Here is a boat, made of wood, nine metres by two and a half, with forty people (babies too) crammed onto it, that no-one wishes was turned back.
It is the boat on which Anh Do and his family made it to Australia. Engine failure times two, storms, disease, dehydration, hunger, repeated ransacking of the boat by pirates hovering one misjudged breath away from rape and murder … As the back-cover blurb of The Happiest Refugee proclaims with some pride: ‘Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia.’
Anh Do is a comedian. The Happiest Refugee, sitting merrily on the bestseller lists since its release last September, is his life story. And Anh’s almost not making it feels like it should feel, feels like what it actually is, a tragedy miraculously averted. What the news reports of today would describe as a ‘25-year-old male’ (Anh Do’s father) commandeering an ‘irregular entry vessel’ that was jeopardising the ‘border security’ of Australia becomes—rightly, rousingly—a story of moral and physical courage, of heroic determination, of a deep love for one’s family.
And Australia finds itself ready, ripe even, for listening.
No question, Anh’s story is a searingly compelling one. His parents are worth a book each, easy. And Anh himself has a kind of below-the-radar magnificence about him. He is a guy who as he makes his way in the world is untouched by self-importance or a sense of entitlement. Is that Anh Do’s secret?
Or is it that it all happened so blissfully long ago, three decades back and counting? Or that Anh Do has not simply made it in this country but made it as a working comedian (ding!), and not just any working comedian but the sort they call a personality, someone you see on The Footy Show and Thank God You’re Here and Dancing with the Stars but who remains the same nice, self-effacing bloke? The author not being a Muslim can’t be a bad thing; the Asian invasion, so readily evocable only fifteen years ago, feels these days about as credible as the invasion of the body snatchers. Perhaps the book’s success has something to do with Anh Do’s love for Australia, which is large, amply reciprocated and topped up by his naturally sunny disposition (substitute ‘The Happiest’ in the book’s title with, say, ‘The Moodiest’ and see where that gets you).
The public knows from the cover—where Anh Do smiles his wide smile while the boat in the background bathes in soft sunset, straight from some fairytale franchise—that the book in front of us won’t be a downer. It won’t be divisive. It won’t be angry. It won’t slap us around while we are reading it.
But if we properly read The Happiest Refugee, and not squeeze it for easy tears, not rummage through it for jokes, not shake it up and down for life-affirming lessons, if instead we read it straining to imagine and to understand, then perhaps the book’s success can become not yet another confirmation of our multicultural largesse but the start of something else, something real. It takes a monumental and ongoing work of moral imagination to understand why people are prepared to starve, become terribly ill, get lost at sea, watch their children suffer, die—all to be able to come to Australia. This work of imagining cannot be supplanted by slogans, not even well-meaning slogans, like:
We are all migrants. (No, we’re not.)
We are all boat people. (Not even close.)
We all Australian families have a tale like Anh Do’s. (Nope, we don’t.)
If not slogans, what then? Stories, I say. Just go to the beginning of The Happiest Refugee. In 1976 the Vietnam War is over and Anh Do’s mother is twenty-one. To keep her family afloat she sells snacks and fruit on the trains passing through Saigon, a way of living that under the new communist regime has been banned. But she has no choice. Her family depends on her to keep going. One time it looks like she is in serious trouble, nearly caught by a guard, until a young man steps in, a stranger. He has nothing much going for him but bravado—a fearlessness that enchants her and makes the guard not want to mess with him. She is very beautiful and the young man is ordinary-looking at best, skinny and not at all tall, with a voice that squeaks and a mouth of wonky teeth.
Six months later they are married. Nine months later Anh is born.
This bravado, this chutzpah, is the young man’s gift to his wife and her family. It gives him ideas. It makes him do things others would not contemplate doing. Two of his wife’s brothers are imprisoned in a re-education camp for fighting on the wrong side during the war, and one day the young man decides to rescue them. He borrows a high-ranking communist uniform from a friend (the friend’s uncle is a big shot in the Party) and marches straight into the office of the camp’s commanding officer. The young man’s uniform makes the commanding officer scared—scared to question, scared to disobey, so scared that when the young man demands, crazily, to take two of the imprisoned men with him, he gets away with it. Who gets away with that kind of thing?
Several years later, on the boat made of wood, it is to this same young man, Anh Do’s father, that everyone looks when pirates attack, when engines fail, when patrols are about to turn them around, when storms ravage water and food supplies, when a boy of seventeen hurls himself into the sea, no longer able to cope. All these things happen and Anh Do’s father is the undisputed leader. And this is what it takes, to get from there to here on a boat. It is easy enough to imagine some scum-of-the-earth people smuggler steering a hazardous fishing boat; now try imagining someone like Anh Do’s father, a proper hero. (No matter his subsequent failings in Australia—he leaves the family when Anh is thirteen.)
By chapter seven of The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do is a student at a posh high school, St Aloysius College in Sydney. He and his younger brother Khoa, one of the babies on that boat, are on half-scholarships. Their father is out of the picture. The mother is working three jobs. Her wages cannot begin to cover textbooks, the rest of the school fees plus the ridiculously expensive uniforms. (Each bloody sport has its own?) So Anh borrows textbooks from his mate Phil. He borrows Phil’s workbooks, too—unable to write in them, because they’re Phil’s, he hovers his pen above the pages to fool the teacher. His mum lengthens the sleeves on his jackets with some grey material from a fabric shop that’s as close to the right shade as she can find but never close enough. In op-shops she buys odd bits of clothing that look like the school uniform and sews on St Aloysius badges from the old stuff that doesn’t fit her boys any more.
At school Anh Do plays basketball. He is really good. His teammates wear Reeboks and Nikes and Air Jordans. Anh has a $15 pair of ‘Kind Lions’ from an Asian grocery store in Bankstown. They are all plastic and vinyl, no breathing, no support and—crucially—no grip. Thankfully the school has a deal with the local sports shop: a new pair of shoes for any kid scoring thirty points in a game.
To get a shot at the shoes, Anh gets himself demoted from the As (where he has no chance of making thirty) to the Ds. The season rolls by with not much luck (sometimes it is hard to shoot well when no-one else is sure what they are doing) until one game, finally, he is on twenty-four points and there are just enough minutes left to make it to thirty. All Anh Do needs is for his shoes to hold up. His usual grip-enhancement method—walking around in a small, purpose-made puddle of lemonade at every break—won’t work this time. He is out of lemonade. Phil steps in (thank God for Phil) and runs to the vending machine. Convinced that a soft drink is a soft drink, Phil grabs a can of Diet Coke, his personal drink of choice, so that he can finish off whatever Anh doesn’t end up using. The Diet Coke, it turns out, is hopeless—no sugar equals no stickiness—and after Anh spends the dying minutes sliding and slipping across the court, scoring nothing, surprising everyone with his ineptitude, the quest for new shoes is abandoned once and for all.
A space for Anh’s story has been cleared, in part, by Alice Pung’s memoir Unpolished Gem going gangbusters, and by Nam Le’s emergence as one of Australia’s most distinguished young writers. (For a quick-onset headache, check out Le’s list of prizes for his excellent short-story debut The Boat.) And we need more stories still, as many as we can handle, so that we can begin to imagine what it takes to leave and what it takes to arrive, stories like the ones we find in Arnold Zable’s books and in Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival. We need stories that help us imagine how it is to make a life in a place that may be a thousand times safer, a thousand times kinder, than the place you just left, but is still, at the beginning at least, viciously foreign. Instead of feeling moral obligation—to people fleeing persecution, for instance—how about, first, we call on our moral imagination? In its absence, we are trapped in debates that make us retreat further into our watchtowers.
Take the anxiety over the ‘failure to integrate’—real or perceived, it is a point of contention, and understandably so, in many debates about immigration. But here is a thing. Most people come to Australia and, for the first while at least, stick with others like them not out of contempt for their host country, not because they’re not interested, not because they are ungrateful or deceiving or resistant to change, and not because they categorically reject Western values. The reality is more simple and less conspiratorial. Others like them will tell them where to buy the cheapest vegetables (they cannot afford any other kind), how to rent houses (they cannot afford to be done over by real estate agents) and where to send their kids to school (they cannot afford to stuff up the education of their kids; it is what they are counting on, after all). Others like them will keep them sane. Others like them will recognise them not as ghosts stripped of their language, profession, networks and ability to make big decisions, but as full human beings, as equals and peers.
Such a simple truth, really. But you won’t get to it through debating whether multiculturalism failed or succeeded, or whether we want it to fail or succeed. And you won’t get to it by way of policy talk or by hurling slogans or by immersing yourself in a dissection of human rights and civic responsibilities. This is because a truth like this is pre-ideological. It is anti-theoretical.
And here is another thing. It calls not so much for compassion, but for the will to understand.
Last Mother’s Day I wrote what I thought was a relatively benign opinion piece about mums and dads of non-Western nations whose children migrated to Australia and who themselves are now elderly, and acutely vulnerable, and on their own. I talked about how the majority of these parents can never be reunited with their children and grandchildren, since under the family reunion category of the current immigration policy the typical waiting period is between fifteen and eighteen years. It’s the mathematics of attrition: most parents in the queue simply do not survive that epic wait.
The blogosphere’s response to my piece was what you would expect: Stop whingeing, we are very generous already; Australia and Australians did not force you to come here; Migration is not a welcome mat for the rellies; Is this country so stupid or are others very clever?
And of course there was a lot about taxpayers’ dollars in our struggling, besieged, already outstretched nation: I do not owe your parents a retirement; Don’t want your parents, I want my kids; My moral responsibility is to my Australian parents, not to yours.
Why do so many people talk so obsessively about taxpayers’ money when it comes to immigration, I wonder? Is it a code for something? I pay tax too, sometimes the most soul-destroying amounts, but at no point do I feel like I am taking food out of my kids’ mouths and putting it in the pockets of newly arrived migrants, or dole bludgers, or drug addicts, or for that matter millionaires, who pay much less tax than me, their assets and earnings skilfully hidden in trusts. Tax to me has never felt personal. Whether I am funding a library, or a leadership retreat for public service middle managers, or a new and already dysfunctional computer database for traffic infringements, it all feels the same.
The obsessive tax talk is itself a symptom of a striking failure of moral imagination. So is the question that was repeatedly thrown at me after the publication of my piece: If they loved their parents so much, why did they abandon them in the first place?
Behind this question and its easy use of the word ‘abandon’ there lurks—no, stands proudly—an eerily sanitised view of immigration as a calculated decision driven predominantly by self-interest, and self-interest of the economic kind usually. People, it’s believed, are not coming to Australia because they could not, no matter how hard they tried, provide a life of safety and dignity to their families, but because the greener grass of Australia beckons, and beckons hard. It is a view of immigration made utterly prosaic, devoid of larger historical forces and the noble motives of individual families. Immigration—the biggest leap of faith imaginable, just about—is reduced to one ugly scramble for one country’s scarce resources.
More often, immigration is precisely a surrender of self-interest—on the part of the adults, at least. The adults, the first generation, are the ones banging their heads on the alien and incomprehensible language and culture. They are the countless engineers cleaning other people’s mansions, the teachers driving taxis, the doctors selling discount vacuum cleaners; this is the generation that works itself into the ground so their kids can get an education and their parents, if they make it out here, can have dignity in their old age.
To understand this is to shift the debate away from jobs taken, trains crowded, burkas worn, Western values subverted, the ugly, naked fear and taxes—and to do that we need, yes, stories.
Just like Anh’s brother Khoa (Young Australian of the Year in 2005, for his work with disadvantaged young people), Nam Le was a baby when his family made it by boat to Australia. In ‘Voices from Elsewhere’, a recent literary night out at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, Le told the story of a Parisian audience at some book event giggling uncontrollably as soon as he opened his mouth: ‘What was funny was that a voice that sounded like mine was coming out of a face that looked like mine. I was an Asian dummy with an Aussie voice.’
I bet Anh Do has heard those giggles once or twice in his life, especially in the beginning when he would never say no to a gig and so would find himself MC-ing at boxing tournaments, and spruiking fruit and veggies in the mall, and fronting up to bikies waiting for the strippers to come on and priests waiting for their epiphanies, and two hundred pissed RSL patrons—some of whom, in their youth, had shot guys who looked just like Anh. This last group he won over by the end of the night: ‘The old guys finally realised that if they closed their eyes, this Vietnamese kid was actually just an Aussie comedian up there talking about his working-class childhood.’
It’s that damn, ever-confusing, face-voice mismatch again. ‘People,’ says Nam Le, ‘still expect people to come from where it looks like they come from.’ And not only that: ‘There are huge gaps in my cultural upbringing. I grew up speaking only Vietnamese at home and only English outside, so I never learned how to speak English with an Asian accent.’
Faced with an Anh Do or a Nam Le, we can always close our eyes so these guys won’t confuse the fuck out of us. Could this be the secret—the thing that is happening out there with The Happiest Refugee?
Anh’s story, as told in his book, is turned—subtly, probably unconsciously—into an archetypal working-class-hero story, a self-made-man story. The boat on which his family sailed is recast as an abstract symbol of hardship and adversity. How else can the public love Anh Do and accept ‘Turn back the boats’ as a respectable political platform, all at the same time?
Ghassan Hage, a Lebanese-Australian anthropologist and social theorist, tells us in a new book of essays edited by Raimond Gaita that ‘the second generation is likely to experience not only a different but also a more intense sense of injury from racism than did the first generation’. This is because ‘unlike their parents, they experience racism from an early age, and because this racism is directed at them with a language and culture that is their own …’ It is petty stuff mostly, often laughable and dumb, but it is there and it comes daily at the second generation, making them feel like strangers in the place that is their one and only home. Here is Nam Le again:
Now this is probably latent racism, but sometimes when I am in a tricky situation I think, what would Bruce Lee do? Sometimes I even tell white people he is my grandfather.
‘But his surname has two E’s and yours only one,’ they may point out.
‘Yes, well, as you know,’ I whisper, ‘we were refugees, boat people. We had to leave almost everything behind, even vowels.’
The audience loves Nam Le. The audience applauds, laughs. (And you may laugh too—but I had to leave a vowel off my surname when my family got to Australia, true story.) I hope we get used to listening to sons and daughters of boat people calling it as they see it (and along the way, like Nam Le, taking a royal piss), spectacularly at ease with who they are, compelled neither to idolise nor demonise Australia.
Children of immigrants who don’t come from where it looks like they come from, the second-generation refugees and boat people, are becoming our important thinkers, entertainers, storytellers: people such as Waleed Aly, Shakira Hussein, Tanveer Ahmed, and Alice Pung and many, many others. As we struggle to find a non-hysterical register in our debates about immigration, people like them might just be our best hope. But first we need to learn how to listen to their stories. Some of the stories won’t be feel-good or funny, or brimming with against-all-odds triumphs, but by God we’ll have to find just as much space for those stories as we’ve found for The Happiest Refugee. They are the link between Australia and the rest of the world, a rope ladder thrown to the boats we are yet to turn away.