In the memoir The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do tells of the fantastic journey that he took with his family as a young infant, as they sought to escape their native country of Vietnam shortly after the end of the Vietnam War (1954-1975). The family—consisting of a large group of aunts, uncles, children, and others—flees the poverty-stricken Communist-ruled country and ends up in Australia, where they make a new life for themselves. Anh’s account highlights how luck and serendipity were ultimately key to the family’s survival of the perilous journey. In emphasizing the role that luck and serendipity played in their own survival, Anh’s account highlights the terrible vulnerability to which refugees are exposed. Anh suggests that for many refugees, including his own family, survival is largely, if not purely, a matter of luck.
In telling the story of the family’s dangerous journey on a small boat—referred to by the family as the “Motherfish”—Anh emphasizes the endless dangers and perils that the large clan of 40 people faced during their escape from Vietnam. On the first morning on the Motherfish, the group faces one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the voyage, when they must cross out of Vietnamese sea territory into international waters. As they are approaching the crossing, they are spotted by a Vietnamese patrol boat, which comes after them at speed and shoots at them, damaging one of only two engines on the boat. While there is no doubt that the patrol boat could have caught up with them, luckily the family crosses into international territory in the nick of time, and the patrol boat turns back, deciding not to follow them beyond the zone of surveillance.
Another perilous occasion occurs on the second day of the journey, when a massive storm hits the party—exposing the family to near shipwreck. And yet, miraculously, the boat weathers the storm, and everyone on board survives. Some of the most dangerous moments on the journey occur when—on two occasions—pirates hijack the vessel, stripping those on board of valuables such as jewellery, money, and even the boat’s engines. As such, as they embark on their voyage, the family faces threats from all sides: from the Vietnamese authorities, from bad weather, and from pirate boats carrying bandits who prey on vulnerable refugees.
And yet, although the family confronts many life-threatening obstacles on the journey, they are blessed by fortune and good luck time and again. Not only does the family survive the crossing into international waters, and the storm that almost wrecks the boat, but even when they are hijacked by pirates, they escape mostly unscathed. During the second pirate hijacking, which occurs shortly after the first and in many ways is worse, as the pirates are more brutal and violent, the family also encounters luck. As the pirate ship leaves the family’s boat, one of the pirates—a young man who had been gentler than his fellows—throws a gallon of water overboard to the family. This, as Anh recounts, saves the family’s life. Those on board had run out of water, and were certain to die of dehydration had it not been for this gallon of water that the pirate throws to them. The family’s luck continues when they encounter a third boat. This time, it is not pirates, but a German merchant ship. The German sailors rescue them, taking them to an island in the Malaysian archipelago. It is there that the family’s new life begins. Soon after they are informed that the country of Australia has decided to take them in as refugees.
The family’s numerous lucky escapes contrast sharply with the fates of those who were less fortunate than themselves. Most notably, three of Anh’s uncles—his father’s brothers—die as a result of ill fortune, also while attempting to escape Vietnam. Uncle One, who was supposed to undertake the journey with Anh and the rest of the family, dies shortly before the trip. He had gone with Anh’s father to purchase the boat on which the family was to make their escape. However, at the meeting, the three men selling the boat insist that only one of the brothers can follow them to look at the boat. Uncle One, carrying half of the money to pay for the boat, goes with them, and never returns. The next day, Anh’s father discovers his brother’s body in a wild area. He had been murdered by the three men, who presumably had no boat to provide and instead killed him for the money that he carried.
Uncles Five and Seven had left Vietnam with Uncles Three and Nine on an earlier journey out of Vietnam. Like Anh and his family, they fled on a boat. However, unlike Anh and his family, they were unlucky enough to be caught by pirates who not only looted their belongings, but also sank their boat. Of the four brothers, only Uncles Three and Nine Survived—Uncles Five and Seven drowned as a result of the shipwreck. The tragic fates of Uncles One, Five, and Seven point to the capricious role that fortune—for better or worse—plays in the lives of refugees. Unlike Anh and the rest of the family, these three uncles lose their lives largely because of ill fortune.
In recounting the story of his family’s migration, Anh’s narrative calls attention both to the extreme hazards that they faced as refugees, as well as to the extreme good fortune that saved them, time and again, from death. In emphasizing the role that luck played in his family’s survival, Anh suggests that most refugees are vulnerable to good or ill fortune—survival, in other words, is largely a matter of chance.
Migration and Luck ThemeTracker
Migration and Luck 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.