One sunny afternoon my father walked into the remote re-education camp dressed as a high-ranking communist officer. He marched right through the front door of the commanding officer’s room.
“These two men need to come with me,” he demanded. The commanding officer was bewildered. He was afraid to disobey such a high-ranking official so he did not resist. My father then walked my uncles out of the camp, right through the front gate.
My extended family pooled all their money, called in favours with friends and relatives and sold everything they had—every possession—just to buy a boat. Getting your hands on a boat was an extremely risky business. They were only available on the black market and anyone caught trying to buy one could be jailed or killed.
Back on our boat one of the pirates grabbed hold of the smallest child. He lifted up the baby and ripped open the child’s nappy. A tiny slice of gold fell out. The pirate picked up the metal and wantonly dangled the baby over the side of the boat, threatening to throw the infant in. My father screamed at the top of his lungs, “We must save the child! We will fight to the death to SAVE THE CHILD!”
As their boat veered away, one of the pirates did something strange. He was a young kid according to my uncles, no more than eighteen years old, and had been less aggressive throughout the whole encounter. Suddenly and for no apparent reason he threw us a gallon of water.
That water saved our lives.
You can’t drink jewelry or eat gold teeth caps, but that water meant everything because it bought us an extra day. That second pirate attack saved our lives.
“What a great country!”
Almost every day we discovered something else that made Mum and Dad shake their heads at how lucky we’d been. If you got sick, you could go to the doctor for free. If you couldn’t get a job straight away, the government gave you some money to help you get by.
Dad picked me up from school and, after I told him I didn’t win, there was no change in his demeanour, he was just as exuberant. Maybe he knew it was always going to be a long shot. I’ll never know, but he called up everyone to celebrate anyway […] my father treated that loss as if it were a win, and it was a lesson that stayed with me for a long time. If the worst happens, if you lose and fail, but you still celebrate coming second because you’ve given it a red hot go. There is no need to fear failure.
I also loved it when Dad taught me things. I felt so privileged to be learning the secrets only a chosen few would ever know.
The school had two mottos. First: “Men for Others”—done deal as far as Mum was concerned. Here was a school that was going to teach her boys to look after others and, if she hadn’t drummed it into us enough at home, we’d get another dose at school. The other motto was: “Born for Greater Things.” Boom! Dad’s happy.
Uncle Three passed out and woke up on a beach in Malaysia. After searching desperately for other survivors he found Uncle Nine alive. Eventually they found the dead bodies of uncles Five and Seven.
If he lays a finger on Mum, I will kill him, I said to myself. I took the largest kitchen knife I could find and stuck it under my bed. I was thirteen and at least as heavy as my dad, if not as tall. I figured I might stand a chance if I had a weapon.
Lucky for me I had my good mate Phil Keenan. Phil was the only kid in school who knew I didn’t have all the books.
“What classes have you got today?” he would ask. When it was English, for example, he would lend me his books for my period and I would return them to him in time for his class. I always had to be thinking about how to plan the day, when to meet up with him, how to make sure the other boys didn’t catch on. This concern totally overtook my life; it was all-encompassing and supremely annoying.
I was feeling pretty dejected after my first attempt at being an employee but I still wanted to somehow make money and help out Mum. The solution came in the form of a large male Siamese fighting fish.
I turned to sneak another look. She was chatting to a girl, and then she turned in my direction again and smiled. I don’t really believe in love at first sight, but if it does exist then I had just been made a victim. I was smitten.
Law was perfect for some but not for me, I guess, so I enrolled in a visual arts course at Meadowbank TAFE. And I loved it.
People often asked me why I studied law and art at the same time “Why not?” was my answer. If there was a rule saying you couldn’t study full time at TAFE and uni simultaneously, I didn’t know about it. I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything. So many times in my life I think my naivety about what you supposedly could and couldn't do helped me make big leaps that others might think were over the top.
[…]I was eating my breakfast when Mum came running in the back door.
“What’s happened to the sewing machines?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The machines, they’re gone!”
I ran out the back and sure enough, our sewing machines had been stolen during the night.
I was angry, but Mum was absolutely shattered. She had saved up for years, and still owed money on those machines. The next month was desperately hard. My mum is an incredibly positive person but when those bastards took away the machines, they took away the opportunity for her to finally give her kids a better life. She tried to hide her pain but we could see it.
[Dave] gave me a range […] for an average headline comic, the salary was between fifty and hundred thousand. A light went on in my brain: That’s more than Andersen Consulting was asking me to do for a sixty-hour week. That’s it, I thought. I’m going to switch.
It’s incredibly difficult to describe the feelings that go on inside you when you’re on your way to see a father you once adored, but for eight long years have been fantasising about killing. You play out the whole thing over and over again with different scenarios: a joyful reunion full of happy tears; an angry reunion where you knock him out.
I realised that, when he wasn’t drunk, this guy was indeed the most wonderful dad in the world. Somehow, during the past eight years I had managed to block out all the good memories and focused solely on what he’d done wrong. I realised I still very much loved this laughing, beautiful, terribly flawed man.
[…] I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles. Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes. Slowly, slowly, I won them over. 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.
Dad volunteered to go, but Uncle One insisted that Dad should stay and wait, and that he’d go. So Dad and Uncle One split up the boat money between the two of them, and Uncle One went with the men, while Dad waited. An hour later . . . no Uncle One. An hour and a half later . . . no Uncle One.
“I had an ill feeling in my stomach, Anh, like something was wrong.” Dad looked up to the ceiling, and his face turned a deep red. “I felt an urge to go down the track, to see what had happened . . . in fact, as soon as Uncle One left with them, I felt an urge to track behind them.”
I listened stunned.
“I didn’t follow. I just waited.”
There were a bunch of speeches and then the prime minister stepped up to the microphone.
“The 2005 Young Australian of the Year is . . . Khoa Do!”
Jesus Christ! Khoa’s done it. My brother just won Young Australian of the Year.
Khoa, the baby dangled over the side of the boat by the pirates, the toddler that Mum dressed in little girls’ dresses, the fat kid who thought the homeless woman was going to eat him… had just won Young Australian of the Year.
Mum was bawling tears of happiness.
We handed them the big cheque and Daniel gave me a hug, his tears wetting my ear and my neck.
“Thank you, Anh. We’ve got the money to look after Sarah now . . . my wife’s going to be okay now . . . thank you.”
I look across the water and am mesmerised by the beauty of this magnificent setting. My parents set off on a boat trip many years ago to provide their children and grandchildren a better life. And here we are, thanks to them, enjoying this perfect day. In that moment I know I am happy. I look up to the blue sky and give thanks.