The German ship takes the family to an island in the Malaysian archipelago. Three months later, the family receives news that Australia is willing to receive them as refugees. The family arrives in their new country in August 1980. They are given free clothes by nuns. The family is amazed by the many privileges to be found in Australia—including free healthcare and welfare. Anh’s father Tam finds a factory job, and the family soon moves from the hostel they had been occupying to a two-room flat. Their neighbor, Ms. Burke (whom they refer to as “Ms. Buk” in a Vietnamese accent), is extremely generous in helping them find their feet.
The family’s amazement at the luxuries of Australia suggests the deprivation from which they come. In Vietnam, the family struggled to provide even for basic necessities, and it was largely for this reason that they fled. Australia represents the polar opposite of Vietnam: here there is prosperity and support everywhere, and the fact that Anh’s father finds a job quickly, and the family is relatively independent soon after, indicates that they are ready to take advantage of the opportunities their new country affords them.
In 1982, Anh begins school at St. Bridget’s Primary—a Catholic school. His parents are so grateful to the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke for giving them shelter that when Anh is asked in school what he wants to do when he grows up, he says he wants to be prime minister. From this early age, Anh is already absorbing his father’s attitude of “You can do anything.” However, he is influenced by his mother’s advice that it is important to be generous to those less fortunate than himself.
Anh’s statement that he wants to become prime minister when he grows up reveals his ambitious impulses, even at this young age. It also reflects his mother and father’s gratitude for the opportunities that Australia affords them and their children, given that Anh is influenced by his parents’ statements about the sitting prime minister, Bob Hawke.
The family moves to a two-bedroom house in the Earlwood neighborhood of Sydney. There, Anh’s mother buys a sewing machine, with which she hopes to earn an income as she looks after Anh and Khoa’s newborn sister Tram. Anh’s father soon quits his factory job, and he and Anh’s mother launch a business making clothes for wholesalers. The business is demanding—requiring many hours of work—and Anh’s uncles and other members of the extended family also start working in the business.
The family exhibits industriousness by launching their own garment-sewing business, proving that, like many refugees, they are ready to work hard to make the most of the opportunities they find in their new adoptive home of Australia. Furthermore, the extended family’s involvement in the business also suggests how the family continues to work as a unit, and as a community, to support each other.
As the business grows the family moves again to a factory building in Newton. Part of the building is filled with V8 sewing machines, which the family uses to make garments. Anh’s father invites Uncle Two and his wife and four children to move in with them. Anh is happy to have the company of his cousins at home—the children play together and go to school together.
That Anh lives in a communal arrangement that includes extended members of the family points to how broad, and also how tightly-knit, his family bonds are. Family encompasses more than his father, mother, and siblings—it includes a community of relatives, such as his cousins, with whom he is very close.
Uncle Two and his family live with Anh and his family for two years, but then disagreements erupt between Anh’s mother and father and Uncle Two and his wife. Uncle Two and his family leave, but are soon replaced by Uncle Three, an uncle who arrives from America, as well as Anh’s grandmother (his father’s mother), and Anh’s father’s younger sister, who arrive from Vietnam. Other people from the larger Vietnamese community stay with the family—Anh’s parents are known for their generosity, always allowing needy members of the community to stay with them. Uncle Six, Tam’s adopted brother, also arrives to live with them.
The disagreements that emerge between Anh’s parents and Uncle Two and his wife allude to the pressures and tensions that can erupt in the close living conditions under which the extended family lives. And yet, the arrival of other family members who come to live with Anh’s family also suggests that these extended family bonds, while strained at times, are nonetheless strong. Furthermore, in taking in needier members of the Vietnamese community, Anh’s parents show themselves to be generous and giving, now that they themselves have found some prosperity.
In primary school, Anh has his first public speaking engagement. He must give a speech to compete to become school captain. His English is still not very good, and he stumbles through the speech before the packed auditorium. Some of the children and even teachers laugh at him, but he’s encouraged by his other classmates, who cheer him on. Anh doesn’t win school captain, but his father Tam nonetheless throws a big celebration. This teaches Anh an important lesson: that what matters is trying, not winning. The following year, Anh wins a big school prize. His father is so proud as he goes up to collect his award that he gives him a standing ovation.
Tam’s celebration of his son’s run for school captain represents a moment when Tam is at his best as a father. Here, he models for his son an important lesson: the value of courage and effort, rather than the value of winning. Anh will take inspiration from his father’s lesson on many occasions later in his life. His father’s pride at Anh’s achievement in winning the school prize the following year also signals Tam’s devotion to and support of his son.