In Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee, the journey represents both the perils and rewards of migration. The book is framed by two boat journeys. The story of the family’s escape from Vietnam on a small fishing boat, told at the beginning of the book, alludes to the perils of migration. This first journey is full of threats, including storms and pirates, which the family barely survives. This voyage encapsulates the family’s vulnerability as refugees who are at the mercy of the forces—both natural and human—that threaten to destroy them. The boat journey that ends the book, however, is very different from the one that begins it. This is a leisurely trip that Anh takes with his wife, three children, and mother through Bobbin Head National Park in Australia, his adoptive home. The sense of gratitude and contentment that Anh feels on this journey through the beautiful Australian scenery points to the potential rewards of migration. By this point in his life, Anh is a successful celebrity in Australia; he leads a secure, happy life with his family, including the mother who had protected him on the perilous boat voyage out of Vietnam. These two boat voyages, therefore, mark contrasting aspects of the migration experience—both its dangers and its rewards. Anh is fortunate in that his own journey of migration ends in happiness and prosperity—and this is reflected it in the peaceful, beautiful boat ride that he takes with his family at the end of the memoir.
The Journey Quotes in The Happiest Refugee
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.
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.
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.