a bicycle. Hai began to wave, calling out in Vietnamese: “Aunty, stop! Stop!” The man pedalled faster, telling her: “He’s yelling in Vietnamese. If we stop we will all die!” My mother held on in frozen silence as they rode. The image of a screaming 15-year-old boy alone in the jungle, becoming smaller and smaller as they rode away, would haunt her forever.
They reached the Red Cross clinic and the medical staff treated my infant brother. My mother was reunited with my father, who was speechless, and they were soon also reunited with Hai – who then described what had happened to Hong Khanh. My mother imagined her stoic teenage brother blindfolded and surrounded by armed men in his last moments. I should not have taken him, she agonised. It is my fault he suffered such a brutal death.
My family ended up in a notorious refugee camp in a mountainous region of Thailand. At night, the Thai guards and other local men would rape women. The refugees were always on the alert. Everyone lived in makeshift shelters, it was intensely crowded and there was never enough food and water to go around.
Around that time my mother discovered she was pregnant with me and I was delivered in August 1980 by another refugee, two months premature. Meanwhile, diplomats from all over the world visited the camp to help resettle the refugees in third countries. Australia was close to Vietnam and my father’s brother had already arrived there by boat. It was decided. My family moved to a transit camp near Bangkok. On the November day we were to leave, I came down with diarrhoea. My mother didn’t dare tell anyone, for fear we wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. She wrapped me tightly and, together with four other Vietnamese refugee families, we boarded the Qantas plane. There were no other Asians aboard.
We flew high above lost stories in the killing fields, the barbed wire and landmines, and away from Hong Khanh. My parents didn’t yet feel relief. Nothing was certain, even then. They sat in silence as the white people around them chatted politely. Even Van, who by then had turned two, was quiet throughout the journey.
When the flight attendants served food, my parents panicked, fearing we had to pay for it. They had nothing except the clothes they were wearing and the sarong in which I was wrapped. With the meal was served a can of Coca-Cola. When the Americans had come to Vietnam, as well as bringing military support for the South they had brought this strangely delicious luxury drink. After the war ended in 1975, my mother hadn’t seen a can of Coca-Cola again. Now, five years later, she stared at it and finally believed the terror and the crippling waiting were truly over. The red and white can meant freedom. It was as though she had been holding her breath for years. Clutching the Coca-Cola and me, her three-month-old baby, my mother wept, almost in disbelief. We were alive.
It was a cool day. As usual, buses, trucks and modified sports cars thundered past our house on Chapel Road, Bankstown, south-western Sydney. Inside, my parents were ready. Today, almost 30 years after their arrival in Australia, their daughter would become a lawyer. My father put on his only suit, a white collared shirt and the same navy blue tie he wore to weddings, funerals, graduations and major church events. My mother was dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt with a frenzied disco pattern straight out of the 1980s, charcoal-grey trousers and black sandals. Some part of her ensemble always included items from Vinnies. I looked at my father with his hair-sprayed comb-over and greying eyebrows, and my mother, make-up free (she never learnt how to apply it) and, in her effort not to look like a peasant, presenting herself to the world as the queen of Western Sydney. This was their Best Dress.
We parked the car at Bankstown Sports Club and walked to the train station. My father was still wearing steel-capped heavy shoes from his factory-worker days. His $3 glasses, still with the +2.0 sticker on them, hung on the wrinkled bridge of his nose. I wondered about the first time my parents caught a train in this new land, all those decades ago. With a young family and no car, in an effort to save money on groceries, each weekend they’d pulled a shopping cart across several train lines to reach the wholesale fruit and vegetable market at Flemington. They became familiar faces to the Vietnamese farmers who brought their produce there.
The train arrived on time and we began our ride to St James station in central Sydney. The familiar stations on the Bankstown line rolled past, and so did the landscapes of our life in Australia. We whizzed past Lakemba station, where I had alighted every day of school at MacKillop Girls High, then King Georges Road and the Cao Đài temple, where my grandmother’s death ceremony was held. We passed the street where Van attended tae kwon do practice.
A few stops later we reached Marrickville, the first place we settled in properly after our time at the immigration hostel in Villawood. I remembered the flats we’d played around opposite the station, where neighbours had taught my mother to sew for a living and from where my father walked every day to work in a factory. The place where we’d had the first Christmas I could recall.
At Sydenham station I saw an Asian girl in a high school uniform sitting alone, waiting for her train. She was small with an oversized bag, gazing into the distance, and I was reminded of myself so many years ago. Waiting for the future.
We arrived at St James station and went up the stairs to street level. The NSW Supreme Court emerged before us. Monumental. Regal. A symbol of justice, of the people, of democracy. Ideals pursued and held onto by my parents as they left the only country they had ever known.
I suggested coffee at the cafe next door. As my parents looked around at the lawyers and legal assistants, I explained the meaning of the funny wigs and gowns. My father began his only way of intimate engagement: conversations about pre-unified Vietnam. “Before 1975…” He rambled on about university in the days of President Diem and how Communism had destroyed quality education. I saw the animation in the lines around his mouth and eyes, and the way he leaned in with his good ear when my mother spoke. Dried bits of the hairspray delicately fell onto the shoulders of his suit like flakes of dandruff. I brushed them away.
Inside, we walked through the security scanners on our way to the Banco Court on level 13. Large oil paintings of former judges hung along the walls like watchful ancestors. Once there, my heart began to race as my parents went to their seats while I joined the other soon-to-be lawyers. The Chief Justice entered in full robe. A solemn, ceremonial silence pervaded the room. Those seeking admission stood up one by one. A thousand thoughts shot through me when it was my turn. My parents watched with reverence and pride; my mother, a former law student robbed of what I had now become, stood humbly.
I looked at them, with their terrible memories just beneath their skin; I thought of landmines, of wet footprints in the jungle, of sewing machines, steel-capped boots, boxes of vegetables from wholesale markets and unpaid bills from far, far away, streaking around us like a snake of coloured lights. I saw a young woman huddled in the middle of the night in a rice field close to the Vietnam-Cambodia border, clutching an infant as gunshots exploded in the dark. I saw a young man inside a barbed-wire compound, separated from his wife, ready to take his own life.
Afterwards, I sobbed into my father’s shoulder as he patted my back. All I could say was a muffled “Thank you.” The three of us held each other awkwardly. None of us knew how to express all that we felt: that this was an arrival at a destination that our hearts and souls had humbly hoped for, had silently suffered for, barely having enough courage to dream it would come true. As my mother finally pulled away, she squeezed my hand. She smiled through her tears as the staff ushered us towards the lifts. We are here.
We Are Here by Cat Thao Nguyen (Allen & Unwin)