In The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do narrates the story of his life—beginning with his family’s escape from their native country of Vietnam, to their arrival in Australia, where Anh and his family face poverty and hardship as they attempt to establish new lives in their adoptive home. And yet, Anh Do’s story suggests that as difficult as it was to face such poverty and hardship, privation can also teach one strength of character, as well as the valuable skills of flexibility and creativity in facing obstacles.
Although Anh and his family quickly establish a secure livelihood for themselves soon after arriving in Australia—mainly through a garment sewing business that his mother and father Tam start and run together—the family faces financial ruin once Anh’s father abandons them. This leaves Anh, his siblings Khoa and Tram, and their mother in dire straits. As a single parent, Anh’s mother struggles to put her children through the expensive Catholic school which they attend. Anh is forced to go through much of his high school unable to afford even the textbooks that he needs for school, and must rely on the generosity of friends, who lend him school books so that he can follow his lessons. The family can also barely afford rent. Anh recounts how, as a child, he and his siblings would often have to hide from the landlords who would come knocking on their door, asking for payment. The family is forced to move time and again as a result, which leads to a great deal of instability in the children’s lives. One of the most difficult aspects of poverty, as Anh recounts, was watching his mother suffer. Forced to shoulder the responsibility of providing for her children on her own, she works without break, even through illness and bad health. This, in turn, places much pressure on Anh not only to help his mother, but also to succeed in school and university so as to be able to relieve her and make her sacrifices seem worth it.
But the poverty and hardship through which Anh lives also equip him with strength and resilience. As an adolescent, Anh must shoulder much more responsibility than his wealthier schoolmates. Not only must he meet his school obligations, but he must also work various odd jobs in order to support the family. Furthermore, he helps his mother with her garment-sewing work so that she can fulfil her orders on time, which then allows the family to meet their basic financial needs. As the oldest brother, Anh also feels responsible for his younger siblings, going out of his way to support them financially. When he wins a cash prize of $5,000 in a comedy competition early on in his comedy career, he spends the money on procuring braces for his younger sister, who for years had been so self-conscious about her misaligned teeth that she refused to smile fully. While difficult, the many burdens and responsibilities that Anh shoulders as an adolescent clearly endow him with a strength of character beyond his years. Rather than breaking down or shying from the challenge, Anh develops the strength and resilience necessary to help support his family.
Poverty and hardship not only teach Anh strength of character, however. They also teach him flexibility and creativity in the face of dire circumstances. For instance, unable to afford good quality trainers for the basketball games in which he participates as a team member at school, he takes to immersing the soles of his cheap shoes in lemonade during basketball games, so as to make the shoes stick more efficiently to the slippery floor of the basketball court. He also develops a knack for effective (and sometimes far-fetched) money-making schemes. When he and his brother discover that the two Siamese “fighting” fish they buy at a pet store breed instead of battling each other, Anh begins a small business breeding thousands of fish, which he then sells for a profit. As such, the financial constraints that Anh faces as a result of his family’s poverty in fact teach him to be resourceful and adaptive. Time and again, he finds novel ways to beat the odds.
Anh Do doesn’t allow the poverty and hardship that constrains his family’s life to limit him. Instead, he rises to the challenge of finding ways and means around his difficult circumstances. As such, the story of his family’s struggle with poverty is one that points to the ways in which adversity, when approached with the right attitude (and with enough luck), can have its merits: it can foster strength of character, adaptability, and creativity.
Poverty and Hardship ThemeTracker
Poverty and Hardship 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.
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.
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 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.