After jumping on a boat with her ten-day-old son to travel from Vietnam to Perth, Phuong rebuilds her life from scratch.
My name is Phuong Rix. I came to Australia 35 years ago. You can say that I’m original boat people. You know Vietnam War happened for many years and many lives were lost. As a little girl I saw bodies on the road, or the head hanging over the bridge that we have to cross to go to school every day. I was about 12 or 13 years old. After the war ended I was becoming a young woman and I was pregnant. Under communist rules we don’t have any freedom at all, we can’t go from one village to another or the city to look for a job. It was extremely hard under Thai control, under the communist rules. So I was pregnant and then I feel there’s no future for my son and I don’t like to live under communist control, so we make a plan to leave. We’re not allowed to leave Vietnam, if you leave and get caught you’re jailed, but a lot of people leave anyway. Some lucky, got away, some unlucky, get buried at sea due to rough weather or piracy. But we were lucky, after my son was born, he was only ten days old, and one of the ladies in the group say, “Are you strong enough to go?” and I said, “Yes”. So my baby in one arm and a bag of clothes for both of us in the other, under her instructions we went to this small village and we jumped in the little dinghy and then we get onto the big boat in the middle of the night, and off we go. I think the boat was only a small boat, 154 people on board, I remember, we were just like sardines, back to back, and extremely rough weather sometimes. Sometimes I say, “Oh my God, we’re gonna die,” because the waves just rise up the top and our boat just down, but for some reason the waves just go underneath the boat and push it up again, and was like that for hours and then the weather came calm again. So it was like that for five days and nights. But in the middle of that, about day three, after we left Vietnam, we get chased by pirates and of course they catch us, we have little boat and they have a big one with the big engine. And so they rob us, everything we got—money, gold, anything of value. But we were lucky because they were good pirates, they give us some water in return. And then a day later, once again, and every time we get chased from pirates, everybody fear the worst because we heard story that they killed and they kidnapped and they do all sorts of things. But we were extremely lucky with two pirates chasing us and caught us, but they do the same thing. They just get what they want to get and they gave us water, which is very, very important because we’d run out of water. So yes, we considered a lucky one.
They considered us as intruders because we just landed in their island without permission, without visa. So in no time police came with machine guns and they round us up, in the coconut plantation I think. By then my new born was two weeks old and everybody’s so happy to reach the land, they jump off, they forgot about me. I said, “Hey, what about me?” So they come back and help me to get myself and my baby. I remember, I hold him, I put him up in the air, and the water up to my neck. So we half swim half walk to the land. Yeah, and the police round us up with machine guns and they pack us in a kind of truck and took us to refugee set up. And we stayed there for a couple of days, they transferred us to the island call Pulau Penang that United Nations set up a few years earlier for people like us. So I stay there for seven months after I apply for refugee visa. Finally I got accepted and we, yeah, got accepted to Australia.
I left Vietnam in June and went up June ’82, and we end up in Sydney Airport, January ’83. When I arrived in Sydney, I didn’t know nothing then, I just took life as it came, but now looking back I think how did I survive—extremely difficult. You know I’m young woman, got a little baby, didn’t know anybody, no family, no support, I can’t speak the language, but yeah somehow we just managed. Job-wise very hard because I didn’t have any support, I can’t leave my baby anywhere, and I don’t know English enough to enrol him in daycare or anything like that. The only work I can get is work from home for the Vietnamese people who’d been in Australia before me. They tell me, and show me, what they do so I ended up saving money to buy an industrial sewing machine. So I start making nurse uniforms. I got no idea at all, I got no skill of sewing, but they show me what to do, and I don’t have to make the whole dress, just join together arm and two sides here. But I made it so crooked, I can’t do a straight line, so I unpick it and do it again. For the whole night I make $25 and I’m so happy with that. So after that I become, like a kind of professional and after that I make like $75 for the night.
When you can’t speak English you can’t find any job that’s good pay, you just have to do whatever you can. So I did sewing for a few years until I learned a few words and then I went to the factory where they make all sorts of clothing. So I end up in a factory who make, I think, jeans. And just a few words, say good morning, I looking for job and then the boss say, “You got experience?” I say “Yes, yes.” So he gave me a garment to try. So I never see an overlocker in my life—talk about know how to operate it. So he said, “There you go.” So I just look at people next to me, what they do, and try to do the same thing. But the machine just so fast, I cut it in half! And I just so frightened, I know for sure I want to get the job, but I’m too afraid to say I cut it. So I slowly snuck out the door and went. So forget about sewing in the factories. I come back home, do that again.
A few year after, one, when my English was better, I work in take-away, and in the pressing factory where they do dry-cleaning and before the clothes from the factory go to the shops, they send to us, so we press, we make it nice and straight, so we send to the shops. I work there for a few years. Yeah, I work at many different jobs. And my latest, about ten year after I come to Australia I start to work in Market Garden because I grow up in a farming area, so growing is very much in my blood, and I like it. Yeah, but after I endered relationship and got children so I gave that up, I stay home to raise a few kids, and when they grow up, I go back to farming again which I am doing now. We have hydroponic cucumber farm. Well, I think Australian people are very tolerant. I have been 34 years in Australia, I never have any issue with racists, or anything like that, except once. But I don’t know what to make of that, I don’t know if it was fun, or what, was silly thing. You can take it as racist but you can laugh at it. For me, I just choose to laugh at it. I’m driving along in Great Eastern Highway, and the car on the other side of me, there were a young couple, not really young, in their 30’s. They turn and look at each other and put their hands in their eyes and pull their eyes to the sides, just like this. I think they’re saying, are you Asian with slanty eyes? They didn’t say that but I think that’s what they meant. I didn’t say nothing but I look at them, they’re a little bit chubby, so I just opened my eyes big and I push the air in my mouth and make my face really fat—so my way of saying hey, you big, fat Aussies. And then they just laughed their heads off, they then sped off, and yeah, that is, I don’t know if that’s racist or not, but it’s something funny.