As featured in The Country Web 2016 Annual
Dai Le is CEO and Founder of DAWN – a network for professionals passionate about culturally diverse and inclusive leadership.
“The true optimist not only expects the best to happen, but goes to work to make the best happen. The true optimist not only looks upon the bright side, but trains every force that is in him to produce more and more brightness in his life.” CHRISTIAN D LARSON
In Syria and the Middle East and the exodus of refugees has made me reflect on my own personal journey.
Like many of you, I lead a busy and hectic life. I’m often caught up with life’s daily routines: from paying bills, picking up my son from school, keeping the house clean, going to work, attending meetings and so forth.
I almost forgot the impact of the ‘boat people’ journey; the sacrifices my mother was forced to make, fleeing war-torn Vietnam, and the challenges we all had to overcome to rebuild our lives here in Australia. Being uprooted from your birthplace and being forced to flee were not something a young child should have to go through, nor would they forget.
Seeing images of small boats on the sea reignited memories of my own family’s escape just before the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975.
Following that conflict, hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese escaped communist Vietnam, including my family. Many ended up in refugee camps in countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. These camps were set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). While my family were lucky to survive the boat journey, hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese died at sea.
I remember our boat encountered a huge storm one night. We were literally staring death in the face. The boat pounded so hard against the ocean I thought I would fall overboard. The rain was pelting my face and the wind was howling. It felt like the night and the ocean were going to swallow us up.
We had nothing to protect us except for a plastic tarp. We huddled under that tarp; my mother holding her rosary in one hand praying, while the other arm held my youngest sister. I held onto my middle sister. I kept thinking there was no way we could survive this. Our boat was too small to withstand the storm. But we survived the treacherous sea journey for another week or so.
I think the issue of identity, of who is an Australian, and what makes for an Australian society, is now more important than ever. With the continuing increase in conflicts around the world we will continue to see an increase in the movements of people seeking asylum, a safe haven, away from the daily bombings, fighting and uncertainties in their birth countries. Also with climate change related weather events we could potentially see another type of refugee develop—adding to the tide of displaced people. These asylum seekers will face the fact that their lives will be in a state of limbo, their identity will be challenged and their acceptance tested. And who makes up these asylum seekers? The majority are people like my mother and myself… women and children caught up in the crossfire of opposing forces or circumstances beyond their control.
I was just seven years old when I witnessed my birth country crumble in front of my eyes. I watched as people, confused and frightened, scrambled to get onto boats, screaming and crying as they rushed anywhere their feet could take them. It was total chaos.
I remember lying on that boat surrounded by strangers as I stared into the night’s sky.
Where were we going, I thought to myself? What was happening? Why were we there? Why did we run? Why was I on that boat with strangers? Why were the women crying? Would I go home soon?
I don’t know if you can put yourself into that situation? Can you take yourself there? It is hard to localise what it means to lose everything, until you have lost it all. It is hard to imagine and put yourself in the situation where your village is bombed heavily, or invaded by your enemies, unless you have been there. I can guarantee you it’s unimaginable until it happens to you. It is hard to describe in words the feeling of being uprooted from your birthplace, your motherland—the sense of hopelessness, confusion, loss and fear. Fear of the unknown, fear for the future. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, my family, to my life.
Our boat journey took us to Hong Kong refugee camps, where we stayed for almost a year before we were accepted for resettlement in Australia. My mother, two younger sisters and I were processed by the UNHCR and then flown to Sydney on 5 December 1979.
Australia was known back then within refugee camps as a big island, with one of the best education systems in the world. So when my mother chose Australia, it was because of its education system.
We arrived with one suitcase and no English. Australia had just emerged from the White Australia policy, which meant there was hardly an Asian face around. I learned later that the Chinese had come here during the gold rush in the 1800s. But in the 1970s, as an 11-year-old I felt there weren’t many people who looked like me.
We were taken to a migrant hostel in Fairy Meadow, a suburb in Wollongong. As soon as we settled into our one bedroom unit, in a red-brick block, I couldn’t wait to shed my refugee clothes and my ‘old’ self. I made a conscious decision to erase as much of my ‘old’ self as possible and start afresh. I wanted to become ‘Australian’ as soon as I could. For me, that meant I had to learn to speak English quickly. I also learned to make new friends so I could practice my speaking; I was looking for opportunities to grow into a new person. Part of me wanted to strip away my Vietnamese heritage completely so that I could become a ‘true’ Australian.
So from the young age of 11, I worked hard to ‘blend in’, to embrace the Australian way of life, to speak English as fluently as I could, and even to learn to eat vegemite on toast!
Did I succeed? Am I a local? Local to where? Am I now as local as those born here? Am I as local as many of you reading this?
In the mid-80s, my mother decided to relocate us from the steelwork city of Wollongong to Bossley Park, a suburb in Sydney’s South West near Cabramatta. In that period, there were more refugees from South East Asia—including Cambodia, Laos—who had resettled in the region (because of the migrant hostel there). My mother wanted to be part of the local community. She wanted to move closer to an area where she could relate to the people, the language, the food and the culture.
My sisters and I had to re-localise ourselves. We had left behind friends we made since we first arrived. While it might look from the outside that we should ‘blend in’ into this very culturally diverse community, it took us a while to ‘fit in’ because from my perspective there were more Asian Australians in this new local area than where we came from in Wollongong.
Cabramatta was known as Vietnamatta. Many Vietnamese refugees have called it home since their resettlement. It is a suburb where the Indo-Chinese refugees, as we were identified, have become comfortable to be ‘local’. And as they felt more ‘local’ in this area, they started to build homes, set up their businesses and raise their families. But then the wider Australian community started to question their ‘local’ identity.
How Australian are these newly arrived migrants? Why don’t they integrate into the wider society? Why are they all living in one area? Why don’t they spread out?
I too questioned this. While I might have looked ‘local’ and should have fitted into this Indo-Chinese community, the decision I made to be ‘Australian’ prompted me to do what I could to leave this local community and move to another, where I felt I would belong ‘better’. Unconsciously, I think I developed friendships with people who were mainly non-Asian Australians.
I found my niche in journalism and thrived. I was determined to be accepted in mainstream media. I did not want to be just an ‘ethnic’ reporter. But that was a challenge.
Being the only Australian journalist of Asian heritage in the industry at the time, and especially coming from an area with a high Indo-Chinese population, any stories on ‘ethnics’ would be assigned to me.
I am an Australian and I should have been able to do general stories, not just ethnic specific. How else would I learn and develop my skills? But my English and accent held me back from progressing up the reporting career ladder, especially on screen. I would argue that being Asian-looking was also a hurdle for me. But I didn’t for one moment let those hurdles stop me. I persevered and did not allow the barriers within the organisation to turn me into a victim.
I continued to give my best, constantly learning, producing, trying and creating story after story. My aim was to better myself, improve my journalistic skills and to contribute. At the end of the day, what was important for me was that I had the privilege to be on this journey, to meet amazing, extraordinary people, whose stories captured the essence of humanity—and captured the hearts of those who heard them.
In October 2014 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was another challenge I had to confront. It made me reflect on the milestones in my life and the battles I had to fight to fit in and be part of mainstream society. I could have died on that boat journey. But I didn’t.
I could have died if I had not discovered that lump in my breast. But I found it and here I am today. I completed my cancer treatments on 30 April 2015—exactly 40 years since the war ended in Vietnam.
With all of these personal challenges, including my foray into politics, I came to realise that I have choices: it is my choice to feel accepted or rejected; it is my choice to feel local. I am an Australian. I was a refugee. And I am of Vietnamese heritage. I don’t need validation from people to feel that I am Australian.
“The road to becoming local is not easy. When we as a community talk about resettling refugees, we must remember that the journey will not simply end when they reach our shores. As I learnt, the journey to become a local may take many years. For those on that journey I encourage you to be optimistic.”
Dai Le is CEO and Founder of DAWN—a network for professionals passionate about culturally diverse and inclusive leadership. Contact Dai at: email@example.com
Related sites: www.dawn.org.au